3.06 Bronwyn Bancroft, W is for Wombat, My First Australian Word Book, 2008

Bronwyn Bancroft, W is for Wombat, My First Australian Word Book, 2008

This books is 26 bright pictures of individual Australian animals. It’s really for babies, rather than kids and my children ho-hummed it.

3.05 Sally Morgan, Bronwyn Bancroft, The Amazing A to Z Thing, 2014

Sally Morgan, Bronwyn Bancroft, The Amazing A to Z Thing, 2014

This picture book is illustrated with Bronwyn Bancroft’s trademark bright colours and contemporary Aboriginal art. The kids liked it a lot more than the muddy art in the previous picture book I mentioned (Annaliese Porter's The Outback),

It is basically an ABC as anteater tries to find another Australian animal to be interested in her surprise. None of them will look at it. My children guessed that it might be a game but it was really a book.

They liked the final page, where all the animals admire the book. My three year old also liked the ‘H’ page where the Huntsman spider was counting its legs. She had a go as well, and got to six.

3.04 Annaliese Porter, The Outback, 2005, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft

3.04 Annaliese Porter, The Outback, 2005, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft

This book was written by an eleven year old girl from the Gamilaraay group, which is really neat. I praise her for her accomplishment. I expect she is the youngest published author in Australia.

However, I must say that I could not get my kids to read this book. The prose was too complicated for them and the illustrations were rejected as ‘yucky’ and ‘brown’. It’s rare for them to totally refuse a book but this one I could not read to my target audience (aged five and three).
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2.50 Philip McLaren, Sweet Water, Stolen Land, 1993

I found this book on Anita Heiss’ list of the top 100 Aboriginal books - http://anitaheissblog.blogspot.com.au.

I would strongly disagree that it belonged there.

It is a reimagining of the Myall Creek Massacre, with a cast of characters around a German Lutheran mission. And it is stunningly boring.

This is partly a result of the prose style which could most charitably be described as Hemingwayesque in that it is sparse and favours short sentences. Also, the characterisation is kind of Hemingwayesque, in that it is non-existent. And the women are kind of Hemingwayesque, in that they are Madonna/whores.

So, I like neither the style nor the characters.

And I wasn’t that keen on the plot either, because, frankly, I don’t think that the Myall Creek massacre needs to be reimagined. It’s like James Cameron doing the Titanic but instead of telling us the gripping and fascinating stories of the real people, he invented Jack and Rose and their mundane love affaire.

McLaren decided that instead of telling us the incredibly tragic story of the Myall Creek massacre, he would... write short, sparse sentences about a German Lutheran missionary raping women and setting up the Aboriginal people as the rapist/murderers until the white population snap and massacre the local tribe. It’s not like he had to call it Myall Creek. There were plenty of other massacres, stretching back to the beginning of the colony and forward into the twentieth century. It’s just that this one was well documented because the accused were taken to court and some of them eventually executed.

All in all, no thumbs up for plot, characters or style.
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2.49 Kim Scott, Iris Woods and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, Mamang (2011)

Kim Scott, Iris Woods and the Wirlomin Noongar Language and Stories Project, Mamang (2011)

This is a University of Western Australia Press picture book. It represents a story originally told by Freddie Winmer to a linguist in the 1930s, found, workshopped with his Noongar descendants and presented as a picture book.

I edited the story as it involved a man taking a ride inside a whale. In my version he made it go faster by shouting GO! GO! rather than by poking it with a spear.

Also, it was a nice change of pace as so many collections are of stories from the centre and the north west. As colonisation started in the south east, it's nice to have some stories from the bottom part of the continent where colonisation was experienced earlier and differently.

2.40 Agnes Lippo, The Kangaroo and the Porpoise, compiled by Pamela Lofts (1987)

2.40 Agnes Lippo, The Kangaroo and the Porpoise, compiled by Pamela Lofts (1987)

This is one of the early generations of Aboriginal children's stories. Unlike later, more sophisticated picture books of Aboriginal stories, it does not provide detailed information on where the story came from or who illustrated it or the extent to which the compiler may have altered it.

The pictures are also fairly rough - like *Dunbi the Owl* it was illustrated by primary school children.

My daughter says it was a 'silly' story, because it is a story in which a kangaroo mother abandons the joey.

2.39 Sally Morgan, Dan's Grandpa, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft (1996)

2.39 Sally Morgan, Dan's Grandpa, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft (1996)

This is a classic issues picture book, aimed at bringing the child to terms with the death of a loved one. It is the first I've seen with Indigenous characters.

Sally Morgan must be one of the best known Indigenous authors in Australia, and Bronwyn Bancroft is likewise one of the best known illustrators, so this is a kind of a dream team for an Aboriginal picture book.

2.38 Cathy Goonack, Scaly-Tailed Possum and Echidna (2010)

2.38 Cathy Goonack, Scaly-Tailed Possum and Echidna (2010)

This is another lovely children's books from Magabala Books. This one has particularly beautiful illustrations. There's an explanation at the beginning that the illustrations are done with silk dyes.

I also like that the story is given a specific providence. Cathy Goonack inherited it from her grandfather, and there is a picture of him cooking some crocodile.

My daughter (now three and a half) was most interested in this photo. I wasn't sure why until she said that she didn't want to eat crocodile. Then she made her first direct observation about race: 'People with light skin don't eat crocodile'.

She is very into categorising things as the same or different at the moment, and I should have seen this coming and seized the teachable moment. But instead I went off on a tangent about having eaten crocodile myself but not liking it (IMHO, carnivores are way too gamey to eat). So, next time I might manage to actually talk about race.

While I flubbed this opportunity, it does underscore the value of reading these books to the kids, because otherwise the chance to talk about how 'people with light skin' aren't the default doesn't really come up.

2.37 Bronwyn Bancroft, Possum and Wattle: My Big Book of Australian Words (2008)

2.37 Bronwyn Bancroft, Possum and Wattle: My Big Book of Australian Words (2008)

This book is similar to Bronwyn Bancroft's *An Australian ABC of Animals* (2005) which I've already reviewed here. In fact, I think I recognise some of the illustrations which may have been recycled.

It is another picture book showing pictures to make an ABC. It was a notable book in the Children's Book Council of Australia awards... which actually is a surprise to me.

Some of the illustrations seem kind of random. V is for vegetable, vine and valley which don't seem quintessentially Australian in the way D for dragonfly, dideridoo, dingo, duck and dragon lizard is.

Through Black Spruce - Joseph Boyden

Through Black Spruce was the 2008 winner of the Giller award (Canada's top literary prize for those not in the know). I've only read a handful of the winners and nominees over the years, but Through Black Spruce easily tops my list as my favourite of those I've read.

In Moosonee, Ontario a middle aged man lies in a coma. His name is Will Bird and over the course of the novel he narrates the events of the past year of his life, slowly building up to the event that led to his coma. While he is in a coma his niece Annie Bird talks to him, telling him about the past year of her life, when she left the town she had lived in all her life in order to travel to Toronto, Montreal and New York in an attempt to track down her missing model sister Suzanne who ran off two years ago with her drug-dealing boyfriend Gus.

The novel alternates between Will and Annie's voices and it's a testament to Boyden's strength as a writer that each story is equally compelling. There was no sense of disappointment when a new chapter began and Will's story ended and Annie's story continued or vice versa. The missing Suzanne is also a compelling character, her abscence spurring on Annie's quest and having devastating consequences for Will. Suzanne is what weaves these two stories together despite the fact that we never "see" her within the novel.

There is also a lot of detail about Cree life and what it means to keep the traditions alive in an increasingly modern world. Will and especially Annie represent a bridge between traditional Cree culture and Western culture. Boyden is able to eloquently capture the negotiation between modern and traditional and the compromises that his characters must make in order to feel comfortable within themselves are woven elegantly into the story. 

FYI: Boyden wrote this as a loose sequel to his first novel Three Day Road (Will is the son of the main character of Three Day Road) and has announced that he intends to write a third book to form a trilogy.

Two more Aboriginal children's books

2.35 Glee J Sellin and Mary A Tolputt, Gundanoo's Christmas (2009)

The authors are sisters from a large Bidgera family in inland central Queensland. The book was published by Black Ink Press and is, obviously, an Australian Christmas story.

I must say, though, that it didn’t keep my daughter’s attention. She’s three and a third now, but she literally went off and got a book of nursery rhymes for me to read instead.

2.36 Gavin Delacour, Cranky the Crocodile (2009)

The author is descended from the Waanyi people in Queensland, and has made up a story about animals of northern Australia.

It’s a version of *Are You My Mother?*, with Cranky the crocodile wandering around trying to find his mother. His mother is not a turtle, not a brolga, and not a kangaroo. She is a crocodile!

This kept my daughter’s attention. I must say, too, that she failed to guess the ending.

Me: Do you think he will ever find his Mum?
Her: Nope.

2.32 Ambelin Kwaymullina, Caterpillar and Butterfly (2009)

2.32 Ambelin Kwaymullina, Caterpillar and Butterfly (2009)

This is another children's picture book, produced by the Fremantle Arts Press. The author and illustrator is from the Baigu and Nyamal people in the Pilbara region of Western Australia.

It is a morality tale about a caterpillar who learns to be brave and thereby becomes a butterfly. It has simple, clear illustrations.

At first I was put off by the lack of pronouns. There is 'Sunset' instead of 'the sunset' and 'Rock' instead of 'the rock', but as I finished the book it was intended to convey a respect for nature.

It was shortlisted for the WA Young Readers Book Award, which is always a good sign. On the other hand, my daughter, now three and a quarter, was unimpressed. (But this might have been because she is currently obsessed with *The Wizard of Oz* and this book was noticeably lacking in the Scarecrow, Dorothy, Tin Man and Lion department).

2.31 Melissa Lucashenko, Too Flash (2002)

2.31 Melissa Lucashenko, Too Flash (2002)

While looking for articles about Mary Grant Bruce* I found a review of an overview of Australian children's literature by Clare Bradford - and the review recommended Melissa Lucashenko's work as an example of contemporary Indigenous young adult fiction.

And to think that when I started this challenge I worried about finding quality Australian Indigenous fiction. I'm totally embarrassed to admit this now (and I didn't admit it at the time I began). I'm also baffled as now, the more I look, the more great novels I find.

This is a coming of age story, set in Queensland. It has teenaged angst, conflict between girls from different income and education levels, the search for identity, and contemporary Aboriginal politics. It's a really good example of a gripping young adult novel.

* An Australian children's author active from 1910 to the 1940s, mostly known for the Billabong books.

2.29 Larissa Behrendt, Home: A Novel (2004)

2.29 Larissa Behrendt, Home: A Novel (2004)

Here's another from Anita Heiss' list of her top 100 (or rather 99) Indigenous books - http://anitaheissblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/anitas-bbc-black-book-choice-reading.html

I really really liked this novel. It begins in 1995 with a young, Indigenous lawyer visiting the lands from which her grandmother was taken. It then flashes back in time to 1918 when she was taken as part of the Stolen Generation and has different chapters on the lives of her descendants.

Not only is it an interesting conceit but it is very well written. There's a great line about her relationship with her white, French boyfriend - there is 'nothing between us but skin'.

It's the winner of the David Unaipon Award for Indigenous writers.

2.28 - Terri Janke, Butterfly Song (2005)

Anita Heiss has set up a top 100 Australian Indigenous books. I'd read 12 of her favourite 99 books - she left the last one blank so people can add their own favourites.

See here: http://anitaheissblog.blogspot.com/2011/04/anitas-bbc-black-book-choice-reading.html

That means there's all the more for me to discover, a veritable treasure trove.

I had intended to work through the list in order but, alas, number one is *Benang* which, judging from the first few pages, I reject as the worst kind of self consciously literary fiction. Number two (Vivienne Cleven's *Bitin' Back*) and number three (John Muk Muk Burke's *Bridge of Triangles*) are not in my local library system.... which brings me to Anita Heiss' fourth choice - Terri Janke's *Butterfly Song* (2005).

It's a young adult novel about an insecure, recent Law school graduate who goes to Cairns with her mother, rediscovers her Thursday Islander roots and saves a family heirloom. Janke uses the interesting technique of leaping about in time, showing the narrator's first experiences at university, her childhood memories, her mother's life and her grandmother's.

However, I would suggest that Janke uses this technique rather clumsily. The plot hinges on the recovery of a butterfly carved in pearl shell, held by a white family but claimed as a family momento by an Islander family. Janke shows that it absolutely belongs to the Indigenous family and was stolen from them. It's all rather black and white (pardon the pun) when most disputes about the appropriation of Indigenous culture, artifacts, knowledge or land are a lot more... well disputed. Especially as the conclusion is a court scene in which the white owner listens, agrees and hands over the expensive item. It's a very neat ending, but not one that seems in tune with human nature.

Perhaps I find this frustrating because it is a YA novel and Janke needs to wrap things up by the end. Still, it's not what I'd call a subtle novel.

Three Aboriginal Children's Stories

2.25 Arone Raymond Meeks, Sisi and the Cassowary (2002)

This is the second book produced and illustrated by Arone Raymond Meeks. I've already reviewed *Enora and the Black Crane*, but my daughter preferred this one. It has less violence - no spearings this time - and she liked the illustrations better. Her comment: 'That one has a fat bottom'.

This is a version of a traditional tale from northern Queensland, a story about a little girl who gets lost and makes her way home with the help of a cassowary.

2.26 Debbie Austin, At the Billabong (2009)

Another book aimed at introducing babies and toddlers to Aboriginal art. I like this one better than the other two I've reviewed (*Animals*, and *People and Places*) as it has a bit of a plot.

There's a mirror set in the middle, which acts as the billabong, and we see the tracks of various animals as they come up to the billabong. You can see more about these books at: http://discoverypress.com.au

2.27 Eustan Williams and Lucy Daley, Dirrangun, collected by Roland Robinson, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft (1994)

These two stories were originally collected for a colleciton by Roland Robinson called *The Nearest the White Man Gets* (1989). They are reissued in this format of an illustrated book suitable for children.

Bronwyn Bancroft is, of course, an extremely well known Aboriginal artist and the illustrations are some of the finest of hers that I've seen. They have a real sense of place, as the stories tell how Dirrangun moved water around along the north coast of New South Wales.

2.23 Cathy Freeman, Born to Run: My Story (2007)

Cathy Freeman, Born to Run: My Story (2007)

I picked this up at the library because it was a prominently displayed book by an Aboriginal author in the children's section. I've picked up quite a few that way - I believe the librarians must deliberately highlight them, which is nice.

This autobiography won the West Australian Young Readers Book Award in 2008. It's aimed at primary school students and would, I imagine, be quite accessible for any sporty kid.

For the benefit of non-Australians, Cathy Freeman is an Olympic winning runner and the person who lit the Olympic torch in 2000. Naturally what she talks about is her training, her racing and her life. She seems to have been incredibly happy all her life with a wonderful Mum, great step-Dad and inspirational coaches. I vaguely remember some kind of hoo-ha at the Olympics because she did a victory lap with both Aboriginal and Australian flags but that is not really touched on, as her focus is on how she achieved her goals.

2.22 Bronwyn Bancroft, An Australian ABC of Animals (2004)

2.22 Bronwyn Bancroft, An Australian ABC of Animals (2004)

Bronwyn Bancroft must be one of the best known Aboriginal painters and illustrators. You can see her website: www.bronwynbancroft.com

Bancroft was born in northern New South Wales, and is a descendant of the Djanbun clan of the Bundjalung nation.

This book is an ABC, so one picture of an Australian animal per page. It's done in the contemporary Aboriginal style - don't know how to describe it any more accurately than that. I think it might work better as a series of wall hangings, because the pictures are simple and would work well from a distance. I particularly like Z for Zebra Lionfish, an animal I had not previously known existed.
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2.18 Noel Pearson, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (2009)

2.18 Noel Pearson, Radical Hope: Education and Equality in Australia (2009)

I do not know the policies of the Australian Departments of Education towards Indigenous education, but, based on the experiences of those I know, I am totally willing to accept Pearson's contention that they are incompetent, idealogically-driven, evidence-ignoring nincompoops.

I concur with his strongly worded argument that primary level education should concentrate on teaching reading and writing.

I always have mixed feelings about Pearson. Because on one hand, I find his arguments have at least some merit. But on the other hand, what company he finds himself in! Caroline Overington, Mungo MacCallum, Geoffrey Cousins, right wing nutjobs one and all.

2.16 Larissa Behrendt, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia's Future (2003)

2.16 Larissa Behrendt, Achieving Social Justice: Indigenous Rights and Australia's Future (2003)

This is a very clear exploration of the debates over Indigenous rights in Australia, including a quite clear discussion of sovereignty.

I was left, as I always am, baffled by the common Australian perspective that Aboriginal people are constantly being given extra things, for nothing. Because, seriously, that in no way tallies with the fact that Aboriginal people are generally poorer, sicker, live in worse housing, etc, etc. How do these two, diametrically opposed ideas co-exist in their heads?