After Story – Della’s Discoveries

Here’s how the story starts: Jasmine’s friend, Bex, wants to write some articles about English literary sites to launch her career in travel journalism. Bex co-opts Jasmine to accompany her to the UK and offers to pay half Jasmine’s fare. Six weeks prior to departure, Bex lands a new job; Jasmine now has a spare ticket. Jasmine asks her mum, Della – who has rarely left her hometown – to go on the trip with her.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘People often assume I chose to go to law school because of what happened to my sister.’ (Jasmine)

Here’s how the story starts: One night, while Della and her daughters are sleeping, seven-year-old Brittany is snatched from her home.

Here’s how the story starts: ‘I was fifteen years old when I ran away from home … I came across Jimmy coming back from the river.’ (Della)

Here’s how the story starts: ‘A long time ago before there had been any death…’ (Cultural story told by Della)

After Story is a book with many beginnings and many stories – stories of the past and the present, of the living and the dead. The novel unfolds over the course of 11 days and across 65,000 years. It lives within time and outside time.

Which Story To Choose?

Multiple themes unfold in Larissa Behrendt’s After Story: love, loss and grief; family violence and intergenerational trauma; the Australian justice system; the English literary canon; and ‘deep listening’ and the wisdom of elders. I’m going to focus on just one strand: Della’s discoveries on her trip with Jasmine.

Map of Della and Jasmine’s tour

Discovery #1 – Names and Dates

Unlike university-educated Jasmine, Della ‘wasn’t very good at learning in school’. She had dropped out of formal education by the age of 16 when she gave birth to her first child. But Della has a keen sense of curiosity. Early in their 11-day tour, Jasmine buys Della a notebook so her mother can write down the things she wants to remember.

Della starts to fill the notebook with factual snippets: ‘Great Fire. 1666. Few lives lost’, ‘Charles Dickens – 12 years old. Blacking = shoe polish’, ‘Winchester – very old. Cathedral. 900 years like yew tree’.

Winchester Cathedral, Choir Stalls

On Day 2 of the tour, she jots down: ‘Ye Old Cheshire Cheese public house’. She has learnt that an earlier pub on the site burnt down in the great fire of 1666 – a fact she had recorded the previous day. ‘See, that’s why you write stuff down’, she thinks. ‘Then you can join the dots and see how everything’s connected.’

Discovery #2 – ‘Helping something to grow’

The function of the notebook expands as the tour proceeds. Wandering the grounds of Vita Sackville-West’s Sissinghurst Castle sparks Della’s interest in gardening. The idea of ‘helping something to grow’ appeals to her. She decides that, when she returns to Australia, she will start a garden at her own home even though no-one in her street has a garden ‘except for Aunty Elaine, and since she’d passed away most of her plants seemed to have died’.

Because she is a complete novice, Della purchases ‘a good book for starters’ at the castle’s gift shop. As the tour continues, she dips in and out of the book, learning about seeds and soil and compost, and about air plants and cut-and-come-again plants and companion plants. She begins listing memory prompts at the back of her notebook: ‘Aunty Elaine’s flowers?’, ‘Easy to grow?’, ‘Watering can’, ‘Bucket’.

Sissinghurst Castle Gardens by Len Williams. Licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.

Throughout the tour, Della takes herself out of buildings and into gardens, from Dean Garnier’s Garden at Winchester Cathedral and the garden at Thomas Hardy’s Cottage in Higher Bockhampton to the hotel garden at her Bath hotel and the Knot Garden at Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon. (“knot garden”, not “not garden”’, she writes in her notebook – ‘my own little joke’.)

Although the tour’s focus is literary, Della observes:

If there was one thing I was learning today it wasn’t about books but about how lovely a garden could be. I wondered that I had never thought it until now but I guess that’s what seeing the world is all about – opening your eyes to things you haven’t seen before.

Discovery #3 – Wondering while Wandering

Travelling by bus and on foot offers the chance to reflect. Time and again, Della pauses to wonder:

  • seeing the flourishing garden at the bombed ruins of London’s St Dunstan-in-the-East, now wedged between skyscrapers, she wonders about remnant ‘pieces of history’ and then reflects further on the 65,000-plus years over which Aboriginal people have lived in Australia. ‘When you think of it, even things from Shakespeare’s day are all kind of new.’
St Dunstan-in-the-East, London
  • walking through Oxford, with its ‘bell towers and church steeples, narrow lanes and gardens, markets and rivers’, Della muses: ‘as soon as you arrived here to study you must have felt you were special and in your own little world’. This thought then prompts her to wonder what it must have been like for Jasmine when she first moved to the city to study. ‘I felt a little ashamed that until that moment I’d never thought much about what a big change and adjustment it must have been for her to go to such a new place like a university … I was more focused on how much I missed her when she left, so I didn’t think about it from any sides other than just mine.’
Oxford street, looking towards the former All Saint’s Church, now part of Lincoln College
  • visiting Cambridge, with its ‘big buildings and big thoughts’, Della wonders ‘why the British didn’t think they had everything they needed right here in their own country so had to go and claim someone else’s’ and, having done so, why try ‘to erase what was there before. I guess because you think one is superior to the other’. But, if you were ‘really smart’, you’d value Aunty Elaine’s kind of knowledge ‘about plants and medicines and the stars’.

Discovery #4 – Cultural Stories and Practices

‘I’m beginning to understand why you might [travel] now I’ve done it, and can see how much you learn’, thinks Della. But, in truth, it’s a recognition of the importance of what she already knows that is Della’s greatest discovery on her trip.

Prompted by the sights she sees, Della’s memories of cultural stories and practices re-surface. She begins to add another kind of entry to her notebook – snatches of the old cultural stories that have been passed down by Aunty Elaine.

On the final day of the trip, Della and Jasmine visit the Museum of London where Della learns more about the Great Fire of 1666: ‘that fire was an angry one – violent, hot and intense’. Her thoughts continue: ‘Back home, fire was used to keep the land healthy – a cool fire could help clear the undergrowth. I thought again about how Aunty Elaine said fire helped some plants regenerate … I tried to remember all I could about it. There were complex rules about where fire burning should take place … I took a minute to write everything I could remember into my notebook.’

Walking from the museum to the British Library, Jasmine tells Della how much she enjoyed Aunty Elaine’s stories and suggests to her mother, ‘we should write them down’. Della instantly realises: ‘It was that thing when you have already been doing something but until someone puts it into words, you don’t quite realise that it’s what you’ve been thinking.’

I thought of all those bits and pieces I’d been noting down and now it seemed like somehow the spirits had brought it all together and planted this idea that we should record it … I can’t tell you how much I liked the idea.

Discovery #5 – A Tip for Novice Travellers

Finally, on a slightly frivolous note, here’s one last discovery: with an overcrowded suitcase and a constant urge to buy gifts to take home, Della learns how to roll clothes so they take up less packing space – a not inconsequential skill, especially now she’s had a taste of travel and thinks she might enjoy more.

‘I’ve liked the trip’, she tells her sister Kiki, ‘I wouldn’t mind another one.’

Links and Sources

A garden in Bath frequented by Jane Austen.

Feel the Beat in Books – Introducing Babies to Music

Music – for pleasure and enjoyment, for its role in child development, for its emotive possibilities, for its capacity to connect – belongs in every child’s life.

And books can play a part in introducing children to music, starting with their very first board books.

Think about the basic elements of music – beat (the underlying, repeating pulse), rhythm (the pattern of sound and silence into notes of different length), tempo (speed), pitch (the range of high and low notes), dynamics (the variety of loud and soft notes) and tonal colour (the quality of the sound). Now think about the way we use our voices when we read and tell stories aloud. Each of the musical elements can be – should be – present when we read out loud.

Beat (pulse)

The simplest way to start feeling the beat in books is with nursery rhymes.

If you recite ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’ to yourself, you’ll notice it has a straightforward 4/4 beat: Twin (1) – kle (2), twin (3) – kle (4), lit (1) – tle (2) star (3, 4), how (1) I (2) won (3) – der (4) what (1) you (2) are (3, 4).

‘Twinkle, Twinkle, little star’ (Traditional)

Whether you say the words or sing them, feel the underlying pulse. Babies are already familiar with a regular beat – they’ve been listening to their mother’s heartbeat in the womb.

Rhythm (pattern)

Adding some variety to a steady beat introduces rhythm.

Board books sometimes adapt traditional songs to give them a localised or more modern flavour while still maintaining the rhythm of the original. Matt Shanks’ Old MacDonald Had a Farm, for example, puts a twist on the usual collection farm animals by replacing them with Australian fauna. The emu has a peck-peck here and a peck-peck there. Here a peck, there a peck, everywhere a peck-peck!

Old MacDonald Had a Farm (2020)

Some of words in Old MacDonald’s rhythm maintain a steady, even beat, but then there’s a longer note on the ‘O’ of Ei-I-Ei-I-O and plenty of shorter notes when the emu starts pecking. Now there’s a rhythm overlaying the beat.

Tempo (speed)

Let’s change it up some more by varying the speed at which the words in a book are read.

Incorporating tempo into books for the very young is not always easy, but one book that achieves it with gusto is British author, and former Children’s Laureate, Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, an adaptation of old American folk song.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is a simple ‘there and back again’ tale – a family leaves on an outing, reaches its goal and returns home – but the obstacles encountered along the way change the pace at which the text is read.

The tempo is relaxed on the outward journey although trekking through the long wavy grass is quicker than squelching through the thick oozy mud. On the way home, with a bear in pursuit, the storytelling speeds up and the text is read at a headlong, rushing pace.

The evocative travelling sounds from the outward journey, like Tiptoe! Tiptoe! Tiptoe! (through the cave), and Stumble trip! Stumble trip! Stumble Trip! (through the forest) and Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! Squelch squerch! (through the mud) lend themselves to both slow, drawn-out readings on the first encounter and fast, rapid-fire renderings on the return trip.

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt (1993, 2015)

Pitch (high/low)

Adding pitch to rhythm creates the melody.

Where Is the Green Sheep?, by multi-award winning South Australian Mem Fox (text) and gifted artist and cartoonist Judy Horacek (illustrations), creates multiple opportunities for pitch variation.

When reading the text for the up sheep and the down sheep, you’ll easily recognise where to pitch your voice.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

It’s important to ‘read’ the clues in the illustrations as well as the words in the text.

Judy Horacek’s train sheep is pictured in a carriage with an animal menagerie. Does the dog make a high-pitched, yappy sound or a low-pitched growl? Does the cat purr contentedly in a lower register or spit and snarl higher up the scale?

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

And what about the swing sheep and the slide sheep? Imagine the slippery, slide-y sound of a trombone and stretch out the words out as you read. The words swing sheep might start low and rise higher, the words slide sheep could sound from high to low, matching the sheep’s descent.

Dynamics (loud/soft)

As a music primer in board book form, Where Is the Green Sheep? truly ‘tops the charts’. In addition to its in-built melody (based on a regular, repeating rhythm and the opportunities to create pitch variation), it lends itself to choice in dynamics.

Judy Horacek’s multi-talented band sheep plays the drums, the tuba, the guitar and the xylophone giving the reader a chance to use a range of voices.

Where Is the Green Sheep? (2006)

Perhaps the drum will be loud and thumping; the tuba low and throbbing; the guitar gently lilting; and the xylophone quietly tinkling.

The scared sheep might be read with a squeaky tremolo and the brave sheep with a booming confidence.

And, at the story’s end, the tempo slows and the text instructs the reader to Turn the page quietly. In a hushed voice, the reader closes with: Here’s our green sheep, fast asleep.

Tonal Colour (sound quality)

Darwin-based Nick Bland’s The Very Noisy Bear (part of his larger Cranky Bear series) sees Bear wakened from his hibernating sleep in the Jingle Jangle Forest. One by one, the other animals offer Bear the chance to try their instruments (on which they are, seemingly, quite proficient). Bear bangs and bashes on the drums, strums wildly on the guitar, and screeches on the trumpet.

The ‘quality’ of sound produced by Bear generates a mass exodus of animals. Eventually, sheep wonders:

Have you ever tried a microphone? It’s just a simple thing.

You only have to hold it up, clear your throat and sing!

Accompanied by the jungle band, Bear’s earlier cacophonous sounds transform into a vocal performance that leaves the audience calling for more.

The Very Noisy Bear (2016)

The Very Noisy Bear is a reminder that instruments can be played in different ways. Each one can produce sounds in a variety of tones (some pleasing; some … not so much). Reading Bland’s Bear book, you can make as many ‘unmusical’ sounds as you like. You’re limited only by your imagination.

You don’t need a formal qualification to introduce music to children. Just like Bear, if you have a voice, you have an instrument – play away!

Links and Sources

There are a number of ways to delineate the basic elements of music. I have used the elements listed by Amanda Niland in Music and Children (2015), a book written for Early Childhood Australia.

The books mentioned in this blog post are all suitable for children in the 0–3 age group. As children grow towards pre-school age, the range of music-themed books expands and the storytelling incorporates a further musical element – harmony.

Meerkat Choir (2017)

You can start exploring the harmonic aspect of music with Nicki Greenberg’s madcap Meerkat Choir (2017).

If you want to move on to orchestration and the emotional riches of music, try Clare McFadden’s Crichton Award-winning The Flying Orchestra (2010, 2017).

The Flying Orchestra (2017)

Image sources:

  • ‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, from Merrily, Merrily: A Book of Songs and Rhymes. Nursing Mothers Association of Australia: Hawthorn, Vic., 1979
  • Old MacDonald Had a Farm by Matt Shanks (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2020
  • We’re Going on a Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen (text) and Helen Oxenbury (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2015
  • Where Is the Green Sheep? by Mem Fox (text) and Judy Horacek (illus.). Walker Books Australia: Newtown, NSW, 2006
  • The Very Noisy Bear by Nick Bland (text and illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
  • Meerkat Choir by Nicki Greenberg (text and illus.). Allen & Unwin: Crows Nest, NSW, 2017
  • The Flying Orchestra by Clare McFadden (text and illus.). University of Queensland Press: St Lucia, Qld, 2017
  • Conga Dance by Amanda Tarlau (text) and Jane Chapman (illus.). Scholastic Australia: Gosford, NSW, 2016
Conga Dance (2016)