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Look at Me

Story time

winter 17

On an acreage property at the foot of Mount Cooroora, surrounded by fragrant eucalypts and blossoming banksias, author and illustrator Gregg Dreise is writing his next children’s book.


His characters dance across the page in dazzling colour: kookaburras and magpies cajole in tree canopies; frogs bathe in trickling creeks; and eagles soar high above the landscape.


While Gregg’s books reflect the abundance of native wildlife in his own backyard, the Sunshine Coast’s flora and fauna are not his only inspiration.


A proud Kamilaroi and Yuwalayaay man with a firm handshake and a warm smile, Gregg’s lineage plays an important part in his storytelling.


His knack for exploring tales of indigenous cultural significance has struck a chord with Australian readers, and his mounting industry awards are testament to his popularity and talent.


“My favourite part of what I do is the age-old art of storytelling,” Gregg says.


“When storytelling, the music and laughter is the most important part.


The fact that people, both adults and kids, learn things while they are there is just a bonus.”


Gregg’s books interweave ‘extinct’, ‘endangered’ and ‘safe’ Dreaming stories – concepts that relate to the prevalence and preservation of stories specific to different indigenous tribes.


‘Safe’ stories are those which are still passed between generations, and are thus not in need of retelling through print.


‘Extinct’ stories are those that have been lost to time.


The traditional paintings have been destroyed and the songs and dances are no longer performed.


‘Endangered’ stories – such as the bird stories prominent in Gregg’s books – belong to tribes who no longer retain their traditional paintings or dances, but who remember fragments of their Dreaming stories.


“I use my skill with words and storytelling to breathe new life into them,” Gregg says of the traditional stories he works with.


“I’m doing my part in story conservation.”


Like any good yarn, Gregg’s picture books carry powerful messages. Silly Birds, which won the Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year in 2015, is based on the Elders’ wisdom that it’s “hard to soar like an eagle when you’re surrounded by turkeys”.


The tale follows an eagle named Maliyan, who becomes intrigued by newcomer Wagun, a turkey.

Together they run amok across their billabong home, leading to chaos in their habitat. When Maliyan recognises how destructive their behaviour is, he must learn to lead by example in order to restore their home.

“Silly Birds has a very important message,” Gregg says.


“Always surround yourself with positive people who allow you to follow your dreams.


 With the help of family and a few good friends, it is never too late to reshape your life and achieve something wonderful.”


Gregg’s subsequent books are also grounded in Elders’ wisdom.


Kookoo Kookaburra, which won the Australian Book Industry Award (ABIA) Reader’s Choice Award last year, explores the lesson that “kindness is like a boomerang: if you throw it often, it comes back often”.


His most recent work, Mad Magpie, teaches children to “stay calm like the surface of the water, yet strong like the current”.


Like those before it, Mad Magpie is also longlisted for an ABIA award.


When it comes to the moral overtones of his books, Gregg does more than talk the talk.


A qualified teacher, he has spent a lifetime conscientiously surrounding himself with other inspired, motivated people – a seed that was planted when he was a child.


The youngest of eight children to a poet mother and a painter father, Gregg always felt supported to pursue his passions.


“I grew up with parents and siblings who were taught the power of reading and writing,” he says.


“My mother worked very hard to raise her children to value education.”


While 12 of his immediate family members now work alongside him in education, Gregg has never lost his love for the creative arts.


Along with teaching primary school and writing children’s books, Gregg is a performer, musician and songwriter.


He credits the latter with igniting his writing career.­


As a young man growing up on the Sunshine Coast, most of the other musicians in Gregg’s circle were drawn to the art of sound. Gregg, however, was always drawn to lyrics, and spent many hours penning his own songs.


That’s as far as his writing endeavours went, until he started creating homemade picture books for his children.


“People enjoyed them and suggested I should try to get them published,” Gregg says.


“So I sent my manuscript, Aussie Bush Bedtime, to Scholastic, and it was accepted.”


Many years on, Gregg has five published books, another two are due for release later this year, and more than a dozen others are “patiently waiting their turn”.


Along with his commitment to the craft and his natural ability to spin a good yarn, Gregg is grateful to his family for helping him get where he is today.


“It is so hard to reach your potential without support,” he says.


“My family and friends have helped me to believe in myself and work hard.


It now makes it easier to look at my next goal and begin the hard work to overcome the challenges ahead.”


words Liljana Frey

photo krista eppelstun