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(Photograph courtesy of The Mercury )
Beth was born in 1924 on ‘Dungrove’, a sheep and cattle property near Bothwell in Tasmania. She was a fifth generation Tasmanian, able to date her family back to settlers from Scotland who came to Tasmania in 1824.
In a 1999 interview with the Mercury Beth talked candidly about her upbringing and the lack of encouragement she received from her parents for her artistic pursuits. She had two brothers and three sisters, but most enjoyed spending time with the Dungrove shepherds, whose affinity with the land and stories of the last Aboriginals who lived in the area fired her imagination. She studied first with a governess and then at boarding school.
Beth served as a nursing orderly during World War II and went on to graduate as an Occupational Therapist from Melbourne University. She began her career as a writer at 50, after raising her two children, Bill and Joanne alone.
Success as a children’s author came rapidly after Beth began writing. Her first book, The Little Lake Who Cried (1976) remained one of her favourites. Her love and concern for the environment, which she continually expressed through her children’s books, was ongoing throughout her life. In 1995 she wrote a piece entitled Old Lake Pedder, which was included with a photograph of Lake Pedder by Graham Wootton on a poster to highlight conservation issues.
Manganinnie (1979) was Beth’s best known work. It is the story of the friendship that develops between an Aboriginal woman and young white girl as they try to survive in the Tasmanian bush in the 1830s whilst searching for Manganinnie’s tribe. It has been retold in Italian, Japanese, French and German and was made into a film by the Tasmanian Film Corporation in 1980. The French translation won the French Book of the Year award in 1986. At the time of the Japanese translation Beth said “I want the book to promote greater understanding about different nationalities and strengthen our bonds with the Aborigines.” More information on the film Manganinnie can be found on the Archives Office of Tasmania website. Magpie Boy (1989) was written as a sequel to Manganinnie.
Between 1976 and 1999 Beth wrote eleven children’s books, often featuring Tasmanian wildlife. The Magic Waterfall (1990) features many of Tasmania’s endemic fauna and is the story of an invisible Thylacine (Tasmanian Tiger). By the end of 1999 she had sold 150,000 copies of her books around the world.
In 1987 Beth launched Rainbow Books because she wanted to “… have control of my own words, the layout and design of the books, and the freedom to market where I chose.” However, by 1999 she was ready to sell the publishing business because of the strain of running a business while trying to write. In 2000 Diana Thorpe of Hobart and Jean Poznanski of San Diego came together through their love of Beth’s work and bought the publishing rights to all her titles as well as Rainbow Books. Both women admired the uniquely Tasmanian content of Beth’s books.
The sale of Rainbow Books was a tangible recognition of the lasting quality of her work and an entry into the American market. From the proceeds of the sale Beth established the Beth Roberts Short Story Prize, open to Primary students (8-12 year group) and Secondary and College students (13-18 year group).
Beth used her personal experiences to promote a number of causes close to her heart. Her children’s books were written from her love of the Tasmanian bush and fascination with the Aboriginal people who had peopled the island before her time and, as stated, have strong environment and conservation themes running through them. In 1995 she spoke out publicly against the dangers of smoking for young people. Having smoked for 48 years she had developed the debilitating respiratory condition, emphysema.
Her most poignant public awareness raising activity was around AIDS. In 1996 her son Bill, who had moved to Western Australia, died of an AIDS related illness – without having told his family of his struggle. In 1998 Beth, and others affected by AIDS related deaths, launched a memorial at the Kingston Cemetery to coincide with an international AIDS awareness day. In an interview with the Mercury Beth spoke of having written another book entitled We never said goodbye, which was her way of dealing with the death of her son. This book does not appear to have been published.
Her final book, The Broomstick Wedding, was published in 2000 and is a tale of colonial Tasmania. Beth died aged 75 in March 2001.
Children’s books by Beth Roberts:
The Little Lake who cried (1976)
The Upside-Down Bird (1987)
The Wombat who couldn’t see in the Dark (1987)
The Tasmanian Devil who Couldn’t E eat Meat (1988)
Flowers for Mother Mouse (1989)
Magpie Boy (1989)
Midget and the Special Riders (1992)
The Runaway Wombat (1995)
The Three Stragglers (1996)
The Magic Waterfall (1990)
The Broomstick Wedding (2000)
Pullen, Glenn, foreword in The Broomstick Wedding Beth Roberts (2000)
The Mercury: 7 March 1995, p.9
The Mercury: 31 May 1995, p.9
The Mercury: 18 May 1998, p.5
The Mercury: 8 May 1999, p.35
The Mercury: 11 July 2000, p.8
The Mercury: 17 August 2000, p.21
The Mercury: 13 March 2001, p.3