Education Mulga Bill photo via Deborah Niland website

Published on March 24th, 2016 | by Daniel Boyle


Deborah Niland – Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

This post is for the subject Language Education 2 at the University of Canberra – Semester 1, 2015 as part of the Bachelor of Education course. It involves information about the author, and then a number of activities that could be used in association with the text.

Notice to markers – this is my personal sports news website, please ignore content outside of the post which appears automatically.

Valparaíso Cerro Abajo. Photo: Daniel Boyle

This photo shows a modern day Mulga Bill in the Valparaiso Cerro Abajo urban mountain bike race in Chile. Photo: Daniel Boyle.

Deborah Niland – Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

Deborah Niland comes from an extremely creative family. She has been involved in writing and illustrating children’s books for over 40 years. Her work has seen her team up with family including mother Ruth Park and twin sister Kilmeny Niland, as well as many other authors.

Among her most famous works are Annie’s Chair, Mulga Bill’s Bicycle and It’s Bedtime William as well as the Hippopotamus series written by Hazel Edwards. Many reviewers describe Niland’s illustrations as “deceptively simple”. Both Niland sisters are renowned for their ability to bring out the charm in the characters with their illustrations.

The Reading Room website describes Deborah’s work by saying, “Her work is a delight – always colourful, playful and joyful”, while an article in The Monthly describes the pictures in When the Wind Changed as “fantastically grotesque”. 

The Niland family grew up around writing with D’Arcy Niland and Ruth Park both being successful authors. The family connection continues, with Tom Niland Champion joining his mother Kilmeny for The Tall Man and the Twelve Babies, which is illustrated by Deborah.

According to Deborah, her father D’Arcy Niland grew up in a house with a lack of books, but it would have been the opposite as the Niland family grew. Ruth Park’s obituary also describes her childhood as “deprived of books”. It seems that changed as the Niland family grew.

Deborah and Kilmeny were both born in New Zealand then moved with the family to Sydney. They attended the Julian Ashton art school. This school has played host to some of Australia’s most famous artists including Brett Whitely, William Dobell and Max Dupain. The family moved to London after this, where the twins began their career with freelancing work.

Ruth Park’s novel The Harp in the South is set in the scenes of an inner-city Sydney slum in Surry Hills, describing the couple’s early days living in Sydney. The success of the book allowed the family to move out of the slum, spending most of their time on the northern side of Sydney’s harbour.

Mulga Bill – Teaser

‘Twas Mulga Bill from Eaglehawk that caught the cycling craze… This is the hilarious story of boastful Mulga Bill, who thinks he′s much better at cycling than he turns out to be. A resounding crash into Dead Man’s Creek sends him back to his original mode of transport – his trusty horse.

Youtube video by “Story Box Library”, read by Paul Weingott.

The book we will focus on is Mulga Bill’s Bicycle, an illustrated version of the tale of Mulga Bill’s bike riding adventures by A.B “Banjo” Paterson, one of Australia’s most famous story tellers. The book remains in print after over forty years. It received the Visual Arts Board prize in 1974.

According to archival information in the Lu Rees Centre, Deborah Niland has been quite reluctant to give interviews over the years, however on her blog she has shared the story of the influences behind the illustrated version of Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. 

She looks back at her father’s lack of books in childhood and says, “When he had a family of his own, he would often frequent the local second-hand bookshops and bring home boxes of books to add to our home library.”

Niland adds, “So it was one of these books plucked from a shelf that inspired our illustrated version of Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. That book was Rio Grande’s Last Race and other Verses by A B Paterson. The edition I have is a very old copy, dated 1924.

Ruth Park’s obituary mentions that D’Arcy Niland did some work in shearing sheds before their move to Sydney, which may have brought an interest in Paterson and other bush poets.

Deborah Niland has had an impressive an extensive career as both author and illustrator, as well as holding many exhibitions of her artworks and is still a key part of the Australian children’s literary scene.


For these activities I am looking at Year Three and the English- Literature Content Descriptor:

Year 3

Draw connections between personal experiences and the worlds of texts, and share responses with others(ACELT1596)

Themes of Mulga Bill’s Bicycle

Like most of “Banjo” Paterson’s work, the Australian bush is the key in the setting of Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. Place names such as Conroy’s Gap and Castlereagh are real places which bring our minds to the setting of the bush. It is also about bush characters. Mulga Bill displays his confidence from being a good horseman, to the bicycle, which was in fashion at the time.

His arrogance and overconfidence brings him undone and he suffers a terrible crash, leaving him to go back to the horse. Some bush characters are known for tall tales and “Banjo” brings elements of that into Mulga Bill’s Bicycle.


Activity 1a) Your own Mulga Bill Experience

Equipment – the items required for this activity should already be in the room. Set the class up to accommodate the group numbers. The students will write their response with pen and paper.

Split the children into groups (preferably of four, but make the split according to the best fit for the class).

In their groups, with the whole class already having read the book together, students will discuss a time when they have been in Mulga Bill’s situation. Give the students three options to discuss.

Valpo Cerro Abajo. Photo: Vasilios Devletoglou

Photo: Vasilios Devletoglou for

  • A bike crash (a very common incident for primary school aged children)
  • A time when they were overconfident in trying something new
  • How they got started in their favourite hobby

The group discussion will get the students thinking on topic and building up content to write a recount of the particular incident that is being discussed. It will also allow the other students to give constructive criticism of the ideas.

Extension activity – Write the recount from another perspective. This could be to write up the story of someone else from the group or from an imagined perspective.

Differentiation – Some students may not have the ability to write a clear narrative structure for their recount. Get these students to start with a timeline of their story (this could be recommended to all students to help with their recount)

Activity 1b) Online version

Equipment – At least one computer will be needed for this activity.

This activity is basically the same as the first activity, but using a computer. The teacher will have a website ready to go, in a similar style to this page. Students will be able to comment on the page with their own story. Make sure that the comments need to be moderated before going online to minimise the chance of any offensive material being posted. An extension activity can been to give feedback on the work of other students.

This focuses on the English Content Descriptor

Use software including word processing programs with growing speed and efficiency to construct and edit texts featuring visual, print and audio elements (ACELY1685)

As well as having a key focus on the ICT capability. Both parts a) and b) also focus on Personal and Social Capability as well as Critical and Creative Thinking. These will all come into play in the groups where they communicate with each other and give constructive criticism.

Activity 2: Mulga Bill Experience at School

Equipment – Something to be a “bike shop”, a “creek”, at least one bicycle, one hill (not too large), enthusiasm from the students to play the parts required.

In this activity the students will aim to recreate the events in Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. All students will have some involvement in the action. It will almost be like a play depicting the story. The activity will mean that all students have a shared experience that they can relate to, as experience with bicycles and the Australian bush may differ greatly between students.

The action will start at the “bike shop”, which could be as simple as a seat, a bike rack, or even the classroom. Some students could design a picture of a bike to give more feeling and style to the bike shop. This would have been designed in a previous lesson. A number of characters will need to be selected, including Mulga Bill. Different students will play the part on different occasions such as buying the bike, boasting about the bike skills, riding down a hill, and finally hitting the rock and allowing the bike to be “safe at rest in Dead Man’s Creek”.

As mentioned above, the hill must not be too steep. It is best to have one student ride down the hill, then have a new scene depicting the final resting place of the bicycle. It is very important to have all students involved in this activity. This can be done by taking turns at the different roles, or having enough minor characters to fill out the class. It is very important that the students can relate this current experiences to what happened in the story.

This activity will also cover some elements of the Health and Physical Education curriculum such as:

Combine elements of effort, space, time, objects and people when performing movement sequences (ACPMP047)


Activity 3 – Mulga Bill Map

While these activities are aimed at the year 3 level, the best Content Descriptor from the Geography world comes from Year 2

“Draw simple conclusions based on discussions, observations and information displayed in pictures and texts and on maps(ACHASSI041)

In this activity the students will map out the context of the story, using some hints from the teacher. The location of Eaglehawk is an issue of some debate, though the town of Eaglehawk on the outskirts of Bendigo has gone as far as creating a Mulga Bill Cycle Trail. The teacher will have marked on a map key locations from the poem. These can include Eaglehawk, Conroy’s Gap, Castlereagh, Walgett and “the sea”. You could also bring up the Orange Cycle Club, which is within the boundaries of the region and has a Mulga Bill Award.

Note – you may need to zoom in/out on the map to see the full extent of the locations.

The students should then identify locations that they have visited within that region. For the exercise I have used Eaglehawk just outside of Canberra, this location given for Conroy’s Gap and Byron Bay as “the sea”.

The students will first be asked to locate places from Mulga Bill’s Bicycle – add parts to the map to attempt to throw them off – other cities and places they may recognise. They will then mark on the map where they have been. In a follow up exercise, they will create a set of directions (procedure document) on how to get from their house to a place within the zone of their choosing. The students will need to plan the directions for someone else in the future, meaning they have to focus on tense. For example – you will turn left on the Hume Highway after 47km.




Clausen, L. (2013), The art of children’s literature. The Monthly. Retrieved from

McCartney, T. (2011). Review: Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. Kid’s Book Review. Retrieved from

Maunder, P. (2010), Novelist shone a light on slums. Ruth Park 1917-2010. Sydney Morning Herald. Retrieved from

Niland, D. Archive material accessed from the Lu Rees National Centre for Australian Children’s Literature, University of Canberra

Niland, D. Deborah Niland official website. (Cover photo taken from Deboarah Niland website)

Paterson, A.B., Niland, D. (illus), Niland, K. (illus). Mulga Bill’s Bicycle. Angus & Robertson, 2011.

The Reading Room, Deborah Niland, retrieved from



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Founder of @sportslashlife. Australian living in Chile. Freestyle footbag player and passionate sports fan.

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