by Dale Jacobsen
Jill Morris is a special lady. Her love of books and nature have led to a legacy of inspired children through the magic of her Book Farm and stories on conservation. Sadly (for us) this chapter is closing, but Dale Jacobsen has recorded some of Jill’s golden memories and achievements for us to enjoy before she starts on her new conservation adventure.
Nine-year-old Jill Morris sat beside a waterfall in the rainforest of Binna Burra, lamenting the loss of her father. “I was being a pain,” laughed Jill.
“I wanted to sit by the waterfall and Mum wanted to keep walking.” Jill was adamant that she wished to be left alone. She needed time to reflect.
“The rest of my family were very good at all sorts of things, like music and singing,” said Jill. “I felt I didn’t have any special skills – except for winning spelling competitions – but I could feel something stirring inside me that day.
“Sitting on a rock by the serenity of that waterfall, I formed my first poem. I had no means of writing it down so I memorised it and wrote it in the visitor’s book when we returned to the Lodge. It’s still there.
“When I look back on that poem I realise it wasn’t very good but I also realise that little girl was destined to live on a Book Farm.”
There are so many aspects to Jill’s life. She initially trained at the ABC, writing hundreds of scripts; producing plays. She was granted a Churchill Fellowship in 1972 to visit 14 countries studying creative activities involving children.
“In 1988, I was asked by the Australian Schools Commission to tour Australia to research what was needed in the way of innovative information books for children.”
Carrying a tape recorder from school to school – no lightweight task in those days – Jill was able to record first-hand, children’s enthusiasm and dreams.
Overwhelmed by invitations to make author visits to schools around Australia from her farm at Reesville, Jill hit on a novel idea. “I thought, instead of travelling to visit children, I’ll invite them to come to me.”
Over more than 20 years until recently, generations of children visited the wonderland that is the Book Farm.
“I drew on my early poem to inspire children. It was an example of how a child can write pretty mundane poetry then go on to write books.” Jill has written more than 150 books over the years as well as publishing 45 other artists and authors.
Greater Glider Productions came into being when Jill and a partner made 65 episodes of Bangotcher Junction for radio. “It was a huge success,” said Jill.
“We sold it to the BBC and Radio Hong Kong. I already had 60 books with big-name publishers and when the partnership broke up I moved Greater Glider into publishing.”
Jill’s books have an underlying message of conservation and she is keen to provide the best writing and high quality art on the best quality paper, printed on-shore. It’s all about keeping jobs in Australia.
In 1990 she teamed up with artist Lynne Tracey to create Australian Bats, the first of many collaborations. “I approached six publishers but despite Lynne’s exquisite illustrations, none would touch it. They considered bats a dangerous topic! So Greater Glider published it.”
Those short-sighted publishers must have regretted their decision when Australian Bats was shortlisted for Children’s Book of the Year and orders flooded in.
For 16 years, Jill and her late husband Richard Dent travelled to Epping Forest National Park at Clermont to look after the endangered Northern Hairy-nosed Wombats. With only 50 left in the wild, it was a drastic situation at first.
Jill was present when one young male was airlifted to begin a second colony as insurance against total extinction.
“I watched Solstice being loaded into the plane and thought: what a great idea for a story!” The Wombat Who Talked to the Stars was the result.
There is so much to this amazing woman that it would take a full-length book to record her achievements. But, all things come to an end eventually. A few years ago, Jill tumbled down her stairs and broke her neck.
“Something happened during the recovery,” she said. “I grew up. I was no longer that nine-year-old with an insatiable imagination.” Then, last year, she lost Richard.
“You know when the time has come to take down your shingle.” In one last hurrah over two days, Jill will be giving away hundreds of copies of some of the older titles that still remain at the Book Farm.
On July 6, teacher-librarians Raine See and Susan Diplock will be on hand to advise teachers on selection of books for their grades, then on Saturday, July 7 the rest will be available free, for families and the general public.
I asked Jill what now? She laughed and showed me a photo of the 50-acre farm she and her family call home. “We have 33 acres to return to rainforest under a Voluntary Conservation Agreement. This will keep me busy for the rest of my life.”