The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season began early. Weeks turned to months and the fires expanded and intensified. Words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unprecedented’ peppered the media reports. The coverage was unremitting—television, radio, newspapers and social media. Constant updates; microscopic detail.
Some children were directly impacted by the fires. They lost relatives, homes, pets, treasured possessions, favourite places. Others were affected indirectly—disrupted holiday plans, cancelled activities, unrelenting smoke haze. Sometimes, the impact was felt internally, and manifested as anxiety, fear, lassitude, sadness.
Australian authors of children’s books have written about bushfires for many years, but particularly in the last decade following the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. These books provide a way to open conversations with children who have been affected by the fires. There is comfort in knowing other children, even fictional ones, have experienced the same losses. And storybook children can offer new ways and words for exploring and comprehending the emotional and psychological impact of fires.
Here is a selection of some of those books about bushfires. The selection is separated into two categories—picture books and junior fiction—with the most recent publications listed first.
The House on the Mountain / Ella Holcombe (text); David Cox (illus.) (2019)
Point of view: 3rd person (girl) Ages: 7+
Author Ella Holcombe’s parents died in the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. In her picture book, Holcombe seeks to capture ‘something about continuity, about movement, about regrowth’. Told from a child’s perspective, The House on the Mountain captures the fear and confusion of both adults and children. It describes the noise of a bushfire and the silence after it passes; the experience of staying in a community evacuation centre; the displacement of relocation when a house is lost; and the ongoing, sometimes inexpressible trauma.
Teaching resources available via the Allen & Unwin website.
Through the Smoke / Phil Cummings (text); Andrew McLean (illus.) (2019)
Point of view: 1st person (plural, 2 boys and one girl) Ages: 4+
Through the Smoke tells the story of a fire through the lens of imaginative play. Three children play in the bush near farmland, creating a medieval world with mock swords at the ready. When a dragon (fire) appears, they take cover in their imagined kingdom of Everdell. Before long, knights (firefighters) arrive and quench the dragon’s fire with ‘sabres of silver water’ (hoses).
Spark / Adam Wallace (text); Andrew Plant (illus.) (2016)
Point of view: The fire Ages: 6+
Fire is Spark’s narrator. ‘I began as a tiny spark all alone in the dry grass.’ The spark seems an innocuous thing until captured by the wind. ‘We tore through forests. We flew over rivers. We razed homes. The clouds cried.’
The book’s illustrations start small, grow in size, and subside again as the fire dies. The text is handwritten (by the illustrator, Andrew Plant) giving the words a lively presence on the page.
While suitable for lower and upper primary school children, this book could also be used with older age groups exploring concepts of design, visual language, point of view and anthropomorphising.
Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Ford St.
The Bushfire Babies / Debra O’Halloran (text and illus.) (2016)
Point of view: 3rd person Ages: 3–6
Four young animals—an echidna, an emu, a wallaby and a possum—are stranded by a bushfire. They team up to search for their mothers and to find food, water and shelter. The animals are rescued by a firefighter, cared for, and released into unburnt forest. In a reassuring ending, each animal finds its mother.
Three further picture books for very young children that feature the impact of bushfires on Australian fauna are Aleesah Darlison’s Mama and Hug (2016), Maryanne O’Flynn’s Polka Dot Float (2015), and Joanne Crawford and Grace Fielding’s Bilby and the Bushfire (2007). Bilby and the Bushfire is no longer in print, but it is available second hand and in some public libraries. It is worth seeking out for Fielding’s illustrations which combine traditional dot art with contemporary art styles.
Fire / Jackie French (text); Bruce Whatley (illus.) (2013)
Point of view: 3rd person Ages: 4+
Jackie French’s text in Fire takes the form of rhyming couplets. The writing is spare and lyrical, leaving room for readers to explore the emotional range of the story. Bruce Whatley’s illustrations, as always, immerse the reader in the heart of the story.
The narrative takes a ‘circle of life’ approach—as time passes after the fire, there is room for grief, friendship and regeneration.
Fire is part of French and Whatley’s Flood/Fire/Cyclone collaboration. Whatley notes on his website: ‘Fire is probably the hardest thing I have tried to paint as its shape constantly changes’.
Scholastic has teaching resources available for Fire. Enquire directly with the publisher, or key the following terms into a search engine to find a direct link: fire french whatley resources.
Bushfire: A Story of Bravery and Survival / Sally Murphy (2019)
Point of view: 1st person (girl) Ages 9+
Sally Murphy’s Bushfire is part of Scholastic’s My Australian Story collection, a series of carefully researched novels, each depicting ‘a young person living during an important event or time period in Australian history’. Bushfire’s setting is 2009, during Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.
Amy is staying with her grandmother in Marysville. Her older brother is in the UK on a gap year; her mother, a climate scientist, is travelling overseas for work; and her father is employed by Parks Victoria and volunteers as a firefighter. On the day of the bushfire, Amy and grandmother face the fire alone. Murphy includes detailed information on enacting a fire plan and preparing for evacuation. The book also includes historical notes, factual inserts, explanatory notes on climate change, and ‘Ten Ways to Fight Global Warming’.
47 Degrees / Justin D’Ath (2019)
Point of view: 3rd person (girl) Ages: 10+
Justin D’Ath’s 47 Degrees, like Sally Murphy’s Bushfire, is set during the 2009 Black Saturday fires. D’Ath’s own home was destroyed in those fires and much of his personal experience is channelled into his fictional narrative.
Zeelie is preparing to start Year 7 when the bushfire strikes. Zeelie’s mother and younger brother are in Melbourne and unable to return home. Zeelie and her father enact their fire plan and evacuate from Flowerdale to a community centre in Yea.
D’Ath effectively captures the challenges of caring for pets during a bushfire; the constant interactions with, and the kindness of, strangers; and Zeelie’s underlying sense of displacement and anxiety.
Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.
Where There’s Smoke / John Heffernan (2010, 2019)
Point of view: 3rd person Ages: 10+
Luke and his mother are escaping family violence and building a new life in a small, regional community. The fear of being discovered by Luke’s father (the perpetrator of the violence) is ever present, but then a new danger emerges—bushfire. Heffernan introduces a range of characters, from different age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, to build a sense of community and relationship.
Heffernan’s story is particularly effective in conveying the way the community comes together to care for vulnerable people. The shock of a sudden fire is well realised, as is the resultant trauma.
Now / Morris Gleitzman (2010)
Point of view: 1st person (girl) Ages: 10+
In Now, Morris Gleitzman, picks up the story of Felix, the young Polish Jewish boy he introduced in the novels Once and Then. Now moves Felix’s story forward from his childhood in World War II Europe to his old age in the bush-covered ranges to Melbourne’s east.
Felix, now an octogenarian and retired surgeon, is sharing his home with his granddaughter Zelda. (Zelda’s parents are doctors working in Darfur.) Felix and Zelda share a close bond and their relationship is drawn with great detail and affection by Gleitzman.
When a bushfire strikes, Felix and Zelda fight off ember attacks and spot fires as best they can, but soon realise they can neither extinguish the flames nor escape to safety. They bunker down in a hole and survive the fire with the assistance of dampened blankets, the contents of Felix’s medical bag and a dose of good fortune.
Throughout the novel, memories of Felix’s wartime experiences are triggered by everyday occurrences and by the realities of living in extremis.
Now won a Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (Book of the Year for Older Children) and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Children’s Fiction). In 2010, it was also shortlisted for the UK Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize.
Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.
Ash Road / Ivan Southall (1965, 2013)
Point of view: 3rd person Ages: 12+
Ash Road was originally published when the grandparents of today’s children were children themselves. Its author, Ivan Southall, died over a decade ago. But, despite its sometimes dates language, Ash Road remains a classic for both children and older readers.
Three youths—all male, and itching to stretch their wings of independence—accidentally start a bushfire while camping. Southall explores the ramifications of the boys’ actions in their own lives and in the lives of those impacted by the fire. The character development is complex and sophisticated. Interior lives are fleshed out and emotional responses explored. Adult characters are realistically flawed. Across the generations, there is panic and meanness and desperation; but there is also courage and personal growth.
A compelling aspect of Ash Road for today’s readers is the scenario of being confronted by a bushfire without the communication back-up of mobile phones or social media or even ABC radio updates.
Ash Road won the Children’s Book of the Year Award from both the Children’s Book Council of Australia and the New York Times Book Review in 1966.
Teaching resources for Ash Road are available from Reading Australia.
LOOKING FOR MORE?
There are many other Australian books with a bushfire theme. When searching Australian library catalogues for books about bushfires, use (separately) the subject terms Wildfires and Forest fires, in combination with Australia, and either Juvenile literature or Juvenile fiction.
This blog post focuses on fictional works. A good starting point for those looking for non-fiction responses to bushfire is Neil Grant and David Williams’ From Kinglake to Kabul. First published in 2011, the book is an anthology of writing created by students from Kinglake, Victoria and Kabul, Afghanistan. Each of the student contributors has experienced tragedy, either in bushfire or war; each finds a way forward.
Published by Allen & Unwin, From Kinglake to Kabul is suitable for students in the early years of secondary school. Teaching resources are available via Allen & Unwin’s website.
LINKS AND SOURCES
- All books referenced in this blog post were sighted at the National Library of Australia. One criterion for selection was that the books be easily accessible through public or school libraries, or available for purchase through bookstores or from the publisher. For this reason, some older and out-of-print books were excluded.
- The Australian Psychological Society offers a range of information sheets to assist people recovering from bushfires. One sheet is specifically for ‘parents and carers looking after children who have been affected by bushfires’.