Lyrebird! A True Story

by Kate C
Publish date
15 November 2012
Comments (10)

That celebrated mimic, the Superb Lyrebird, is the star of a new children's picture book published by Museum Victoria. Lyrebird! A True Story by Jackie Kerin is magnificently illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe and was released just this week.

Cover of lyrebird book Cover of Lyrebird! A True Story by Jackie Kerin, illustrated by Peter Gouldthorpe.
Source: Museum Victoria

Lyrebird! A True Story is based on the real tale of Edith Wilkinson and a a lyrebird she called 'James' who danced in Edith's Dandenongs garden in the 1930s. At the time, Superb Lyrebirds were believed to be shy and elusive, but James tolerated human audiences and performed for bird-watchers and ornithologists who arrived from around the globe. Upon a platform built on Edith's verandah rail, he became one of the first lyrebirds to be captured on film, and helped spread the reputation of these birds as uncanny imitators of the sounds around them.

Jackie first learned about James and Edith in 2007 from a 1933 book called The Lore of the Lyrebird by Ambrose Pratt. Therein he described an article he wrote about the unlikely pair in the 13 February 1932 edition of The Age. Jackie retrieved the article and from then on, she was hooked.

"I loved the story and thought that I could shape it into what I call a 'tellable tale' – take the story and put it into language for telling. I tell stories at schools and festivals and I was very interested in collecting some uniquely Australian stories," explains Jackie. "Also I like to encourage kids to connect with nature. And they're just such fabulous birds that we carry in our change purse or pocket, on the ten-cent coin. So I wrote a little story that I called Edith's Lyrebird." Her story won an award at the Woodford Folk Festival, then at the instigation of filmmaker Malcom McKinnon, Edith's Lyrebird was turned into a short film.


Creating a book was the next logical step, and Tasmanian illustrator and artist Peter Gouldthorpe was a natural choice to illustrate the book. As well as being a very fine landscape painter, Jackie says "he understands the importance of getting the animals and vegetation correct. I wanted a book for hungry eyes with lots of detail for kids to explore."

Woman with binoculars Jackie bird-watching in the Dandenongs while researching for Lyrebird!.
Source: Jackie Kerin

Jackie researched the places and era of James and Edith. She read extensively about lyrebirds and explored the landscapes and bird life of the Dandenongs. "Edith had what they called a 'cut flower and foliage farm' on the south-west side of the mountain. During the Depression, flower gardening was a big industry up there. They'd have these flower shows with whole football ovals covered in flowers." Her photographs of Cloudehill Gardens in Olinda, situated on a former cut flower farm, helped provide the reference material Peter needed to recreate Edith's garden. Wayne Longmore and Rory O'Brien at Museum Victoria showed Peter and Jackie rare books and bird specimens so that they could capture details of Dandenongs birdlife and the nature of bird-watching in the 1930s.

Man and lyrebird MV photographer Jon Augier with a lyrebird specimen in the museum's photography studio. Studying specimens of Dandenongs bird species helped Peter Gouldthorpe get all the details right in his illustrations.
Source: Jackie Kerin

The result is a book with many layers for readers to explore. "We've tried to include a sense of the seasons because the birds' mating and moulting are connected to the rhythmical seasons of the mountain." Throughout the illustrations there are the birds in Edith's garden that James mimicked, like the Yellow Robin, Laughing Kookaburra, and rosellas, and a there is a chart at the end of the book to identify them. Budding horticulturalists can also identify types of flowers and native flora.

Chart of bird species The chart to help readers of Lyrebird! name the birds of Edith's garden.
Image: Peter Gouldthorpe
Source: Museum Victoria

Jackie has also become quite fond of author Ambrose Pratt. "He was very passionate and his prose is very rich and fruity. He believed that the future was in the hands of children. He was very keen that people understand that if you care about the animals, you have to care about their environment."


Jackie Kerin's website

Lyrebird! A True Story on Facebook

Biography of Ambrose Pratt

Comments (10)

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Liz 16 November, 2012 09:58
An educational 'tellable tale' is a rarity indeed. Well done to all. Can't wait to get my own copy.
Jenny Macpherson 16 November, 2012 14:54
Dear Museum Victoria, It would greatly add to the story and context of the book to have Peter Gouldthorpe show and discuss his original illustrations, development work, layouts etc with groups of children and parents. For historical and documentation purposes this could be recorded for future use. Cheers Jenny M.
josephine montagnana 16 November, 2012 16:40
a delightful story. shall certainly buy for my grandchildren.
A.N. Hastings 17 November, 2012 12:52
Creates a sense of place and history. Love it!
Judith Matthews 16 August, 2013 11:58
Where can I purchase a copy? Just heard about it on Radio National.
Discovery Centre 17 August, 2013 11:53
Hi Judith, you can purchase the book from the Museum shop or online.  All the details about how to purchase can be found here.
Jane I'Ons 4 September, 2013 10:41
I purchased Pratt's book at a secondhand bookshop recently. Decided to google/research the book and author and found this delightful item. Congratulations to all concerned. A gem to be treasured. We enjoy seeing/hearing lyrebirds near Thunderbolt's Hideout, Mt Lindsay Road, north of Tenterfield, NSW. Thank you. Jane.
Me 14 January, 2014 14:26
I got my book from the library! It is probably somewhere in the junior fiction somewhere in your local library!:)
vivek pawar 12 November, 2016 22:27
There is a green sparrow like bird in my house but I didn't knew its name
Stacey Crumpton 19 February, 2017 18:14
Wonderful story with lovely pictures. I grew up in Melbourne in the 60/70s and mum regularly took as walking to look for this special bird. I did sketches of the lyrebird for s high school art project.
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