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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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!
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).
‘Twinkle, twinkle, little star’, from Merrily, Merrily: A Book of Songs and Rhymes. Nursing Mothers Association of Australia: Hawthorn, Vic., 1979
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.)
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this blog post contains names of people who have died.
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.