Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey. Allen & Unwin 2010 (2009). 9781742372624. 394 pp.
What a glorious book this is – savage and thoughtful, funny and profound, it explores the lives and secrets of many people in the small mining town of Corrigan. I was riveted from Charlie and Jasper’s opening trek to the secret glade, where Laura Wishart is hanging, through to Jeffrey Lu’s triumphant cricket debut and the revelations about Laura’s death.
Jasper Jones is set in a small Australian town in the 60s. The Vietnam War is on, the draft is happening; racism and fear of the unknown permeate the town. Three ‘veg’ and meat are on the table, except at Charlie’s best friend Jeffrey’s place, where his mother cooks delicious Vietnamese food. Jeffery Lu is a remarkable creation – optimistic, ebullient and undefeated, even by the ignorant and bovine racism he encounters.
As an Indigenous boy, Jasper knows only too well that the police will regard him as the obvious suspect in Laura's death, and both Charlie and Jasper have little confidence in how the justice system would treat him.
Recommendation: Jasper Jones is one of the ‘must buy’ books for any English Department. It would make a great companion text to study in Year 10 with To Kill a Mockingbird.
Listening to Country by Ros Moriarty. Allen & Unwin, 2011. 9781742378152. 240 pp.
Ros Moriarty is a white woman who married an Aboriginal man from the Yanyuwa people of the Gulf of Carpentaria. John lives in two worlds, the public service world of Canberra and the country of his ancestors. He and Ros and their children journey regularly to his country where Ros builds close bonds with the Borroloola women of Law. Her desert journal chronicles a range of stories that give deep insight into the Aboriginal experience.
Recommendation: Extracts from this text could be useful in Year 9 and 10 classrooms when students are exploring Indigenous culture and it could also prove a valuable senior text for the Area of Study: Belonging.
Maralinga, the Anangu Story by Oak Valley and Yalata Communities with Christobel Mattingly. Allen & Unwin, 2009. 9781741756210. 72 pp.
Maralinga is a wonderful text created by the Aboriginal community and author Christobel Mattingly that details the history of the Anangu people and the horror of the atomic testing that took place on their land.
The text begins with the Dreaming story of the land, explains the importance of water and bush tucker and then leads into the invasion and the coming of the railway. Photographs begin to be used, backgrounded and surrounded by the beautiful illustrations. Individual stories are told in the context of the establishment of the mission, the destructive environmental effects of the railway and the expulsion of the Anangu people from their own land. Then the bombs came. A 1952 memorandum to the Prime Minister from senior scientists stating that no inhabitants would suffer injury from the effects of the atomic explosions is placed against the testimony of so many people who suffered from the fallout and contamination. It was not until 1984 that Anangu land transferred back to the original owners and only in 1995 that the British government paid some compensation for their contamination of the country. The final chapter, ‘We have survived’, continues the use of individual stories and statements that bring the lives of the Anangu people to our attention. A glossary guides students to the pronunciation of Pitjanjatjara language used in the story and a map shows the geographical location of many of the places mentioned.
Recommendation: This is a picture book that many schools will purchase for a class set for Years 7-8.
Maybe Tomorrow by Meme McDonald and Boori (Monty) Pryor. Penguin, 1998. 9780140273977. 216 pp.
The tragic deaths of four members of his family led Boori (Monty) Pryor to be part of an education program for Australian schools. Boori is a storyteller, and the stories he tells are about what we have been and what we can become. He invites readers to get to know the place in which they live and to ask the people who have lived there the longest for their advice. His extraordinary optimism and tolerance can be traced through his vivid stories about his Aboriginal culture, traditions and people.
Recommendation: Use this moving and gracious book with Year 8 to investigate the conventions of storytelling and Indigenous experiences.
My Girragundji by Meme McDonald and Boori (Monty) Pryor. Allen & Unwin, 1998. 9781864488180. 84 pp.
Honesty and openness are the mark of the confidence of contemporary black writers, and the outstanding quality of the winner of the Children’s Book Council of Australia award for younger readers, Boori Pryor. Pryor writes with a white co-writer and photographer, Meme McDonald. With excellent design support and commitment of funds from a major publisher, My Girragundji and its sequel, The Binna Binna Man, give readers an unprecedented access to contemporary Aboriginal life, with no self-censorship or special pleading, but with life-affirming laughter countering the fears and the sadness.
Recommendation: These texts are deservedly familiar to primary school students, but they still should be in high school libraries and book boxes so that no one misses out. They will help fill that large cultural gap in the representation of Aboriginal people in our literature. These are very satisfying easy reads for inexperienced readers.
My Place by Sally Morgan. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2000 (1987). 9780949206312. 384 pp.
My Place is an Australian classic. It begins with the experiences of Sally's own life, growing up in Perth in the fifties and sixties. Sally is told that her ancestors were from India. However, when she is fifteen, Sally learns that she and her sister are in fact of Aboriginal descent, from the Palku people of the Pilbara. Sally sets about writing her mother's, her grandmother's and her grand-uncle's stories. She returns to her grandmother's birthplace in remote northwestern Australia, and her physical journeys are paralleled by a journey for truth into which the whole family is drawn. Finally, all three women - mother, grandmother, and granddaughter - tell their stories.
Recommendation: Use this book as part of a wide reading unit for Year 10 in biography and autobiography. Students could use small group discussion to look at the conventions of life writing and consider the experiences of Indigenous people and the ideas of identity and belonging. An abridged, simplified version - Sally's Story - is available for younger readers.
Nanberry: Black Brother White by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2011. 9780732290221. 320 pp.
Just as I was complaining about the dearth of new texts with Indigenous content that I could guarantee would work in the classroom, Jackie French comes to my rescue – again! She does have a real talent for producing books that will provoke good class discussion. This one is based very firmly in the history of the early years of the colony and of the first contacts between blacks and whites. As usual French’s research is thorough and meticulous and she has included an appendix in which she explains where she has departed from verifiable fact.
I have to admit that I had never heard of Nanberry, although I of course know about Bennelong. It is believed that Nanberry is buried with Bennelong in James Squire’s orchard on the banks of the Parramatta River. Nanberry, aged perhaps 9 or 10, was orphaned by the plague – usually thought to be smallpox – that virtually wiped out the Indigenous people in the immediate area of the first settlement in 1789. He was adopted by Surgeon White and lived between the two cultures. He was frequently used by Governor Phillip as a translator. From the sketchy historical facts about an unusual and interesting life, French has created an engaging character. French uses limited third-person narration, moving the perspective among several characters: Nanberry himself, Maria – the surgeon’s housekeeper, Surgeon White, Rachel – who succeeds Maria as housekeeper and becomes mother to White’s son Andrew – and Andrew himself. A close bond forms between Nanberry and Andrew and they are both ‘black brother white’, each learning and adopting the other’s culture.
The shifting of focus from one character to another rather than remaining with the protagonist is rather unusual in a book for this readership, but it works. In some ways it is the colony itself that is the protagonist.
Recommendation: I think this will probably work best for Years 8 or 9, and it should definitely be considered for whole-class study. It’s a little longer than some of French’s other popular class set books, but it is an accessible read. It is a fascinating picture of the Indigenous people of the area and the impact on their lives of the early settlement. It is also relevant to questions of sustainability: the Indigenous people were healthy, strong and well-fed and knew how to survive in their environment, while the settlers came close to starvation waiting for supply ships from home.
Papunya School Book of Country and History by the staff and students at Papunya School. Allen & Unwin 2001. 9781865085258.
This extraordinary book, which is more an illustrated book than a traditional picture book, is compiled of multiple text types – both verbal and visual - contributed by the members of the school community. It tells of the traditions and lifestyle of the people of the area, the changes that occurred when their lands were invaded by Europeans and of the development of a belief in ‘two way learning’ – learning that draws on both the Indigenous and western traditions. This is a very rich text worthy of close study.
While the bibliographic details list the staff and students of the Papunya School as the communal authors of this project, the contribution of writer Nadia Wheatley and artist Ken Searle as mentors was enormous.
Recommendation: This can be studied at any level. The teacher’s notes on the Allen & Unwin website suggest a unit of work for upper primary, one involving integration of English and HSIE, but there is also a unit of work for Year 11 in The TEXT Book 5 Standard (edited by Helen Sykes, Cambridge University Press), which involves looking at the nature of the text types used, including visual texts presented from a post-colonial perspective. This should be included in any unit of work on Indigenous Australia, but is well worth close study in its own right.
Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart compiled by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle, with Jackie Huggins as consultant. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742370972. 97 pages.
Playground is subtitled ‘listening to stories from country and inside the heart’. Photographs, illustrations and images that complement the narrative accompany this beautiful collection of stories from Aboriginal childhoods. Wheatley is the compiler of this range of stories from oral history, written records and interviews, including young Indigenous people in the twenty-first century. She has (with the help and support of Dr Jackie Huggins, her Indigenous adviser) placed these memories and stories under headings such as homes, first lessons, journeying, getting water, cubbies and toys, playing sport, growing up and learning through song and ceremony.
Recommendation: Playground would make a terrific text for a multicultural unit in Year 7 that explored the similarities and differences in Asian, Australian (Indigenous and non Indigenous) and other nationalities’ childhoods. Jeanie Baker’s Mirror, Maralinga, the Anangu Story and Li Cunxin’s The Peasant Prince are other picture books that could be included.
Poison Under Their Lips by Mark Svendsen. This is currently out of print.
Svendsen challenges the legends of the pastoral conquest of outback Australia in this book that describes part of the Aboriginal resistance. His story purports to be based on an apparently fictional journal, letters, newspaper accounts and court depositions which ring with the psychological truth of a confession by a guilt-ridden young trooper who took part in a ‘dispersal’ or extermination drive against Aboriginal people in Queensland in 1876. Without historical notes I can only surmise that this is ‘faction’. It certainly is convincing. Svendsen’s achievement is that he writes a gripping story of ordinary people entrapped in a crime but still retaining their consciences.
The elegiac tone of the nineteenth-century voice of the older narrator filters the horror through an intelligent and sensitive memory. The early naïve narrator is replaced with other voices, but the collective feeling moves the reader towards the idea that reconciliation is the only outcome we can work towards with any honesty. For who can forgive such crimes that not only went unpunished but were rewarded?
Recommendation: For Years 9 – 10. Wide reading links: historical fiction; the big questions; generations; Australian identity; prejudice; rural life.
Rabbit Proof Fence directed by Phil Noyce. 2002. PG.
Rabbit-Proof Fence is based on Doris Pilkington Garimara’s memoir, Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence. In 1931 Molly, Daisy, and Grace (two sisters and a cousin who are fourteen, ten, and eight) have been taken from their Aboriginal families and sent a thousand miles away to the Moore River Native Settlement, north of Perth. Moore River has been set up as a camp, to train so called ‘half-caste’ Aborigines as domestic workers and integrate them into white society. This was part of an abhorrent government policy to deliberately separate children from their family. Molly doesn’t stay at Moore Rive long; she leads the girls’ escape and with courage and determination sets out on an epic journey. They travel over 1 500 miles of Australia's outback, finding and following the rabbit-proof fence that will lead them home to their community at Jigalong.
Recommendation: This powerful and disturbing film has become a popular text in secondary schools and works at any year level. Students can debate the effectiveness of the first-person point of view used in the film and director Noyce's cutting between the children's journey and the pursuers’ increasingly desperate attempts to capture them.
The Rabbits by John Marsden and Shaun Tan. Lothian Books 2000 (1998). 9780734410832.
This was controversial when first published, regarded by some as an example of what John Howard called the ‘black armband view of history’. It is an allegory about white settlement, telling the story of the invasion of the continent by the rabbits and the consequent devastation of the native animals. There is minimal written text – often just one simple sentence per page - and striking, surreal visual text. If anyone ever doubts the existence of picture books for older readers, there is no better example than this.
Recommendation: This fits beautifully into any unit of work on Indigenous Australia. It can be studied in its own right as a class text or as part of a wider unit, at any stage from Years 5 to 12. Lothian’s notes suggest that it could also be studied as part of a unit on allegory, with titles like Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, Watership Down, Animal Farm and the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.
A Requiem for a Beast: a Work of Image, Word and Music by Matt Ottley. Lothian, 2007. ISBN 9780734407962. Hardcover. 90 pp.
This is an extraordinarily ambitious and impressive work. The publishers call it a graphic novel, but there is nothing quite like it. It is multimodal. It is an illustrated story, with a wide variety of illustration styles, from dramatic double-page paintings to comic-strip style frames. It is several stories at once, and this is reflected in a range of font styles and layouts. And it has in the back a music CD, consisting of the author’s own original compositions interspersed with traditional Aboriginal music.
The core story involves a city boy working with cattle in the outback in a journey of self-discovery. The climax of his personal story is his battle with the huge wild bull, which links to his memories of the myth of the minotaur. His story is linked to a story that haunts him from his father’s past – a story of cowardice that led to the disappearance and death of an Aboriginal boy. The theme of the book seems to be that we can only move on to the future when we have reconciled with the past, and so the boy becomes involved in an old woman’s story of the stolen generations.
Recommendation: This is a very sophisticated and complex work that fascinates many reluctant readers. Use it from Year 9 upwards, especially with boys.
Riding the Black Cockatoo by John Danalis. Allen & Unwin, 2009. 9781741753776. 264 pp.
I first heard about this book when listening to the ABC’s Conversations with Richard Fidler. John Danalis tells the true story of the skull that used to sit on the mantelpiece at his parents’ home. It was his revelation about this in a tutorial and the reaction of his fellow students that started this white Australian on a journey to find out where this Indigenous skull came from and how to return it to a proper burial in Wamba Wamba country. Along the way many people, including his parents, are changed by what happened. This moving story about reconciliation is simply told and should have a powerful impact in your classroom. The lead up to the ceremonial handover and the gratitude (not anger) of the Aboriginal people involved is particularly affecting.
Recommendation: This is suitable for Year 9-11.
Sally’s Story: My Place for Young Readers by Sally Morgan. Fremantle Press, 1990. 9780949206787. 144 pp.
This is a simplified and abridged version of My Place, suitable for use in Years 5-8.
The Secret River by Kate Grenville. The Text Publishing Company, 2006 (2005). ISBN 9781921145254. 336 pp.
This is superb – a wonderfully readable account of William Thornhill, transported to the colony in 1806, with his wife Sal and his children. William has grown up on the meanest of London streets and has known hunger and fear, but never anything as alien as the foreign world of Sydney Cove: ‘How could air, water, dirt and rocks fashion themselves to be so outlandish?’ But the colony can provide undreamt of opportunities. William is assigned as a convict to his wife and is able to use the skills he learnt as a Thames waterman to start up a business. Within eight years he and his family claim a hundred acres of land on the Hawkesbury – land that to the newcomers seems to be there for the taking, as the Aboriginal people do not seem to have any sense of ownership of it.
This is in many ways the quintessential emancipist story – one that echoes the experience of one of Grenville’s own ancestors and that can be found in the history of many of Sydney’s most established families. In lesser hands this novel would have been a satisfying family saga. Grenville makes it so much more, exploring the heartbreaking realities behind the success of men like Thornhill, good men who sometimes made bad choices, for the land that they claimed was, of course, anything but empty. The settlers respond in different ways to the Aboriginal presence. Grenville vividly recreates the brutality and violence, but there is genuine moral complexity in this account: not all evil deeds are performed by evil men. Particularly memorable is the final portrait of William, wealthy and successful, sitting surveying his property, but with an ongoing sense of loss: ‘He could not understand why it did not feel like triumph.’
Grenville has also published Searching for the Secret River, about the writing of this novel.
Recommendation: This adult novel would be best with Advanced Year 11 classes, but it may be worth considering if you have a very talented Year 10 group.
Shake a Leg by Boori Monty Pryor and Jan Ormerod. Allen & Unwin, 2010.
This picture book is a joyous celebration of contemporary Australian Indigenous life. The main character is the cook in a pizza shop in Northern Queensland. He has learnt how to cook pizzas during a two-year stay in Italy and he greets the three hungry boys in Italian. When he reveals that he is a Murri, they are puzzled, wondering – in his words – why he is ‘not standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, looking for emu’. He explains: ‘a man’s got to make a living and you boys are hungry.’ But he reveals too that, when he has the time, he and his family remember his connections to the old stories, especially as they are told in dance.
This is a great story about keeping a culture alive. It’s a highly rewarding book for Indigenous Australian children to read, explaining their place in the world, and it’s an important contribution to cultural understanding for non-Indigenous readers. Boori Monty Pryor’s stories about Indigenous culture have been a significant influence on inter-cultural understanding. The decision to team him up with world-renowned children’s book illustrator Jan Ormerod is inspired.
Recommendation: This is a worthwhile text for sharing with students of all ages.
Snigger James on Grey by Mark Svendsen. This is currently out of print.
This multiple narrator story, complete with ghost commentators, is the best book yet about Aboriginal Australians and race relations. Set in a small country town, it is mostly told by ‘The Boy’, Steven. What happened that night when two fifteen-year-olds, The Boy and Selwyn an Aboriginal, meet as usual among the crowd outside the picture theatre and Kevin Sully comes hooning along in his lime green Monaro with the musical horns blaring ‘Here Comes the Bride’ and shouts insults at Selwyn. In their next encounter, Sully throws a bong at Selwyn and he and The Boy are alarmed to see their friend Kelly looking scared out of the rear windscreen as the car screams away. The police soon arrive and The Boy runs, not realising that Selwyn is still there almost frozen with the bong in his hands.
What happened to Kelly in the back seat of the car? Gradually, after several foolish attempts at lying to protect Kelly and themselves, and after frequent advice from the ghost commentators of the boys’ uncles and grandfather who are experts about mateship, friendships are restored. They all front up to the magistrates court where the identity of Snigger James is revealed and his favourite expression proves true: ‘With people there’s no black and white, there’s only shades of grey.’ There are a few expletives, in context, and the events are not as bad as this outline suggests. It’s the strain on friendship that Svendsen has in focus.
Recommendation: This is a happier companion text to the grim realism of Bye Beautiful by Julia Lawrinson. For Years 9-12. Wide reading links: friendship; friendship across cultures; prejudice; coming of age; families; generations.
Songman by Allan Baillie. This is currently out of print.
This absorbing adventure story is set in the north of Australia, long before European settlement. Macassan fishermen from the islands to the north regularly visited the coast and traded with the Indigenous population. An Aboriginal boy, Yukuwa, and his father travel to the islands with the Macassans in order to show them how to make bark canoes. Yukuwa is exposed to a whole range of new experiences - not only the superior technology of other peoples, but also the brutality of 'civilised' justice systems and racism. The reader sees this new world through the eyes of the boy.
Recommendation: This is an exciting read for Years 7 and 8. It is also a cleverly imagined recreation of Indigenous life prior to European settlement and a critical look at the effects of colonisation.