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'If students can't learn the way we teach, we must teach the way they learn' (Ignacio Estrada, via Tomlinson)

Archive for June, 2013

Book review: The River Charm, by Belinda Murrell

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 20, 2013

The River CharmI was rather impressed by The River Charm.  Belinda Murrell is an established children’s author, but I had never read any of her work, and this one came as an interesting surprise.

Based on elements of her own family history, Murrell has constructed a ‘bush novel’ with some very contemporary themes.  It begins with modern-day Millie ‘seeing’ a ghostly image of a girl in what might, or might not be, a dream.  Millie is artistic, and she transforms the image into a portrait so good that it’s been entered by her teacher into a competition.

To escape her nerves about having to attend the awards ceremony, Millie travels with her mother and her sister to visit Aunt Jessamine, in the bush.  This aunt turns out to be a grand raconteur of family history stories, and so the reader enters the colonial world of the Atkinson family in 1839.  They live on an estate called Oldbury but there is trouble aplenty: Mamma has made an imprudent remarriage after her first husband died, and Mr Barton the stepfather is a brute who is after the assets that were left to the children in their father’s Will.  Contemporary students will be amazed to read about Mamma’s struggle to protect the family at a time when women had no legal right to property or even to custody of their own children.


Teachers may need to be careful when lending this book to students for reading at home.  Barton is violent, and Murrell doesn’t spare her young readers the detail.  He doesn’t just attack Mamma, he also assaults Charlotte – and when they get away to start a new life without him, he comes after them in scenes that will be familiar to contemporary readers, either from the media, or sadly, from their own experience.  This could be quite harrowing for some students to deal with.

I think, however, that this would make an excellent book for reading aloud and discussion.  For boys in particular, it shows the injustice of sexism without being preachy and it makes a strong stand against domestic violence.

The historical detail is compelling: there are bushrangers and murderous convicts, and Murrell doesn’t shy away from detailing the impact of settlement on the local Aboriginals.  Books like this bring history alive and I think many students will really enjoy reading it.

Author: Belinda Murrell
Title: The River Charm
Publisher: Random House, 2013
ISBN: 9781742757124
Review copy courtesy of Random House.


Fishpond: The River Charm

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Book Reviews | Tagged: , | Comments Off on Book review: The River Charm, by Belinda Murrell

2013 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 19, 2013

As in 2012, my companion blog ANZ LitLovers is hosting Indigenous Literature Week during NAIDOC week (7-14 July 2013), and readers of this blog are also invited to join.

You are welcome to contribute in any way that helps to promote reading indigenous literature.  On the ANZ LitLovers blog, the focus is on literary fiction and the occasional memoir, but readers can contribute reviews of any kind of book, as long as it’s by an indigenous author.  AS you can see from the sign up page you can contribute your review on your own blog, on a GoodReads or Library Thing page, or with a comment on the reviews page.

I will also set up a dedicated Reviews page on this blog so that all the reviews of children’s books are together where teachers can find them.

There’s a reading list for contributors wanting to read adult books at ANZ LitLovers and Emma from My Book Corner has kindly shared her list of indigenous literature resources for those who want to read children’s books.

So, please, join in.  Through the new Australian Curriculum cross-cultural Aboriginal and Torres Straits Islander Priority, every teacher is a teacher of Aboriginal history and culture, and most of us need to learn more about Australia’s First People.

I’m hoping that this will be an imitative that grows and grows, and all teachers will read at least one book by an Aboriginal author each year, maybe more!

PS Oh, and feel free to share teaching activities to go with the books you read:)

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Indigenous Teaching Resources | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on 2013 Indigenous Literature Week at ANZ LitLovers

Book Review: To Get to Me, by Eleanor Kerr and Judith Russell

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 18, 2013

To Get to MeTo Get to Me is a bright and colourful picture book about transport.  It features a little boy called Peter who invites his friend Ahmed to come along to the zoo, but Ahmed needs to make his way there from somewhere in the Middle East to Sydney, using a variety of forms of transport, from camels to chairlifts.

While the pictures are gorgeous, there’s not much more to it than that, and it bothers me a little bit that the transport depicted in the Middle East consists of camels and a village bus complete with chickens on the roof – until they get to the airport.  Sydney, by contrast, has a modern train; an escalator; ferries, boats and yachts; and the chairlift.  These contrasts contribute to the stereotype of the Middle East as a backward place when in fact a country like Qatar, for example,  (one of the richest countries in the world) is incredibly modern and the contemporary architecture in Doha puts the Sydney Opera House to shame.  (In Dubai, I read at Virtual Tourist, the bus stops are air-conditioned, an innovation I’d like to see in Australia!)

So if I were using this book to teach a unit of work on transport, I’d supplement it with a variety of images:

and so on…

Author: Eleanor Russell
Illustrator: Judith Rossell
Title: To Get to Me
Publisher: Random House, 2013
ISBN: 9781742758831
Review copy courtesy of Random House


Fishpond: To Get To Me

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews | Tagged: , , | 3 Comments »

Book review: Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 16, 2013

Bush ToysA little while ago I posted about my curiosity as to whether or not there was a concept of ‘toys’ in nomadic lifestyles so I was very pleased yesterday when I stumbled across a whole book devoted to the topic.  The Bayside Library Service at Sandringham deserves to be congratulated because it’s the only library in metropolitan Melbourne that I’ve ever been in, that has a dedicated section of books about indigenous issues.  Amongst the treasures there, which include fiction and non-fiction books by indigenous authors; reference books; and books about indigenous issues by non-indigenous authors such as Dr Henry Reynolds and Dr Lyndall Ryan; I found Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play, by Claudia Haagen, which was written for the National Museum of Australia in Canberra, to document their collection of artefacts.

It is a scholarly work, and unfortunately the photographs are really too small to use with classes at school, but it is a very useful book for teachers interested in extending their background knowledge about the lifestyles of Aboriginal children.  The new Australian Curriculum includes three cross-curriculum ‘priorities’, one of which is Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, and (as I said in my previous post) one of the science topics includes Year 2 students identifying toys from different cultures that use the forces of push or pull.  This book shows me that Aboriginal children did indeed have toys and games like that, and a wealth of others besides.

The Contents page gives an indication of the book’s scope:

  1. First Toys: rattles and rings
  2. About camp: playing house; story games; drawing sticks for tracks and other sand games; dolls
  3. Bush tucker: bags and baskets; fire sticks and digging sticks; fishing gear
  4. Hunting and fighting games: spears and spear games; parrying games and mock fights; disc rolling and spearing; shields; missiles and mud balls; spearthrowers; boomerangs; other weapons (bow and arrow; stone axes; throwing sticks; darts; shanghais)
  5. Playing with sound: bullroarers; percussion toys; strings and whistles
  6. Water play: mud balls and mud slides; canoes; rafts
  7. Community play: ball games (composite balls; football; throwing and pursuit games); hockey; bowling or ‘jeu de boules’; spinning games; playing sticks; skipping; marbles; ‘board games’; airborne and returning toys; fireworks
  8. Other toys: hoops, tick-cat and quoits; whimsical toys and other figures; driving toys (trucks, rollers and trailers).

As you can see from the list, there are toys and games which  may derive from contact with European children, but the collection is diverse, gathered from museums around Australia.  It necessarily reflects records of Aboriginal societies constructed by Europeans over time, so the collection is incomplete and is filtered through European eyes.  Any games that were associated with secret ceremonies would never have been revealed to European observers either.  Not only that, but interest in the lives of children is a fairly recent topic of research and much of what is available has survived only by chance.  This is especially so because many games were played without equipment (you only have to think of hide-and-seek or chasey) and most toys were ephemeral.  They were often thrown away when the game was over; and if they were made from plants they soon degraded when exposed to the elements.   In general, Aboriginal cultures did not focus on ‘keeping’ or ‘owning’ or ‘treasuring’ toys.  Things were shared communally and left behind without regret when the community moved on.

But what is common to all of these toys and games – and probably universally to toys and games from hunter-gatherer and pre-industrial societies all over the world – is the concept of ‘transformation’ – that is, taking an object from its environment and giving it a new purpose, for the purpose of play.

As in European societies, as ‘adults in preparation’, children played with miniature versions of adult artefacts, often gendered : little canoes, shields, hunting weapons and fishing gear for the boys, while the girls had tiny versions of equipment needed to ‘play house’: they had cute dolls made of grass and string, painted with clay and of course they had mini coolamon to carry them in.  For mimicking food-gathering they had digging sticks, bags and baskets (which put me in mind of those miniature supermarket trolleys we see today), and the book has a photo of kids who’d built a mini shelter to construct their little imaginary world – complete with a play fire pit to cook food.

Girls played skipping games ‘before ever they saw the white man’s skipping-rope used’ (p.87) and Daisy Bates saw boys playing with marbles with a species of nut.  They had slingshots too, and balls made of pandanus leaves, while both genders had toys for running, jumping and throwing, for messing about and for making a noise.   Story games were used to teach unique aspects of their culture: there was a leaf game in which girls rearranged groupings of gum leaves to learn kinship relationships and the ‘right behaviour’ that goes with them.

I have just bought a copy of this book from Fishpond to use at school  (see the link below), but something the Australian Museum could very usefully do would be to set up a virtual exhibition that could be accessed by school children across Australia, using the photographic collection that they already have and curating it online with kid-friendly captions.

Author: Claudia Haagen
Title: Bush Toys, Aboriginal Children at Play
Publisher: National Museum of Australia, Canberra, 1994
ISBN: 0855752459
Source: Bayside Library Service


Fishpond: Bush Toys: Aboriginal Children at Play

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Book Reviews, Indigenous Teaching Resources, Recommended books | Tagged: , , , | 2 Comments »

Book Review: Alfie’s Search for Destiny, by David Hardy

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 6, 2013

Alfie's Search for DestinyAlfie’s Search for Destiny is another title from Australia’s first Indigenous Australian publisher, Magabala Books.  It’s a sweet little rhyming story that features a theme common in picture books for small children keen to explore their world but are not quite ready for it –  about a little boy who leaves home in search of his destiny , only to realise that his destiny is at home.

What makes this version a little bit different is the Disneyesque cartoon characters that have morphed into an outback Aussie landscape.  Alfie has those classic Disney facial expressions and gestures, but he wears the iconic red headband and loincloth of indigenous people, and the natural world into which he ventures is populated by Aussie crocs, ‘roos,  koalas and so on.   His mum wears ochre-coloured clothing of indigenous design and his dad, seen in silhouette, balances on one leg with a spear in his hand.  So the sub-text of the story is about a universal theme which has special resonance for indigenous people still recovering from the trauma of the Stolen Generations: the importance of family and community.

Perhaps it has autobiographical elements too. David Hardy is an Indigenous freelance artist who worked for eight years with Walt Disney Studios in feature film animation, and has now come home.

While he was with Disney, this talented artist worked on The Lion King 3: Hakuna Matata, Tarzan II, Lilo and Stitch2 and Return to Neverland.  He was also ‘clean-up animation director in Manila, Philippines, where he worked on  Disney classics sequels, The Little Mermaid: Ariel’s Beginning and The Fox and the Hound 2.

If he ever makes it down to Melbourne on a promotional tour, I’d love him to talk to my students: what a wonderful role model he is for career opportunities in the creative arts!

Author: David Hardy
Title: Alfie’s Search for Destiny
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781922142115
Source: Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books


Fishpond: Alfie’s Search for Destiny
Or direct from Magabala Books

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Indigenous Teaching Resources, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »