Texts for the Australian curriculum

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A Ghost in My Suitcase by Gabrielle Wang. Puffin, 2009. 9780143303794. 192 pp.

This award-winning novel highlights the differences between Australia and China, especially in the perception of 'ghosts'. The wonderfully-realised setting is the ancient Chinese water town of Wuzhen, with what Wang describes as 'its dark alleyways, great wooden houses standing in water, beautiful moon bridges and winding canals'. Australian-born Celeste goes to Wuzhen to spend time with her Chinese grandmother, a famous ghost-hunter, and becomes caught up in a terrifying adventure.

Recommendation: This is probably a bit young to use as a class-set novel in secondary, but it is a great read. Include it in an action adventure study, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.
Girl Underground by Morris Gleitzman. Puffin 2004. ISBN 0 14 330046 6. 186 pp.

Like Boy Overboard, this is quite short and simple and again uses humour to explore some confronting issues. In this case, it is the plight of asylum seekers in detention in Australia. Gleitzman is clearly successful because the book caused howls of protest that such issues were inappropriate for children.

Recommendation: This is suitable for Years 5-8. Use it in a selection of titles for wide reading about the refugee experience.
Growing Up Asian in Australia edited by Alice Pung. Black Inc, 2008. 9781863951913. 288 pp.

This non-fiction anthology is a very rich collection of true stories about the experiences of Asians in Australia – from ABCs who have been here for generations, but who still look Asian, to very recent migrants. All the stories are quite short – many are only three pages long – and they cover a diverse range of experiences and a wide variety of tone. There are stories of discrimination and prejudice that still obviously hurt, even when the memories are decades old, and there are stories of comic misunderstandings. The stories are grouped under thematic headings such as ‘Strine’, ‘UnAustralian?’ and ‘Leaving Home’. Many of the stories are about the conflict that is felt by second-generation migrant children as they are torn between family values and traditions and those of their peers. There are many stories that show how language can divide as well as unite. Food and family traditions are frequent themes.

Recommendation: This is a rich resource for all students. It would be a worthwhile text to study in its own right in Years 10 or 11. It is a source of stories to use alongside other texts in a range of units of work on topics like family, migration, difference and diversity, school life. It is an excellent source of related texts for Belonging. Use it alongside other collections of life stories such as The Glory Garage: Growing up Lebanese and Muslim in Australia by Nadia Jamal and Taghred Chandab and Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart compiled by Nadia Wheatley.
Guantanamo Boy by Anna Perera. Angus & Robertson, 2008. 9780732288952. 358 pp.

This is a very significant book that should be widely available to young adult readers. It’s by a first-time author who has worked as a teacher of ‘difficult’ boys, and one of its strengths is that the fifteen-year-old male protagonist is someone that any teacher who has taught in the poorer suburbs of a big city will recognise. He’s just an ordinary kid – more motivated to do well at school than most, but not averse to the occasional bit of shoplifting or skylarking. But he is also a Muslim and, although British-born, has a Pakistani father. Post 9/11 he has been shocked to realise that even at home, in Britain, the fact that he is a young Muslim male makes him a threatening figure to some people. To the American authorities desperate to fight ‘the war on terror’, he is a suspicious character. While visiting family in Karachi, he is kidnapped from his aunt’s house and enters a nightmare world of interrogations, beatings, sensory deprivation, isolation, water torture, and forced confessions. He is finally incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay as an ‘enemy combatant’, without rights of any kind or any contact with lawyers or family. Although the story is told in the third-person, the reader sees everything through Khalid’s eyes and we sink into the nightmare with him, at times unable to distinguish between reality and madness.

This is very moving, especially at those times when Khalid is struggling to hold on to his sanity – for example, after days of being deprived of sleep and subjected endlessly to what seem to be nonsensical questions. His crime? Some of the American interrogators are convinced that he looks as if he’s in his early twenties – they dismiss as nonsense his claim to be fifteen. And he was playing an online computer game with his cousin and some others. Khalid is bewildered by his treatment, but another strength of the book is that he refuses to hate, knowing how destructive hatred can be.

Recommendation: This is an absorbing and affecting read for students in Years 9 to 11. While it is reasonably long, it is not a difficult read, and the reader turns the pages compulsively, anxious to know Khalid’s fate. It would be a fascinating companion piece to Doctorow’s Little Brother, which is speculative fiction about the response of the American authorities to another terrorist attack on American soil. There are so many parallels – two young men kidnapped, allowed no rights, humiliated and beaten – all in the name of keeping the world safe. But they are very different books in tone: Little Brother is a clever thriller where we enjoy the protagonist’s fight to defeat the powers-that-be. Guantanamo Boy is based on the experiences of real people whose humanity was ignored.
Hana’s Suitcase by Karen Levine. Allen & Unwin, 2003. 9781741141672. 120 pp.

Canadian Karen Levine wrote this outstanding ‘faction’ text, following research by a Japanese, Fumiko Ishioka, the coordinator of a small museum, the Tokyo Holocaust Centre. Fumiko had asked numerous Holocaust museums around the world for some children’s artefacts that would help her to make the museum experience more effective for children visiting. She received, from Auschwitz, a child’s sock and shoe, a child’s sweater, a can of Zyklon B poisonous gas and Hana’s suitcase. The suitcase proved to be so effective that Fumiko was inspired to set off for Europe to visit several concentration camp museums to find out more about Hana. To her joy, she found drawings made by Hana at Theresienstadt and a list of names that might also include Hana’s brother, George. Ominously, there was a tick beside every name except George’s, and this did indicate that they had all been murdered. Could George be still alive? Indeed he was, and Fumiko traced him to Toronto. In the bittersweet ending, he came to Tokyo with another treasure: many photographs of Hana and his family. His side of the story fills in the gaps of Hana’s short life.

This was the sequence of the research, but Levine has reconstructed Hana’s brief thirteen years of life from being in the only Jewish family in a small town in Czechoslovakia to being separated from them, meeting George again in Theresienstadt, then travelling in a freight train to be gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. Interwoven with this, and accompanied with George’s photographs and Hana’s drawings, Levine tells the other story of Fumiko’s persistent search that brings it all together. Levine’s spare narrative gets the tone just right for this combination of joy, sadness and hope.

Recommendation: This is very accessible as an easy read for mixed-ability classes, Years 7-9. It is invaluable for those whose school is too far away from a Jewish Museum and it is a valuable text to support those who can take students on an excursion there. The text demonstrates how information becomes powerful when it becomes personal. Older students may be directed to the question of the relationship between the personal and the political. This text has relevance in our study of Asia, emphasising as it does our common humanity.
Hannah’s Winter by Kierin Meehan. Puffin, 2001. 9780141000442. 205 pp.

This is a charming ghost story set in modern Japan, although the ghost belongs of course to a distant past. Australian Hannah is spending three months in Japan with a Japanese family, each of whom is lovingly drawn. Hannah becomes friends with the daughter of the family, Miki, and together they stumble on an intriguing puzzle that must be told.

The eventual revelation of the connection between the ghost and Hannah rather stretches belief, but that is not important. The strength of the novel lies firmly in its depiction of Japanese culture through Hannah's eyes, with all its oddities and wonders.

Recommendation: This is an enjoyable read for girls in Years 4-7. It is probably a little young to be considered for class set use in Year 7. It would work beautifully as one of a selection of action adventure wide reading titles, providing girls with an alternative to the many novels with a martial arts focus.

The Happiest Refugee by Anh Do. Allen & Unwin, 2010. 9781742372389. 232pp.

The Happiest Refugee could turn the tide of misinformation and fear about boat people and, linked with SBS’s stunning series Go Back to Where You Came From, could form a transformative unit in classrooms in Years 9 and 10.

Anh Do is one of the most admired standup comedians in Australia. He also graduated in law from the University of Technology and made the films The Finished People and Footie Legends with his brother Khoa. His account of his journey as a boat person from Vietnam with his family is understated yet deeply distressing. His father was the captain and had to deal with the crew and passengers being terrorised by pirates. A pirate held Do’s younger brother over the side of the boat. Towards the end of the journey they ran out of food and water. They were rescued and taken to a Malaysian refugee camp. They finally made their way to Australia as refugees.

Do tells his story with characteristic good humour and wonderful anecdotes about family and friends. His story makes a significant impact on the reader. Recommendation: Consider this as a class set title for Year 10. You could also use it alongside Unpolished Gem by Alice Pung.
The Hidden Monastery by Gabrielle Wang. Puffin, 2006. 9780143702681. 180 pp.

This has an Asian setting but it is strongly based in Chinese mythology. Chinese-born Jax migrated to Australia as a seven-year-old but is unhappy here, as his parents work menial jobs in consecutive shifts to survive. Jax has been marked as a baby by the sign of the mythical creature, Peng, whose role is to ensure that the balance of nature is maintained. In the northern Queensland rainforest, Jax meets a mysterious girl called Yu Yu who helps him in his quest to find Peng.

Recommendation: This is pure fantasy, unlike The Ghost in the Suitcase which combines the strong narrative about the paranormal with a vivid picture of Chinese life. It is suitable for readers in the Year 4-7 age group. Add it to an action adventure study, as suggested in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.
Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan. Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 2009 (2001). 9781845079772. 176 pp.

Koly is obliged to enter a traditional Indian arranged marriage at thirteen; a few months later she is a widow, imprisoned in a kind of social limbo where she is lower than a servant in her husband’s family. She is eventually abandoned by her mother-in-law in the holy city of Vrindavan, home to thousands of unwanted widows who spend their days worshipping in order to be fed by the monks. Koly is rescued by a charity that helps these widows (many of them very young) to earn their own living.

Koly is an appealing character and the story has a romantic ending that will please readers. The book is sensitively written and could lead to some vigorous discussion about the tension between traditional cultural practices and basic human rights.

Recommendation: This is a fairly easy read and could be used as a class set for less academic students in Year 7 and 8, especially for girls. Include it in a wide reading selection of titles about the lives of children in other countries, as suggested in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.

Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Flamingo 2000 (1999). 9780006551799. 198 pp.

This is a superb collection of short stories. There are nine in all - some set in India, some in America – all related in some way to the experience of Bengali Indians. Many of these stories are about alienation and the longing for home. The stories are beautifully written, with a range of narrative viewpoints.

Recommendation: This is probably best at Year 11 but it is worth considering for a talented Year 10 class. Students will relate to the characters’ experiences, while learning a great deal about how short stories are written.
Jameela by Rukhsana Khan. Allen & Unwin, March 2010. 9781742372594. 192 pp.

This is set in post-Taliban Afghanistan. Jameela lives in a remote rural village in a wartorn country. Her life becomes impossible when her mother dies and her father remarries, with her new stepmother determined to marry her off. Thrown on her own resources, she eventually finds refuge in an orphanage. The novel is based on the life of a real girl and the orphanage actually exists.

Recommendation: Use this with Years 7 and 8, especially girls. Make up a wide reading box about the lives of teenage girls in other countries, including Homeless Girl, Spilled Water, Parvana, Torn Pages and Sold.
Japan Diary: My Double Summer by Trudy White. CurriculumCorporation, 2011 (2005). 9781863665940. 136 pp.

This is a simple diary of two different students (one Australian and one Japanese) who recount their personal journeys as exchange students. What is engaging about these two diaries are the ways they explore the differences and similarities in the two cultures and countries.

Recommendation: Use Japan Diary with Year 7 to get students writing their own journals and also to support tolerance and understanding of other cultures.
The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. Vintage, 1994 (1989). 9780749399573. 288 pp.

This story of four Chinese mothers and their four first-generation-American daughters has become something of a classic. Set in San Francisco and based on the mothers' meetings for their regular game of mahjong, the novel explores the difficulties of migrant families coping with the inevitable changes in their children as they grow up between two cultures in a new world.

Recommendation: This is a popular senior text that could be suitable for a mature class of Year 10 girls.
The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis. Simon and Schuster Children’s Books, 2006. 9781416926283. 185 pp.

This American novel is set in Aceh in Indonesia, at the time of the 2004 tsunami. It follows the fate of two teenagers in the aftermath of the disaster: Muslim boy, Ruslan, searching for his missing father, and American girl, Sarah, whose family had been holidaying on a yacht just off the coast when the tsunami hit. Sarah is culturally insensitive and arrogant. The pair are thrown together by circumstances and, despite their differences, Ruslan helps Sarah to care for her seriously ill younger brother. The climax of the story is their encounter with a frenzied media pack when they finally reach safety. The indifference of the journalists to the young people's condition in their eagerness to get a good story is shocking, as is the clear message that the life of wealthy American Sarah is of much greater value than that of Ruslan or of the thousands of Indonesian children who have died. Sarah has learnt otherwise, her new understanding demonstrated by the fact that she insists on following local custom and dressing modestly for the media interview, in contrast to her contemptuous refusal to 'pander' to local sensitivities before the tsunami.

This is a moving story about the tsunami and its effects, as both young people search for their missing fathers against a background of devastating chaos. It is very much about the essential humanity that we share, despite cultural differences.

Recommendation: This is an excellent text for exposing students to an understanding that people of other cultures are not to be feared as 'the other' and that different cultural practices are simply different, not necessarily better or worse. This is suitable for use as a class set text for Years 7 or 8. Use it as one of a selection of texts about children from different cultures learning to understand each other, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below. The novel could also be used as a companion text to Allan Baillie's Krakatoa Lighthouse, about the tsunami in 1883.
Kokoda Track: 101 Days by Peter Maconnis. black dog books, 2007. 9781876372965. 179 pp.

This is a very readable account of the small Australian force that slowed and eventually stopped the advance of a much larger and more experienced Japanese army who were attempting to cross the Owen Stanley range into New Guinea. Like other non-fiction titles from this publisher, the story uses first-person fictional accounts (although often in the voice of real people) to introduce each chapter.

Recommendation: This is an excellent overview of this iconic event for readers in the Year 6 to 9 age group. Use it alongside the novel Break of Day and the picture book Photographs in the Mud.
Krakatoa Lighthouse by Allan Baillie. Puffin, 2009. 9780143303596. 252 pp.

Set in 1883 during the period of Dutch colonial rule, this is an exciting story of the eruption of the Krakatoa volcano and the subsequent terrible tsunamis. It is set in the small fishing port of Anjer, where the Dutch have built a stone lighthouse to guide the increasing ship trade through the strait. The protagonist, Kerta, is the young son of the lighthouse keeper.

Baillie’s research is impeccable and he describes the eruption from the first trembles, including the tourist trips taken by the Europeans to view the sights. They scorn the locals’ warning that something huge and dangerous is awakening. Research into the historical events is informed by an understanding of what happened in 2005. The final scenes of the devastating power of the water are unforgettable.

Recommendation: This is an excellent class set choice for Years 7 or 8. It has the excitement of the survival story and the sadness of the loss, as well as great insight into the nature of colonialism and its impact on both the rulers and the oppressed. It could be used alongside The Killing Sea by Richard Lewis, which is about the 2005 tsunami. It could also be used as part of an Allan Baillie author study, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.
Little Brother by Allan Baillie. Puffin, 2004 (1985). 9780143301745. 168 pp.

This is a novel about the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia that may still be found in many English bookrooms. Mang and his younger brother are separated as they try to flee the soldiers who are destroying life and society in Cambodia. Vithy has a dangerous and difficult task to find his way to the border to be reunited with his brother.

Recommendation: It’s thirty years since the killing fields formed the context of this moving story; many students in Year 7 and 8 will be unaware of this context and would benefit from reading and discussing this novel.
Little Paradise by Gabrielle Wang. Penguin Books 2010. 9780143011477. 314 pp.

This romance is inspired by the experience of the author’s parents. Wang is third-generation Chinese Australian. Her protagonist, Mirabel or Lei An, is based on her Australian-born mother. At seventeen Mirabel falls in love with a young Chinese soldier who is briefly posted to Melbourne. JJ has to return to China where the civil war is raging. Mirabel, with her baby daughter, sets off against all warnings to a chaotic Shanghai to find him.

The strength of the novel lies in the vivid depiction of China in the early forties.

Recommendation: Girls in middle secondary will thoroughly enjoy this unusual romance and its courageous protagonist and will acquire a good deal of knowledge about Chinese history at the same time.
Mahtab’s Story by Libby Gleeson. Allen & Unwin, 2008. 9781741753349. 192 pp.

Based on true stories of Afghan girls now living in Australia, this is the story of a girl whose family is forced to flee Afghanistan. With her mother and younger sister and brother, Mahtab spends almost two weeks crammed under furniture in the back of a truck as they make the journey across the mountains into Pakistan. There follow lonely, isolated months in a shed, when their father decides to go ahead and find a home for them. Eventually, not knowing whether their father is alive or dead, Mahtab’s family risks the journey through Indonesia to an overcrowded, leaking boat that eventually reaches the Australian mainland. The welcome they expected, however, is not there.

This is an accessible account that enables young readers to experience the situation through Mahtab’s eyes. The emphasis is on the discomfort and boredom, as much as it is on the fear and loneliness. Worst of all for Mahtab is her ignorance of her father’s fate.

Recommendation: This is an excellent book for readers in the Year 5 to 8 age group. You could use it as a core text in a unit of work on asylum seekers, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.

Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin. Penguin 2009 (2003). 9780670073481. 508 pp.

This autobiography is absolutely wonderful and has been widely used in schools at senior levels, despite its size. This film tie-in edition is even bigger, with additional chapters added to cover the period from the publication of the book, through the years of fame as a writer, to the release of the film. Despite its length, the book is very accessible. The author, born in 1961, grew up in severe poverty in China – one of seven boys in a family whose diet consisted often of nothing but dried yams. Selected by chance as a student in Madame Mao’s ballet school, he became a great dancer, eventually defecting to the West where he established an international reputation. About three-quarters of the book is about the years in China – in the family village and then in the ballet school in Beijing, and it is this part of the story that is so fascinating. It’s also a very positive story. The representation of the poverty of his childhood is memorable, but so is his picture of the warmth of a loving family.

There is no better example of literature from other places – and of other times, because there are many differences between the China of Li Cunxin’s childhood and China today.

The author, now a Melbourne stockbroker, has become something of a media star and your librarian will probably be able to access videotaped interviews with him. He is also often available to speak to schools.

A simplified and abridged Young Readers’ Edition is also available (9780143301646).

Recommendation: Use the Young Reader’s Edition in Years 7 and 8 and for mixed-ability classes in Years 9 and 10. Use the unabridged original edition for better readers In Years 9 to 12. This is strongly recommended for whole class study, or use it as part of a wide reading unit on other countries or other cultures, as part of a wide reading selection of autobiographies, or as a related text in an ‘Overcoming adversity’ unit of work.

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