More Australian History for Australian Kids … This Time from an Indigenous Perspective

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.

Across Time and Place

Cover image courtesy of Hardie Grant

Welcome to Country: An Introduction to Our First People for Young Australians by Marcia Langton. Richmond, Vic.:  Hardie Grant Publishing, 2019. 224p. Ages 12+

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.

Cover image courtesy of Batchelor Institute

Nyoongar Boodja – Koomba Bardip Kooratan : Nyoongar Land – Long Story Short by Francesca Robertson. Batchelor, NT: Batchelor Institute Press, [2017]. 44p. Ages 11+

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)’.

Nyoongar Boodja can be read in combination with the freely available documentary film, Synergies: Walking Together – Belonging to Country.

Cover image courtesy of Little Hare Books

Coming Home to Country by Bronwyn Bancroft. Richmond, Vic.:  Little Hare Books, 2020. Picture book. Ages 5+

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.’

‘This is home. This is peace.’ – Coming Home to Country

Cover image courtesy of Magabala Books

Young Dark Emu: A Truer History by Bruce Pascoe.  Broome, WA: Magabala Books, 2019.  64p. Ages 10+

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.

Young Dark Emu is a richly illustrated children’s version of Pascoe’s 2014 award-winning Dark Emu also published by Magabala Books. Complementing Dark Emu, Magabala has prepared Dark Emu in the Classroom: Teacher Resources for High School Geography for use with Years 9–10.

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)

Teachers’ notes, for use with Years 4–5, available from the publisher’s website and, for use with Year 6, from Reading Australia.

Cover image courtesy of Walker Books

Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia by Joy Murphy, Andrew Kelly and Lisa Kennedy.  Newtown, NSW:  Walker Books, 2019. Picture book. Ages 6+

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)

Teachers’ notes available from the publisher’s website.

Glossary entry – Birrarung Wiram

Post-contact History

Frontier and Other Wars

Cover image courtesy of Magabala Books

Jandamarra and the Bunuba Resistance by Howard Pedersen and Banjo Woorunmurra. Broome, WA:  Magabala Books, 1995 & 2016. 228p. Ages 14+

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

Teachers’ notes available from the publisher’s website and from Reading Australia.

Cover image courtesy of Magabala Books

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)

Teachers’ notes, for use with Years 3–6, available from the publisher’s website and, for use with Year 6, from Reading Australia.

Home from the war – Alfred’s War

The Stolen Generations

Cover image courtesy of UQP

Home to Mother: A Younger Reader’s Edition of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington (text) and Janice Lyndon (illus.).  St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 2006. 112p. Ages 9+

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).

Teachers’ notes available from the publisher’s website.

Route taken by Molly, Gracie and Daisy (dotted line) – Home to Mother

Cover image courtesy of UQP

Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence by Doris Pilkington. St Lucia, Qld:  University of Queensland Press, 1996, 2014. 160p. Ages 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.

Teachers’ notes, for use with Year 9, available from Reading Australia.

Cover image courtesy of Fremantle Press

Sister Heart by Sally Morgan. Fremantle, WA:  Fremantle Press, 2015. 250p. Ages 10+

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).

Royalties from sales of Sister Heart are directed to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

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)

Teachers’ notes, for use with Years 4–9, available from the publisher’s website.

Cover image courtesy of Scholastic Australia

Who Am I? The Diary of Mary Talence – 1937 by Anita Heiss. Gosford, NSW: Omnibus Books, 2001, 2010 & 2020. 208p. Ages 9+

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.

Teachers’ notes available from the publisher’s website.

The Apology

Cover image courtesy of NLA Publishing

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)

Teachers’ notes, for use with Year 6, available from Reading Australia.

The Road Ahead

Cover image courtesy of Hardie Grant

Finding Our Heart: A Story about the Uluru Statement for Young Australians by Thomas Mayor and Blak Douglas.  Richmond, Victoria: Hardie Grant, 2020. Picture book. Ages 5+

Thomas Mayor is a Zenadth Kes (Torres Strait) man who was born and raised on Larrakia land in Darwin. He was a participant in the Uluru Convention and his advocacy for the Convention’s Uluru Statement has, in part, found voice in two books: Finding the Heart of the Nation: The Journey of the Uluru Statement towards Voice, Treaty and Truth and a children’s version, Finding Our Heart.

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 Heart here.

‘We invited everyone to listen’ – Finding Our Heart

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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.

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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.

More book suggestions are available via AustLit’s ‘Necessary Conversations – Books for Working through Hard Issues’.

Further ideas for exploring the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander story of Australia:

Revealing Lives—Hiram and Me

My grandfather returned from the First World War in 1919. He worked ferociously for 18 years to build a family, a career, a community, a nation. And then he died.

I never knew him.

Getting to know you

I’m reaching an age where family history beckons me. I have time to ask questions now. Who were the people who came before me, what shaped their lives, how have their lives shaped mine? Today, it’s easy to answer basic questions about living people. Our lives are documented and captured ad nauseum, often unwittingly and unknowingly. My brother-in-law, for example, doesn’t own any electronic devices and he’s never used a computer. He might be surprised at the extent of his online presence—news articles, photographs, community records—none of it intentionally generated by him. Even without Twitter or Instagram or Facebook accounts, he’s easy to ‘find’.

Compare that with my grandfather’s life a century ago. No internet, no mobile phones, even cameras are a novelty. How do I come to know this man? His name is Hiram.

The curated life

I have an assortment of physical items that once belonged to my grandfather. Among them, a certificate verifying his membership of the Juvenile Order of Rechabites and a card outlining the rules for his local Harriers club. There’s the receipt from the hotel where he and my grandmother spent their first night as a married couple, and a business card for the real estate agency he set up with his brother-in-law. There are pictures of the town carnival he helped establish and his handwritten notes for speeches delivered at political rallies. Most numerous of all is the memorabilia from his war service: colour patches, medallions, poems, photographs, postcards, international currency, leave passes.

What strikes me is how intentional this collection is. It has already been carefully curated (and censored?) to provide a version of his life; each item deliberately retained by my grandfather, then by his wife and, later, by their daughter—my mother. It’s private and personal.

The subject in the frame—changing perspectives

Through the objects in the curated collection, I can discover what my grandfather considered important. I can see how he chose to be seen—a teetotaller, an amateur athlete, a husband, a businessman, a community leader, a political activist, a serviceman. But there are other sources of information, too. Does the material they hold align with the image he preserved?

There is the public record—family notices in newspapers, published obituaries, cemetery listings and the like, and there are official sources—certificates from Births, Deaths and Marriages; military service records; repatriation files.

In both the public and official sources, Hiram loses agency. Another person or organisation takes charge of his life narrative, and their intentions differ from his. It’s like changing the lens in a camera—the subject in the frame remains the same, but the perspective shifts.

Let me give you an example. There is a whispered story in my family, gleaned from relatives long dead. The story goes that my grandfather died from the effects of mustard gas poisoning, sustained during the war. My understanding is that the longer-term health effects of mustard gas inhalation are respiratory disease and, potentially, lung cancer. Hiram’s death certificate—an official source—records his cause of death as kidney cirrhosis, hyperpiesia (persistent high blood pressure) and heart failure. His lungs were fine. So what is the story behind the bare facts? Is the family’s mustard gas tale a furphy and, if it is, why was it told?

 Change the lens again and yet another perspective is revealed.

Hiram’s Repatriation Commission files detail his medical condition over a period of 20 years. His reported symptoms include headaches, insomnia, ‘nerve trouble’ and a ‘feeling of depression’. The symptoms are attributed to the ‘strain of active service’. (His treatment comprised tonics, sedatives and liniments.) Am I now looking at a man diminished by shell shock, or what, today, I would call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder? No hint of this possibility exists in the brief obituary published in the Melbourne Age. Lauded in this source for his community engagement, Hiram is quintessentially a ‘well known member of the 59th Battalion’.

The privately collated collection, the whispered family folklore, the public record, and the official sources offer variant versions of one life.

The revelations of time travel

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

In his book The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft, Tom Griffiths writes: ‘History … is a powerful disciplinary tool in the search for truth. But its greatest virtue is uncompromising complexity. As we study the past it changes before our eyes, affected by our gaze and eluding definitive capture … The art of time travel is to maintain a critical poise and grace in this dizzy space. There is a further hazard: we never return to exactly the same present from which we left, for time cycles on remorselessly even when we seek to defy it. And in the course of our quest we find that we, too, have changed’ (p. 321).

The question I posed initially about my grandfather was: ‘How do I come to know this man?’ One answer is, ‘I can’t’. I can know about him, using the historian’s tools. I can glean something of what he thought significant in his own life, and I can see how he is rendered by others. The essential Hiram may be undiscoverable.

But perhaps there is another question worth asking.

As I seek to rediscover an ancestral life, how might that quest change me?

There may be hazards, as Griffiths warns, in time travel. There could also be gifts.

Links and sources

Useful starting points for information on the lives of 19th and 20th century Australians include:

  • Trove: a gathering of content from ‘libraries, museums, archives, repositories and other research and collecting organisations big and small’
  • Family History’, National Library of Australia: a research guide that includes links to directories; almanacs; electoral rolls; Births, Deaths and Marriages registers; and answers to ‘Frequently Asked Questions’
  • Ryerson Index: an ‘index to death notices appearing in Australian newspapers’ from 1803 onwards
  • National Archives of Australia
  • Australian Dictionary of Biography
  • And, for information on returned services personnel, the Australian War Memorial

Mustard Gas’, World Health Organisation, 2011

Tom Griffiths. The Art of Time Travel: Historians and Their Craft. Carlton, Vic.: Black Inc., 2016