Prolific children's writer
Wednesday 06 September 2006
Colin Milton Thiele, teacher and children's writer: born Eudunda, South Australia 16 November 1920; AC 1977; married 1945 Rhonda Gill (two daughters); died Brisbane 4 September 2006.
One of Australia's best-loved as well as most prolific writers for children, Colin Thiele's combination of realism, broad humour and strong emotional commitment won him success with readers of all ages. Drawing on his rural roots, his over 100 books also constantly argued the case for protecting the natural world against environmental threat. Suffering from severe rheumatoid arthritis since 1955, he managed to remain creative and good-humoured to the end.
Born in Eudunda, a small town north of the Barossa Valley in South Australia, Thiele was the fourth of five children in a German-speaking farmer's family, and spoke English only at his tiny local school at Julia Creek. During his upper primary school years he went to live with two eccentric bachelor uncles, whose ghost stories told round the fire at night proved a strong later influence.
Completing a degree at the University of Adelaide in 1941, Thiele served in the Royal Australian Air Force in the Northern Territory and New Guinea before training as an English teacher. Starting off as a poet, he came to fame as an author with Storm Boy (1963). Later filmed, this powerful story describes the love affair between the isolated son of a beachcomber and an orphaned pelican. Ending sadly, it was the first of many rites-of-passage stories within which a child comes to maturity often as a result of confronting and finally overcoming dangerous natural forces.
Also successfully filmed, Blue Fin (1969) describes the tough life of children from tuna-fisher families. Often considered failures at school, they are shown here as skilled and courageous once at sea, with Steve, the young, neglected hero of the story, finally saving his bungling father's boat from certain destruction. This fine novel has never gone out of print.
Working his way up the educational system, becoming Principal of Murray Park College of Advanced Education in 1973, Thiele still maintained a prodigious output as a novelist, and as a radio scriptwriter. Some of his best as well as most clearly autobiographical novels were set in the Australian-German community of the fictional town of Gonunda.
The first in this "Barossa" series, which has been described as Australia's answer to Tom Sawyer, The Sun on the Stubble (1961) is crammed with outsize characters working hard in the day and drinking at night. The title figure in Uncle Gustav's Ghosts (1974) is now commemorated by a statue in the town of Eudunda that inspired his story. It was joined in 2000 by a statue of his author, sitting notebook in hand with Mr Percival, the pelican in Storm Boy, by his side.
In 1988 Thiele wrote Jodie's Journey at the request of a young fan who also suffered from rheumatoid arthritis. It tells the story of a gifted young rider who has to put aside her dreams after discovering she has this crippling disease. Full of sympathy and respect for the courageous young heroine who never considers giving up, this is partisan writing at its best.
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