Wednesday 17 July 2019

Indigenous Picture Books for Children

For Lisa's Indigenous Literature Week I had planned to post a selection of new Indigenous picture books, however my plans were bigger than my time management abilities!

Fortunately, these beautiful books deserve to be shared at any time, regardless of NAIDOC week or ILW.

Baby Business (2019) by Jasmine Seymour is a wonderful story for new parents, showing us, sharing with us, one way to welcome a new baby to country. However it's not just baby business, but also mother, grandmother and aunty business.

Respect, love and tradition embues every page as we follow the rituals of a smoking ceremony of welcome.

I loved this a lot.
I loved it for its celebration of new life, diversity and belonging. For its pride in our heritage and traditions. For its openness in sharing personal rituals and beliefs.

It's a book that reminds us that we belong to Country; that it doesn't belong to us. That we should only 'take what we need and no more' then 'give back what you can, and help your Mudgin (family) and Nura (country) when they need it.'

Durag words are scattered naturally throughout the text.

Seymour's beautiful, warm earthy illustrations create tender scenes of family, women and country. The background has a soft, dreamy quality which draws the eye towards the action around the sharp-focused baby on each page.

Jasmine is a member of the Durag Custodian Aboriginal Corporation. Her bio at Magabala Books also says that she is,

a descendant of Maria Lock, daughter of Yarramundi, the Boorooberongal elder who met Governor Phillip on the banks of the Hawkesbury in 1791. Maria was the first Aboriginal woman to be educated by the Blacktown Native Institute. She was married to carpenter and convict, Robert Lock and their union resulted in thousands of descendants who can all trace their Darug heritage back past Yarramundi.

When I was growing up, this kind of Indigenous family history and acknowledgement of local Indigenous heritage did not exist. In certain circles, there was a lament that this information had been lost, but most (white) people didn't see the point of remembering it.

But then colonial family history research took off during the 1980's, as so many of us searched for our convict ancestors and the UK county of our forebears. Suddenly (white) Australians were proud of their convict past as they (re)claimed a small patch of the UK as an ancestral 'home'.

It feels like it has taken a lot longer for pride in our Indigenous history to also be embraced. It is still an evolving idea in many circles. But books like this can help all of us to acknowledge, understand and respect the traditional heritage of our land. To learn some of the language, to have a window into another culture, to share a moment together - theses are all tiny, baby steps towards truth telling, reconciliation and treaty.

Sorry Day (2018) by Coral Vass and illustrated by Dub Leffler tells two stories told side by side - a modern story set on the lawns of Parliament House on the day that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for the Stolen Generation.

The older story provides a window into what it felt like to be stolen.

"Hide. HIDE!!" 
"White men  
The children trembled."

I have read sections of the Stolen Generation report and feel that I am open to seeing things from a perspective other than my own, but it is still confronting to realise that Aboriginal children today, and of old, automatically viewed all white men as people who they should fear. 

Dub Lefller is from the Bigambul and Mandandanji people of SW Queensland. His illustrations include a sepia style for the historic story, while the modern story is in full colour. A double page spread opens up at the end to combine the two styles. A timeline with the relevant facts and figures about the Stolen Generation and the events leading up to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's apology are provided at the end.

The book includes a foreward by Lee Joachim, Chair of Rumbalara Aboriginal Coop and Director of Research & Development for Yorta Yorta Nation Aboriginal Corporation.

It was Shortlisted for the 2019 CBCA Eve Pownall Award and a Winner of the Speech Pathologist Book of the Year 2018.

*August Update* Sorry Day won the Eve Pownall Information Book Award.

Little Bird's Day (2019) by Sally Morgan is a gorgeous picture book about a day in the life of a bird. Sally belongs to the Palyku people from the eastern Pilbara region of Western Australia and is best known for her 1987 autobiography, My Place.

However, for me, Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr's stunning illustrations are the main attraction of this book. Malibirr is a Yolgu man from the Ganalbingu clan who has recently been awarded the Inaugural Kestin Indigenous Illustrator's Award. His bio on Magabala Books also says that he,
is known for his paintings of Ganalbingu song lines as well as his mother’s W├Ągilak clan stories. Along with other members of his clan, Johnny keeps culture strong through painting, song, dance, and ceremony. Johnny lives in the remote East Arnhem Land community of Gapuwiyak, where he is Chair of the Gapuwiyak Culture and Arts Aboriginal Corporation.

The illustrations have a strong connection to nature, using a traditional colour palate and styles. The sense of movement on each page is gracefully achieved, with a pleasing balance of details and open space.

It's a lovely nature story for a 3+ audience, that lends itself to simple dramatisation and dance moves.

Welcome to Country (2016) by Aunty Joy Murphy and illustrated by Lisa Kennedy is one of my favourite picture books of the moment. It not only feels worthy (of awards and recognition) and timely, but it's also sensitively and beautifully executed.

The initial 'welcome to the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri People' is presented in both English and Wurundjeri language, with a another reminder to 'only take from this land what you can give back.' The book celebrates Indigenous language, culture and art and is another example of a book naturally introducing the local language to a wider audience. 

Aunty Joy Murphy Wandin AO is an Elder of the Wurundjeri People of Melbourne and surrounds. She is a storyteller who 'is passionate about using story to bring people together and as a conduit for understanding Aboriginal culture.'

Lisa Kennedy is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway People on the north-east coast of Tasmania.
It was then my challenge to find a way to express this living culture in a contemporary way in my illustrations. I wanted to show the physical and the spiritual connection to Country and Ancestors using imagery accessible to a wide audience.
  • Winner of the Environment Award for Children’s Literature
  • Winner Educational Publishing Award
  • CBCA Notable Book 
  • Short-listed for the CBCA Crichton Award 
  • Short-listed NSW Premier’s Literary Award
  • Short-listed Speech Pathology Book of the Year Award

Land of the Echidna People (2019) by Percy Trezise and illustrated by Mary Lavis.

I wasn't completely sure about including this book in my collection of Indigenous picture books. Neither Percy Trezise (1923 - 2005) nor Mary Lavis are Aboriginal. However in the end I decided that the story behind this book was interesting and a good conversation starter around the whole cultural appropriation topic.

The Land of the Echidna People is the eighth book in Trezise's Journey to the Great Lakes series,
first begun in 1996. The eight books follow Jacinda and his younger sister Lande, brother Jalmor and dog, Lasca after a violent storm has carried them away from them family. The series follows their journey through various countries as they try to make their way home. Many of the books contain maps that allow the reader to follow the path they took. The stories are full of adventure, danger, belonging and family.

The first seven books were illustrated by Trezise himself. Sadly he died before finishing the last book. Mary Lavis offered her services to the family to finish Trezise's work to bring this series to an end.
  • Home of the Kadimakara People (1996)
  • Land of the Dingo People (1997)
  • Land of the Emu People (1997)
  • Land of the Snake People (2000)
  • Land of the Brolga People (2001)
  • Land of the Magpie Goose People (2001)
  • Land of the Kangaroo People (2002)
  • Land of the Echidna People (2019)
Trezise devoted his life to Aboriginal causes. In 1956 he moved to Cairns as a pilot to be closer to Aboriginal people. Discoveries of rock art during the 60's by road crews, encouraged Trezise to use his aerial skills to search for other 'lost' rock art areas. One of the most significant finds was the Quinkin Rock Art, in Cape York Peninsula, the oldest art site in the world. He helped the local Aboriginal community to advocate for this area to become a national park administered by them. He also purchased two properties to preserve and protect further rock art sites.

There is absolutely no doubt that Trezise's heart was in the right place. Various interviews and articles, including an Australia Story episode on ABC TV, show his life-long passion and support of Aboriginal culture and art. His collaborative friendship with Mornington Island illustrator, Dick Roughsey (1920 - 1985), gave him access to many of the 'old people'. He was granted the Aboriginal name, Gubbaladalli from the people of Mornington Island Mission.

After his death, two of his sons have continued his work in the area.

I suspect if Roughsey had still be alive, they would have collaborated on this series of myth-making stories, as they did with so many books before. My understanding is that they shared creative ideas and painting techniques. Trezise's interest in Aboriginal culture was not just a passing thing. It was a passion and belief that guided his whole life.

Reading Race: Aboriginality in Australian Children's Literature (2001) by Clare Bradford. She discusses at length the 'complex cultural politics' evident in the Trezise/Roughsey relationship. She claims that their work sits somewhere between an older style assimilationist approach and the contemporary retelling of traditional stories, 'caught between times and between changing practices.'

She sees Trezise's post-Roughsey work as 'redolent not so much of of a set of formulae not too remote from Aboriginal traditions to function effectively for contemporary readers.'

Wilam: A Birrarung Story (2019) is another story by Aunty Joy Murphy with Andrew Kelly, illustrated by Lisa Kennedy.

Andrew Kelly is a Yarra Riverkeeper, who had this to say about the writing process with Aunty Joy on the Booktopia Q&A site,

The writing of the book was a process of bouncing words and ideas between myself and Aunty Joy. The first draft of the manuscript had many more words and it was a matter of whittling them down to a sufficient elegance. The other part I really liked was working with Aunty Joy on the language and creating a seamless flow between Woiwurrung words and English.

I love this trend in embracing and sharing Indigenous languages in a natural way. We should all be growing up, hearing and using Aboriginal words, not just in the names of our country towns and rivers, but in songs and everyday speech.

Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly use traditional language to name many known animals and natural things (like rain, tree, creek, river etc) in a beautifully illustrated story about the water cycle.

As ngua rises, Bunjil soars over mountain ash, flying higher and higher as the wind warms. Below, Birrarung begins its long winding path down to palem warreen. Wilam – home.

Kennedy has merged scenes of modern life into and around her central images of the natural environment. Gorgeous end papers bookend the story.

A glossary at the back provides definitions for all the Indigenous words used throughout the story.

My Culture and Me (2019) by Gregg Dreise.

Dreise is a descendant of the Kamilaroi and Euahlayi tribes, from south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales. As the Penguin blurb says, this is indeed a 'heartfelt and stirring story of cherishing and sustaining Indigenous cultures.'

One of the trends in children's picture books at the moment, is pride in Indigenous culture. They encourage Indigenous readers to reclaim, embrace and celebrate their cultural heritage. They allow non-Indigenous readers a window into another way of life. These stories embody a wonderful sense of sharing, acceptance and understanding with all Australians. 

It is such a long overdue idea that I'm hopeful this new trend is just one more signpost along the way to a more meaningful reconciliation process and a more 'fair and truthful relationship'* between us all. 
*Uluru Statement From the Heart

As an early childhood teacher in a previous life, I know the importance of the early years in laying down the foundation stones for a strong sense of self. Books like this help promote positive images and pride in culture. It is so important to have heroes and role models that look like you and sound like you in books. 

My one concern is that most Aboriginal children in Australia today, now live in cities and large urban areas, whereas most of these books are set in rural or remote areas. Country is such an important concept in Aboriginal culture and this shines through in all these books. But it's not only important to see people who look like you in books and stories, it's also important to have stories that reflect the lives you actually live in the places you are living them. 

Which leads me very nicely into Black Cockatoo (2018) by Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler

Mia is a 13-year-old girl from a remote community in the Kimberley. She is saddened by the loss of her brother as he distances himself from the family. She feels powerless to change the things she sees around her, until one day she rescues her totem animal, the dirran black cockatoo, and soon discovers her own inner strength.

When I was teaching, the Aboriginal children in my class, were mostly being cared for by their grandparents. In fact, I can only think of one family where this was not the case. Stories that reflect this situation are important for a sense of belonging, but also for opening up the wider discussion around the why's and wherefore's of this reality.

Black Cockatoo is a short story that oozes themes of connection, standing up for yourself, freedom (for birds, animals and humans), family, totem, animal rights, respect and complicated family relationships. It's contemporary, real-life nature is suitable for 10+ readers.

Jaru words are used throughout the story.

The story includes evocative black and white paintings, mostly of the cockatoo. There is a glossary of indigenous terms used in the story at the back of the book.

Carl Merrison is a Jaru man from Halls Creek. Carl was nominated for Australian of the Year in 2016.

His partner, Hakea Hustler was a high school English teacher at Halls Creek District High School. She is committed to Indigenous education with a particular focus on 'school engagement, English language and story as learning, understanding and empowerment.'

Their book has been Shortlisted for the 2019 ABIA's Small Publishers' Children's Book of the Year and the 2019 CBCA Younger Readers Book of the Year.

I had planned on including Young Dark Emu: A Truer History (2019) by Bruce Pascoe in this post, but 
1. it's first print run sold out in a matter of days, so I've been waiting for the reprint to turn up to read it properly. 
2. this post is already too long and 
3. I suspect Pascoe's book will require a longer response than the few paragraphs I could give it here!

For now I will leave you with the words of Michael Warren in his 2012 thesis, Exclusive Inclusion: Aboriginality, The 'Juggernaut' of Modernity and Australian National Identity
Contradiction is indeed a feature common to the relationship between Aboriginal people and white Australia.

Since creativity evolves from and is inspired by the contradictions in our lives, I'd say we can look forward to many more engaging, confronting Indigenous stories in the years to come.


  1. Bravo ...wonderful review with some great personal insights!
    You have a golden opportunity to read the books being in Australia.
    Enjoyed reading your thoughts as these books are not available in NL.


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