Texts for the Australian curriculum

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Maralinga, the Anangu Story by Oak Valley and Yalata Communities with Christobel Mattingly. Allen & Unwin, 2009. 9781741756210. 72 pp.

This wonderful text created by the Aboriginal community and author Christobel Mattingly explains 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 and the importance of water and bush tucker and then leads into the invasion and the coming of the railway. 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. It was not until 1984 that Anangu land was transferred back to the original owners and only in 1995 that the British government paid some compensation for their contamination of their country.

The authors and illustrators conclude, ‘Maralinga, the Anangu Story is our story. We have told it for our children, our grandchildren and their children. We have told it for you.’

Recommendation: I hope all Australians hear and see this story.
My Sister Sif by Ruth Park. UQP Children’s Classics, 2009 (1986). 9780702237010. 217 pp.

This fantasy was a pioneer in environmental fiction. While it is a story about a girl who realises that her natural environment is the sea, the focus is on the deteriorating health of the oceans, destroyed by nuclear testing, oil spills, ocean mining and global warming. Sisters Rika and Sif are half-human; their mother and brother belong to the sea people, the people of mermaids and mermen. Sif chooses life in the sea, a decision that has terrible consequences because of environmental damage.

Mermaids and sirens have had a recent resurgence, due to the (worrying?) preoccupation of YA fiction with the paranormal. Sadly, the recent offerings have nothing to do with the environment. Park was years ahead of her time in recognising the importance of the health of the environment to our survival.

Recommendation: This was recently re-published by UQP in their Australian children’s classics series. It still reads well, with a good balance of realism and fantasy. Use it with Years 7 and 8, especially girls.
One Small Island by Alison Lester and Coral Tulloch. Penguin Books, 2011. 9780670072361.

This picture book tells the story of Macquarie Island, now a World Heritage site. A wildlife haven suffered terrible degradation when it became a base for sealers, who slaughtered penguins for oil when they had killed all the seals and who brought with them feral cats and rabbits that devastated the ecology. The book tells about the struggle to save the island and restore the natural balance.

Recommendation: This is a beautifully presented information text that can be used at any level. It is an interesting contrast to The Dream of the Thylacine. The two picture books have similar purposes but have used quite different means to tell their stories.
Our Choice by Al Gore. PushPopPress Publishing. App for iPad.

Our Choice is an ebook application for iPad. It provides an impressive opportunity to explore digital books in a new way. Al Gore surveys the causes of global warming and weaves narrative with photography, interactive graphics, animations, and documentary footage to create an engrossing interactive experience. There are eighteen chapters including Where Our Energy Comes From
and Where It Goes, Electricity From The Sun, Harvesting The Wind, Less Is More, and finally Our Choice. I have shown this ebook to so many people, not just for its content but to demonstrate how interactivity can draw the reader into the text and make them a participant.

Recommendation: I recommend you have a look and show it in your classroom to Year 9 and 10 students via the iPad and a data projector.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Picador, 2007 (2006). 9780330447546. 256 pp.

The Road won the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Literature. It is one of the most harrowing novels I have ever read. At times I had to put it down, just to cope with the images that it evoked. But this post-apocalyptic tale of a man and his son’s journey across a devastated America is not without hope. McCarthy expresses the horror of this nightmare trek in almost biblical prose, which is sparse and beautiful. The ash-coated landscape, where bands of humans have degenerated into cannibalism and prey on the vulnerable, and the memory of the boy's mother, who has already committed suicide, are effortlessly conveyed. The man carries a pistol with two bullets, meant for suicide should this become necessary. In the face of these overwhelming barriers, the man and the boy only have each other. In the end, despite his heroic efforts, the father dies, leaving the boy alone on the road. The boy encounters a man, who, with his wife and two children, adopts the boy. The manner of the encounter suggests that these people are truthful and compassionate and will keep the boy safe. Yes, it’s a bleak book in many ways, but do read it and be swept away by its power and grace. Recommendation: Most schools will use this with Years 11 or 12, but it might work with a mature Year 10 class. Be warned that there are disturbing scenes of cannibalism and some sexual references, but McCarthy’s luminous and highly accessible prose, his portrayal of the father/son bond and his establishment of the desolated landscape are remarkable. It will be hard to bring discussion on this book to a close.
The Rosie Black Chronicles: Genesis by Lara Morgan. Walker Books, 2010. 9781921529399. 454 pp.

When Rosie Black finds an unusual box in the Old City she has no idea what suffering will follow her discovery. This novel is set in a future where people are divided into the Centrals (well off), the Bankers (the poor) and the Ferals (the fringe dwellers). Rosie’s Banker world comes tumbling down as she goes on the run to Mars to escape the people who are desperate to obtain her mysterious box. She is not sure if the attractive Pip, a Feral she met when she found the box, is out to help her or hurt her. Big issues of manipulation, exploitation and evil experimentation with humans jostle next to the growing relationship between Pip and Rosie. This is an engrossing sci-fi novel with great pace and captivating characters set in a terrifying future - a future that is a result of environmental degradation.

Recommendation: This would be good to use in Year 8 or 9 with The Bridge to explore possible futures. I’m looking forward to Book Two!
Saving Abbie by Allan Baillie. Out of print.

This sequel to Wreck tells the story of the main character’s quest to take Abbie, the kidnapped orangutan, back to Borneo to a sanctuary which is trying to save the engangered animals from the ravages of poachers and the destruction of their homelands. Baillie spent several weeks at the sanctuary and he gives a memorable picture of the conditions there and the threat to these wonderful creatures. This is a great survival story and an alarming account of the destruction of the forests and the consequent threat to creatures like the orangutans.

Recommendation: Try to find copies for Years 7 and 8 to read and discuss.
The Unidentified by Rae Mariz, Text Publishing, 2011. 9781921656934. 304 pp.

This reminded me of M. T. Anderson's Feed. Like Feed, it is about young people living in a future world where their main role in life is to be consumers of products and where everything is shaped by the advertisers. The story is set in a school that is controlled by the advertisers. Lessons are all computer games and activities provided by commercial sponsors. As in Feed, fashion is everything - fashion determined by 'the top players', those who succeed in playing the Game and who become commercially-sponsored celebrities. In this apparent Utopia, Katey is shocked by a mock suicide and discovers that there is an underground counterculture group - the Unidentified.

Recommendation: This is an excellent thriller that asks questions about contemporary values. Use it as part of a wide reading study of post-apocalyptic novels for Years 9 and 10.
Walking the Boundaries by Jackie French. Angus & Robertson, 2006 (1993). 9780207200434.

This is the story of a materialistic white city boy to whom land is significant only in financial terms. His great-grandfather is prepared to give the boy a large block of untouched bush, but only if he first walks the boundaries of the property. The boy, thinking of what the money will buy him, agrees. As he walks the boundaries, the boy walks back into time and finds himself walking beside others who have lived on that land – both before and after settlement, including an early European settler, an Aboriginal boy who lived on the land long before European occupation and a very charming little diprotonditid, who lived in Australia about a million years ago – something like a wombat, but the size of a mini-bus.

Recommendation: This is a proven success as a class set text in Year 7 and raises significant issues about the relationship with and treatment of the land.
We are the Weather Makers: The Story of Global Warming by Tim Flannery. Text Publishing, 2006. 9781921145346. 275 pp.

This edition has been produced especially for young readers.

Arguably, the major world concern for the twenty-first century is global warming caused by human activity. Tim Flannery is a well-respected writer, scientist and explorer. His books include The future eaters and Throwim Way Leg. We are the Weather Makers: The Story of Global Warming (a revised and updated young adult edition of The Weather Makers) is his passionate account of the impact of climate change and a call to arms directed specifically at Australian school students. Tim Flannery dedicated the first edition of The Weather Makers to children: ‘to all of their generation who will have to live with the consequences of our decisions.’ This book gives adolescent readers easier access to Tim Flannery's advice about the dangers of profligate use of fossil fuels and ways to find the solutions to save our planet.

Recommendation: Use this powerful and informative text with students in Years 8 or 9 so they can investigate the basis for global warming. Students could script an interview between Tim Flannery and an interview host, such as Andrew Denton, setting out the arguments for global warming and the actions people can take. Related texts could include the DVD of An Inconvenient Truth, in which Al Gore sets out the arguments for global warming, the Stern Report – available on line - released by the British government and Al Gore’s most recent work, Our Choice, available as an iPad app.
What Now, Tilda B? by Kathryn Lomer. University of Queensland Press 2010. 9780702237782. 239 pp.

This is a coming-of-age story. At 16, Tilda Braint is unsure of her future. There have been important family changes in the last year or so and she herself is facing decisions: does she want to leave home to continue with senior school? what does she want to do with her life? One afternoon she happens upon an elephant seal on the beach - many, many kilometres from its natural environment. As she works with officers from Parks and Wildlife to protect the seal - and the baby that is born - she finds a sense of purpose.

While the focus of the book is on Tilda's story, there is a strong awareness of the extent to which environmental issues impinge on everyday life. There are those who resent the expenditure of public money on caring for the seals. Tilda's grandfather has been a logger in the Tasmanian forests, but is now convinced of the importance of preserving the old-growth forests, while Tilda's dad is under pressure as he needs timber contracts to keep the truck that he has bought working.

Recommendation: This will be much enjoyed by Year 8 girls.
The Wild by Matt Whyman. Hodder Children’s Books, 2005. 9780340884539. 184 pp.

This is a compelling and disturbing read. It is set in Kazakhstan, in a vast toxic desert that was once the Aral Sea and the home of a thriving fishing community. Dams built for irrigation in Russia have destroyed the sea and consequently the community. Most people are unemployed, living desolate lives in crumbling Soviet-era blocks of flats. Sixteen-year-old Alexi survives by recovering the metal from the booster rockets that fall back into the desert after being launched from a distant cosmodrome. It is dangerous work, the rival gangs even more lethal than the radioactivity to which boys like Alexi are exposed. Many of the inhabitants are ill, like Alexi’s young brother Misha. A nurse at the inadequate local clinic tells Alexi that he must get Misha away from the deadly environment. They journey to Moscow, in search of medical help, and find the urban desert even more desolate and deadly than the environment they have fled.

The story is told in the first-person by Alexi and we come to care deeply for the brothers and the tragedy of their lives. Alexi’s courage and resilience are impressive. Many of the scenes, especially early in the novel, are very exciting and will hold readers’ attention. Few Australian young people will have any idea that children elsewhere are living lives as desperate as this. Few will have encountered examples as stark as this of the consequences for human lives of environmental degradation.

Recommendation: This could be used as a class set in Years 9 and 10, especially as the core of a unit of work on the environment, but I think it is too sad for that: opening students’ eyes to the reality of others’ lives is one thing, but focussing on it day after day for several weeks might be too much. Instead, include the novel in wide reading selections on themes like the environment, other cultures, survival. Make sure that students have opportunities to talk about the book.
Wide reading suggestion

One way of covering the issue of sustainability would be to develop a wide reading study for Years 9 and 10 of post-apocalyptic novels. Ones reviewed above include The Bridge by Jane Higgins, Feed by M. T. Anderson, The Road by Cormac McCarthy and Genesis (in The Rosie Black Chronicles) by Lara Morgan. Victor Kelleher's Taronga - almost now an Australian classic - is perfect. There are some excellent New Zealand young adult novels in this genre, including The Travellers Quartet by Jack Lasenby, Juno of Taris by Fleur Beale and Genesis by Bernard Beckett. In case readers are tempted to speculate as to the predominance of end-of-the-world stories from New Zealand writers, throw in Nevil Shute's On the Beach to remind us of Ava Gardner's view of Melbourne.

New titles worth knowing about

Aftershock by Bernard Ashley. Frances Lincoln, 2011. 9781847800558. 192 pp.


After an earthquake kills his father and destroys their fishing village on a Greek island, Makis and his mother migrate to a Greek-speaking suburb of London, probably in the late 1950s. The largely Cypriot community is unwelcoming and the mother becomes agoraphobic and depressed in the basement flat. Twelve-year-old Makis is put with the six-year-olds to learn English from their readers. Soccer football becomes his salvation when, despite the racist taunts of the bully he replaces in the team, Makis plays for the first time with a full-sized ball and borrowed boots. His other release comes from his father’s mandolin, with which he comes to play with a kindly musician neighbour, culminating in a concert at the local Greek restaurant where he sings the famous song of his island. There are sufficient turns in this simple story to interest readers, as Makis and his mother overcome their exclusion and find peace and acceptance.

Recommendation: Use this with Year 7. It is an easy read. Wide reading links: kids as carers; the migrant experience; sport; school life; other countries.
Against the Odds by Marjolijn Hof. Allen & Unwin, 2011. 9781742375083. 128 pp.

Kiki is an ageless Year 5 girl, an angry ‘firecracker’ like her Oma and a young version of the mother who knew a thousand ways to die. She has good reason, as her father is a doctor who has gone to work in a humanitarian field hospital in an African war zone. She is not comforted by her mother’s reasoning that the odds against having a dead father are indeed longer than finding a coin in the street, so Kiki works to improve the odds.

Humour and warmth are brought to the story as Kiki and her mother look for things to distract themselves from the irrationality of worry, while Oma openly expresses her anger at her son who was always a risk-taking child. When the father is listed as missing, the mother worries about his underpants and socks but Kiki goes to a pet shop and outrages the young man assistant by deliberately buying a sick mouse so that its death would improve her father’s odds. Similarly, Mona, their ancient, fart-prone dog is told to drop dead until, as tension rises, Kiki almost puts into action one of her five ways to kill a dog. The conclusion is not a sentimental one in this simply told story of family tensions of living under the strain of everybody being nice but making things even worse. The first-person narration holds a skilful balance between naivety and irony while the characters are memorable.

Recommendation: This is a good easy-to-read and beautifully written book to use along with The Book of Everything. Year 7. Wide reading links: families; living on the edge; overcoming fear; other countries; animal stories.
All I Ever Wanted by Vikki Wakefield. Text Publishing, 2011. 9781921758300. 208 pp.

It's the summer school holidays and sixteen-year-old Mim's mum is on the couch and her brothers are in gaol. Mim knows she doesn't want to turn out like any of them. As the hot summer continues, Mim finds herself involved in trouble with the local crims, trouble with a boy and trouble with her best friend, as well as her deteriorating relationship with her mother.

Recommendation: This tough and honest novel should light up the Year 9 classroom with its dark humour and real insight into the fracturing and healing of relationships. Wakefield's evocation of the steamy, dusty suburbs is beautifully done and her dialogue is equally as impressive. She lights up this lost place with humanity and challenges the reader’s prejudices as well. It’s the best first novel for me in a long time.
The Byron Journals by Daniel Ducrou. Text Publishing, 2010. 9781921656460. 304 pp.

Byron Bay, NSW, in schoolies week - not Lord Byron but still full of ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know’ for gullible eighteen-year-old school leavers. It reads like a contemporary update on Nick Earls’ classic, After January, with added sex, drugs and music. When Adelaide boy Andrew falls out with his flatmates, he moves in with Heidi, who has scars on her arms, and Tim and Jude, who are fellow musicians and have a flourishing marihuana plantation in the basement. Andrew quickly falls for Heidi and, after he gets the bill for the trashing of his mates’ apartment, he is well onto the slippery slope as a partner in the distribution and sale of the marihuana.

There’s lots of enjoyable action and dialogue as a wild ride is provided.

Recommendation: This new writer will be enjoyed by students who like other action novels like Ted Dawe’s K Road and Thunder Road and Malcolm Burgess’s Junk and Nicholas Dane, because they seem to ‘Tell it like it is’. For Years 9 – 12. Wide reading links: action adventure; crime fiction; thrillers and mysteries; living on the edge; outsiders; identity; images of adolescence; a question of gender.
Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. Allen & Unwin, 2010. 9781742374555. 276 pp.

This American YA novel is clever – and lots of fun. The two authors write alternate chapters, Levithan in the voice of teenage boy Dash and Cohn in the voice of teenage girl Lily. It is Christmas time, the least favourite time of the year for cynical, world-weary Dash, who has succeeded in convincing each of his parents that he is spending the holiday season with the other. He is happily alone, moving between the two empty apartments while his parents and their respective new partners are on vacation. Lily, in contrast, loves Christmas and is unhappy this year only because her parents have gone away on a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary holiday and left Lily and brother Langston alone. Langston, preoccupied with his new boyfriend, invents a project for Lily – to find herself a boyfriend – and does so by leaving a red notebook full of cryptic clues among the books of a large secondhand bookshelf. Dash, who loves bookshops, finds the notebook, follows the clues and is intrigued by the identity of the mysterious Lily. This begins the relationship, which develops through a series of further clues and dares.

This is a delightfully quirky story of young love with very unusual protagonists – so unusual that their idea of bliss is to spend New Year’s Eve in a storage closet in a bookshop with the complete Oxford English Dictionary – all 20 volumes. And it is delightful too to read a teenage love story that ends with a first sweet and awkward kiss.

Recommendation: This is a great read for Years 9 and 10.

The Dead I Know by Scot Gardner. Allen & Unwin, May 2011. 9781742373843. 214 pp.

The Australian writer Scot Gardner has written a number of highly regarded books with teenage male protagonists – boys from disadvantaged backgrounds who are doing it tough. While I have admired his writing, I can’t say that I’ve enjoyed it much: I am clearly not the target audience. But this one kept me absorbed from the moment I turned to the first page and stepped into the funeral parlour where Aaron is about to start work.

The funeral director has taken Aaron on only as a favour to the school counsellor, who is a friend. Aaron’s school reports are dismal: even the counsellor expects very little of him. He appears to be completely antisocial and he has failed all his subjects. But Aaron is very different from the persona he presents to the world. I think he is among the best-drawn male teenage characters in Australian fiction. The story is told by Aaron in the first-person and the reader sees the world through his eyes. And what a cruel world it is!

The funeral parlour setting is fascinating (and often blackly funny) and Aaron’s gradual socialisation, as he is treated with respect and kindness by his employer, is beautifully developed. Aaron knows that there is something in his background that has traumatised him, giving him terrible nightmares and causing him to sleepwalk, and that background is finally, sensitively, revealed – to both Aaron and the reader.

Recommendation: Try this with reluctant male readers in Years 9 and 10.
Eli the Good by Silas House. Candlewick Press, 2011 (2009). 9780763652883. 304 pp.

1976, the summer of the Bicentennial of the USA when Eli was ten and ‘did something that was unforgivable’. House establishes on the first page that Eli, his narrator, is now an adult and telling his story in a gentle reverie, filtered by his own experience as a father and with the realisation that he was ‘a child of war’ like his parents who were marked forever by the father’s war in Vietnam. War lives on, long after it’s over. Lest this sound too grim, there is the naivety of ten-year-old Eli, the watcher, the boy with big ears listening under the porch, the boy who dares to read his parents’ love letters, the boy who cared too deeply, the boy who thought it was always his fault, the boy who seeks solace in the ancient beech tree; this voice and this interpretation of the family secrets give the novel its gently amusing tone.

In contrast to Eli, Edie, his closest girl friend, is tough and scary, while Josie, his sixteen-year-old sister is at war with her parents, beginning the crisis by defiantly wearing pants despoiling the American flag. Aunt Nell, who was notoriously pictured in the national press as an anti-war protester, comes to visit and call a truce with her Vietnam veteran brother when things fall apart at the fourth of July small town parade in which no Vietnam veterans march.

Like the film The Tree of Life, this novel has many dimensions. It alludes to Whitman and Thoreau with Eli’s love of trees and his sanctuary in the roots of the ancient beech, while House’s achievement is to succeed with the simplicity and lucidity of his prose that has the cadences of whispers from the past. Only a rock would fail to weep reading this: K. M. Paterson has yet another great American writer to emulate the power and subtlety of her story telling.

Recommendation: Like many great books this can be enjoyed by all age groups whose responses will be only limited by their emotional maturity. Wide reading links: families; friendship; generations; identity; music; other countries; a question of gender.

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