When my 5 year old grandson can have a fair go at explaining the illogicality of Terra Nullius to me, then I’d say the book which introduced him to the idea must have been pretty effective. And he’d never even heard of Adam Goodes, who’s the big name on the cover of ‘Somebody’s Land‘. It’s actually one of a cornucopia of such youthful tomes intended to offer various smatterings of First Nations knowledge or experience to young minds – and, perhaps, their parents!
Cathy Freeman’s also had a go at turning her athletic fame into literature in her ‘Born to Run‘ picture book.
First Nations books for kids are clearly an idea whose time has come. Which makes it all the more strange that this effort wasn’t noticed by the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, just announced. Nothing Indigenous on the short list of children’s books, so neither were the joint winners – ‘Fly on the Wall‘ by Remy Lai, and How to Make a Bird by Meg McKinlay, illustrated by Matt Ottley,
But other famous names drawn around the campfire are inveterate story-teller Boori Monty Prior, Sally ‘My Place’ Morgan and the artists Vincent Namatjira and Kunyi McInerney from the Deserts and Shirley Purdie from the East Kimberley.
Vincent, almost inevitably, is introducing kids to his great-great-grandfather, Albert, through both words and pictures. The weird thing is that the two paint absolutely nothing like each other – with Albert almost recognisable only in an early Vincent painting of the pair together, while The Queen – the subject of Vincent’s painting collected by the British Museum – is apparent only through the dignity with which she’s treated. The closest Vincent gets to the old familiar Hermannsburg style is in an emotional image towards the end when Albert was dying in hospital in Alice Springs. Vincent has magicked for him a view of the West Macdonnell peaks that Albert painted so often, “capturing the light and beauty of his Country”.
Shirley Purdie from Warrmun, is most famous for her landscapes and religious works. Here she tells ‘Ngaginybe Jarragbe’ in Gija and English – ‘My Story’. There’s a lovely feel for the Country and the ochre textures of her art, and children reading or being read the book will undoubtedly identify with the simplicity of her human and animal figures, all framed by familiar East Kimberley dotting. Sadly, there’s no effort to link the English text to the Gija, so no one’s going to pick up any language, though they may marvel at its complexity!
Which reminds me that I haven’t seen them myself, but a mob called Children’s Ground in Alice Springs has produced a suite of 10 books ranging from ‘My Body’ to the ‘Night Sky’ via ‘The Thirsty Little Mouse‘, designed to keep their kids in touch with the local Arrernte languages. They’ve even included ‘Our Languages’, featuring no fewer than 8 different town camp languages. “We want a place where our children are safe, where they can grow up to be healthy, educated and have a better future. Children’s Ground is the place for them. We are seeing our kids learning and loving to learn. Their families are walking beside them. We have hope for the future”, in the optimistic words of Lorrayne Gorey, Senior Arrernte Educator.
The Palyku Sally Morgan (from WA’s Pilbara region) has essayed a pair of books now with Yolngu illustrator Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr, Chair of the Gapuwiyak Art Centre. I guess you could call that multi-cultural, though I have to say that Morgan’s simple text seems outclassed by Malibirr’s thoroughly Arnhem illustrations. His rarrked croc and fish flying out of the water to grab a dragonfly on the cover of ‘The River‘ are truly dynamic, justifying his win for ‘Little Bird’s Day’ in the Kestin Indigenous Illustrator Awards.
I note a lot of word repetition in ‘The River‘ text, probably the product of Sally Morgan’s post-My Place psychology studies. And that may also be at the root of Adam Goodes’s and Ellie Laing’s success with ‘Somebody’s Land‘ (illustrated in a rather fay fashion by David Hardy). For as we learn of First Nations achievements over “thousands and thousands of years”, (with just a hint of ‘Dark Emu‘ to some of the claims) they are alternated with the words, “When the white people came, they called the land Terra Nullius. They said it was nobody’s land. But it was somebody’s land”. Pretty effective.
It’s surely more effective than Boori Monty Prior’s wacky rhymes in ‘Story Doctors‘, illustrated by the sort-of-Dreamtime presence of a scribbly man by Rita Sinclair. “Our future is the past/Will learning from it last?/Elementary is the focus/there is no hocus-pocus”. Perhaps it’s better in the recorded version, where you can hear Prior reading his stuff in Kunggandji and English. For the book needs two pages of explanation of how the slow flow of words eventually overcame Prior’s “Fear, anger, self-loathing, loss of worth and guilt”.
No Kunggandji in the book, though – unlike Ben Tyler and Diane Lucas’s ‘Walking in Gagudju Country’, where everything in the Bininj Tyler’s Kakadu monsoon forest home gets its Gagudju name. Everything except black termite nests; they have djang/ceremonial associations, “which we need to leave alone”. So there’s a lovely sense of the interlinking of Emma Long’s florid Nature with the wisdom of Tyler’s Elders. And the heightened observational powers of Aborigines will emerge for older kids.
Which leads to the pretty serious text in the autobiographical ‘Kunyi‘, by Kunyi June Anne McInerney. And if that seems like a lot of ‘Christian’ names, Kunyi gained a new moniker each time she was ‘taken further away’ from her Yankunytjatjara Mum and roots around Ooodnadatta. It began when she was 4 with the missionaries doing their best to wipe out heathen language and habits. But the kids instinctively rebelled, gathering in the sand pit to tell stories just as their grannies had done before them. And a pet cocky was taught to swear in Yankunytjatjara. Yami Lester visited, but Father Christmas was denied.
Christmas eventually came when Kunyi was 21 and refound her Mum. By that time, Mum had lost nine of her 12 kids – the other three died. Photographs show the black and white reality of the 71 year old McInerney’s lively paintings, which were created for an exhibition at Adelaide’s Migration Museum.
Finally, two clan-specific books. Merindah Funnell has come up with a delightful ‘Dharawal Counting and Colouring’ book for folks in The Shire – the Sutherland region of Sydney. Plenty of encounters with the language and a series of quiz questions. And the Gumbaynggirr elder, Aunty Shaa Smith has worked with the University of Newcastle’s Yandarra Centre to tell and almost-teen story of ‘The Dunggiirr Brothers and the Caring Song of the Whale’.
An Indigenous item should slip quite easily into the kids’ stockings this year.
There’s a link above to each book mentioned, apart from the generous collection from Indigenous publishers, Magabala. Here they are.
Artist: Vincent Namatjira, Kunyi McInerney, Shirley Purdie, Albert Namatjira, Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr,
Tags: Adam Goodes , albert namatjira , Ben Tyler , Boori Monty Prior , Childrens Ground , Jeremy Eccles , Johnny Warrkatja Malibirr , Kunyi McInerney , Merindah Funnell , Sally Morgan , shirley purdie , Vincent Namatjira ,