12 Oct 2021

How the Ever Given sparked another Little Yellow Digger adventure

From Nine To Noon, 11:30 am on 12 October 2021

The grounding of the massive container ship Ever Given in the Suez canal back in March drew comparisons to the rescues of The Little Yellow Digger in the popular children's stories by Betty and Alan Gilderdale.

Peter Gilderdale – their son – thought so too, and he quickly got to work on The Little Yellow Digger and The Big Ship.

An excavator attempts to free the front end of the Ever Given container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal, Egypt in March 2021.

An excavator attempts to free the front end of the Ever Given container ship that ran aground in the Suez Canal, Egypt in March 2021. Photo: Suez Canal Press Service / Sputnik via AFP

He tells Kathryn Ryan that Scholastic had sent him a letter that they'd been inundated with letters from people referring to the story.

"Normally I'm brain dead after about five hours of teaching but I sat down to see if there was a story in it and it sort of all came together."

But he had to figure out a way the digger could free the ship in his story.

"It was fairly obvious right from the get-go, that whilst it was amazingly symbolic that there was a digger trying to get the ship out, what it was doing was absolutely not going to have any effect," he says.

"So I had to find out how could a digger do something that might actually free the Ever Given. Engineers wouldn't agree with me, I'm sure, but I think it could've worked."

It's not the first time Gilderdale has continued his parents' legacy, publishing two stories previously The Little Yellow Digger ABC and The Little Yellow Digger Saves Christmas.

"We had another one in the works but this sort of jumped the queue."

He keeps faith to the things that define the original stories in writing the newer books, he says, which are all based on some fact, apart from the Christmas one.

"There's something about machines that just get you as a child and mum knew when she wrote it that there was a big gap for books for three year old boys, as it turns out it works just as well for girls.

"But she was particularly thinking about that age group because she was an academic who studies children's books and reviewed them for The Herald, so she really knew the market."

It all started when Betty was looking after her grandchildren at her daughter's house, and she saw a 'bigger digger' outside and wrote a story to read to the kids, he says.

Then she spent another week persuading her husband to draw diggers, he says.

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Before her death in July, she wasn't too keen on writing another book in the series, he says.

"I'd been going through my mother's papers after she moved to a rest home and I came across some little sketches my daughter had done, suggesting an ABC [book for The Little Yellow Digger].

"I knew that mum wasn't that keen on sort of 'a is for apple', 'b is for book' type of work ... She had said very firmly that five diggers was all she had and she didn't want to do anymore.

"But I initially wrote the text for the ABC with the idea of giving her an idea of what could be possible with that and in that event, she said 'I still don't want to do anymore, but you go for it'.

"That was kind of how I ended up with it. The necessities of the book trade are that if you don't have new titles coming through, the old ones kind of get forgotten."

Although his mother had tried to get international rights picked up overseas, it was a struggle to get the digger series further than New Zealand and Australia, he says.

"It was initially slated to be published in England, and then the English pulled out right at the last minute when the first digger [book] was done.

"Then Ladybird [Books] brought out a Little Yellow Digger book a couple of years later.

"The Americans told us that they didn't call them diggers, they called them backhoes and somehow the little yellow backhoe didn't rhyme with the existing text.

"We know that kids over there love the books because people send them over as presents all the time but they're not officially available through there."

Gilderdale has other ideas floating around for more in the series, which he hopes will come out in the future.

"We certainly want to keep the digger alive, as a family. I also have got a few things I've written, which aren't about the digger, and would be nice to get out as well but that is a harder ask and we'll see how things go."