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.
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’.
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’.
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.’
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.’
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.’
Australian history written for Australian kids… Whose history? Whose Australia?
I have written previously about Australian history books for children. At the time, I thought my selection was well-rounded and comprehensive. I was wrong. Almost entirely absent from my book selections were the lives and stories of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
The books listed below begin to redress the balance. All are written and/or illustrated by Indigenous Australians. Many have won or been shortlisted for major awards and most have freely available teachers’ notes. (The age recommendations provided are a guide only.)
Note: newly published titles will be added to this post on an occasional basis. Latest update: June 2022.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog post contains names of people who have died.
Across Time and Place
Welcome to Our Country by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy. Crows Nest: Allen & Unwin, 2022– . Ages 3+ (Series)
‘A five-book series designed to connect young children, parents and educators with First Nations history and culture’ (Welcome to Our Country website).
The series begins with Ceremony, a cheeky and fun-filled introduction to the ceremonial world of the Adnyamathanha people. A QR code in the book links to Adam Goodes reading the story, enabling readers to hear the correct pronunciation of Adnyamathanha words.
The second book in the series is Somebody’s Land, an introduction to First Nations history and the term terra nullius.
Awards: 2022 Karajia Award for Children’s Literature (Wilderness Society), Somebody’s Land shortlisted.
Valuable educational resources together with a guide for parents and carers are available via the series’ website.
Australia is a country ‘alive with the long history of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, our cultures and our stories’ (p. vii), says Marcia Langton, reminding us that ‘the vast majority of human history on this continent [Australia] is that of the First peoples’ (p. 1).
Langton, who has held the Foundation Chair of Australian Indigenous Studies at the University of Melbourne since 2000, begins her book with prehistory and the arrival of small populations of humans on the Australian continent. Other chapters cover post-colonial history (including massacres), language, kinship, cultural and artistic practices, native title and the Stolen Generations.
Welcome to Country includes a wide range of photographs, illustrations and diagrams. There is also a glossary (explaining terms like Dreaming, Makarrata and terra nullius), a list of references and further resources.
Teachers’ notes, for use with Years 7–10, are available by following the link on the publisher’s website.
Nyoongar Boodja is ‘an illustrated history of Nyoongar people and land from the Dreamtime to approximately 7,000 years ago’. It brings together Nyoongar stories, geology and climate history. Each re-telling of a Nyoongar story is accompanied by a section titled ‘Current Scientific Interpretation’.
‘When Nyoongar people talk about their history’, writes Robertson, ‘they say that they have been here Kalykool (always)’.
Bundjalung woman Bronwyn Bancroft has written and/or illustrated over 40 books for children. The first-person narrative in Coming Home to Country reveals something of Bancroft’s understanding of time and continuity and history: ‘I sleep across dreams of generations past, woven with journeys for the future.’
Bancroft’s illustrations are bold and bright, echoing her vivid text: ‘I ease into a palette of leaf green, red rust, yellow ochre, deep blue and crimson and walk with our people.’
Bruce Pascoe re-examines the records of early ‘European explorers and settlers’ whose ‘eyewitness accounts tell us how Aboriginal people lived’. These accounts enable readers ‘to consider a different view of how Australia was before the British arrived. They offer a truer history’ (9).
Chapters focus on Aboriginal agriculture and aquaculture, housing, food storage, the use of fire as a land management tool, and sacred places. A bibliography and index are included.
Awards: 2020 Australian Booksellers Association Kids’ Reading Guide, Children’s Book of the Year (winner); 2020 ABIA Book of the Year for Younger Children (ages 7-12) (shortlisted); 2020 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Eve Pownall Award (winner); and 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Literature in the (shortlisted)
Wilam traces the life of Birrarung (the Yarra River) ‘from its source to its mouth; from its pre-history to the present day’ (publisher’s blurb). The river flows through the land, winding past creatures and people and, eventually, buildings. It is a witness, across time, to the environment.
Lisa Kennedy’s illustrations, covering the full width and height of every page, are superb. Within the richly detailed artwork, the text finds space to nestle.
Senior Wurundjeri elder Aunty Joy Murphy and riverkeeper Andrew Kelly use Woiwurrung words throughout the book. Although Woiwurrung language ‘does not translate directly into English’, a glossary enables the reader to discover meaning and to practice pronunciation.
Awards: 2020 Educational Publishing Awards Australia, Primary (shortlisted); 2020 The Wilderness Society Environment Award for Children’s Literature, Picture Books (shortlisted); 2020 CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (shortlisted); 2020 New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards, Patricia Wrightson Prize for Children’s Books (shortlisted); 2020 Australian Book Industry Awards (ABIA), Children’s Picture Book of the Year (shortlisted)
The true story of Aboriginal resistance fighter Jandamarra told via a collaboration between the non-Indigenous historian Howard Pedersen and the senior Bunuba custodian of the Jandamarra story Banjo Woorunmurra. (Parts of Jandamarra’s story are secret and cannot be written for a public audience.)
As well as recounting a remarkable story, Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance provides an opportunity to reflect on the use and interpretation of primary sources in the study of history. Pedersen compares the Bunuba account of Jandamarra’s life with the fictional version in Ion Idriess’s novel Outlaws of the Leopolds (1952). Pedersen offers this salutary reflection: ‘I read the same police files on which Idriess based his book but interpreted these primary sources somewhat differently. Idriess did not mention the massacres by police and settlers that Banjo and other Aboriginal people had described to me in detail. Nor did Idriess place the story in the context of an invasion, with Jandamarra and other Aboriginal people defending their lands and religion against brutal assault’ (9-10).
Awards: 1996 WA Premier’s Awards – Book of the Year Award and Historical & Critical Studies Award
Alfred’s War by Rachel Bin Salleh and Samantha Fry. Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2018. Picture book. Ages 7+
Alfred, an Indigenous man, enlists to serve in World War 1. He is injured in France and returns to Australia. Once home, Alfred’s ‘bravery was not a part of the nation’s remembering. He was one of the forgotten soldiers.’ Suffering the effects of shell shock, Alfred adopts the solitary life of an itinerant, walking the back roads with his billy tied to his swag.
Fry’s illustrations, featuring muted yellows, greys and greens, convey sadness, loss and loneliness.
A double page spread at the end of the book, ‘Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Veterans’, provides factual information about the treatment of Indigenous returned services personnel.
Awards: 2018 Speech Pathology Australia’s Book of the Year (8–10 Years category) (shortlisted); 2020 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Indigenous Writer’s Prize (shortlisted)
Pilkington’s younger reader’s version of her 2002 book Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (see below) begins in the Western Desert in 1931 when a ‘white man in khaki clothing’ arrives at an Aboriginal campsite saying: ‘I’ve come to take Molly, Gracie and Daisy, the three half-caste girls, with me to send them to school down south’ (5). The girls, aged 14, 12 and 9, are taken by train and ship to the Moore River Native Settlement but Molly, the eldest, plots their escape. ‘Bukala! Bukala! (hurry, hurry)’, she tells the younger girls. Acting on Molly’s instructions, the girls take ‘their first steps on what would prove to be the longest walk by three young girls in the history of this country’ (14).
Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence opens with the Nyungar people’s early encounters with white people – whalers, sealers and soldiers, followed by settlers, law enforcement officers, pastoralists and drovers. Against this backdrop, Pilkington tells the story of Molly (Pilkington’s mother), Gracie and Daisy – three girls who refuse to accept their removal from their country and families.
Taken from her home in north-western Australia, a young girl is sent to an institution far to the south. Her language name is discarded and she is re-named Annie. Displaced and disoriented in a new environment, Annie is befriended by Janey and Janey’s little brother Tim. Only Annie’s dreams keep her connected to family.
Written in the first person, Annie speaks directly to the reader with a quiet power and unnerving wisdom. Heartsore, she sums up an encounter with a white nurse: ‘Her voice is kind / but her thinking is crooked’ (231).
Awards: 2016 Prime Minister’s Literary Award, Children’s Fiction (winner); 2016 Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Awards, Book of the Year: Younger Readers (honour book); 2016 Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, Prize for Young Adult Fiction (shortlisted); 2016 Inky Awards (shortlisted); 2017 West Australian Young Readers’ Book Award, Younger Readers (shortlisted); Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature, Children’s Literature (shortlisted)
Five-year-old Mary Talence was removed from her family and taken to the Bomaderry Aboriginal Children’s Home. Another five years on, Mary begins a diary to record the events, people, puzzles and upheavals of her life.
Repeatedly told to ‘forget about the past’ (65), Mary is sent from the children’s home to live with a family in the Sydney suburb of St Ives. It is here that she meets an Aboriginal woman, Dot, a domestic servant also living in the area. A bond is formed and Mary discovers that Dot knew some of Mary’s sisters and that Mary’s people are Wiradjuri.
Who Am I? is part of Scholastic’s historical fiction series, My Australian Story. Author Anita Heiss, a Wiradjuri woman herself, mingles Mary’s daily round of family frictions, perplexing school lessons and boring church services with factual details from the era. (An example of the latter sees Mary enter the competition to sing and record the Aeroplane Jelly song.)
It is through Dot that Mary learns about the Aborigines Progressive Association and the 1938 Day of Mourning conference, organised to coincide with the 150th anniversary of white settlement. The contrast between Mary’s experience at the conference and that of her white family at the sesquicentennial commemorations is unmistakable.
Sorry Day by Coral Vass and Dub Leffler. Canberra, ACT: NLA Publishing, 2018. Picture book. Ages 7+
Illustrated by Dub Leffler, a descendant of the Bigambul people of south-west Queensland, Sorry Day blends the stories of a mother and daughter, both named Maggie, who each experience separation from their mothers. The younger Maggie is briefly separated from her mother (the older Maggie) on the day of the Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples; the older Maggie remembers her extended experience of forced separation.
Leffler’s illustrations guide the reader between the two stories – young Maggie’s separation is shown in a full colour palette; her mother’s memories are rendered in sepia tones. The two stories are also distinguished from each other through the use of roman type for young Maggie’s tale and italics for her mother’s story. The book closes with factual information about National Sorry Day.
You can watch and listen to Leffler read Sorry Day and discuss the meaning of National Sorry Day here.
Awards: 2020 REAL Awards, Picture Story Books, (shortlisted); 2019 CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Eve Pownall Award for Information Books (winner); 2018 Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Awards, Best Book for Language Development, Indigenous Children (winner)
In order to ‘find our heart’, Mayor argues, we need to start with the truth: ‘Before this place was called Australia, we Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were here for thousands and thousands of years … When Captain Cook arrived, our way of life changed and we were treated badly and ignored.’
Finding Our Heart includes the AIATSIS Map of Indigenous Australia and it ends with sections titled ‘What you need to know about the Uluru Statement from the Heart’ and ‘How you can help find our heart’ (for example, learn some words from a First Nations language, learn about the different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander seasons).
You can watch and listen to Mayor reading Finding Our Hearthere.
As a white Australian, absorbing the text and images of the books listed here, I have a growing sense that the past is not a foreign country. The past is present, in country.
Links and Sources
I read each of the books discussed in this blog post at the National Library of Australia. As always, I am grateful for Library’s extensive collection and its service to readers.
A number of the books cited above are published by Magabala Books, an Indigenous publishing house based in Broome, Western Australia. Magabala is ‘Aboriginal owned and led’, and aims to ‘celebrate and nurture the talent and diversity of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices’. To learn more about Magabala Books, visit the website.