The Australian Curriculum
Some favourite texts
This is a shortlist of my choice of texts that work really well in secondary English classrooms.
Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia
by Andy Mulligan. David Fickling, 2010. ISBN 9780385619028. 211 pp.
This impressive novel is a perfect class set text for Years 7 - 9. Set in the Philippines, it is narrated by multiple voices, including those of three young boys who make a meagre living scavenging on a huge tip in Manila. The tip is their home as well as their workplace. One day one of the boys discovers a bag, containing an identity card, a key and some money. The money is very welcome, but it soon becomes clear that the bag is much more valuable than it appears, when hordes of police descend on the tip offering large rewards for its recovery. The bag holds a deadly secret and the boys’ decision to solve the mystery propels them into a very dangerous situation.
This is a breathtaking thriller with wonderfully appealing characters. The surprising ending is astonishingly right, even if morally questionable. This will give students insight into the lives of the very poor in third-world countries and the impossibility of social justice in corrupt regimes. It will also give them an appreciation of the possibilities of multiple narration.The huge tip in Manila is a real place. Have students go online to find photos of Smokey Mountain. You can match the photos with specific scenes from the novel.
Recommendation: This outstanding novel is a great resource for Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia, but it would be high on my list of class-set novels, regardless of its subject-matter. I would use this with a Year 8 class, but it will work with bright Year 7s and it would be a satisfying text for those Year 9 students who might not cope with something longer and more difficult. It is a fairly easy read. It begs to be accompanied by some research into the lives of children growing up in intense poverty. It also lends itself to an investigation of the consequences of stereotyping people: these kids have been labelled ‘trash’.
The film, Slumdog Millionaire, is rated MA and is clearly not suited to the children who would be reading Trash. However, some selected scenes of children working on similar garbage tips in India might be useful.
The Ink Bridge
by Neil Grant. Allen & Unwin, 2012. ISBN 9781742376691. 288 pp.
This Australian novel is a compelling read. It has a great deal to offer for whole-class study, with a particularly memorable representation of the experience of Omed, a young Hazara. The narrative has three main parts: the story of Omed in Afghanistan under the Taliban and his desperate – and unsuccessful – attempt to find asylum; the story of a traumatised Australian teenage boy, Hector; and a final section in which Hector goes to Afghanistan to try to search for Omed. The first two parts are limited third-person narrative, the world seen first through Omed’s eyes and then through Hec’s. But the third part is first-person narration in Hec’s voice – the voice of a writer who is telling both Omed’s story and his own. This is metafiction: the narrative makes clear that other story pathways and other resolutions are possible, and readers will disagree about the choices the author has made. The third-part also includes the introduction of a new character, an American woman of Afghan heritage, who has returned to the country to help establish schools. Her function in the narrative is to explain the world of Afghanistan to Hec and some scenes, in which he sees the country through the eyes of a tourist and has to be corrected by Arezu, are rather clunky.
The boys Omed and Hec are linked: both suffer trauma and lose the power of speech as a result; both have lost the ability to trust others but, when thrown together in a soul-destroying candle-making factory in Dandenong, they recognise a kinship. This is essential to the structure of the novel, but telling the boys’ stories as parallel lives does have some problems: Hec has indeed been through a terrible experience but it is scarcely on the same scale as Omed’s pain. Hec’s trauma is a domestic and personal tragedy; Omed suffers even greater family tragedy, but his trauma is shared with his whole nation.
A great strength of the novel is the sense of place. Grant spent time in Afghanistan and the evocation of the landscape and people is superb. The Melbourne setting is just as detailed and precise, with the Westgate Bridge and its tragic history as focus.
A further strength is the disturbing representation of the ugliness of Australian racism, through the voice of a poisonous foreman at the Dandenong factory who rants against those of his workers who ‘don’t even speaka de lingo’ and are as ‘dumb as dogsh-t’. Read his rant on pages 138 and 139 and shudder. If you think this is an overstatement of racist attitudes, just have a look at the bile that is spilt in responses to right-wing blogs such as that of Andrew Bolt. Grant has sadly got this particular Australian voice just right.
Recommendation: This is a great text to use with a mature Year 9 or 10. It is perfect for the Asian cross-curriculum priority because it is a rare example of a book that gives readers insight into an Asian country and its people but that also explores Australia's engagement with the people of that country. Parts of it are unforgettable: beautiful, strong and disturbing writing. It forces readers to confront the conditions in Afghanistan and the horror of the refugee experience. It forces them as well to consider Australian responses to these problems. There is much to argue about, including the author’s narrative choices.
This is in a completely different league from other titles available about Afghan refugees. Gleitzman's Boy Overboard and Girl Underground, Gleeson's Mahtab's Story, Evans' Walk in My Shoes and Hawke's Soraya the Storyteller are children’s stories, designed to educate young readers about the refugee experience. The Ink Bridge is a complex and sophisticated young adult novel, flawed in some ways, but deeply disturbing. The crude language, although completely appropriate to the context, may cause problems in some schools.
Grant has also written the non-fiction text From Kinglake to Kabul, in which he talks about going to Afghanistan.
by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 9780732296179. 272 pp.
This is very different from the many novels about the refugee experience that I have previously read. The backcover blurb does, I think, give some clues that it is different, but I read this first in ebook where there is no backcover blurb to consult, so it was a wonderful surprise as the story unfolded. It begins much as I had expected: teenager Faris and his grandmother Jadda are on a small crowded boat on a grey sea under a grey sky. We learn something of their story: the flight of Faris's father from home five years earlier to avoid arrest, their need to move to much poorer accommodation, the warning that they too were about to be arrested, the sale - piece by piece - of family jewellery to buy them the smugglers' help. Like so many others who have come to Australia by boat, Faris experiences a terrible storm that is too much for the fragile boat. Chapter 1 ends with Faris and Jadda being swept overboard by a gigantic wave.
The surprise begins with the opening of Chapter 2. Faris wakes in a soft bed in a beautiful bedroom in a luxurious house. Breakfast, with a smiling Jadda at the top of the table, is a buffet of everything he could dream of. Gradually the reader becomes suspicious that all is not quite as it seems: the pet koala gnawing a chicken leg is a pretty good clue.
French has made the transition seamlessly from the grim realism of the first chapter to a fantasy world - an Australia that Faris had imagined, based mostly on tourist websites. He leaves his fantasy house for his fantasy beach but discovers a different beach altogether:
This wasn't his beach! He had never seen this beach before.
It was a small beach, ending in two jagged cliffs of tumbled black rocks at either end. Six great stones rose like giant's teeth across the small bay, with a few metres of rippled blue water between each of them. Small waves purred a little way up the beach, then slipped back, leaving the shine of water on the sand.
Faris discovers children playing on the beach. Again, there are little clues that this is not what it seems. A boy of about Faris's own age wears 'a strange woollen suit, with short pants and long grey socks'. An older girl wears a head shawl, with bright green pants and a long shirt. An older boy describes Faris as 'a new cove'. Descriptions of clothing and the type of speech characters use usually give us clues to context - time and place, but the clues we pick up here are all contradictory.
French is not just telling us Faris's story. She is telling us the stories of all the children who have come by boat to Australia over the centuries. Even the First Australians came by boat, and they are represented in the character of Mudurra, who fishes with a spear on the beach. French mentions in the novel twenty-five children who have played on the beach, including those from Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and French ships that predated Captain Cook. But she concentrates on a handful: Susannah, who came from Ireland in the 1920s; the little Greek boy Nikki, who arrived in the 1950s; fifteen-year-old Billy, the convict boy who grew up to become an important citizen and the patriarch of a large family; Afghan teenager Jamila, who arrived in the early 1990s; and David, also thirteen, a Jewish boy from Austria. In the fictional biographies French provides at the end of the book, each of these children - like Faris - passes from the real world in which he or she was dying to the fantasy world of the beach and then returns to reality, to live a productive life in modern Australia. Only the First Australian, Mudurra, and the Sudanese girl Juhi who falls in love with him, remain in the past, perhaps 60 000 years ago.
Faris remains the main character. Not only do we have much more detail about his past, before he boarded a boat in Indonesia, than we have about any of the other children, we also learn a great deal more about what happens to him after he arrives in Australia. But French has been careful not to tell us too much: Faris's nationality or religion are never mentioned. He could be from any one of quite a large number of countries. Because the detail is not there, any stereotypes the reader might be inclined to bring to the text are not relevant.
This is an awesome task that French has set herself - to tell the story of all of Australia's peoples - and it works beautifully. The transition between fantasy and realism is completely credible, and the novel becomes a celebration of nationhood.
Recommendation: This is a superb choice as a class novel for Years 7 or 8. It is also an excellent text to tick off both the Asian and Indigenous cross-curricular priorities.
Never Fall Down
by Patricia McCormick. Harper Collins Publishers, 2013 (2012). ISBN 9780552567350. 224 pp.
This is an intensely disturbing novel, firmly based on a real-life story. It begins with an eleven-year-old boy, Arn, walking through the countryside. His family and neighbours are walking with him. It is the beginning of a terrible, gut-wrenching journey, because this is Pol Pot's Cambodia.
Patricia McCormick’s chilling novel is based on the real experiences of Arn Chorn-Pond, who somehow survived when more than two million of his fellow-countrymen were starved or slaughtered. The title is taken from the advice Arn was given - 'never fall down', because, if you do, that will be the end of you.
Arn survives on his wits and through sheer luck. He is protected because he plays the khim in an orchestra performing the new songs for the Khmer Rouge. Often they are forced to play to mask the sounds of killing. Later, he becomes a child soldier, used as a bait to trap the invading Vietnamese. Arn's experiences are vivid: the sounds, the smells and the images stay in the reader's mind long after the book is closed.
The novel is narrated in Arn's voice. McCormick's decision to use Arn's broken English is inspired. It gives a great sense of authenticity but it has a powerful lyricism not usually found in first-person colloquial narration.
Arn Chorn-Pond survived to become a peace activist.
Arn Chorn-Pond and Patricia McCormick discuss the book on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L-A_Y1kjJww. There is also an interview with Patricia McCormick at her website http://patriciamccormick.com/never-fall-down/.
Recommendation: Never Fall Down is both powerful and disturbing. Some people will argue that young people should be protected from stories as grim as this; others will insist that it is essential to know such history, in the hope that it may not be repeated. McCormick is an extremely talented writer for young people and has managed a delicate balancing act between presenting the truth of Arn's experiences but providing readers as well with some sense of hope about human resilience.
Consider using the book as a class novel with Year 9.
A Taste of Cockroach; Stories from the Wild Side
by Allan Baillie. Penguin Books, 2014 (2005). ISBN 9780143003373. 192 pp.
This terrific collection of Baillie's stories, mostly set in South-East Asia, has just been reprinted. They are all fiction, apart from the introductory story about Baillie's trip as a young man, recently disabled, into the mountains of Nepal and his dilemma when offered by a village elder, as a welcoming courtesy, a drink of water that he knows is highly likely to be quite dodgy. It's a typical humorously self-deprecating Baillie story, recording a typical Baillie moment in which his natural courtesy and kindness cost him.
There is an excellent range of stories in the collection. One of them is a short story version of Baillie's picture book Rebel! set at the time of the generals in Burma. 'The Pencil' is the story of a young girl intercepted by the Taliban on her way to her forbidden school. My favourite, 'Only Ten', has as its protagonist a boy from Lebanon rather than from one of the countries of Asia, but it is telling the universal story of a refugee child viewed with some suspicion by his new Australian classmates. Baillie's decision to tell the story in the first-person plural, so that we are exposed to the group-think about the strange new arrival, is masterly. Other stories are based on Baillie's experiences as a freelance journalist in conflict areas of South-East Asia.
Recommendation: This collection is a great resource for Asia and Australia's Engagement with Asia. You will use the stories across Years 7 to 10.
Growing Up Asian in Australia
edited by Alice Pung. Black Inc, 2008. ISBN 9781863951913. 288 pp.
This non-fiction anthology is a very rich collection of true stories about the experiences of Asians in Australia – from ABCs who have been here for generations, but who still look Asian, to very recent migrants. All the stories are quite short – many are only three pages long – and they cover a diverse range of experiences and a wide variety of tone. There are stories of discrimination and prejudice that still obviously hurt, even when the memories are decades old, and there are stories of comic misunderstandings. The stories are grouped under thematic headings such as ‘Strine’, ‘UnAustralian?’ and ‘Leaving Home’. Many of the stories are about the conflict that is felt by second-generation migrant children as they are torn between family values and traditions and those of their peers. There are many stories that show how language can divide as well as unite. Food and family traditions are frequent themes.
Recommendation: This is a rich resource for all students. It would be a worthwhile text to study in its own right in Years 10 or 11. It is a source of stories to use alongside other texts in a range of units of work on topics like family, migration, difference and diversity, school life. It is an excellent source of related texts for Belonging. Use it alongside other collections of life stories such as The Glory Garage: Growing up Lebanese and Muslim in Australia by Nadia Jamal and Taghred Chandab and Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart compiled by Nadia Wheatley.
In the Sea There are Crocodiles: The Story of Enaiatollah Akbari
by Fabio Geda, translated from Italian by Howard Curtis. David Fickling Books, 2012 (2011). ISBN 9781849920988. 224 pp.
Translated from Italian, this is based on a real-life story. When his village in Afghanistan was taken over by the Taliban, ten-year-old Akbari was taken across the border into Pakistan by his mother and then abandoned. She had to return to look after the rest of the family but felt that, by smuggling her son into Pakistan, she was giving him at least a chance at life, whereas she felt that, as a Hazara, he had no chance of survival in their valley in Afghanistan. Akbari, who eventually gained asylum in Italy, told his story in detail to Italian novelist Fabio Geda. Geda insists that the account he has written should be read as fiction. He has recreated Akbari's experience as truthfully as possible, while acknowledging that no one can remember every detail of a traumatic five-year journey. From time to time, the narrative is interrupted by Geda's voice, questioning Akbari.
Geda tells the story beautifully, beginning with the voice of a ten-year-old child trying to come to terms with the fact that his mother has abandoned him amongst strangers. The boy is remarkably resilient and resourceful but his story is full of heartbreak. At home the boy's Hazara people had been hated by both the Pashtuns and the Taliban. The Pashtuns had forced the boy's father and other Hazaras to drive illegal trucks across the Iranian border; the father had been killed by bandits on such a trip. The boy and the rest of his classmates witnessed the Taliban shoot their teacher, because he had refused to obey a decree to close down the school. At one stage Akbari makes a perilous crossing of the mountains from Iran to Turkey, walking for many days in deep snow and watching many of the group die from hunger and cold. On another occasion he is smuggled in a tray underneath a truck, crammed in with some fifty other asylum seekers, suffocating in the dark. That is one of the most difficult sequences of the story to read. Geda recreates the crush, the stench, the utter darkness, and the panic. The boy was imprisoned under the truck for three whole days.
By the time he is eleven and a half, the boy has managed to get to Iran where he does a man's work on a building site. After four months during which his pay goes to the people smugglers, he is able to save - money that is needed when he is twice repatriated by the police. Herat, the town closest to the Iranian border, 'is full of traffickers waiting for people to be repatriated. You barely have time to get beaten by the police before the traffickers pick you up and take you back.' He has three years in Iran but tires of living in constant fear - not of repatriation but of being incarcerated in the infamous detention centres. It is for that reason that he eventually risks the terrible crossing into Turkey.
Illegal work was plentiful in Iran but it is hard to find in Turkey and the boy joins three other Afghan boys in a nightmarish sea trip to Greece. The boat that the people smugglers supply them with is a dinghy - an inflatable dinghy. They have no navigation equipment. None of the boys has any sailing experience; none of them can swim. Their voyage is another frightening sequence.
Akbari was fortunate to arrive in Greece just as the Greek government was desperately trying to finish the venues for the Olympics. Illegal workers were in great demand and it was possible to make some money. Eventually he smuggles himself into Italy in a container in the hold of a ship.
The novel is quite short, told in brief, understated episodes. It's easy to forget as the journey precedes that the boy is still just thirteen, fourteen or fifteen years old, facing on his own the most terrifying ordeals.
Recommendation: This is an important exploration of the reality of life for asylum seekers. It is an accessible read, appropriate for students in Years 7 and 8, but it also has that timeless quality that means that adults will read it too. It could be used at any level in secondary school, either for whole class sharing or as one of a group of books about the asylum seeker experience.
I Was Only Nineteen
Words by John Schumann, pictures by Craig Smith. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743317235. 32 pp. Hardcover.
This picture book begs for a place in the classroom. Schumann has drawn on the words of the famous Williamson song to tell the story of a young Australian who was sent to Vietnam. Craig Smith's illustrations do more than just illustrate the story. It is from the end papers that we get the context: at the front of the book, we see a child and an old man looking at photographs; at the end of the book, they are marching together in what seems to be an Anzac Day march. Their story continues to be told by the pictures throughout the book: as the old man asks the doctor about his health on the right-hand page, we see the boy waiting for his grandfather in the doctor's waiting room on the left-hand page. Other illustrations are of the grandfather's memories of his time in Vietnam.
There is an epilogue, which is a letter from John Williamson, explaining the significance of the song and how it came to be written.
Recommendation: This is a great way to introduce the history of the Vietnam War to students. The book will work with any class, from Year 7 to 10. It would be a great related text to use with the film, The Sapphires.
by John Heffernan. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743312483. 197 pp.
This has been published as part of an excellent new series, 'Through My Eyes', stories about children living in conflict zones. Heffernan has written an engaging story about a resourceful and courageous teenage boy living close by Bagram Airfield, the huge American airforce base in Afghanistan. Naveed is the sole supporter of his widowed mother and his irrepressible younger sister, Anoosheh, who - like so many others in countries that have been battlefields - has lost both her legs after stepping on a landmine. Naveed makes an uncertain living finding work wherever he can - making deliveries and stacking the shelves for shopkeeper, Mr Waleed; helping with the lunch time orders at Mr Hadi's chai house; washing cars. When desperate, he scavenges at the tip, but the gangs that control the trade there are dangerous, and he cannot afford a beating that would disable him to the extent that he could not work. The landlord who rents the family their one-room hovel will not wait for the rent, and Naveed's mother and sister are dependent upon him for their next meal.
Naveed occasionally shares the little food he has with a stray dog. She is a big dog, although starving. His kindness to the dog saves his life when she defends him against the gangs. From that moment on, Naveed and Nasera are inseparable.
While the story is told mainly from Naveed's point of view, there are occasional chapters from the point of view of Jake, an Australian serving as a dog handler with the military. It is the dog, Nasera, that Jake first notices; he is looking for Afghans who can become dog handlers and continue the work of detecting explosives after the Australians and the other westerners leave Afghanistan. While Naveed is much younger than the recruits he was wanting, he and Nasera prove to be a formidable team. The opportunity of a real job and a regular income transforms Naveed's life.
This very readable story gives great insight into the lives of ordinary Afghans living in desperate circumstances.
Recommendation: This is a great novel for class study in Years 7 and 8. Students will relate to Naveed and enjoy the story of his dog, Nasera, and Jake's dog, Stingray. There is plenty of action and danger, as well as some hope for the future.
The novel Shadow, by British novelist Michael Morpurgo, is a good companion piece; it is also about sniffer dogs and Afghan boys.
by Michael Morpurgo, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. HarperCollins Children’s Books, 2010. ISBN 9780007339600. 288 pp.
This is a moving story about the refugee experience from one of the UK’s best writers for children. Morpurgo was inspired by the story of the Australian sniffer dog that went missing in Afghanistan for 14 months. The dog he writes about was used by the British to detect explosives, but it disappeared after an attack and was presumed to have been killed. The dog turned up months later many hundreds of kilometres away in the caves where Aman, his mother and grandmother are trying to survive.
Aman and his mother make the terrible journey from Afghanistan to try to join relatives in England, including several days locked in the back of a truck with many others without food or water. The story is narrated by 15-year-old Matt, who becomes Aman’s best friend at school and who is horrified when, after six years living in the UK, Aman and his mother are denied refugee status, are arrested and are about to be deported. Matt’s narration is interspersed with Aman’s story, told to Matt’s grandfather in the visiting room at the detention centre.
Recommendation: Morpurgo achieves admirably his purpose of allowing young readers to understand that boys like Aman are just like them, not ‘the other’. This would make a great Year 7 class set. However, you may have to struggle against students’ initial assumption that the book looks a bit young for them. The font is a comfortable size and there are Birmingham’s wonderful illustrations, so that the format seems to be that of a book for younger readers. However, the characters are in their mid-teens and the content is perfect for junior secondary.
An author study: Allan Baillie
While in most cases you will fulfil the cross-curricular requirements by choosing a text for whole-class study, there are other ways of doing it. One is by offering students a wide reading unit, such as an author study of an author who writes extensively about Asia. The Australian writer Allan Baillie is a perfect choice for such a study.
Baillie has a background in journalism and he has travelled extensively, especially in South-East Asia, which he uses as the setting for some of his most successful writing. Unlike most other books for young people, his work often reflects the political situation: the unrest of separatist groups in Indonesia in Treasure Hunters, the bullying by the Burmese generals in Rebel!, the suppression of democratic movements in Tiananmen Square in The China Coin. Against these settings he writes engaging and exciting stories that work particularly well with students in Years 7 and 8.
Base an author study on the picture book Rebel!, the short story anthology A Taste of Cockroach and the novels Little Brother, Treasure Hunters, The China Coin and Krakatoa Lighthouse. Two out-of-print novels are worth tracking down: Saving Abbie, about the destruction of the forests in Borneo and the subsequent threat to the survival of orangutans, and Songman, about the experiences of an Australian Aboriginal boy - pre-European settlement - who sails north with the Macassans who have for centuries visited his homeland. The First Voyage, although primarily about Aboriginal history, could also be included, as the voyage begins in the islands to our north.
An author study: Deborah Ellis
Ellis is a Canadian writer and activist who has first-hand experience of the lives of children living in difficult circumstances around the world. It is the four books in the Parvana series, set in Afghanistan, that represent her best work: Parvana, Parvana's Journey, Shauzia and Parvana's Promise. In the first book, titled The Breadwinner in north America, Parvana has to dress as a boy to continue her father's work as a scribe in the market-place when her father is imprisoned by the Taliban. In the last book Parvana herself is imprisoned and brutally interrogated by the Americans, who are convinced that she is a terrorist. A wide reading study could include other novels Ellis has written, even those that aren't set in Asia, including The Best Day of My Life (India), No Safe Place (child refugees trying to reach the UK), Diego, Run! and Diego's Pride (Bolivia) and The Heaven Shop (Africa). The non-fiction texts Three Wishes (Israel and Palestine) and Children of War (Iraq), in which Ellis interviews children whose lives have been disrupted by war, could also be included.
A wide reading study: action adventure novels with an Asian setting
There is a wonderful diversity of action adventure novels with Asian settings, perfect for a wide reading unit for Years 7-8. You will find titles that will suit both girls and boys and readers of quite different ability levels. Most of these are high-interest titles and many come in series with multiple titles. If you provide a good range, you will find students reading voraciously.
Set an assignment that does not punish kids for reading. Have students, for example, work in groups to produce a rehearsed reading of the most exciting scene from a chosen novel, with sound effects and background music. You might also like to ask students to do some research to find out to what extent the book they have read is based on real conditions in the country and time in which it is set. A number of these titles involve fantasy elements, but many of them have an imagined world that is firmly based in a real historical world.
Titles to choose from include:
· The Young Samurai series by Chris Bradford, set in seventeenth-century Japan and of particular interest to kids who are interested in the martial arts (The Way of the Warrior, The Way of the Sword, The Way of the Dragon, The Ring of Earth, The Ring of Water, The Ring of Fire, The Ring of Wind, The Ring of Sky)
· Gabrielle Wang's A Ghost in My Suitcase (a ghost story for girls set in China) and The Hidden Monastery (a fantasy based on Chinese mythology)
· the Moonshadow series by Simon Higgins, action fantasies set in a romanticised historial Japan (The Eye of the Beast, The Wrath of Silver Wolf, The Twilight War)
· the Tales of the Otori trilogy by Lian Hearn, fantasies set in sixteen century Japan; written for adults but devoured by fantasy fans of all ages (Heaven's Net Is Wide, Across the Nightingale Floor, Grass for His Pillow, Brilliance of the Moon)
· Alison Goodman's Eon and Eona, inspired by the myths and legends of Ancient; Eona must disguise herself as a boy, Eona, to become a Dragoneye; for good readers
· Adeline Yen Mah's Chinese Cinderella and the Secret Dragon Society (a kung fu adventure set in Shangai in World War II) and Chinese Cinderella: The Mystery of the Song Dynasty Painting (a time-slip adventure where the heroine finds herself in China eight hundred years ago)
· the Vermonia series by Yo-Yo, authentic manga graphic novels to be read from the back to the front and, on each page, from right to left (Quest for the Silver Tiger, Call of the Winged Panther, Release of the Red Phoenix, The Rukan Prophecy, The Warriors’ Trial, To the Pillar of Wind, Battle for the Turtle Realm)
· the Dragonkeeper series by Carole Wilkinson, set in the fantastic world of dragons in Ancient China (Dragon Dawn, Garden of the Purple Dragon, Dragon Moon, Blood Brothers, Shadow Sister)
· P. J. Tierney's Jamie Reign series, action fantasy set in the New Territories of contemporary Hong Kong (Jamie Reign: Last Spirit Warrior, Jamie Reign: The Hidden Dragon)
Try to include in your selection all the titles from each of the series, to encourage students to read multiple texts. It might make sense to have several copies of the first book in each series, and then one copy of each of the sequels.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders' Histories and Cultures
The First Voyage
by Allan Baillie. Penguin, 2014. ISBN 9780143307679. 184 pp.
Set thirty thousand years ago, this novel explores what it must have been like for Australia's first peoples to make the journey from what is now Timor to the shores of what we call Australia. The stretch of water to be crossed was narrower then than it is now, but it was still substantial, given the fragility of the boats that were used and the total ignorance of the boat people as to what might lie at the end of the journey.
The story is told through the eyes of a teenage boy, Bent Beak, from the tiny Yam tribe. Bent Beak's people have been on the move for some time: they had lived previously on Long Island, with its huge mountains and 'the jungle that roared at night', but that had been only a short crossing, made on a calm day, to an island that was visible across the water. The Yam tribe's enemies, the much larger tribe - the Crocodile people - had also come from Long Island, and more of them cross over to Bird Island every day. Bent Beak's father and other members of the Yam tribe have been killed by Crocodile warriors, whose spears have sharp flint stones that are superior to the spears the Yam tribe use for hunting and fishing. The Yam tribe Elder, Eagle Eye, knows that the only way to save his people is to move on again - to follow the birds that fly south. In a postscript, Baillie identifies Long Island as the Indonesian islands where Flores, Lembata, Pulau Alor, Ataura and Palau Wetar can be found today.
We share Bent Beak's journey, as the warriors cut the tall black bamboo that they will use to construct their fragile rafts, as they struggle against the attacks of the Crocodile people, and as the women and children gather food and water to take with them on the voyage. As their food and water dwindle, their greatest threat is the unknown: they have no idea how far away the land that Eagle Eye insists must be there might be. There are five rafts in the beginning, but they are separated in a terrifying storm. Bent Beak's raft finally breaks up on rocks on the shore of a land that is bountiful in some ways - an abundance of oysters and fresh water - but threatening in others, occupied by giant animals unlike anything the Yam tribe has seen before.
While The First Voyage can be categorised as historical fiction, it is also a kind of fantasy. This is a superb imaginative adventure on the part of the author, as he uses his knowledge of the landscapes and of the sea to picture what the journey might have been like for Bent Beak and his companions.
We come to know well each member of the tribe on Bent Beak's raft. Bent Beak himself is an engaging character and we share his concern for the safety of the girl he loves, The Wind, and of the orphaned Waterlily. The old man, Eagle Eye, who had the courage to persuade his people to venture into the unknown, dies almost in sight of land, but a new life, Moonlight's baby, is born. Distant smoke even suggests that other rafts have survived the journey.
I don't usually reveal as much as that about the ending of a novel, but the ending is not what is most important here. We know this is a story about the first peoples coming to Australia, so we are not surprised that some of them make it. The interest is in the journey - the fascinating detail of the getting there. Baillie brilliantly imagines those details, especially the construction of the bamboo rafts.
While the link is never made specifically, the reader can't help but think of other boat people making perilous voyages in fragile craft to escape their enemies, as the Yam people fled the Crocodile tribe.
Recommendation: This short, fast-paced novel offers young people a fascinating insight into what might have been. It deserves a place in our selection of titles to explore Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures. It will work well as a class set title with Years 7 and 8. It would be interesting to use the opening sections of Wheatley's Australians All alongside a reading of this novel. Wheatley presents the history as we know it, with some insight as to where our knowledge has come from; Baillie has drawn on this knowledge but has shaped it with his imagination to give us a sense of the lived experience.
Ubby’s Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon by Brenton E. McKenna. Magabala Books, 2011. ISBN 9781921248313. 160 pp.
This is a wonderful contribution to the range of Indigenous texts available for use with secondary students. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the work of an Indigenous Australian. Secondly, it is a richly inventive and beautifully presented text that will engage many of our students, including some who have been reluctant to engage with what has previously been offered to them in the classroom. This is the first volume in a planned trilogy. It is a fantasy graphic novel that is set in Broome and draws on the lives and stories of both the Indigenous peoples of that area and the many newcomers from around the world who have made Broome such a fascinating multicultural community. This has some links to manga but its style is ultimately its own. Ubby is a tough streetwise Indigenous girl who is the leader of ‘a rag-tag group of misfits who make up the town’s smallest gang’ and who, against all the odds, triumph over the bigger, nastier gangs who constantly challenge them. Ubby’s Underdogs fight their assailants with the help of the entrancing character Sai Fong, a tiny sickly little girl recently arrived from China who discovers that she has awesome powers.
This is an action movie with terrific special effects presented in comic-strip format and with authentic Australian voices, including Aboriginal English.
The sequel, Heroes Beginnings (9781922142139) has now been published.
Recommendation: Use this anywhere from Year 7 - 10, especially with those students who love graphic novels.
by Ambelin Kwaymullina. Walker Books.
The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf. Book 1. 2012. ISBN 9781921720086. 395 pp.
The Disappearance of Ember Crow. Book 2. 2013. ISBN 9781921720093. 443 pages.
This is absorbing post-apocalyptic fiction. Set many centuries into the future, after humanity was almost wiped out in an environmental catastrophe, this - like many other titles in the genre - is set in an authoritarian society where those that do not conform are eliminated. In this case, the misfits are teenagers who begin to develop 'abilities'. These abilities are powerful and diverse, covering such things as the ability to create storms, earthquakes or fire, to fly, to communicate telepathically or - in the case of the main character, Ashala Wolf - to sleepwalk. Some teenagers manage to escape. Ashala has become leader of The Tribe, a group of teenagers living in the Firstwood. The Tribe want to end the tyranny that threatens them.
Book 1 is breathtakingly exciting, as Ashala is captured by the enforcers and interrogated by the Machine. There are several totally unexpected and audacious plot twists: nothing is what it seems. The action is confined almost entirely to one location - Detention Centre 3 - and takes place over just a few days. The effect is intense and almost claustrophobic. Book 2 follows the same formula of audacious plot twists but is perhaps not quite as terrifying. In Book 2 the emphasis is on Ashala's friend, Ember Crow, who has disappeared. Ember is certainly not at all what she seems, and the uncovering of her true identity takes us much deeper into the origins of this post-apocalyptic world. The necessary exposition is sometimes a bit too much, but the new characters are fascinating, especially the despicable and scary Terence, Jules with his remarkable 'ability' and the intriguing and powerful Leo.
The author comes from the Palyku people of the Pilbara region. What sets The Tribe aside from the many other recent young adult post-apocalyptic novels is the author's decision to draw on her heritage. An adaptation of the Dreamtime legend of the rainbow serpent is an important part of the narrative. Ashala seeks advice from her ancestral spirit, the giant Serpent. The Aboriginal understanding of country also underpins the story. Ashala values and feels herself to be part of the Firstwood and its giant tuart trees.
Recommendation: This series has deservedly attracted a devoted fanbase among readers from Years 7 to 10. Both books are great to add to a fantasy or a post-apocalyptic wide reading selection. It is useful too to have something so different from an Indigenous writer.
Maralinga, the Anangu Story
by Yalata, Oak Valley Community with Christobel Mattingley. Allen & Unwin, 2012 (2009). ISBN 9781742378428. 72 pp.
This is a factual illustrated text that is accessible for readers from primary school age up. Well-known children's author Christobel Mattingley worked with the Anangu people to help them tell, in words and pictures, their story, beginning with the thousands of years in which they lived in harmony with the land. The early part of the story emphasises the sustainability of their lifestyle, with such details as their habit of placing stone slabs over waterholes to cut down water loss. The story continues with the invasion of the land, including the coming of the railway, and the deterioration of the environment because the new settlers did not understand how to care for it. The story covers the work of Daisy Bates and the establishment of missions, with the loss of the traditional nomadic lifestyle. The climax of the story comes when the Anangu tell what happened to their community when nuclear bomb tests were carried out on their lands in the 1950s.
Recommendation: This beautiful text is suitable for both the Indigenous and the Sustainability cross-curricular perspectives.
Australians All: A History of Growing Up from the Ice Age to the Apology
by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781742370972. 281 pp. Hardcover.
Aimed at an upper-primary lower-secondary readership, this is a magnificent achievement. Wheatley tells the story of the reaction of her fellow writer, Catherine Jinks, when she responded to a question about what she was working on. Jinks roared with laughter at the ridiculousness of the task - justifiably so, in my opinion. This is a project that needs a team of writers backed up by research staff and substantial research grants, not a single writer. But, over nine years and with no support, Wheatley alone researched and told these many stories that together give a wonderful insight into the history of our country. The result is a joy.
Wheatley chose to tell Australia's history through the stories of individual children and adolescents. Some are people who grew up to have a place in more traditional Australian histories but many are unknowns, offering a diverse range of insights. The diversity is important: this history includes the lives of women, the lives of Australia's Indigenous people and the lives of some of the many migrants who have built this nation. The stories are mini-biographies, most just a page long. They are illustrated with Ken Searle's paintings, as well as historical photographs and drawings.
The greatest strength of the history in my opinion is the story of our Indigenous peoples - especially of the traditional way of life that 'provided a healthier diet and much more leisure time than the lifestyle endured by the peasant farmers of Europe'. Wheatley records the stories of a number of Indigenous children whose families returned each year to homes that provided a rich supply of food in the right season.
Wheatley suggests that the way to approach this book is to browse at random. I began that way but was so impressed with the quality of the writing and the amount of information that I did not know that I soon turned back to the beginning and read the book, including the introduction, from beginning to end. I read quite slowly, savouring the insights. I can see myself re-reading quite soon.
The book has an appendix that gives us information about what happened to the children and their families in later life. There is also a glossary.
If you are buying Christmas presents for 8-14-year-olds, put this on your shopping list. I'm not claiming that their eyes will light up in the same way as if you give them the latest Wimpy Kid or teenage paranormal title, but this should be in every home. Many kids who begin to browse will be drawn in as I was.
Recommendation: You probably won't use this directly in your English classroom but make sure that there are several copies in the library and send students to it regularly for research purposes. There is much here that is relevant to the national curriculum cross-curricular priorities.
Note: Wheatley conducted a great many interviews during her research for Australians All.
The ABC's Hindsight program recently recorded an interview with Nadia Wheatley, where she talks about ten of the stories she collected. We hear directly from some of the people whose childhood stories appear in the collection. The interview can be found at http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/hindsight/children-in-history27s-page/5188998.
Playground: Listening to stories from country and from inside the heart
compiled by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle, with Jackie Huggins as consultant. Allen & Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742370972. 97 pages. Hardcover.
This is a large hardcover illustrated text that is a great resource in English classrooms. While researching her wonderful history Australians All: A History of Growing Up from the Ice Age to the Apology, Wheatley collected stories of childhood from more than 100 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, from a range of backgrounds and geographical locations. Some are extracts from published biographies, others are oral histories and some are the result of interviews that Nadia held. They are organised thematically, under headings like ‘Homes’, ‘Going hunting’ and ‘Playing in the water’, and Nadia has written the linking text to bring together the very different stories. This is a book for browsing rather than for reading from cover to cover at one go. It is a celebration of childhood and of the continuing connection between Australia’s indigenous people and the land.
Recommendation: As well as being a good source of related texts, this is a great inspiration for students to tell their own stories.
Antipodes: Poetic Responses
edited by Margaret Bradstock. Phoenix Education, 2011. ISBN 9781921586392. 163 pp.
This very useful anthology focuses on poetry that is about the relationship between blacks and whites in Australia. There is an excellent introduction by Elizabeth Webby outlining the changing attitudes of white Australian writers and the eventual appearance of Australian Indigenous voices. Many of the poems published here, especially those by recent writers, are ones that you won’t find in other anthologies. There’s an exciting selection of contemporary works, as well as some classics. Poets represented include W. C. Wentworth, Mary Gilmore, Kenneth Slessor, Judith Wright, Rex Ingamells, Douglas Stewart, James McAuley, Francis Webb, Les Murray, Geoff Page, Anita Heiss, Samuel Wagan Watson, Tony Birch, Jeff Guess, Judy Johnson, Chris Mansell and John Mateer.
Recommendation: You will draw on this regularly in your teaching, from Years 7 - 12. There is also a teacher's book that provides information about the poets and the poems and activities using individual poems and groups of poems.
The Burnt Stick
by Anthony Hill, illustrated by Mark Sofilas. Puffin, 1996. ISBN 9780140369298. 64 pp.
This wonderfully accessible story can be read at any age, but it was widely adopted for class sets for Years 7 and 8. It is an intensely moving story of a boy who was taken from his mother because he was light-skinned; she had tried unsuccessfully to trick the Welfare by darkening his skin with charcoal. This is stunningly simple and beautifully illustrated with charcoal drawings by Mark Sofilas. The image that has stayed in my mind is that of the feet of the men marching into the camp at dawn to take the children: an image that is loaded with the sense of threat.
Recommendation: This is a golden oldie that is worth remembering – because there are so few titles about Indigenous Australians that have such an impact on kids who have little knowledge of Indigenous Australia, and because there is always a dearth of titles that are both simple and emotionally powerful. The Burnt Stick is short and simple enough to read aloud, so you can manage even with just one copy. Many school libraries still have a copy of the original hardcover edition, which does proper justice to the illustrations. If you do that, be sure to share the magnificently evocative illustrations with your students.
directed by Phil Noyce. 2002. PG.
In 1931 Molly, Daisy and Grace, aged fourteen, ten and eight, travelled over one thousand five hundred kilometres in an attempt to get home to their family and country after being taken away by the Welfare. The film memorably depicts the life in the Moore River Native Settlement where the regime is designed to train so called ‘half-caste’ Aborigines as domestic workers and integrate them into white society. The performances of the three girls, none of whom had acted previously, are stunning, almost eclipsing that of Kenneth Branagh, who plays a chilling A. O. Neville, Chief Protector of Aborigines.
The story is true. At the end of the film we meet two of the old women whose childhood experiences are narrated in the film.
Recommendation: This is still one of the best texts to explore Indigenous and Torres Strait Islander Cultures and Histories. It can be used at any level, but it is probably best used in Years 7 and 8, because it is so difficult to find Indigenous films with a G or PG rating.
by John Marsden and Shaun Tan. Lothian Books, 2010 (1998). ISBN 9780734411365. 32 pp.
This was controversial when first published, regarded by some as an example of what John Howard called the ‘black armband view of history’. It is an allegory about white settlement, telling the story of the invasion of the continent by the rabbits and the consequent devastation of the native animals. There is minimal written text – often just one simple sentence per page - and striking, surreal visual text. If anyone ever doubts the existence of picture books for older readers, there is no better example than this.
Recommendation: This fits beautifully into any unit of work on Indigenous Australia. It can be studied in its own right as a class text or as part of a wider unit, at any stage from Years 5 to 12. Lothian’s notes suggest that it could also be studied as part of a unit on allegory, with titles like Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, Watership Down, Animal Farm and the graphic novel Maus by Art Spiegelman.
Nanberry: Black Brother White
by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2011. ISBN 9780732290221. 320 pp.
This novel is based very firmly in the history of the early years of the colony and of the first contacts between blacks and whites. As usual French’s research is thorough and meticulous and she has included an appendix in which she explains where she has departed from verifiable fact.
I have to admit that I had never heard of Nanberry, although I of course know about Bennelong. It is believed that Nanberry is buried with Bennelong in James Squire’s orchard on the banks of the Parramatta River. Nanberry, aged perhaps 9 or 10, was orphaned by the plague – usually thought to be smallpox – that virtually wiped out the Indigenous people in the immediate area of the first settlement in 1789. He was adopted by Surgeon White and lived between the two cultures. He was frequently used by Governor Phillip as a translator. From the sketchy historical facts about an unusual and interesting life, French has created an engaging character. French uses limited third-person narration, moving the perspective among several characters: Nanberry himself, Maria – the surgeon’s housekeeper, Surgeon White, Rachel – who succeeds Maria as housekeeper and becomes mother to White’s son Andrew – and Andrew himself. A close bond forms between Nanberry and Andrew and they are both ‘black brother white’, each learning and adopting the other’s culture.
The shifting of focus from one character to another rather than remaining with the protagonist is rather unusual in a book for this readership, but it works. In some ways it is the colony itself that is the protagonist.
Recommendation: I think this will probably work best for Years 8 or 9, and it should definitely be considered for whole-class study. It’s a little longer than some of French’s other popular class set books, but it is an accessible read. It is a fascinating picture of the Indigenous people of the area and the impact on their lives of the early settlement. It is also relevant to questions of sustainability: the Indigenous people were healthy, strong and well-fed and knew how to survive in their environment, while the settlers came close to starvation waiting for supply ships from home.
by Jackie French. HarperCollins, 2013. ISBN 9780732296179. 272 pp.
Although the Indigenous experience is not at the centre of this novel by Jackie French, she makes it clear that all Australians - even the First Australians - have come from elsewhere, mostly by boat. One of the children on the beach - and one of only two characters who do not move into the world of modern Australia - is Mudurra, the Aboriginal boy who fishes in the manner his ancestors had done for centuries. Refuge is reviewed in detail above.
by Mark Greenwood and Terry Denton. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781742375700. 48 pp. Hardcover.
This picture book is a great retelling of the story of Aboriginal warrior Jandamarra. Greenwood's very accessible text emphasises the intelligence and resourcefulness of the young man torn between conflicting loyalties. After being chained and imprisoned, Jandamarra decides to fight for his people. His unmatched knowledge of the area and his skills enable him to continually evade pursuit. Eventually, badly wounded, he is shot by an Aboriginal tracker, who cries as he takes aim.
Greenwood's text is beautifully supported by Denton's watercolours. The focus here is on the magnificent Kimberley landscapes. Denton's paintings are presented in various ways. They range from a dramatic two-page spread of cattle being driven along the Lennard River into the huge, rocky ranges to comic-strip style frames, one group of three showing Jandamarra, standing on the edge of a cliff, shooting the hat off a startled trooper below. The variety works very well. The paintings are not just illustrations: they reward close reading.
Recommendation: While most schools will use Jandamarra in Years 7 and 8, it could also be used in Years 9 and 10 alongside the M-rated television documentary, Jandamarra's War. It's a worthwhile addition to the resources available for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Histories and Cultures.
Shake a Leg
by Boori Monty Pryor and Jan Ormerod. Allen & Unwin, 2010. ISBN 9781741758900. 32 pp. Hardcover.
This picture book is a joyous celebration of contemporary Australian Indigenous life. The main character is the cook in a pizza shop in Northern Queensland. He has learnt how to cook pizzas during a two-year stay in Italy and he greets the three hungry boys in Italian. When he reveals that he is a Murri, they are puzzled, wondering – in his words – why he is ‘not standing on one leg, leaning on a spear, looking for emu’. He explains: ‘A man’s got to make a living and you boys are hungry.’ But he reveals too that, when he has the time, he and his family remember his connections to the old stories, especially as they are told in dance.
This is a great story about keeping a culture alive. It’s a highly rewarding book for Indigenous Australian children to read, explaining their place in the world, and it’s an important contribution to cultural understanding for non-Indigenous readers. Boori Monty Pryor’s stories about Indigenous culture have been a significant influence on inter-cultural understanding. The decision to team him up with world-renowned children’s book illustrator Jan Ormerod is inspired.
Recommendation: This is a worthwhile text for sharing with students of all ages.
Papunya School Book of Country and History
by the staff and students at Papunya School. Allen & Unwin 2003 (2001). ISBN 9781865085258. 50 pp.
This extraordinary book, which is more an illustrated book than a traditional picture book, is compiled of multiple text types – both verbal and visual - contributed by the members of the school community. It tells of the traditions and lifestyle of the people of the area, the changes that occurred when their lands were invaded by Europeans and of the development of a belief in ‘two way learning’ – learning that draws on both the Indigenous and western traditions. This is a very rich text worthy of close study.
While the bibliographic details list the staff and students of the Papunya School as the communal authors of this project, the contribution of writer Nadia Wheatley and artist Ken Searle as mentors was enormous.
Recommendation: This can be studied at any level. The teacher’s notes on the Allen & Unwin website suggest a unit of work for upper primary, one involving integration of English and HSIE, but there is also a unit of work for Year 11 in The TEXT Book 5 Standard (edited by Helen Sykes, Cambridge University Press), which involves looking at the nature of the text types used, including visual texts presented from a post-colonial perspective. This should be included in any unit of work on Indigenous Australia, but is well worth close study in its own right.
by Michael Pryor. Woolshed Press, 2012. ISBN 9781742753768. 229 pp.
This is a clever and very accessible anthology of ten linked short stories. Each story is set at a different time in the future, allowing Pryor to explore a fascinating range of 'what if'? scenarios in the best science fiction tradition. The stories are dated from 2020 to 2120 (the year 2110 is missing), but they are not organised chronologically. The anthology opens with the story '2100', one of the most positive futures represented. It ends with the nightmarish world of '2060', a grim picture of severe rationing and narrow lives where the countries of a seriously overpopulated world have been at war with aliens for more than twenty years.
In the world of 2100, robot technology has been developed to such an extent that daily life is managed by household robots. These robots, such as the much-loved Portia, are not only unfailingly efficient and knowledgeable but have developed pleasant human-like personalities. But what if the artificial intelligence they have acquired has evolved to the point where the machines have become human? As well as Artificial Intelligence, Pryor explores in this anthology such issues as the consequences of a global financial collapse, of global warming and of overpopulation, the impact of a pandemic, the ethical dilemmas arising from cloning and genetic selection, and even the mixed blessings of medical science ensuring vastly increased human longevity.
The stories are linked by the use of the same protagonists in each story. This is an original and interesting idea. There is no suggestion that Tara and Sam, who have 'been best friends forever', live for more than a century. In every story they are approximately the same age. Pryor is signalling that he is writing metafiction: not only is he asking 'what if?' about his science fiction scenarios, he is asking: 'What if I place these two characters that I have imagined in each of these very different worlds?' Not only does this use of the characters provide the anthology with a satisfying sense of unity, it offers the reader an opportunity to empathise, as these are warm and engaging characters. Tara is bright and feisty, a thinker, prepared to challenge authority if necessary, at some cost to herself. Sam is more cautious but loyal and protective; much quieter than Tara, he is an artist who loves working with his hands.
This is not the kind of science fiction that proposes lots of wacky future technological inventions. These future worlds are firmly based in our world today and simply explore the consequences if certain current trends develop further. Every story throws up ethical questions. For example, if human life is reduced to subsistence living after a global financial collapse, what do you do with a member of the community who is not doing his share? If neighbours with young children beg you to take them in but they may be carrying the virus that has killed billions around the world, how do you respond? If your life and the life of your best friend depend on betraying an innocent man, what do you do? These are unquestionably worthwhile questions for readers to explore.
These are well-written stories, not all with neat endings. One interesting feature is the use of the present tense. There are interesting motifs repeated throughout, adding further to a sense of cohesiveness, such as Sam's casual use of expressions from both Mandarin and Hindi, in the same way as twentieth-century teenagers adopted Americanisms. Readers can learn a lot about the nature of the short story by looking closely at what Pryor has done here.
Recommendation: Most people seem to be recommending this for class study in Years 9 and 10, but it is well within the reading capacity of many students in Years 7 and 8. As always, it depends on the abilities of the class you are teaching. Wherever you use it, it will allow you to tick off the Australian Curriculum requirement for a text that explores the concept of 'sustainability'. In fact, I can't think of a better text for this purpose. As suggested above, it covers as well the 'ethical understanding' general capability and it would be easy to cover as well 'critical and creative thinking'.
Short story anthologies that work well in the classroom are fairly rare. This is a very welcome addition to the resources available to the secondary English classroom. It is highly recommended.
The Dream of the Thylacine
by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks. Allen &Unwin, 2011. ISBN 9781742373836. 32 pp. Hardcover.
This is a visually stunning picture book about the extinction of the Tasmanian tiger. Brooks has incorporated images from the film footage of the last, caged and miserable tiger, contrasting with glorious paintings of the animal in its natural environment. Wild’s text is haunting and evocative, especially when set against the ageing wooden bars of the cage and the faint images of the thylacine behind the dominant image of the wire.
Recommendation: This elegy to the loss of a species is suitable for class study at any level. Ask students to consider how the story might have been told differently as a stepping stone to their exploration of the choices the composers have made. This is a masterpiece.
Maralinga, the Anangu Story
by Yalata, Oak Valley Community with Christobel Mattingley. Allen & Unwin, 2012 (2009). ISBN 9781742378428. 72 pp.
The early chapters of Maralinga, the Anangu Story, described in detail above, are an excellent explanation of the sustainable lifestyle of Australia's Indigenous people during the centuries before the arrival of Europeans.
Australians All: A History of Growing Up from the Ice Age to the Apology
by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Ken Searle. Allen & Unwin, 2013. ISBN 9781742370972. 281 pp. Hardcover.
The early sections of Wheatley's wonderful history, described in detail above, have lots of fascinating information about the Aborigines' sustainable lifestyle, including the fact that young Aborigines were much healthier than children and adolescents from British slums.
by Tim Winton. Puffin Books, 2009 (1997). ISBN 9780143304333. 151 pp.
This is the perfect class-set novel for Years 7 and 8 to explore the concept of sustainability. Set on a remote part of the Western Australian coast that Winton has called Longboat Bay, this is the story of a boy and his mother and their love for the sea and land from which they derive their living. Abel's mother Dora makes a meagre living by diving for abalone and Abel helps her as soon as he is old enough. While diving they come across the massive old groper whom Abel names Blueback. Blueback symbolises everything that Abel values about Longboat Bay and the natural park that backs on to their small plot of land.
Abel and his mother have to defend Longboat Bay against greedy fishermen who are only interested in stripping the bay and against wealthy developers who want to turn the place into a resort. At one climactic moment, Dora saves Blueback's life from a spearfisherman by placing herself between the armed fisherman and the giant fish. Late in her life, when Abel has left Longboat Bay to pursue a career as a marine scientist, Dora embarks on a tireless campaign to have the Bay declared a marine sanctuary.
Recommendation: This is a very accessible short text for Years 7 and 8 and it explores many aspects of sustainability, from the respect for their environment that Dora and Abel practise in their lifestyle to the constant threat of the greedy.
by Gary Paulsen. Pan, 2005 (1987). ISBN 9780330439. 160 pp.
First published in 1987, this was for many years a classic in English classrooms worldwide. It tells the story of a boy, Brian, who is in a light plane flying over the Canadian wilderness when the pilot drops dead at the controls. Brian, a city boy, is alone in the wild, with nothing to help him survive but a hatchet and his own strong willpower and resourcefulness.
The great appeal of this novel was always its authenticity. Paulsen knew the wilderness intimately. The reader believes utterly in Brian's success against the odds as he struggles to overcome each problem he confronts.
The book was followed by several sequels, all of which further explored issues of sustainability. Hatchet: The Return is still available. In this novel, Brian is asked to go back into the wilderness to demonstrate to three adults the skills he learnt that enabled him to survive.
Recommendation: This is still a very readable text and the issue of sustainability is more important than it ever was.
Girls Don’t Fly
by Kristen Chandler. Penguin Books, 2011. ISBN 9780143566588. 300 pp.
This American young adult novel looks like a conventional teenage romance: nice girl gets dumped by glamorous and apparently perfect boyfriend and slowly comes to realise he was a sleaze and that Mr Right is someone who doesn’t fit any of the stereotypes. And it is that – and more satisfying than most. But it is so much more. To begin with, the characters are richly drawn and engaging and the first-person narrative voice is funny and intelligent. The representation of Myra’s large and chaotic family is a joy: Myra comes to acknowledge that she is a doormat and that she is mercilessly exploited by her family, but there is a lot of love there as well. But most interesting is Myra’s growing awareness of her physical environment and her growing fascination with the Galapagos Islands, especially their birdlife.
The setting is ‘the pit of Utah’, the dreariness of suburbia at its worst. Myra can only see the boredom, the small-mindedness and the ugliness. But slowly a science project and a young researcher, Pete, begin to open her eyes to the miracle of the Great Salt Lake only ten miles away, a stopover for millions of migrating birds.
The novel is a celebration of the fact that girls don’t need to settle for second best. Myra had been intending to train as a dental nurse, to complement her perfect boyfriend’s career intention to become a dentist. It is only after he cruelly dumps her that she recognises the possibility of competing with him on equal terms, when the opportunity presents itself of attempting to win a scientific scholarship that involves two months’ pre-college research in the Galapagos. The novel also celebrates the joy of scientific discovery. The chapter titles are all taken from the world of bird study: ‘Habitat’, ‘Mounted specimen’, ‘Cavity nests’ and so on.
Recommendation: This is a worthwhile novel to use with Years 8 or 9. It will work best with girls, but boys could be tempted to try it and they will enjoy the humour and the issues. Work alongside the science department while studying this novel, asking them to help students to explore the scientific and environmental significance of the Galapagos Islands.
by Karen Wood. Allen & Unwin, 2014. ISBN 9781743316405. 293 pp.
This is a satisfying romance for girls in Years 7 to 9 that also happens to explore some important issues about sustainability. It is also, like Anne Brooksbank's Big Thursday, one of the rare novels for young adult readers that deals with the difficult issue of financial ruin. Holly's father's business has collapsed and the whole family is forced to sell their home, including the two ponies Holly loved so much. Their new home is a temporary stay in a very small, rundown farmhouse out of Gunnedah, where Holly's father has managed to get short-term work. There is tension between Holly and her neighbour, Kaydon, who also happens to be the son of her father's boss.
Gunnedah is experiencing severe drought, which is threatening the survival of some properties, such as the one teenager Aaron is trying to keep going after his father's death. Even Rockleigh homestead, the home of Kaydon's family and the social hub of the area, is financially stressed. Kaydon's father is suspicious of sustainable farming ideas and is about to take on a new financial partner - someone who proves to be more interested in disused oil wells than in farming.
Recommendation: Girls will enjoy this very much, although it may not have the depth required for whole-class study. It gives readers great insight into the difficulties of life on the land. Include it in a wide reading box of titles that deal with issues of sustainability.
My Sister Sif
by Ruth Park. UQP Children’s Classics, 2009 (1986). ISBN 9780702237010. 217 pp.
This fantasy was a pioneer in environmental fiction. While it is a story about a girl who realises that her natural environment is the sea, the focus is on the deteriorating health of the oceans, destroyed by nuclear testing, oil spills, ocean mining and global warming. Sisters Rika and Sif are half-human; their mother and brother belong to the sea people, the people of mermaids and mermen. Sif chooses life in the sea, a decision that has terrible consequences because of environmental damage.
Mermaids and sirens have had a recent resurgence, due to the (worrying?) preoccupation of young adult fiction with the paranormal. Sadly, the recent offerings have nothing to do with the environment. Park was years ahead of her time in recognising the importance of the health of the environment to our survival.
Recommendation: This was recently re-published by UQP in their Australian children’s classics series. It still reads well, with a good balance of realism and fantasy. Use it with Years 7 and 8, especially girls.
by Matt Whyman. Hodder Children’s Books, 2005. ISBN 9780340884539. 184 pp.
This is a compelling and disturbing read. It is set in Kazakhstan, in a vast toxic desert that was once the Aral Sea and the home of a thriving fishing community. Dams built for irrigation in Russia have destroyed the sea and consequently the community. Most people are unemployed, living desolate lives in crumbling Soviet-era blocks of flats. Sixteen-year-old Alexi survives by recovering the metal from the booster rockets that fall back into the desert after being launched from a distant cosmodrome. It is dangerous work, the rival gangs even more lethal than the radioactivity to which boys like Alexi are exposed. Many of the inhabitants are ill, like Alexi’s young brother Misha. A nurse at the inadequate local clinic tells Alexi that he must get Misha away from the deadly environment. They journey to Moscow, in search of medical help, and find the urban desert even more desolate and deadly than the environment they have fled.
The story is told in the first-person by Alexi and we come to care deeply for the brothers and the tragedy of their lives. Alexi’s courage and resilience are impressive. Many of the scenes, especially early in the novel, are very exciting and will hold readers’ attention. Few Australian young people will have any idea that children elsewhere are living lives as desperate as this. Few will have encountered examples as stark as this of the consequences for human lives of environmental degradation.
Recommendation: This could be used as a class set in Years 9 and 10, especially as the core of a unit of work on the environment, but I think it is too sad for that: opening students’ eyes to the reality of others’ lives is one thing, but focussing on it day after day for several weeks might be too much. Instead, include the novel in wide reading selections on themes like the environment, other cultures, or survival. Make sure that students have opportunities to talk about the book.
A wide reading study: post-apocalyptic novels
A wide reading study of post-apocalyptic novels would be an excellent way of exploring the concept of sustainability. This is one of the most popular genres currently and a wealth of novels is available, especially for Years 9 and 10, almost all of them set in a world that has broken down because of unsustainable environmental practices.
A box that would appeal to a range of reading abilities and reading tastes could be made up, including the following titles:
· The Bridge by Jane Higgins. In the future, human beings had reached Mars, 'got lost on our way to Jupiter's moons', but then were distracted by earthbound problems, such as the oil running out and the water wars beginning. The city is divided between 'the hostiles', refugees from 'Oversea' and the 'Desert', and the descendants of the original inhabitants, the Citysiders, who live privileged lives on the other side of the river. The protagonist is a Citysider, but what he has been told about 'the hostiles' may not be completely true.
· Genesis (The Rosie Black Chronicles Book 1) by Lara Morgan. 500 years into the future, Newperth is divided into the haves, the 'Centrals', the have-nots, the 'Bankers', and the fringe dwellers, the Ferals. This is a long but gripping read as the main character, Rosie, is on the run with a dangerous secret, unsure of whom to trust.
· The Interrogation of Ashala Wolf (The Tribe Book 1) by Ambelin Kwaymullina. In a world that has been devastated by environmental neglect, the new rigidly regulated authoritarian society does not tolerate those who are different, so there are exiles who have become resistance fighters. Ashala, a resistance leader, has been captured and is being interrogated. There are lots of surprising twists and turns: all is not what it seems. There is also a very interesting use of the story of the Rainbow Serpent.
· The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This searing story, written for adults, follows the journey of a father and son desperately seeking somewhere to survive in a world where most life has been destroyed by some kind of cataclysm and the few survivors are killing each other.
· Taronga by Victor Kelleher. The disaster that has devastated the world is not specified, although it may have been a global war. In a chaotic and lawless Sydney, a small group of people has barricaded themselves into Taronga Zoo, where they have a sustainable food supply.