In the Parallel Imports debate, not much attention has been focussed to date on the importance of  book illustrations in preserving our Australian culture.

Martina Matussek, illustrator, CEO of Artrillium House writes about what can happen to Australian books when they are taken on by US publishers.

The impact of a law, which may allow easier access to cheaper books from overseas, goes deeper than what may be seen on the surface.

Apart from the financial impact of removing the Parallel Import Restrictions on books, there are many other deeper issues, such as cultural boundaries, which are dangerous for our children, ourselves and the culture we live in.

Children’s books are in fact cultural products that face unique challenges when crossing cultural boundaries. I remember years back Australian international award-winning illustrator Gregory Rogers mentioned it was impossible to illustrate a loaf of bread within an American children’s book as they would not recognise a loaf since they only eat ‘toast’.

He also told of a list of things you weren’t allowed to illustrate. I remember that some of the cover illustrations Gregory did were re-illustrated to fit the standard of what Americans see as ‘beautiful’ and the other way round.

The US, although seeming alike and using the same language as Australia, is anything but similar to other English speaking countries. This is proven by the mass of differences in vocabulary and illustration practices.

Margaret Mahy revealed in an interview with teenagers in Newcastle on Tyne, England, how, in the case of her book, “Jam: A True Story”, the American editor wanted to cut out the fact that when mother comes home, father gives her a glass of sherry. And another example is where ‘nipples’ were not allowed to be illustrated in American children’s books, not even on animals feeding their young in the most innocent illustrative way.

We definitely do not need our country to become another American copy, selling books filled with no knowledge of the rest of the world and illustrations which allow no form of ‘normality’ in faces and anything living, but where the need for perfection in looks and make believe is more important than truth and the acceptance of getting old and not so beautiful.

I deeply fear for the integrity of our country.

Martina Matussek


  1. The findings of the Productivity Commission on the Parallel Importation Restrictions of Books into Australia are flawed to say the least when it comes to nurturing and promoting Australia’s Literary culture.

    The idea that it will result in cheaper prices for books is one that surely comes out of an idealist imagination in today’s highly competitive and commercialised publishing world.

    The harsh reality is that the large book sellers will inevitably absorb the savings into profits for shareholders. Nice for the shareholders of large book sellers but what price Australian Literature?

    The Australian publishing industry is one of the successful creative industries that does not rely on taxpayers for support and it would be nice to receive some support in return if only not to be penalised into non existence.

    A poignant example is New Zealand’s book industry where similar legislations virtually destroyed the New Zealand Publishing Industry.

    If this proposed legislation goes through, it will beg the question, what value does this place on Australia’s culture and heritage then?

  2. Thanks for your comments Angela and TL.

    You’re right, TL. It is a hard thing to get your head around – especially when Allan Fels admitted at the Melbourne Writers Festival PIR forum that his choice of an Aussie book for his grand son would be based on content not price.


  3. The absurdity of the unfettered Free Trade argument underpinning the Productivity Commission’s findings, is that it fails to take into account that not everything can be imported more cheaply into Australia, nor should it. One cannot import one’s own culture from abroad. Literature is not like container loads of stuffed koalas from China for our local tourist industry.

    I still can’t get my head around how the anti-‘neo-capitalist’ brigade are behind the push for unfettered free trade at any cost, and that they don’t see the irony in that.

  4. Absolutely right, Martina.
    This emphasis on a beautiful, idealistic image of humanity does not reflect Australian society. I would love to have a look at exactly what is on that list of forbidden items to be illustrated.

    If Australia removes PIRs we will be flooded with foreign edited books which do not meet our kids’ needs.

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