Classic Australian picture book turns 40

Author

Hazel Edwards’ beloved children’s book There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2020.

Drawn to life in 1980 by illustrator Deborah Niland, the lovable Hippo has starred in seven picture books, a junior chapter book, classroom play scripts, a musical and a short film. The books have also been translated into Braille and Auslan, making them more accessible for children with visual and hearing impairments.

With their enduring appeal the Hippo stories have been enshrined in Australian culture, even being presented as official Australian Government gifts to Princess Mary of Denmark’s children. They have also proven essential to their author’s livelihood, allowing Hazel to receive vital copyright payments for her work over the last few decades.

This edited interview with Hazel, a longstanding Copyright Agency member, was conducted by journalist and early childhood educator Melina Byrne. You can find the interview in full on Buzz Words.

When asked how she feels about the Hippo turning 40, Hazel said, “Hippo is ageless. But fans of three generations have sent hippo-shaped gifts and anecdotes about how much the character has been loved in their families. And I now have three grandsons whose parents were involved in creating the original Hippo when our roof leaked: Truman (aged 20), Henry (aged 8) and Arlo (6 months old). I’ve always written a special story for each grandson on their birthday. Now the older ones write their own.”

The future for the Hippo seems bright with the books still being reprinted annually. Hazel said she “would love Hippo to be on a stamp. And travel everywhere. And to tour again as a musical.”

When asked whether the Hippo will be back in another book, Hazel said, “Each of the seven Hippo picture books shares an experience about which a child might be apprehensive (like starting school). And the Hippo is the reassuring big friend who has all the answers. But I think seven books is enough – although I’d like to see them all in one special box families can share. And although they have been translated into many languages including Chinese, Braille and Auslan signing, I’d still love to have a Spanish edition.”

Hazel, the award-winning author of over 200 books for children and adults, reveals the importance of reading to children, saying, “As an author, I can tell the children who have been read to regularly. They have longer attention spans, more general knowledge and are more tolerant of differences. They also get the rhythm of the language, or languages, if you have the benefit of a bilingual household. Picture books are a great way to cross cultures because the pictures are clues. Families can also share (read or tell) stories from their own family history.”

Hazel explained some of the benefits of reading to children: “A really good story takes you into someone else’s world, for at least the length of the story. It shows ways you can use words in your writing or speaking. It gives you more words to reuse, and makes you a better listener. It also feeds curiosity and introduces funny words and you can laugh together.”

Hazel believes that reading to children can make them better equipped to start school because “a child who can read, can amuse themselves anywhere. Books can also reassure; others have faced the same challenges.”

If you need help choosing books, Hazel recommends: “Start with picture books as family gifts where everybody looks in the detail for the answers. Therapy books before starting school or going to hospital – Guess What? There’s a Hippopotamus on the Hospital Roof Eating Cake has helped many children in hospital. If you’re worried about how to pronounce a word, admit it. The child will be accepting that we all face new words sometimes. But ENJOY the reading. It’s not a job, it’s a pleasure.”

The 40th Anniversary Edition of There’s a Hippopotamus on Our Roof Eating Cake is published by Penguin Random House Australia and is in bookstores as of 3 March 2020.

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