The Australian Museum has recorded three Indigenous Australians telling Dreaming stories from different regions of New South Wales.
The texts listed here are not about the Australian Indigenous experience, but their exploration of issues such as racism means that they can be used to extend readers’ understanding.
Down Sand Mountain by Steve Watkins. Candlewick Press, 2011 (2009). 9780763648350. 336 pp.
This excellent American novel, set in Florida in 1966, could be read alongside Boneby Bone and To Kill a Mockingbird. The sand mountain is a hill of mine tailings that the miners’ kids slide down on cardboard boxes in the moonscape outskirts of the small mining town where everyone knew everyone ‘unless they were colored’. The naïve narrator is Dewey, accident-prone and fearful of starting high school and being mistaken for ‘colored’ because he wasn’t able to fully remove the boot-polish makeup he used for the Black and White Minstrel Show. Wagging school down by the creek, he is rescued by Walter, the long-haired Vietnam veteran who is one of the other outcasts of the small town.
Dewey admires Darla, a knowing young girl whose theatrical family are also living on the edge. When Dewey’s father stands for election as mayor, he is seen as being too close to the coloreds and his family too, joins the outcasts. His dad retreats to his shed, where there are memorable scenes of father-son attempts at communication.
Watkins captures the innocent wonder and gullibility of Dewey’s voice so that the various adventures with his older brother Wayne and his friends David and Darla are often humorous. However, the slow increase in the references to the ‘coloreds’ who live in ‘Boogerbottom’ leads the story towards more serious events and suggests that readers might re-interpret such things as Dewey being treated as a ‘colored’ boy by the school bullies who hang a sign ‘Whites Only’ at the entrance and prevent him from using the toilet. They also regularly steal his food in the canteen. Dewey is an emotional boy, so when he finally rages in response, Watkins accelerates the race towards a tragic climax, where the sensitive representation of Dewey’s grief recalls the quality of the writing in Bridge to Terabithia.
Recommendation: This can be used from Year 7 to 10. Wide reading links: living on the edge; brothers; friendship; prejudice; bullying; outsiders; other countries; images of adolescence; families; school life.
Unseen Companion by Denise Gosliner Orenstein. Katherine Tegen Books, 2005 (2003). 9780060520508. 368 pp.
I have tried unsuccessfully to convince schools to consider this as a class set text. It is a beautifully written book that allows readers to explore Indigenous issues in a context other than Australia. It has been compared to To Kill a Mockingbird – a comparison that I am prepared to say is not unreasonable.
Like Mockingbird, this begins with a very distinctive voice – that of a young teenage girl living in the desolate frontier town of Bethel, Alaska. Lorraine is feisty, opinionated, incurably curious about the world and wonderfully upbeat. Her single mother, whom we see only through Lorraine’s eyes, is a glorious character, wise and tolerant, full of advice about the way of the world: ‘Not everybody spends time in the penitentiary is necessarily trash. And it ain’t always clear who’s savage and who’s not … Just because a man’s wearing a uniform don’t mean he walks the straight and narrow his own self.’ Mama, who refused to give in when life turned sour and who has struggled to provide a life for her daughter, is not much concerned about appearances; Lorraine, on the other hand, is obsessed with self-improvement magazines and their advice about beauty and fashion. Mama cooks for the local prison and for the orphanage and Lorraine delivers the meals.
Lorraine’s voice is probably the most distinctive in the novel but it is not the only one. The story is told by four voices. The second Caucasian (or Gussak) voice is that of Annette Weinland, daughter of the local minister. At seventeen, Annette is a little older than Lorraine and a little more comfortable economically, but she has lived a lonely life as housekeeper and babysitter since her mother ran away with a lover. She works part-time at the prison, looking after the paperwork. The other two voices are those of two indigenous teenagers from the orphanage, Thelma Cooke and Edgar Kwagley, both separated from their people and their culture.
The title is an astronomical term referring to an object such as an extrasolar planet that cannot be seen but whose existence can be inferred by the way other bodies react to it. The ‘unseen companion’ of the novel is the sixteen-year-old ‘mixed-breed’ Dove Alexie, who has been imprisoned after striking a white teacher. His existence is revealed only by the way the four voices in the story react to him as they tell their own stories.
Each of the four voices is each distinct. Their personal stories are very different. Together they are woven into an intricate and very satisfying plot that explores major questions about humanity.
This is a story of indigenous issues: death in custody; stolen generations; the deliberate extinction of an old culture, its language and beliefs; the marginalisation of an indigenous underclass; white man’s justice; institutional abuse; and so on. It is deeply sad and disturbing, although there is also hope, resilience and some humour.
The astronomical imagery is central to the novel. The story takes place at the time of the first landing on the moon, and this significant milestone in human history is part of the framework of the novel.
Recommendation: Consider using this for class set study with the sort of group to whom you give To Kill a Mockingbird – middle to top streams in Years 9 and 10. It will not be an instantly popular choice, like Looking for Alibrandi or Tomorrow When the War Began, but nor is Mockingbird. Like Mockingbird it has a huge amount to offer for close study. In particular, it will allow teachers the opportunity to explore indigenous issues without having to battle against entrenched stereotypes that can make the study of Australian indigenous texts difficult in some communities.
Avatardirected by James Cameron. 2009. M.
A wonderful new landscape is revealed in this film and, if Cameron had used a better scripter writer than himself, it could have been a masterpiece. Still, there are plenty of opportunities for students to come up with a better script and to consider the different positions towards land and environment and sustainability taken by both sides in the film.
Recommendation: Most students in Years 7-10 will have seen this film, but viewed through the lens of sustainability they may see the film in a different light.
Bluebackby Tim Winton. Penguin, 2008 (1999). 978014330433. 168 pp.
Abel Jackson is a young Australian living in an isolated spot between a national park and the sea. Abel is a keen swimmer, and both he and his mother are passionate about the environment in which they live. When swimming, Abel encounters a huge blue groper he names Blueback. The fish is a legend in the district and attracts the attention of a vicious fisherman who puts Blueback and the fishing in the bay at risk. Abel’s mother prevents the fisherman from killing Blueback, and Abel learns that human beings can be both cruel and predatory. As time passes, Abel’s mother wages a campaign to protect the bay from pollution and encroaching developers. She is joined by Abel, who leaves a promising international career as a marine biologist to help protect the bay.
Recommendation: This has long been a proven success as a class novel in Year 7 to explore environmental themes and the idea that each of us can make a difference. It was great to have a new edition in 2008 of what is almost now a classic. Winton’s language is superb.
The BridgebyJane Higgins. Text Publishing, 2011. 9781921758331. 352 pp.
Think Hunger Games but even tougher and bleaker and you get some idea of the impact and power of this debut novel by Jane Higgins. In The Bridge a city is at war and the truth is definitely the biggest casualty. Nik is very clever and he desperately wants to join the ISIS, the military force who is in charge in Cityside, but they reject him and he finds himself crossing the bridge that divides the city and heading into Southside to rescue a young friend. Just who Nik is and which side he will support is a riveting tale with harsh lessons and difficult decisions. The Bridge won the 2010 Text Prize. The Text Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Writing is an annual prize awarded to an outstanding unpublished manuscript.
Recommendation: Year 9 will eat this up.
Chelonia Green: Champion of Turtlesby Christobel Mattingley. Allen & Unwin, 2008. 9781741781710. 96 pp.
This warm and charming story about vulnerable and endangered turtles who lay their eggs on islands off the Queensland coast has a strong environmental message. Chellie lives with her parents on one such island and her father monitors the turtles. She is devastated when she finds a turtle dead on the beach, choked by a discarded fishing line, and she begins a campaign to clean up the beaches and the oceans. She succeeds in attracting media attention and the support of both professional fishermen and recreational boat-owners. There is a positive message that individual action can make a difference, and an appendix covers organisations who are working to improve the natural environment.
Recommendation: This is aimed at readers in the Year 4-7 age group and, despite its charm, is probably too young for use as a Year 7 class text. Chellie's age is never revealed but she is certainly not a teenager - and is also perhaps just a bit too good to be true. Sneak it into a wide reading selection if you can.
Chew on Thisby Eric Schlosser and Charles Wilson. Penguin Books, 2006. 9780141318448. 264pp.
This is a very readable and well-researched look at the fast food industry. Based on Schlosser’s 2001 exposé, Fast Food Nation, which then became the basis of a fiction film, this version has been adapted for teenage readers. It is gruesome and grisly, very funny, and ultimately quite disturbing. The authors are British and there is particular emphasis on the British experience, as well as much attention to the origins of the fast food industry in the US and the growth of the huge multinationals. The impact of the industry worldwide is also considered. While it will have you examining food labels more carefully than you have ever done before, it will also cause you to ponder the human consequences of so much power in the hands of corporations whose only concern is profit. The sheer size of the operations of the multinationals is also mind-boggling. If you are worried about obesity in the young, read to your kids the chapter on ‘The Secret of the Fries’, with its very detailed description of the massive processing operation at the Lamb Weston factory in American Falls, Idaho. In each of seven gigantic storage buildings potatoes are piled 6 metres deep, 30 metres wide and almost as long as two football pitches, before being sent through an incredible processing system.
There is a good choice of black and white photographs, a very detailed section of notes explaining the origins of assertions made in the text, and an excellent glossary.
Recommendation: This is an excellent non-fiction text for use with classes in Years 9 and 10. It will work well with mixed-ability classes and will interest all students. You could use it alongside the documentary Supersize Me. Devise a unit of work on modern values and the impact of commercialism, with books like Deepfried by Bernard Beckett and Clare Knighton, So Yesterdayby Scott Westerfield, Ads R Us by Claire Carmichael, Uglies by Scott Westerfield, and The Gospel According to Larry and Vote for Larry by Janet Tashjian. The Canadian 2004 documentary The Corporation would be a useful extension text.
The Dream of the Thylacineby Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks. Allen &Unwin, 2011. 9781742373836.
This is a visually stunning picture book about the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger.Brooks has incorporated images from the film footage of the last, caged and miserable tiger, contrasting with glorious paintings of the animal in its natural environment. Wild’s text is haunting and evocative, especially when set against the ageing wooden bars of the cage and the faint images of the thylacine behind the dominant image of the wire.
Recommendation: This elegy to the loss of a species is suitable for class study at any level. Ask students to consider how the story might have been told differently as a stepping stone to their exploration of the choices the composers have made. This is a masterpiece.
Feedby M. T. Anderson. Walker Books, 2003.9780744590852. 320 pp.
Imagine a future world where computers feed advertisements, censored news, chatter, and ‘malfunctions’ directly into your brain and have done so since birth. In this consumption-driven society, even School™ comes with a trademark, as the corporations have taken it over and privacy is a thing of the past. We see this brave new world through teen narrator, Titus. He and his empty-headed, inarticulate friends go to the moon (the fifty-first state) for a weekend holiday and get hacked at a nightclub. For a few days they are without their feed and hardly know what to do with themselves. But soon they are back on track and changing their fashions hourly and cultivating the hideous lesions that are appearing on everyone into a fashion statement. They go ‘mal’ in banned sites that intoxicate them by jumbling their feed. On the moon, Titus met home-schooled Violet, a clever teenage girl who was the recipient of a late feed. He is exposed to some ideas and attitudes he has never contemplated before. Later, Violet tells him she is dying; her feed has been distorted and Feed Tech Corp are not interested in helping her, as she doesn’t have a good consumer profile. Titus is a flawed hero, rejecting Violet at her moment of greatest need, but finally and uncomfortably awakening to the reality of the world around him.
Recommendation: This chilling satire will create great discussion in the Year 9 classroom. Be aware that there is considerable use of obscene language, but some blunt Anglo-Saxon almost comes as a relief from the mind-numbing advertising spiel - excerpts can be found at the end of each chapter, but the ads flow right through every thought and scene. Anderson has created new concepts and lingo for these future kids with chats flowing privately from mind to mind amid the parties and shopping malls and popular sitcom imaginatively called ‘Oh? Wow! Thing!’ Students could examine the techniques Anderson uses to launch his thought-provoking attack on a corporate- and media-dominated culture.
First Light by Rebecca Stead. Text Publishing, 2011. 9781921758256. 336 pp.
This is Stead’s first novel where she shows the command of fantasy narrative that won her the Newbery medal with When You Reach Me and places her with the great fantasy writers such as Lois Lowry. Her signature mixture of science, fantasy and the admirable trait of young people’s curiosity continues, this time with a central reference to mitochondrial DNA and its possible ability to change cell reproduction for the better as well as for the worse. Also the major premise of the narrative relates to how and why the Icelanders have an incomparable database of every family’s antecedents.
Peter’s mother, Aurora, is a microbiologist in this field and his father is a glaciologist who regularly travels to the Greenland ice cap to measure global warming. However, they keep their other agenda secret from Peter, who is intrigued and excited when they take him with them on a field trip, despite their misgivings about the risks involved. At the beginning of the novel Stead establishes a sense of realism by introducing us to Peter’s life in a New York apartment, his friend Miles, Peter’s parents and Jonas, an Inuit who will be their field assistant. This familiar world is established before Stead lands her characters on the glacier, pitching a tent, unloading all the equipment and going through safety drills and misadventures.
However, Stead also sets up the framework for mystery by beginning with a prologue from Mattias, who puzzles over a secret drawing of two women and the sun. This is clearly a very different world from Peter’s world in New York, but it will be some time before the reader learns more. Stead moves immediately from the prologue to a time that is seven years later, when she introduces Peter with a migraine-like headache; he is keeping the headache secret from his mother who is sometimes prostrated by similar headaches. His mother also keeps a mysterious red notebook and the drawing she makes of the mtDNA proves to be similar to a red ring that Peter thinks he has seen embedded in an ice wall. Few could predict how Stead draws these strings together to combine dangerous adventures in the snow and ice with the history of refugees who fled persecution as witches from England and successfully hid their settlement under the glacier. Because Stead does not overburden the reader with details, the willing suspension of disbelief in this underworld town and its circumscribed life of rations and family controls is easily accomplished. The story of these people of Gracehope connects because of the two curious teenagers whose naïve courage is always supported by their parents who are central to the action. With all this action and intrigue, Stead adds the sled dogs who continue to be crucial to survival in the extreme cold of the Arctic and whose extra-sensory perception complements that of the protagonists.
Recommendation: This is a good companion survival story to those by New Zealanders Anna Mackenzie and Fleur Beale. Use it with Years 7 – 8: the font is generous and bulks the book and the third-person narration is signalled clearly to be from several points of view. Wide reading links: fantasy; science fiction; thrillers and mysteries; generations; identity; other countries; overcoming adversity – physical, mental, environmental; refugees; technology; cultural diversity; a question of gender.
Grimsdon by Deborah Abela. Random House Australia, 2010. ISBN 9781741663723. 278 pp.
This is a post-apocalyptic adventure that makes frequent reference to climate change warnings that were ignored. Eventually huge barriers had to be erected to prevent flooding of cities, but three years before the opening of this story a massive wave has broken through. A group of children are surviving on their wits, living in the upper storeys of high-rise buildings.
Recommendation: This is a good adventure story for Years 5-8, although the flooding seems rather extreme.
HatchetbyGary Paulsen. Pan, 2005 (1987). 9780330439725. 160 pp.
Class sets of Hatchet can be found in many school bookrooms all over Australia. The novel is a classic survival story. Brian Robeson is a thirteen-year-old city boy flying to see his father in a small plane. When his pilot has a heart attack and the plane crashes, he is left stranded and alone in the Canadian wilderness. He has to find food, create a shelter and improvise clothing with little more than his parent’s parting gift – a hatchet - to help him. The insect life is overwhelming – anyone who reads this novel never forgets the mosquitoes! – but Brian uses his intelligence and courage to overcome the many obstacles he encounters. Readers learn a great deal about survival skills in the wilderness and the importance of tenacity and endurance.
Recommendation: Use this novel with any Year 7 or 8 class. It’s short, accessible and deeply engaging, and there are many possible learning activities; for example, transforming the descriptions in the book into pictures, flow-charting the process that Brian goes through to make fire, and analysing the difference between reality and romance. In the novel Brian begins to see the difference between the way nature is portrayed on film, in newspapers and books and the way it is in reality. Ask students to find examples in the book that show this difference. The author had extensive experience of survival in the wilderness and the book has great authenticity. There were several sequels, but unfortunately most are now out of print.
Into the Wilddirected by Sean Penn. 2007. M.
Into the Wild is based on the true story of a young man, Chris McCandless, who, in 1992, walked into the Alaskan wilderness as an expression of his idealism and independence. Here was a young man who wanted to escape society and its excesses for a life of intense experience. Leaving behind a career and donating his savings to charity, McCandless hitchhiked around America, encountering a series of people who would influence his life, just as he influenced theirs. In the film, his story is told by his sister, who shows the effect of his disappearance on the family he left behind. Finally, Chris fulfils a long-held goal to go to Alaska and live in the wildness. He doesn’t take much with him – a rifle, a camera, some camping gear and some books. Tragically, he dies there from starvation after consuming a toxic plant, only weeks from help or rescue. Written into one of his books is a last conclusion: ‘Happiness is only real when shared.’
Recommendation: The film is based on the bestselling book by Jon Krakauer. Into The Wild (Pan, 9780330453677)is a disturbing true-life story that will appeal to a wide range of students in Years 10 to 12. Teaching strategies could include allowing students to question their own values and ways of living and challenge their ideas about what is important in life. Group discussions could include an individual’s choice of lifestyle and desire to survive without the trappings of civilisation, and the consequences of such desires.
Into White Silence by Anthony Eaton. Woolshed Press, 2008. 9781741663259. 393 pp.
This is a tour de force from one of our most interesting Australian authors. It appears to be a non-fiction story about a doomed Antarctic expedition. There is a list of members of the expedition at the beginning, labelled diagrams of their ship, family trees for the Expedition Leader and for the Second Officer. There is an introduction by the author, signed Canberra May 2008, about the Second Officer’s journal that has come into his possession. It is the story contained in that journal that the author feels compelled to tell, a story of a terrible tragedy when twenty-eight men were trapped in the Antarctic icepack in the dark polar night.
It is, of course, all a wonderful fictional construction. There was no such expedition or such men. Their ship, Raven, never existed. And although Anthony Eaton was able to spend some time at the Australian base in Antarctica, thanks to an Arts Fellowship, he did not find a long-lost journal – nor did he remove it, without authorisation, from the base. It is a magnificent work of the imagination, and the use of the author’s persona to channel the story to us is a clever and effective narrative decision. Much of the story is told in what purports to be that real journal, supported by other supposed historical documents. It has the ring of authenticity. The story is even more disturbing, the character of the Expedition Leader even more terrifying, because of the reflections of the authorial voice.
Recommendation: This is a substantial read but it may well intrigue some boys who are normally resistant to reading fiction. There is an epic quality about it – the story of human beings pitted against the harshest of conditions. There is the haunting, unforgettable landscape. And there is the sheer brilliance of the writer’s craft. Try it with fairly good readers in Years 9 to 11. Try it with that group of mainly boys who are bright enough but say that they don’t like English.