I SPENT my childhood in the 1950s and early '60s in a small Australian country town, where life was as slow and peaceful as the slow brown river that meandered by. A flood or a murder would stay news for years. I used to pretend clouds looming on the far, flat horizons were volcanoes, just to conjure up that shivery sense of mystery and danger absent from our everyday lives.

In fact our lives were probably not much different from those of children in the cities. There was the wireless instead of television and, when I was very young, the greengrocer with his horsedrawn cart instead of supermarkets, but we went to proper schools, rode bikes, not horses, and had never laid eyes on a kangaroo in the wild. Although the bush brooded at the very edges of our sunny shire, it was hardly more real to us than the Wild West to a child in 1950s Pittsburgh.

And yet -- we thought of ourselves as bush children, tough little individualists expert in the lore and perils of the outback. We seemed to remember goldfields and button boots and sulkies in our dreams and were surprised in later years to discover we couldn't ride a horse after all. Children growing up in Melbourne or Adelaide or Sydney no doubt felt the same way. For our real selves -- the selves that led thrilling secret lives -- were formed in the image of childhood found in our books. Like children everywhere, we read Tom Sawyer and Uncle Tom's Cabin, Alice and Peter Pan and Anne of Green Gables and Lorna Doone and fairy tales of many countries, but more important to our self-image was the large number of original Australian children's books we felt were specially our own.

The interesting thing about these books was that they were mostly written in the early years of the half-century or so since Federation, a period that consolidated the myth of "the sunburnt country" and of a people steeled by the rigors of rural life, when in fact the country was already primarily urban. The spirit of the times was proud and eager, with a broad hint of swagger. As Leslie Rees put it in The Story of Shy the Platypus (1905), "Life {was} rich, life {was} splendid, but full of dangers."

The richness, splendor and lurking dangers of life were broached from many different angles. Most of us cut our reading teeth on the still wonderful blend of sentiment, drama and comic irony found in May Gibbs's Tales of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (1918) and its equally gripping sequels, Little Ragged Blossom (1920) and Little Obelia (1921). Snugglepot and Cuddlepie are Gumnut babies, who abandon the safety of their leafy home to search for Humans. (Gumnuts are the fruits of the gum or eucalyptus tree.) In the course of their bushland and undersea odysseys these two adorable, fat, blue-eyed Nuts receive an education in contemporary labor politics (a Gumnut strike in Big Bad City is "a new way of making money"), pick up many friends, notably Mr. Lizard and the unfortunate orphan Ragged Blossom, and make even more memorable enemies (for, as Mr. Kookaburra observes, "there must be bad things in this world as well as good").

There are probably countless grown Australians who first recognized true grief when Cuddlepie discovered Possum in the iron trap and true heroism when Mr. Lizard let Mrs. Snake swallow him in order to give his friends time to escape. And certainly my own earliest experience of sheer terror was meeting the Bad Banksia Men for the first time. I can still recall the chill that ran up my spine when, some years later, near Sydney, I finally saw a real banksia with its many wicked little eyes, so indelibly had Gibbs's illustrations identified this innocent plant in my mind with the idea of absolute evil.

Dorothy Wall's Blinky Bill, the Quaint Little Australian (1933) was another tale of engaging bush creatures whose naughty pranks got them into all kinds of trouble with their mothers. Blinky himself is a cuddly koala, not a bit sleepy or placid like a real koala, but more like a furry, rotund, male version of Ramona Quimby -- which is why he was, and still is, so popular with Australian children. Blinky Bill and its sequels, Blinky Bill Grows Up (1934) and Blinky Bill and Nutsy (1937), are preachier and more gung-ho than Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, but saved from sentimental excess by the uncondescending stateliness of their prose. After the infant Blinky's uproarious christening, he is carried home on his mother's back: "That night up in the fork of the white gum-tree Mrs, Koala told him that he was now a youth and that if he were a human being he would be put in knickerbockers." Later, of course, Blinky does get to wear knickerbockers, which he ingeniously "whack-proofs" with gum leaves ("Hurry up," he urges the reluctant Nutsy, "and don't look so vacant").

A subtler confection altogether was Norman Lindsay's The Magic Pudding (1918). Lindsay was a prolific artist and writer, the best-known member of a talented and influential family. A bit of a Rabelaisian, Lindsay saw much of his work banned in prudish Australia, but the appeal of his satirical children's fantasy, The Magic Pudding, has never been in doubt. Bunyip Bluegum is another, much more sophisticated koala, who sets off one day with his uncle's walking stick to see the world, "a very well-bred young fellow, polite in his manners, graceful in his attitudes, and able to converse on a great variety of subjects, having read all the best Australian poets." Presently Bunyip joins forces with Bill Barnacle the sailor and Sam Sawnoff "the penguin bold," owners of a marvelously grouchy puddin' possessing the magic property of never being used up, no matter how many slices are eaten.

The Society of Puddin'-Owners leads a delightfully carefree existence for some time ("Why, as I always say," said Bill, "if there's one thing more entrancin' than sittin' round a camp fire in the evenin' it's sittin' round a camp fire in the mornin' "), until the puddin' is stolen and the three adventurers, "with the energy of justly enraged men," must pursue the malefactors and haul them before the law. The whole thing is hilarious enough to bring tears, as Bill might say, to the eyes of a hard-boiled egg.

Not that we children necessarily got all this right off. At about the time I first read The Magic Pudding, for example, my really favorite book was The Little Green Road to Fairyland (1922), by Annie R. Rentoul and Ida Rentoul Outhwaite, a book which has not stood the test of time nearly so well. A rather literary bush fairy romance, adorned with epigraphs from Shakespeare, Milton, Yeats et al., The Little Green Road tells of an inquisitive Australian fairy who becomes a real child out of pity for a bereaved mother. Fairy's adventures with her human friends, Robin and Maykin, and with the mischievous Bush Boys are by turns amusing and edifying; finally she loses her mortal heart and must find her way back alone to the little green door that opens on fairyland. It is all, like the book's celebrated illustrations, filmy and lustrous and dazzling and, well, mawkish, although it certainly struck a chord in my 8- or 9-year-old heart.

At this point one began to outgrow the bush animal sagas and look for stories about "real people." I don't know what specifically Australian books boys went on to read, but for girls there were two landmark works -- and the sequels they spawned -- that had a huge influence on our self-images and ideals. The stronger of the two was Ethel Turner's Seven Little Australians (1894), the story of an irresistibly disorganized family living on the outskirts of turn-of-the-century Sydney in a rambling old house called Misrule (The Family at Misrule followed in 1895). The mother of the six older children is dead and their father, a grumpy army officer, has married again; however, Esther, at 20, is more like a sister than a stepmother to the Woolcot children and quite ineffectual. The book chronicles their exploits with varying degrees of hilarity and suspense, but its real strength is the character of 13-year-old Judy, a bright, generous, headstrong child who presages the very best of Australian feminism. I just reread for the first time in about 25 years the chapter about the death of Judy at the end of the book -- and I still cried.

An equally popular child-heroine was Norah Linton of the famous "Billabong" books, by Ethel Turner's rival, Mary Grant Bruce, though I'm sure Judy Woolcot would have thought Norah entirely too good to be true. Introduced at age 11 in A Little Bush Maid (1911), Norah possessed certain advantages -- she was the only daughter of the owner of Billabong station in northern Victoria -- and certain qualities that made her at once fascinating and enviable to generations of Australian girls. Norah was a paragon: She could ride horses and round up cattle and put out bushfires like a man and cook and sew and play the piano by ear and charm the wits from any male who happened by. The drawback was that only Norah's brother, Jim, got to go to school. As we followed her career through 14 more books -- in which Jim and his mate, Wally, go off to the war, Wally courts and later marries Norah, and their children inherit the traditions of Billabong -- it became apparent that for all Norah's sterling qualities she would never be more than a helpmate ("no end of a brick") to the Jims and Wallys of the world.

Later we were more than ready to meet Laura Rambotham, the adolescent heroine of The Getting of Wisdom (1910), an autobiographical novel by Henry Handel Richardson (Ethel Lindesay Robertson). Based on Richardson's own experiences as a boarder at the Presbyterian Ladies College in Melbourne in the 1880s, the book chronicles an awkward, sensitive country girl's vicissitudes in this hothouse of shallow feminine snobbery, as well as the subtle strength she derives from her perception that "the unpardonable sin is to vary from the common mould." The great attraction of Laura was that here at last was a real girl whose honest feelings of ambition, envy, resentment, misery and hope were not only acknowledged but explored. A comparably refreshing account of an Australian adolescence was Miles Franklin's My Brilliant Career (1899).

Life was getting serious. Still, the visionary and comic strains -- the splendor and the swagger -- persisted in our reading. There was comedy abounding in the short story, of which the greatest exponent was Henry Lawson: No Australian child could have missed his much-anthologized "The Loaded Dog," (1901) in which feckless Dave Regan and his mates Jim and Andy are almost killed by their equally silly dog and their own misguided ingenuity. Lawson, of course, was much more than just a spinner of bush burlesques. Stories like "The Drover's Wife" (1892) and "The Union Buries Its Dead" (1893), also school standards, showed a much grimmer side to life in the bush; and some of his poems, such as "Andy's Gone With Cattle," are hauntingly lyrical.

Poetry was, really, where it all came together. Most of the Australian verse I knew as a child I got, not from reading, but from hearing bits and pieces quoted around the house. It is interesting to reflect now how almost all of it was poetry in celebration of outback life. No wonder the mythic "bush" was our imagination's home. Besides Lawson's more lighthearted ballads, there were Henry Kendall's melodious lyrics, John O'Brien's merrily pious doggerel of Irish-Australian Catholic country life in "Around the Boree Log" (1921) and, above all, the poems of my favorite, A.B. ("Banjo") Paterson, laureate of the bush and of horses and author of "Waltzing Matilda," whom it is impossible to merely read: Paterson one declaims. The truth is "The Man from Snowy River" (1890), "The Man from Ironbark" (1892) and the immortal "Saltbush Bill," who appeared in various poems published between 1895 and 1917, profoundly influenced, for better or worse, the way Australians felt about themselves and their country.

As for me, Paterson's ballad of the carefree drover, "Clancy of the Overflow" (1889), still makes me homesick as no other book or poem can for the half-imagined landscapes of my childhood: "In my wild erratic fancy visions come to me of Clancy/ Gone a-droving 'down the Cooper' where the western drovers go/ . . . And the bush has friends to meet him, and their kindly voices greet him/ In the murmur of the breezes and the river on its bars,/ And he sees the vision splendid of the sunlit plains extended,/ And at night the wondrous glory of the everlasting stars." Elizabeth Ward writes frequently about children's books for Book World.