Texts for the Australian curriculum

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Mao’s Last Dancer directed by Bruce Beresford. 2009. PG.

The film of Li Cunxin's best-selling autobiography achieved that rare accolade for Australian films - box-office success in Australian cinemas. While the ballet scenes are probably the strongest in the film, the scenes in the reconstructed village of Li's childhood are of great interest.

Recommendation: This can be used alongside a version of the autobiography (including the picture book version, The Peasant Prince) or as a film study in its own right, especially in Years 8 or 9.
Mao’s Last Dancer: Young Readers Edition by Li Cunxin. Puffin, 2005. 9780143301646. 320 pp.

Li Cunxin ( pronounced Lee Schwin Sing) was born in 1961, one of seven boys in a very poor family in China. By chance (his peasant status and ability to withstand pain were helpful attributes), he was selected to become a student in Madame Mao’s ballet school. He grew up to become a talented ballet dancer, and, after defecting to the West, an international ballet star. The contrasts of Li's life from his poor family village, to the demanding ballet school in Beijing, to life as a famous dancer, and then to senior manager in a stock broking firm in Melbourne are fascinating. Students will find his descriptions of his family’s struggles to survive and their love and support inspiring.

Recommendation: Use this engrossing and very positive story with Year 7 to help them appreciate the conventions of autobiographical writing, to stimulate their own writing and to support their understanding of a different culture and country. The original version of Mao’s Last Dancer won The Australian's Book of the Year award in 2003. It has been reprinted more than thirty times, with a new extended film tie-in edition published in 2009 to cover the years since the publication of the book. The Peasant Prince is the picture book version.
The Moonshadow series by Simon Higgins. Random House Australia.

The author describes this series of action adventure novels as being set in a ‘romanticised historical Japan’, loosely based on the period of the Tokugawa shogunate. Moonshadow is a teenage warrior, highly trained in martial arts, who survives a series of dangerous events. There is a fantasy element, with some characters possessing magical powers. The stories are fast-paced, with a strong emphasis on themes of loyalty and friendship. The books have a detailed Japanese glossary.

Recommendation: These are very popular with readers in Years 7 and 8, especially boys who are interested in the martial arts. They are an easier read than the Young Samurai series, and although they are fairly long the font is quite large. Add these to a wide reading selection of action adventure novels, as outlined in the Wide Reading Suggestions section below.

Titles in the series in reading order:

The Eye of the Beast 9781741662832

The Wrath of Silver Wolf 9781741664058

The Twilight War 9781864719772
Nine Hours North by Tim Sinclair. Penguin, 2006. 9780143003762. 216 pp.

This is set in Japan. The title refers to the flying time from Australia, but not the cultural distance. Adam is a fair-haired twenty-one-year-old Australian who teaches English at a language school in Nagoya. As a dedicated pushbike rider, he does not have a good opinion of himself, slumped in the train like the rest of the ‘salarymen’. His girlfriend, Sarah, also teaches but seems to take things much more seriously. When Marianne arrives to squash into their concrete block mini-apartment, Adam and Sarah’s relationship seems to be ‘sliding away’.

The pair look forward to their long promised pushbike tour to see the hidden Japan, but their increasingly different responses to life in Japan will separate them. They each transfer their repressed feelings into resentments about the rural Japan that they encounter. The mountain lake is overcrowded; a luxury mobile home with its satellite dish, microwave oven and screaming children parks next to their tent. Morning brings jet skiers and ‘the pre-dawn zeal of the camp-ground inspector’. The next night brings a storm, and they find themselves having ‘a you and me discussion’.

Adam has reached that stage of the trans-cultural experience that begins with the wonder at the perfection of the new culture, moves to fear and depression that you will never cope with it, and then moves to frustration and anger before, if you persist, you may progress to acceptance, as you begin to pretend that you’re one of the natives. Sinclair’s free verse mirrors this experience, projecting the collapse of the personal relationship on to Adam’s perception of Japan.

Recommendation: This is accessible and interesting for readers in Years 10 or 11 for its ironic commentary on an Australian young man’s experience as a gaijin or long nose, in Japan. Use it in comparison with the cherry blossom travel brochures and travel internet sites. Peter Carey’ s Wrong About Japan is an equally accessible non-fiction account of his similar experience in comparison to the experience of his young son.
Only the Heart by Brian Caswell and David Phu An Chiem. University of Queensland Press, 1997. 9780702233760. 224 pp.

This superb novel about the Australian-Vietnamese experience is based on the real-life experience of co-author, David Phu An Chiem. To write the book, Brian Caswell would listen to David’s true stories of his experiences. These stories were then fictionalised, using two main characters: a boy character based closely on David himself and a slightly older girl cousin.

The novel uses Caswell’s characteristic narrative: multiple voices moving backwards and forwards in time and space in a style very like that of cinema. The book is tightly structured. It presents the classic refugee story: the escape from Vietnam in the middle of the night, the encounter with pirates in the China Sea, the Malaysian refugee camp, and then the long hard years becoming established in Australia. It does not avoid the difficulties. We meet the Vietnamese gangs on the streets of Cabramatta and we see how dangerous they are. But we’ve also seen the origins of the gangs in the Malaysian camps, so although we are aware of the tragic consequences of their actions, we have some understanding of the gang members as well.

Recommendation: This was widely used as a class set in Years 9 and 10 and was also very successful with older ESL students. You may still want to use it in class sets. It would be particularly interesting to explore how the world of Australian-Vietnamese people has changed since the book was written, and how the experiences of more recent refugees are similar and different to that of the Vietnamese boat people. It would be interesting for students to read alongside The Happiest Refugee.
Parvana by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2002. 9781865086941. 180 pp.

When her brother dies and her father is imprisoned by the authorities, twelve-year-old Parvana and her mother and sister are unable to leave the family home. Under Taliban law, women and girls are not allowed to leave home without a man, so Parvana, her mother and sisters must stay inside. Living in Afghanistan under the Taliban regime means that all the liberties we take for granted as free people are denied Parvana and her family. When their food runs out, they face starvation, so Parvana decides to try and support her family. She dresses as a boy, to make a living in the marketplace of Kabul, knowing that discovery could mean a beating, imprisonment, torture or death. Her courage in the face of crushing fear and repression is inspiring.

Recommendation: This is the first book of a trilogy. It is followed by Parvana’s Journey (9781865089997) and Shauzia (9781741142846). Use this novel and its sequels in Years 7 or 8. Asking students to imagine living in a country where women and girls are not allowed to leave the house without a man will allow for discussions about human rights and the treatment of women, in a context of cultural diversity and difference. A comparison with Islamic women’s experiences in Australia in such texts as Does My Head Look Big in This? and The Glory Garage would be important in establishing that prejudice knows no borders.
The Peasant Prince by Li Cunxin, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas. Viking, 2007. ISBN 9780670070541

This is the picture book version of Mao’s Last Dancer. It is simply and lyrically told, using two main unifying symbols – the kite that the boy and his father are flying on the first double page spread, and the father’s story of the frog who wants to escape from the well.

Recommendation: You can use this with students in Years 4 to 8 who have not read any other version of Li Cunxin’s story, or you could explore with older students the way in which the long and detailed autobiography has been transformed into this visual medium.
Photographs in the Mud by Dianne Wolfer and Brian Harrison-Lever. Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 2005. Hardcover 9781920731202.

This picture book tells the parallel stories of a young Australian and a young Japanese on the Kokoda Track during World War II. There is a very clever use of framing, mainly reflecting the domestic lives of the two men – lives that are very similar. At the end the framed photographs are found, stuck together by the mud of the track and the blood of the dying men. ‘War’s a mug’s game, hey?’ says Jack to Hoshi as they lie dying, and although they cannot understand each other they recognise their common humanity.

Recommendation: This is a powerful story about the consequences of war and is worth reading for its own sake, but you could use it as well beside other texts about Kokoda, such as Tony Palmer’s novels Break of Day and the non-fiction text, Peter Macinnis’s Kokoda Track: 101 Days.
Rebel! by Allan Baillie, illustrated by Di Wu. Phoenix Education, 2011 (1993). 9781921586248.

This superb picture book has recently been re-issued in paperback, making it accessible for classroom use. Set in Burma, it tells the story of one of the generals coming to the village to bully and threaten the villagers. A brave protester succeeds in making the general look ridiculous. The resolution is very satisfying.

Recommendation: This can be read by primary school students but it resonates with readers of all ages. Consider using it for close study as a text in its own right. Use it as one of a group of texts about human rights abuses, including The China Coin, Revolution is not a Dinner Party and Trash.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid. Penguin Books, 2008 (2007). 9780141029542. 209 pp.

This is a superb text for senior study. It is short enough and easy enough to be accessible to less academic streams, but the ideas explored will challenge your most talented students. The whole novel is a dramatic monologue. The speaker is a young Pakistani who has spent a lot of time in the United States where he had great success, first as a student and then as a businessman. But 9/11 changed everything for him. Here he is in a cafe in Lahore, talking to a stranger. Over the course of the afternoon and evening we learn his story, as he tells it to the stranger. We never hear the stranger directly, although we can guess at some of what he says and what he does from the narrator’s comments. The stranger is probably an American, possibly a military type, and he becomes an increasingly sinister figure as the afternoon progresses. Is it a wallet or perhaps a gun that is in his inside coat pocket? What is his purpose there in Lahore? The tension mounts, climaxing in a violent but ambiguous ending.

Recommendation: I have had very positive reports of the success of this in the classroom. It allows for an intelligent exploration of issues raised by the ‘war on terror’: the simple good/evil, black/white dichotomies are questioned. It is mostly being used in Year 11, and in Victoria it is set for study for Year 12, but it is within the capabilities of a good Year 10 class.
Revolution is not a Dinner Party by Ying Chang Compestine. Puffin, 2008. 9780143303855. 244 pp.

The title is one of the quotations from Chairman Mao that Chinese school students in the 70s had to chant ‘lovingly’. There is an author’s note that, although this is fiction, a great deal of this story is autobiographical. I read along with the first-person narration of Ling from the age of nine to thirteen, as she reluctantly adapts to the fact that she is the only student without a red scarf. Her parents are doctors: her father, a surgeon, had been to the USA for medical education. When comrade Li comes to live in her father’s study, the naïve narrator at this stage wonders about her mother’s unusually stern looks when Mr Li is around, and why Mr Li cuts the power off frequently. After Ling’s dress, made by friendly Mrs Wong upstairs, is mocked as bourgeois, Dr Wong disappears, red guards come and trash Mrs Wong’s rooms, and events speed towards Ling’s own father’s demotion to hospital cleaner, then gaol. They live in traditional courtyard housing, where compulsory attendance at humiliation sessions, led by Li, increases, as the gardener, then Mrs Wong and her son, have their hair savagely cut, before being taken away to a labour camp. After burning the family photo albums and all American evidence, Ling’s father hides the photo of the San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge, because it is the one symbol of hope for his family’s future. After numerous and exciting events, Ling survives, and the family is reunited when the Red Guards fight each other after the arrest of Mao’s wife.

Recommendation: This is an easy read for most Year 7 students: the twelve-point font and generous spacing belie the length of the text that moves swiftly through the events that develop the character of Ling from innocent, wondering observer to street-wise survivor.
Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes by Eleanor Coerr. Puffin US, 1999 (1977). 9780698118027. 80 pp.

Sadako Sasaki was two years old when the atom bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on August 6, 1945. In 1955, at age 11, Sadako was diagnosed with leukemia, caused by radiation from the atom bomb. Sadako's best friend told her of an old Japanese legend, which said that anyone who folds a thousand paper cranes would be granted a wish. Sadako hoped that the gods would grant her wish to get well. She started to work on the paper cranes and completed over one thousand before dying on October 25, 1955, at the age of twelve. A statue of Sadako holding a golden crane has been placed in Hiroshima Peace Park. Inscribed at the bottom of the statue is the prayer: This is our cry, This is our prayer, Peace in the world. Eleanor Coerr’s retelling of the Sadako story is a powerful and emotional one.

Recommendation: This simple tale of love and death, courage and hope can be read to a Year 7 or 8 class in a forty-minute period, and the aural experience can be a powerful one for the reader and the audience. Keep a few tissues handy and not just for the students! With such a quick read, students could be asked to write a journal response, make some paper cranes and research the background to the book and the plight of others affected by radiation sickness over the generations.
Shadow by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2010. 9780007339600. 288 pp.

This is a moving story about the refugee experience from one of the UK’s best writers for children. Morpurgo was inspired by the story of the Australian sniffer dog that went missing in Afghanistan for 14 months. The dog he writes about was used by the British to detect explosives, but it disappeared after an attack and was presumed to have been killed. The dog turned up months later many hundreds of kilometres away in the caves where Aman, his mother and grandmother are trying to survive.

Aman and his mother make the terrible journey from Afghanistan to try to join relatives in England, including several days locked in the back of a truck with many others without food or water. The story is narrated by 15-year-old Matt, who becomes Aman’s best friend at school and who is horrified when, after six years living in the UK, Aman and his mother are denied refugee status, are arrested and are about to be deported. Matt’s narration is interspersed with Aman’s story, told to Matt’s grandfather in the visiting room at the detention centre.

Recommendation: Morpurgo achieves admirably his purpose of allowing young readers to understand that boys like Aman are just like them, not ‘the other’. This would make a great Year 7 class set. However, you may have to struggle against students’ initial assumption that the book looks a bit young for them. The font is a comfortable size and there are Birmingham’s wonderful illustrations, so that the format seems to be that of a book for younger readers. However, the characters are in their mid-teens and the content is perfect for junior secondary.
Shauzia by Deborah Ellis. Allen & Unwin, 2003. 9781741142846. 168 pp.

This companion volume to Parvana and Parvana’s Journey takes up the story of a minor character in the previous books. Shauzia escapes from a Pakistani refugee camp and tries to survive on the streets of the city. Deborah Ellis, who has worked in the refugee camps, provides a realistic picture of life in the camps and of children’s desperate struggle to survive on the streets. Shauzia is eventually taken in by an American family and exposed to levels of material comfort that she has never dreamed of, but there is a serious clash of values, particularly over the notion of ‘sharing’, and she is returned to the camp. As the novel ends, the Americans have begun bombing Afghanistan and Shauzia chooses to return to her homeland with a group of nurses.

Recommendation: For Years 7-8. This is a useful text for exposing students to lifestyles very different from their own.
Sold by Patricia McCormick. Allen & Unwin, 2007 (2006). 9781741751055. 288 pp.

In Sold, thirteen-year-old Lakshmi lives with her family in the mountains of Nepal. When the family falls deeper into poverty, Lakshmi is sold to work in a brothel as a prostitute. This first-person account is horrifying and difficult to read but does end with some hope when attempts are made to rescue girls from the brothel. This powerful text will make a strong impression on Year 8 students.

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.
Soraya the Storyteller by Rosanne Hawke. Lothian Books, 2004. 9780734407092. 176 pp.

Soraya is a twelve-year-old Afghan girl whose family has been persecuted by the Taliban. Their attempt to find sanctuary in Australia results in a period in the Woomera Detention Centre, followed by an uncertain future in the community on Temporary Protection Visas. Like her father, Soraya is a storyteller, and it is her stories that enable her to make connections between the difficulties of the present and the traditions of her homeland.

Recommendation: This is an accessible account, based closely on real experiences, of the asylum seeker experience during the years when TPVs were in place. It is aimed at readers in Years 7 and 8.
The Spare Room by Kathryn Lomer. UQP 2004. 9780702234774. 180 pp.

This excellent Australian novel is about culture shock: the experience of a young Japanese man sent by his family to Tasmania to learn English. His homestay family are not quite what he was expecting. The tension between Akira and his Australian family is finally resolved when they discover that they have something very important in common: a shared grief. This is an excellent look at the experience of trying to learn to survive in an alien culture, with much humour based on strange Australian customs and the peculiarities of the Australian idiom. Despite being quite short, this is fairly mature in its appeal. It is both moving and funny.

Recommendation: This works as a class set in Year 10. It is especially useful if you have students of English as a Second Language.
Spilled Water by Sally Grindley. Bloomsbury 2004. 9780747571469. 224 pp.

This is a charming story of a young Chinese girl from a poor but happy family, whose life is transformed when her father dies. She is trapped first in domestic servitude in the apartment of a wealthy family who are looking for a wife for their mentally disabled son; then, when she flees, she becomes a virtual prisoner in one of China’s many factories, making toys for the West, the youngest of a horde of very young girls working very long hours of ‘voluntary’ overtime in appalling conditions.

How can the word ‘charming’ be used about a story of such adversity? The girl has great courage and resilience and, in even the harshest of conditions, she finds friendship and sometimes even fun. This is a girl who refuses to be a victim. She remembers always her father’s words that ‘The journey of a thousand miles starts from beneath your feet.’ Her story is narrated in the first person and it is an appealing voice. There is even a happy ending.

Recommendation: For Years 5-8, especially girls. It could be used for shared reading – as a class set novel, for group work or even for reading aloud. Although it is over 200 pages long, the print is large and the language accessible. Add it to a wide reading box on other cultures, on family or on journeys. Consider it as a title to explore concepts like courage and resilience. Consider also including it in a study of gender: it is because she is a girl that her uncle insists that the family can no longer support her after her father’s death.
Spirited Away directed by Hayao Miyazaki. 2001. PG.

Chihiro is a child who falls into a fantastic world and must find her way back to reality and rescue her parents as she makes her way from childhood to adulthood. Spirited Away is a complex film. It offers students from 7-10 an array of issues and cinematography for discussion, including a wealth of Japanese folklore, a critical commentary on environmental pollution, and an examination of nostalgia for the past against the reality and problems of a modern Japanese society. Kwok and McNightʼs Film Asia devotes a chapter to it. The film won an Academy Award for best-animated feature.

Stones into Schools by Greg Mortensen. Penguin Books, 2010 (2009). 9780141047140. 420 pp.

Mortensen is an American who has a mission to build schools - especially for girls - in the most remote parts of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He employs an interesting group of locals to assist him in his mission. He established a charity - the Central Asia Institute - about 17 years ago and works tirelessly promoting the cause. He told the story of how he was inspired to take up this mission in Three Cups of Tea, which is also available in a version for younger readers (see below). This sequel, aimed at an adult audience, provides a great deal of insight into life in remote rural areas.

Recommendation: Year 10 students with an interest in world issues will find this informative.

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