Aboriginality in Children’s Literature

Published February 8, 2012 by electricbluegaloo

There are a growing number of excellent children’s texts which celebrate Australia’s proud Indigenous heritage, and it’s great to see that they are being duly recognised in mainstream, as well as Indigenous, literary and educational circles. However, as someone who grew up surrounded by Aboriginal families and having taught in Aboriginal communities I have always been disturbed by the lack of texts in which Aboriginality is as simply one (yes, important) aspect of the character’s identity. This is the one thing that UK children’s literature has over that which we produce here – ethnicity is not the be all and end all of identity.

We have the Dreaming stories, full of bright coloured birds, the wonderful adaptations of songs such as From Little Things Big Things Grow (read/sung weekly in our home at bed time) and those that make up the Magabala Books catalogue. There are also books such as Matt Ottley’s compelling Requiem for a Beast and these are all great in their own way, for their own purpose.

These are the kind of books that we teachers pull out when we are “Doing” Aboriginal stories, or when we want to “include Aboriginal perspectives”, or “engage Aboriginal children”. Personally, I think there is a loooooooong way to go before the majority of teachers even understand Aboriginal “perspectives” in any greater depth than using the pointy end of the paintbrush, but that’s a whole ‘nuther issue.

What I’m longing for, in addition to those mentioned above, are books in which the Indigenous characters are not only there to “speak for Aboriginal Australia” or to educate us on “Aboriginal customs.”

I can remember watching one of our beloved Aussie soaps in the late nineties in which an Aboriginal teacher was employed at the local school. Great, I thought, until I actually started watching the show and realised that the character was there to give us a good lecture about prejudice and racism. I think he lasted about a week and as soon as he had taught all the kids about the “Blue Eyes” experiment he was mysteriously gone. I know it’s probably better than never having had an Indigenous actor/character, but not by much.

Let’s put this another way. I am a female, and proudly so. I like reading books in which there are female characters, but how boring would it be to read a whole book about shaving legs and putting on makeup – both of which are part of female life, no denying it. Books for girls and about girls need to show the characters as real and multifaceted, as do books for and about Indigenous Australians.

There is too much us-ing and them-ing when it comes to Aboriginality in my experience. When the stories and what-nots are trying to teach us a lesson and moralising at us we turn off, we all do. Leave the moral tales to the Ancient Greeks.

The only mainstream children’s author I’ve read who did not make the character’s Aboriginality the entire basis of their identity is Melaina Faranda. Melaina is such a gifted storyteller that she weaves this fact about their heritage into the tale with barely a flicker. It is beautiful and I thank her, and her publishers for doing it this way.

At the end of last year Dr Anita Heiss sent me Twugia Dreaming, an anthology written by gifted and talented Year 7 students in the South Western Sydney Region, and when I say talented I mean just that. The writings are at times moving and always well-constructed, but more than that – they are an insight into what Rachel McKay (Consultant Aboriginal Education, Gifted and Talented) describes as “one of Australia’s most precious resources: our Aboriginal children.”

But I’d like to read sections of this book to the kids I work with now in the leafy suburbs of the Northern Sydney district. How surprised they’d be by the list of books reviewed in Twugia Dreaming, ie Harry Potter, Eclipse and Deltora Quest. I’m sure the Twugia kids are super proud of their Aboriginality, but not one of them reviewed Making Johnny Cakes.

Maybe the kids, our future leaders and voters, would be more inclined to stand up for real changes, like amending the Constitution, to improving the literacy standards and the life expectancy of our first peoples, if they thought of themselves as part of a whole community, not on opposite sides of the fence. There is a significant purpose served by the raft of “Indigenous perspectives” materials currently available but it is unity, not understanding alone that can make a difference.

Not everyone is lucky enough to grow up in a united community such as I did, but through our children’s literature we can aim high and set the standard for the future of our country.

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