Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Catching a glimpse of our Nation through Children's Literature

What makes Australia a nation?

A new family of Australians 26.1.09 (Parramatta)
Today is Australia Day, the official national day of our nation. It commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet in 1788, which marked the start of British colonisation. For the last three years I have suggested that Australia Day is a time to remember the first citizens of this nation and the traditional owners of the land on which the nation has been built.  It is a time of flag waving and celebration, but in the midst of this, it is easy to assume that it is people just like me that are Australian and lose sight of just how diverse our nation is in terms of the origins of the people and the richness of each family's ethnicity and culture. In 2009 I featured the wonderful picture book by Nadia Wheatley and Donna Rawlins, 'My Place' on the blog as a reminder of the way the modern nation of Australia has been shaped, built and changed by successive waves of immigration. This is a must read for all children (especially on Australia Day). Like last year I offer some other children's literature that also offer an insight into the richness and diversity of the people who make up our nation.

The reality is that other than Indigenous Australians, the vast majority of us (97%) have come from other lands. True, many of us are second to fifth generation Australians, but all have a cultural heritage in other nations; but together we make up this great nation. One of the most wonderful thing that happens on this day is that in every town across the country there are celebrations at which our newest Australians are presented with their certificates of citizenship. It is wonderful to be at one of these events and to see how excited and grateful that each person is to become a part of this nation.

As I've said before, one of the best ways to understand a people is in its stories, so I want to suggest that one way to celebrate with our children is by trying to help them understand something of the richness and complexity of what it is to be Australian. Children's books offer a wonderful window on the rich tapestry of people, places, events and cultural practices that make up this nation. There are many facets to our nation, the people who form it and place that is our home; here is just a sample of the books that illustrate some of these many dimensions.

1. Indigenous Australian's stories of our beginnings

Australia's Indigenous people have a rich tradition of storytelling. Stories of the history and culture of their people, handed down in this way through countless generations, stories from the beginnings of their known time, which Indigenous people refer to as the Dreamtime. The 'Stories of the Dreaming' belong to Indigenous people (tribes or nations). Storytellers of these tribes and nations have an obligation to pass the stories down through the generations. While some of these stories are secret, or are seen of such a sacred nature that they are only told to certain people, in the last 30 years many Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been shared through children's books.

Some of my favourite Indigenous Dreamtime stories have been passed down to all Australian children through the storytelling and wonderful art of Dick Roughsey (1924-1985) or Goobalathaldin to use his tribal name, from the island of Langu-narnji in the Gulf of Carpentaria in northern Australia. His first picture book 'The Giant Devil Dingo' received wide acclaim for the richness of the storytelling, the distinctiveness of his painted illustrations with their vibrant colours, fascinating detail, and the integration of art and word. One of my favourite works by Roughsey is 'The Rainbow Serpent' first published in 1975 and still available. It won the Children's Book Council Australia award for best picture book in 1976.

2. Bush & Country Traditions

From the beginnings of European settlement, one of the great challenges in this country was to tame the land and enable white Australians to survive. This has left rich bush traditions and distinctive country life. Most Australians can't imagine an Australia without small country towns, farming on a large scale, struggles with fire, drought and flood and traditional bush tales, ballads and poetry. Our famous song 'Waltzing Matilda' is reflective of this, as is to some extent our national anthem, 'Advance Australia Fair'. You can share this with children in a wonderful picture book form that features well-known Australian art as the illustrations (here).

a) Bush traditions

There are many places to go for a sample of Australia great bush ballads and poetry, but on Australia Day I have to mention works by Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson. Both are writers whose work for adults and children still has the same appeal over a century after their first publication. They capture something of the toughness of early life, the character of the people and the larrikin spirit and determination of Australians. A couple of my favourites picture books for children are 'A Bush Christening' (Quentin Hole's illustrated version is wonderful) and 'Mulga Bill's Bicycle' by A.B. Paterson (illustrated by Kilmeny & Deborah Niland) and 'The Loaded Dog', by Henry Lawson. The illustrated version I have is out of print but available on the web, but there are many versions of the story, and even the plain text version is still exciting enough for most children to enjoy. You can even find it on the Internet (here). It's a wonderful tale about Dave Regan, Jim Bentley and Andy Page who are trying their luck on the 19th century goldfields of the NSW Central Tablelands. As a break from mining, fishing in the creek was a good past-time. But being the lazy type, Dave decides to see if he can shortcut the process with some dynamite in a local waterhole with unexpected consequences.

b) Country life

The Australian countryside still serves as a wonderful setting for many good examples of Australian literature. This includes the delightful picture book 'Hector and Maggie' by Andrew and Janet McLean, a fun story about a cattle dog and a rooster who tussle for control of the farmyard. More complex novels for older children include Libby Hathorn's 'Thunderwith', which tells the story of a girl named Lara who is coping with her mother's death while living with her father on a remote property in the rainforest of northern New South Wales. Another favourite is Colin Thiele's classic 'Sun on the Stubble'. The latter is a story about a 14-year-old boy from a German immigrant family growing up in a small farming community in South Australia during the 1930s. Life for Bruno can be hard but it also offers him rich opportunities for many adventures and fun.

3. The contribution of other nations to what makes Australia special

Australia today cannot be understood without an appreciation of the contribution that the many immigrants have made to our country. While the first White settlers (convicts and eventually free men) were British, as likewise were most of the immigrants in the 19th Century, this was changed by two waves of immigration following each of the world wars. The inflow that followed World War II saw the most dramatic diversification of Australia's population as large numbers of mainly Southern European immigrants came to Australia's cities and countryside. Greek and Italian immigrants came in greatest numbers but all other European nations were represented. As a result, Australia saw rapid growth, expansion of our cities and the enrichment of our way of life in varied ways - food, clothing, art, theatre, music, sport, language and so on. Since the 1970s we have also seen a steady flow of immigrants from other parts of the world, namely South East Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

Australia's children's literature has reflected this changing face of the nation. This is seen in the characters and stories of the many children trying to live in a new country, or in a country that is not the country of their parent's birth. These stories often deal with struggles, challenges and triumphs as children cope with a new world. One of my favourite examples for older readers is 'Looking for Alibrandi' by Melina Marchetta. Josephine Alibrandi is a second generation Italian Australian completing her last year of high school. She is the School Vice-Captain of St Martha's in Sydney but has to overcome the narrow mindedness and tensions caused by racial and cultural differences.

An author who has contributed a number of interesting novels for younger readers that focus on children growing up in diverse urban communities is Brian Caswell. For example, in his 'Boundary Park Trilogy' for readers aged 7-10, he presents three stories about children who have to negotiate complex worlds and deal with different challenges. 'Mike' tells the story of boy who moves to Boundary Park with his mother only to face bullying. 'Lisdalia' is about a child of Italian heritage who struggles in a class where she is the brightest child. 'Maddie' was been born in Vietnam as Mai Linh and is haunted by the memories of her past.

4. The inspiration of Australia's unrivalled biodiversity

Above: The famous Koorong in South Australia

Australia is a beautiful country with incredibly diverse and unusual flora and fauna. It's hardly surprising that Australia's landscape, its animals and its plant life, have inspired more than just interesting background settings in children's books. In fact, it's difficult to write an Australian children's book without (at the very least) seeing Australia's unique environment and amazing biodiversity as a backdrop.

a) Books that weave together story and the environment

As I wrote in a previous post on Colin Thiele (here), books like his 'Storm Boy' can introduce us to the wonders of the environment, taking us to places we can't easily visit. The Koorong estuary at the mouth of the Murray River is a backdrop to this junior novel about a boy who lives a reclusive life among the sand dunes on the edge of the Southern Ocean. However, the word images that Thiele uses to describe this place and the boy's rescue of a pelican mother who has been shot and her three chicks, bring the wonders of the environment and the narrative together. Another good example is 'Aranea' written by Jenny Wagner and illustrated by Ron Brooks that tells the story of a day in the life of a backyard spider.

b) Celebrating Australia's outdoor life

Australia is known for its temperate climate that makes outdoor life easy and pleasant. Whether it's our competitiveness in sport or simply our desire to be outside, there are many books that reflect this. 'Terry's Brrrmmm GT' by Ted Greenwood reflects this outdoor life and tells the story of Terry's attempt to win the local billycart derby. Tales of seaside adventures are even more common, with 'Grandpa and Thomas' by Pamela Allen and 'Looking for Crabs' by Bruce Whatley two of my favourites.

c) Characters inspired by the uniqueness of Australia's plants and animals

Anthropomorphism is the attribution of human characteristics to non-human creatures, objects or even concepts. Animals and plants have commonly been attributed human qualities in fables, legends and fairy stories. So it is hardly surprising that Australia's unique flora and fauna would inspire a number of children's books. In fact, some of the earliest children's books to be international successes were books in this category. 'The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill' by Dorothy Wall was published in 1933 and introduced us to a mischievous little koala (Blinky Bill). Blinky has many adventures in the Australian bush and its many creatures, including his adopted sister Nutsy, his kangaroo friend Splodge, Flap the platypus, Mr Wombat and some sinister characters who bring drama.

Other well-known examples in this category are May Gibb's timeless 'The Tales of Sugglepot and Cuddlepie' published in 1918. Two gumnut babies are its main characters who experience many dramas in the Australian bush, as they meet a raft of other characters, including the villains, the Banksia men and Mrs Snake and their hero friend Mr Lizard. Norman Lindsay's classic 'The Magic Pudding' published in 1918 has surely one of the most novel characters, a plum pudding with human qualities, who can be eaten many times. And of course there are more contemporary examples such as Ruth Park's 'Muddle-headed Wombat' and Mem Fox's 'Sail Away: The Ballad of Skip and Nell'.

5. Australians and environmental challenges

Like all people around the world, Australians are becoming more aware of the threats to biodiversity. This is seen in some of our children's literature, with authors seeking to challenge readers to appreciate it and seek to protect it. One of my favourite author/illustrators of this type is Jeannie Baker. Jeannie uses incredible collages made from natural materials to tell the story of the challenges in protecting our environment. One of her best examples of this is 'Where the Forest Meets the Sea' that tells the story of a boy and his Dad who spend a day fishing in a lagoon near the famous Daintree Forest in Northern Queensland. This amazing wet tropical rainforest meets the ocean waters of the Great Barrier Reef (the world largest tropical reef) but only 296,000 acres of it remains. The boy and his Dad contemplate its historic past and its possible future - the boy asks as the story concludes, "but will the forest still be here when we come back?"

Other excellent examples include 'The Fisherman and the Theefyspray' by Paul Jennings (illustrated by Jane Tanner) that tells of an encounter between a fisherman and a fish of a kind he has never encountered before and which changes him in the process; and Graeme Base's 'The Sign of the Seahorse' that addresses the impact of man on the ocean and its wildlife.

6. Other facets of Aussie life and our Nation

This is a blog post not a book chapter so I'll resist the urge to keep on writing. There are so many other facets to Australian life that I could have found books to illustrate:

Aussie kids love fun - way they demonstrate this is through playground chants, games, jokes and rhymes. For a particularly Aussie touch (that still has many rhymes and chants that other nations will recognise) have fun reading some of June Factor's series of books (here). How could I go past 'All Right Vegemite' and Australia Day?

Aussies love sport - 'The Race' by Christobel Mattingley and illustrated by Anne Spudvilas offers an insight into the Australian desire to achieve in sport.

The everyday struggles of life - Like children everywhere, Australian children have to cope with adversity. We like to see ourselves as being able to cope well. Examples include Robin Klein's 'Boss of the Pool' and John Marsden's 'So Much to Tell You'.

There are many more books, maybe you have some favourites - share them! Happy Australia Day. Read some books to your children.

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