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Book review: Rift-breaker, by Tristan Michael Savage

Posted by Lisa Hill on July 9, 2014


It’s been so long since I’ve read any SF, I’ve almost forgotten how to read it. Rift Breaker, by award-winning indigenous author Tristan Michael Savage, is a high action space adventure that will appeal to fans of Doctor Who and similar types of fantasy. The book won the 2013 Black&Write award for YA writing, but I think that adolescent boys of any age will like it. I’m not so sure about girls…

The main characters are Milton Lance, a human, and his simian mate Tazman. Although Tazman is unreliable and his party-animal ways often get the pair into trouble, there is never any doubt that they are the Good Guys. Inexperienced, sometimes naive and often impulsive, these two are recognisable as the antithesis of Evil because they show compassion for the suffering of others. With their sidekick Luyulla, it’s not so clear where her loyalties lie…

This is also true of the other significant characters. Fleet Commander Viceon Raegar works for the Tranquillian Composite, which is a ‘fusion of worlds dedicated to preserve cohabitation’. Sent to discover how the space colony Orisurrection was annihilated, he sees Luyulla’s spacecraft and assuming that the trio are responsible, circulates a Wanted notice throughout space.

From here on the trio have all kinds of trouble. Clearly there are Bad Guys, but all kinds of confusion keeps the reader guessing about who’s double-crossing whom. Milton finds himself the object of interest from both sides because the Good Guys think he’s on the wrong side and the Bad Guys somehow know that he has acquired a powerful gift that facilitates their Evil Quest.

There are so many twists and turns in the plot that I could not quite keep track, but in SF I think that hardly matters. It’s a Battle between Good and Evil, framed by a quest. The hero is double-crossed by someone, and there is a sexy female of considerable power (though she behaves in a rather incompetent way with her weaponry). In this respect it’s a rather ‘male’ book: the male characters dominate, the female has moments of being ruled by heart not head, and problems are all solved by fighting.

On the other hand, while the Bad Guys are motivated by lust for power, Milton saves himself with thoughts of home, family and friends. While there is the usual impressive range of weaponry that’s familiar from Doctor Who, the really dastardly stuff is created by evil scientists with a medical bent. Milton ends up with his mind under control through a Xoeloid implant in his brain, but the message seems to be that human love will prevail if people remain strong.

Milton is in some ways a symbol of Aboriginal resilience and reconciliation. He is a lone human in a world of other creatures, and he was raised by adoptive parents. He enjoys new experiences and he puts up with Tazman’s crazy behaviour because he craves adventure – but his heart belongs to his quiet home in an isolated rural environment. His sense of justice is outraged by colonisers who destroy space colonies for their own purposes, and he is determined to survive in order to resist their domination because he doesn’t share their values.

At 350-odd pages it looks like a long book but the font is well-spaced and it’s a quick and easy read. For fans of high action space adventure, it has plenty of techno-babble, weird creatures and snappy dialogue. I’m confident that boys will like it, and I’ll be interested to see if teenage girls like it too.

Update: Tristan Savage has won the Kris Hembury encouragement award at the recent Aurealis Awards for science fiction…Congratulations!

PS I left this book behind at my parents’ place, my mother (who’s in her late 80s) absolutely loves it!

Author: Tristan Michael Savage
Title: Rift Breaker
Publisher: Magabala Books 2014
ISBN: 9781922142467
Source: review copy courtesy of Magabala Books.

Availability

Fishpond: Rift Breaker
Or direct from Magabala Books

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Posted in Book Reviews, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

Book review: Tracker Tjugingji, by Bob Randall and Kunyi June-Anne McInerney

Posted by Lisa Hill on July 5, 2014


I’m going to kick off Indigenous Literature Week 2014 with a review of a delightful picture book called Tracker Tjugingji, by Bob Randall of the Yankunytjatjara desert people from Central Australia and a listed custodian of Uluru.  The book blurb tells us that the author was taken from his family when he was 8 or 9 years old, and sent from Alice Springs to Minjala (Croker Island) off the north coast of Arnhem Land.  A well-known story-teller and songwriter, he used this childhood experience to write the award-winning song Brown Skin Baby.

Tracker Tjugingji, however, is not a sad story of the Stolen Generations, it is a celebration of traditional Aboriginal family life.   Tjugingji is a little fellow who lives in the desert with his parents, camping in little windbreak shelters and sleeping by the fire.  One day his parents let him know that he’s not to play too late that night because they are moving on in the morning, to a big lake, a long way east of where they were camped.  Of course kids will be kids, and by the time he gets back from playing his parents (and the dogs) are all fast asleep, so he lies down beside his father and goes to sleep.

But…

When Tjugingji’s parents woke up there was a glow in the sky –  the sun was rising.  But Tracker Tjugingji was still fast asleep.  ‘Oh well, let’s leave him,’ they said.  ‘He can catch up later.’

That’s  the Aboriginal way – you don’t wake your children when they are fast asleep.

I expect this will raise a few eyebrows today when so many children are raised to be fearful of stepping outside their own front gate by themselves.  But Tjugingji is not the least little bit alarmed, because he knows he can follow their tracks.  He has his little spear and boomerang with him, and by walking around in a circle he soon picks up his parents’ tracks and sets off.

Before long he picks up other tracks as well: he meets an assortment of wildlife who tell him that yes, they’ve seen his parents, and what’s more, they’ve been chased by the family dog.  The snake, the perentie, the malu (kangaroo), the papa (dingo) and the emu all follow him to make sure that he doesn’t lose his way, and they all end up having an inma (dance to celebrate.  The song they sing is included on a CD at the back of the book.   (There is also a glossary and a pronunciation guide).

The pictures, by Kunyi June-Anne McInerney, of Yankunytjatjara descent are gorgeous.  A stunning sky blue contrasts with the rich red of the desert landscape, and as you can see from the front cover Tjugingji is  a really cute kid with unruly curls and an infectious grin.

In the classroom, I would use this book to talk about how Tjugingji managed to find his parents, eliciting that Aboriginal families in traditional communities teach their children the skills they need to know to manage in a desert or bush environment, in the same way that city children are taught to manage traffic in an urban environment.  I think it would also make a superb stimulus for artwork with pastels or crayons, and art teachers could take the opportunity to talk about the Aboriginal mining of ochre, discussing the traditional routes and the trading that went on.

(I would do this because I think the best way to counter the insulting ignorance of anyone who thinks that Australia wasn’t already ‘settled’ in 1788, is to teach children about the thriving culture that was here in Australian for 40,000 years or more, and survives to this day).

If you have enjoyed a book by an indigenous author this week, please drop in at the ANZ LitLovers reviews page, and either leave a comment or a link to your review on your blog, at Goodreads or at Library Thing.

Update 14/7/14
I’ve been working on including Aboriginal Perspectives (aka the AC Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures priority) in our new Year 1 & 2 unit on Past and Present Family Life (ACHHK030), and have included this title in one of the activities.

ABORIGINAL PERSPECTIVES AusVELS Y1&2 Past&Present Family Li

Author: Bob Randall
Illustrator: Kunyi June-Anne McInerney
Title: Tracker Tjugingji,
Publisher: Jukurrpa Books, an imprint of IAD Press, 2012
ISBN: 9781864651263
Source: Review copy courtesy of Dennis Jones and Associates

Availability

Fishpond: Tracker Tjungingji

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Indigenous Teaching Resources, Recommended books | Tagged: , , , , | Comments Off on Book review: Tracker Tjugingji, by Bob Randall and Kunyi June-Anne McInerney

Book review: Indigenous First Discovery Series, by Debbie Austin

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 30, 2014


I came across the Indigenous First Discovery series when book distributors Dennis Jones and Associates sent me three of their little books to review for Indigenous Literature Week 2014. 

They’re small square board books entitled

  • Animals
  • People and Places
  • At the Billabong

and they’re all illustrated with exquisite artwork by Debbie Austin,  from the Kirrae Whurrong nation in western Victoria.

Animals is a simple little book of symbols representing Australia’s native animals.  There are footprints of wombats, kangaroos, dingoes and so on, all painted in the traditional colours of black, yellow, red and white.  There is a legend at the back so that children can guess which footprints belong to which animal.

People and places is similar, but the symbols are of fire, watering places, weapons and so on.  I enjoyed trying to guess what these ones were, and will use this knowledge next time I try to interpret an Aboriginal work of art.

At the Billabong features a cut-out circle representing a billabong in the middle of the book, and the text tells a simple little story about the creatures that gathered at the billabong on a hot day.

Small children will find these little books enchanting, but they serve a wider purpose.  As the blurb says:

The series was created to help raise awareness of the importance of using Australian Aboriginal symbols to teach stories top our young in all cultures, as they have been for over 60,000 years.

In this delightful new range of books for babies and children, we discover the value of learning more about the spirituality of the Australian landscape and its indigenous people and embrace an Australian identity infused with existing native wisdom and lore.

Suitable for kindergartens and prep classes, they would also make a very special gift to welcome a new baby, I think.

Click the links to buy from Fishpond.

Animals (Indigenous First Discovery) People and Places (Indigenous First Discovery) At the Billabong: An Indigenous First Discovery Book [Board book]
Author and illustrator: Debbie Austin
First Discovery Series
Publisher: Discovery Press, 2008
Contact: info@discoverypress.com.au
ISBNs: Animals  9780980470109; People and Places 9780980470116; At the Billabong 9780980470123
Source: review copies courtesy of book distributors Dennis Jones and Associates sent

 

 

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews | Tagged: , | 1 Comment »

Book review: Silly Birds, by Gregg Dreise

Posted by Lisa Hill on June 22, 2014


Silly Birds

Silly Birds is a delightful book with a clear message about the folly of joining in with destructive gangs.  The artwork is stunning.

Gregg Dreise is a descendant of the Kamilaroi people from south-west Queensland and north-west New South Wales.  The youngest of eight children, he grew up in a family that valued sport, music and poetry, and was inspired to write by his mother, Lyla Dreise-Knox, who has been writing poetry for decades.

Currently a teacher on the Sunshine Coast, Gregg was inspired to write Silly Birds by hearing the Elders saying that it was ‘hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys’.   I love the way the book begins, and from now onwards, I plan to use its opening lines whenever I read indigenous stories about The Dreaming to my students:

Way back before Once-upon-a-time time, there was the Dreamtime…

Maliyan is an eagle who comes from a loving family that’s very proud of him.  They teach him to be a good listener, and to remember that talking too much is only for wombah thigaraa – silly birds.  So Maliyan becomes a well-respected bird, until he meets up with Wagun, a bush turkey and a braggart, a boaster and a bird that’s careless about others.  Alas, Maliyan is attracted to Wagun because of the fun they have, mocking the Elders – and talking, talking, talking.

The gang doesn’t listen to the Elders, and they cause a lot of trouble, especially when they pollute the billabong with their rubbish and cause food shortages by taking more than their share.  Fortunately Maliyan responds to his parents’ concern in time and he decides not to hang around with the turkeys any more.   With help from the Elders he changes his ways and gets back his ability to see and hear things from a long way away.  The other birds respect him again, and follow his example.

All except for Wagun.  He loses his ability for soaring flight – and his friends – and is reduced to scratching around in a limited world.

Like many indigenous stories I have read, Silly Birds has an explicit moral, but it is not didactic in tone.  This beautiful, brightly coloured and superbly illustrated picture book is a 21st century way of doing what our indigenous people have always done – teaching their children through the arts.  In indigenous oral culture, children learned what they needed to know through story, song and dance.  Making the transition into print means that we can all share the story, no matter where we live.

Gregg has also made a very 21st century book promo at YouTube!

Author & illustrator: Gregg Dreise
Title: Silly Birds
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2014
ISBN: 9781922142993
Source: Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books

Availability
Fishpond: Silly Birds
Or direct from Magabala Books

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Indigenous Teaching Resources | Tagged: , , , , , | 1 Comment »

The Fairy Who Wouldn’t Fly, retold by Bronwyn Davies

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 29, 2014


I’m not very enthusiastic about the fairy phenomenon that seems to have engaged so many little girls, but I did like this book.  It’s a retelling of a fairy story by Pixie O’Harris that would make most modern readers gnash their teeth in dismay because it promoted conformity and obedience to gender roles that are now obsolete. Bronwyn Davies has updated this story so that it fits more comfortably with contemporary life, and the edition is complemented by illustrations from Pixie O’Harris and other images from the collection of the National Library of Australia.

Here’s how it goes: the Queen of the Fairies banishes the fairy who wouldn’t fly because she needs to learn to be like everyone else.  Other fairies lift up the heads of flowers after rain, they help lame beetles and they save silly baby birds.  In other words, their role is to nurture and care for others (and presumably not to aspire to the role of the powerful Queen).  There is no room in Fairyland for lazy fairies…

But the Fairy-who-wouldn’t-fly was not the same as other fairies.  Instead of working, she wanted to read, to sleep, and to dream.  And when she woke, she would wonder about things.  She wondered where the wind came from, and wondered how seeds knew what kind of flower to grow into.   (p.3)

Too bad, is the Queen’s verdict, so the FWWF is whisked away to the Woodn’t, a place full of idiosyncratic rebels like the Kookaburra-who-wouldn’t-laugh and the Bee-who-wouldn’t-live-in-a-hive.  The FWWF is both pleased and irritated by the assorted manifestations of wilfulness, and she misses Fairyland – but she still doesn’t want to be like everyone else.

It so happens that a small human stumbles into the dell with her, and it takes a combined effort and some unaccustomed cooperation from the rebels to restore him to his mother.   This makes for a return to Fairyland where the Queen welcomes back the FWWF who is then able to show her that Fairyland can make a place for individuals who have ideas of their own.  Pleasingly, not everyone capitulates: the Bee still fancies freedom:

I want to explore new places, and I want to find out what’s killing the honey bees.  I need to live on my own for  a while and have time to think. (p. 40)

This retelling allows the FWWF to be true to herself, and the Queen gets a bit of a makeover too.

The Fairy Queen smiled at the Fairy.  She was so brave and honest.  “It’s very hard to tell a Queen that she’s been wrong, and I thank you for it.  The Bee will be most welcome in Fairyland when she completes her investigation.”  (p. 46)

So, if we must have little girls tripping about in sparkles and tulle, The Fairy Who Wouldn’t Fly is an alternative that suggests that girls can have agency in their own lives.

Author: Bronwyn Davies
Illustrator: Pixie O’Harris
Title: The Fairy that Wouldn’t Fly
Publisher: National Library of Australia, 2014
ISBN: 9780642278517
Source: Review copy courtesy of the NLA

Availability
Direct from the NLA Bookshop
Or Fishpond: The Fairy Who Wouldn’t Fly

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Book review: Midnight Burial, by Pauline Deeves

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 28, 2014


21897737Midnight Burial, by Pauline Deeves,  is a most interesting short historical novel for readers aged eight to twelve.

It’s a mystery story, set on a remote sheep station in the 19th century.  It’s cleverly crafted in the form of letters and diary entries from various protagonists in the novel, so that events are gradually revealed from multiple points of view.

The central character, the one that the kids will identify with, is Miss Florence Williamson, who, in 1868 is aged ten.  She’s a smart kid, rather rebellious, and very determined.  The novel begins with her declaration that she will never write in her diary again because she doesn’t ever want to remember this day, the day that her sister Lizzie, suddenly died.  Her father is outside hastily burying the body –  no doctor, no clergyman and no witnesses – and the rest of the family is in shock.  Clearly there is something odd about this death, and Florence’s curious questions at a dinner in town bring others to the same conclusion.

Deeves uses the historical period to explore gender issues and social conditions.  Florence’s father James is an irascible man, sacking servants at whim, and laying down the law about the role that women should play.  He has strong objections to his neighbour’s efforts to extend education to the labouring class; and he is horrified by his sister Hetty turning up in a riding habit.  Nothing his family can say will reconcile him to Henry Parkes’ plans to bring some of Florence Nightingale’s nurses to the colony, and he is adamant that none of  his daughters will be tainted by marrying a former convict.

Events conspire to make him reassess his ideas.  The tension rises when James goes missing just as it’s shearing time, and he has sacked his overseer so his ‘bossy’ daughter Jane has to deal with recalcitrant shearers and a heavy workload.

The novel is only 72 pages long, supplemented by the author’s ‘historical notes’ at the back, so it’s very suitable for reading aloud or reciprocal reading.  Its structure lends itself to plotting the course of the story and of course predicting what might happen next, and perhaps writing alternative endings in the same diary/letters format.

Recommended, especially as a supplementary text for units of work on Australian settlement.

Author: Pauline Deeves
Title: Midnight Burial
Publisher: National Library of Australian, 2014
ISBN: 08441336
Source: Review copy courtesy of the NLA.

Availability

Fishpond: Midnight Burial
Or direct from the NLA Bookshop.

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Book review: Meet … Douglas Mawson, by Mike Dumbleton, illustrated by Snip Green

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 24, 2014


Meet Douglas MawsonI was delighted to receive an advance copy of Meet … Douglas Mawson this week, because Mawson has been a hero of mine since I first read about him in primary school.  His story was featured in the old Victorian Readers and I still remember it vividly.  I have since read Mawson’s story in his own words and found it even more compelling  – see my review of The Home of the Blizzard republished by Wakefield Press; it’s essential reading for teachers of history, IMO, especially since the Australian Curriculum includes the topic of Explorers for year 4.

This edition is shorter than the version in the Victorian Readers and somewhat sanitised of the grisly bits.  There’s nothing about eating the Huskies out of desperation, nor of the manner of Mertz’s brave exit.  Nothing about the gruesome state of Mawson’s feet, and his plunge into a crevasse is pruned so that readers don’t realise that he fell into it twice but overcame despair.  Are todays’ readers such sensitive souls that they must be spared these truths?   It seems a pity to me to short-change children in this way.  So many of them think that playing sport at elite level is heroic, and don’t know what heroism really is.

The story, however, is  salvaged by Dumbleton’s crisp prose, focussing on the courage of the adventurers and the expedition’s achievements:

It was a world of extreme cold, but also extreme beauty.

The men discovered breathtaking glaciers, drew maps and collected rock samples.   They were uncovering secrets that would help people understand how this mysterious land was formed.

Snip Green’s illustrations make this book the highlight of this series.  They are so perfectly realised that I am sorely tempted to breach copyright and share some of the images.  (But no, visit the Random House website instead where you can see some of them if you click on the Free Sample icon).  Green has captured the bleak climate of Antarctica in pale geometric shards of green and white with the human intruders in dark grey and black, often dwarfed by the immensity of the landscape.  Most poignant of all is the double page spread depicting Mawson trudging on alone, watched over by Mawson’s burial cross: it symbolises so vividly the integrity of a man in extremis, who pushed himself to the limit to erect a memorial to his companion, in a place where no one else could see it.  The clean edginess of Green’s images must surely make this book a candidate for an award; they are stunning.  You can find out more about Snip Green at Random House.

This series from Random House is turning out to be excellent.  Here’s my wishlist for future titles:

  • Faith Bandler
  • Nancy Wake
  • Edith Cowan
  • Eddie Mabo
  • Germaine Greer
  • John Curtin
  • Nancy Bird Walton
  • Sister Vivian Bullwinkle
  • Emily Kngwarreye
  • Oodgeroo Noonuccal (Kath Walker)
  • Patrick White
  • Percy Grainger
  • Peggy Granville-Hicks
  • Eileen Joyce

Author: Mike Dumbleton
Title: Meet… Douglas Mawson
Illustrator: Snip Green
Publisher: Random House, 2014
ISBN: 9780857981950
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House

Availability

Fishpond: Meet Douglas Mawson (due for release on June 2, 2014)

Posted in Australian History, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Migration Year 5 & 6 unit of work

Posted by Lisa Hill on May 21, 2014


I am working on a new unit of work for years 5 & 6: it’s intended to teach content from the Australian Curriculum on the topic of migration:

Stories of groups of people who migrated to Australia (including from ONE Asian country) and the reasons they migrated, such as World War II and Australian migration programs since the war. (ACHHK115)

In addition to exploring waves of migration at different times in Australian history, I am also interested in guiding students towards an empathetic understanding of the migrant experience, which will include the experience of being a refugee.

So far, I have gathered together these picture books to support the unit

  • Rebel! written by Allan Baillie and illustrated by Di Wu
  • The Peasant Prince, the true story of Mao’s Last Dancer, by Li Cunxin and Anne Spudvilas
  • The Little Refugee, the inspiring story of Australia’s happiest refugee, by Anh Do and Suzanne Do, illustrated by Brice Whatley
  • Boat Boy by Hazel Edwards, illustrated by Eric David
  • The Island, by John Heffernan and Peter Sheehan
  • Ali the Bold Heart, based on the true story of an Iranian refugee, who performed as a magician in his own country, written by Jane Jolly and illustrated by Elise Hurst
  • Glass Tears, by Jane Jolly and Di Wu
  • Ziba Came on a Boat, by Liz Lofthouse, illustrated by Robert Ingpen
  • A True Person, written by Gabiann Marin and illustrated by Jacqui Grantford
  • Home and Away, by John Marsden and Matt Ottley
  • The Arrival by Shaun Tan
  • The Boat, by Helen Ward and Ian Andrew

Novels to use include

  • Boy Overboard by Morris Gleitzman
  • The White Ship by Jackie French
  • When Hitler Took Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr

Non-fiction resources

  •  Story of Migration to Australia, Heinemann
    • From the Middle East and Africa, by Nicolas Brasch
  •  Migrations series (Wayland)
    • Chinese Migrations, by Judith Kendra
  • We Came to Australia, Looking for … series, by Christine Mulvany & Lucy Carroll, MacMillan
    • Family;
    • Jobs and Education;
    • Different Environments;
    • Freedom;
    • Different Lifestyle.
  • Australian Immigration Stories by Louise Courtney and Linda Massola, Heinemann,
    • 1900-1940
    • 1940-1960
    • 1960-1980
    • 1980 –

Does anyone else have any suggestions for resources for this topic?

Posted in Asia & Australia's Engagement with Asia, Australian Curriculum, Australian History, School Library stuff, School Library Units of Work | Tagged: | Comments Off on Migration Year 5 & 6 unit of work

Book Review: Anzac’s Long Shadow, by James Brown

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 21, 2014


Anzac's Long Shadow

Last week when author James Brown was interviewed on ABC TV about his new book Anzac’s Long Shadow, it drew a predictable response.  From the RSL National President to politicians who were interviewed the prohibition on criticism of Anzac day was clear.  It is sacrosanct, and the way it is now celebrated is ‘what the people want’.  Nobody would entertain the idea of questioning the nation’s priorities in respect of this day, much less offer any leadership about it.  Well, I hope that away from the glare of the cameras they take time to read this book, and to think about the many issues it raises.

In a nutshell, Brown (a former army officer) argues that Australia spends too much time, money and emotion on the Anzac legend at the expense of current serving military personnel and our future defence needs.  He points out that Australia is going to spend $325 million on WW1 commemorations, which is twice what the British will spend.  Some of this will be spent on sporting events tagged with the Anzac brush, some on tours and cruises, some on more memorials in more places, bigger and better than what we already have,  and $27 million of it is going to a company that’s going to manage events in Turkey.  This is, as Brown says, a commemorative program so extravagant that it would make sultans swoon and pharaohs envious.  It has become, he says without mincing words, a sort of military Halloween … with commemorative events at Gallipoli now more like an all-Australian jamboree.

But this is not a churlish harangue.  Brown is genuinely concerned about significant matters on which we are not spending taxpayer’s dollars.  While no Anzac commemoration can be too lavish, defence spending is in a parlous state, underfunded by 25%.  It is naïve, he says, to imagine both that there are no impending threats and that our preferred option of diplomacy will always protect us.  By celebrating the courage of the hastily assembled armies that fought in World Wars 1 & 2, and by fostering the myth of the Aussie digger (braver and smarter than all other soldiers anywhere, lack of training notwithstanding) we are deluding ourselves if we imagine that similar unpreparedness can be victorious in future wars in our vicinity. And we’re not doing ourselves any favours by perpetrating the pseudo-democratic notion of contempt for the officers who lead them.

In a 2010 memorial lecture for Sir John Hackett, the current chief of the ADF, General David Hurley, outlined the kind of skills needed to operate in a ‘volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous’ region.  In his view, Australia would face particular challenges in defending itself in this turbulent new world, lacking advantages in military size and unable to maintain a broad technological edge over regional powers.  Australia’s military leaders would need to operate remotely and autonomously, and possess a deep understanding of the cultures, languages* and ways of thinking of regional countries.  In short, Hurley suggested, defence would need to adopt a highly innovative culture and mould a new kind of officer – one able to master innovative strategy, strive for intellectual excellence, develop deep knowledge as well as strategically important personal relationships in two regional societies, and most importantly, think critically and analytically. (p. 105)

* Tonight I heard ABC journalists from News 24 turn aside from the latest briefing about the missing Malaysian plane because a Malaysian journalist asked a question and was answered by the Minister in Malay.  I’ve said it before and I’ll keep saying it, no journalist should be hired by any Australian media organisation unless they can speak an Asian language, and anyone deployed to work in Southeast Asia should be fluent in Bahasa.

Even if you’re a committed pacifist and don’t share Brown’s concern about our readiness for defence, there are other reasons to be dubious about our national priorities.  Brown writes in a calm and measured tone (he’s a Military Fellow at the Lowy Institute) but the reader can sense his outrage about the complacency with which Australia has slid into distorting the original meaning of Anzac and turning it into big business while at the same time neglecting the mental health needs of former soldiers.  As it says in the media release that accompanied this book, ‘for the same cost as the Federal government’s centenary program, a mental health professional could be provided for every army combat unit for the next 30 years’.  Brown doesn’t use the word ‘hypocrisy’, but I will: is that kind of hypocrisy what we Aussie citizens really want?  I suspect not, it’s just that we haven’t thought about our priorities, or if we have, we’ve been too constrained by the aura of Anzac to say anything.

What really unsettled me in reading this book was the chapter about the RSL.  Of all our charities, the Returned Services League is the one that pulls most at the heartstrings, and we give generously to its appeals.   Somewhat naïvely , I now realise, I have often dined at RSL Clubs in NSW when travelling, believing that I’m helping to support returned soldiers and their families.  I did not know that while RSL Clubs may be decked out in military memorabilia on their walls, that they are separate from RSL charities.  Less than one in twenty of its members have been in the military and fewer still have been to war.  They are big business now, and they wield enormous political power as we saw when the previous government tried to introduce gambling reforms.

So colossally does the Rooty Hill RSL Club loom over western Sydney that for the past several years it has waged a campaign demanding its own postcode.  Within its grounds are a full Novotel and bowling alley.  Its gambling floor is a sea of hundreds of poker machines.  The then prime minister decamped her entourage to the club in 2013 and it has played host to prime ministerial debates in the last two federal election campaigns.  The ‘Last Post’ is played every night, governors have paid tribute at the club’s war memorial and the NSW RSL held its conference there in 2012 – but this suburban casino is no veterans’ organisation.  In 2012, the Rooty Hill RSL Club brought in $71.5 million in revenue from its operations, with $41.6 million of this coming from its gambling activities alone.  Donations to charities and community groups, including in-kind donations of venue space and hospitality, amounted to just $900,000 and Rooty Hill will not divulge whether this included veterans’ charities.  The Castle Hill and Parramatta RSL Clubs brought in $52 million of revenue, yet less than half of a percent of this ($250,000) went towards ‘veterans’ support and welfare’.  (p. 134-5)

When a club wins an award for its generosity to charity because it gives $1.2 million of its $9.3 million dollar profits – something is wrong, and when it’s trading on the RSL name but only two of the charities have anything to do with veterans, that’s a matter that should be more widely known.  In Brown’s words:

The issue is not that RSL clubs aren’t doing charitable work.  The issue is that they’re not doing nearly enough given the extraordinarily privileged position they occupy in society. (p. 135)

Ever wandered through the imposing War Memorial in Canberra, awed by its sombre exhibits?  Me too, so it surprised me to learn that our national obsession has spawned hundreds of Anzac histories but that there’s no official military history of Australian service in East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq or Afghanistan.  None has been commissioned.  Nobody has analysed events to learn what went well, and what didn’t.   This neglect has much to do with the invisibility of the modern serving soldier, and our collective ignorance about what we need to do to avoid war in the future and to fight it well if it’s unavoidable.   It’s quite shocking to read that

It took ten years and ten combat deaths before the parliament became sufficiently interested in the Afghan war to debate it formally.  Six months earlier, however, it had found the time to debate petitioning the UK government for a pardon for ‘Breaker Morant’, who was court-martialled in 1902, during the Boer war.  (p.75)

This is a brave book.  Brown also tackles the ceremonial that we have come to expect from our politicians when a soldier dies on active service.  Starting with the first casualty in Iraq, our political leaders have attended the funerals of each and every one.  This expectation delivered a truly incongruous result when the Prime Minister, the defence minister and the chief of the defence forces rushed back to Australia – cancelling attendance at the Pacific Islands Forum, liaison with our old enemy Vietnam and a meeting with the US Secretary of State.  All these long-planned events were important to our long-term strategic security.  Is that really what we want?  Is it really what the bereaved families want, when their loved one has given his life to improve our long-term strategic security?

Subtitled The cost of our national obsession, James Brown’s forensic analysis of the financial, emotional and social costs of the Anzac industry is a book that should be read by our politicians, military leaders, business leaders, and media organisations.  It also needs to be read by our school teachers who are besieged with new pictorial histories each year and intense pressure to devote more and more of the school curriculum to this one single event in our history.  Teachers are unwittingly complicit in a national program of Anzac inculcation, with the children identified by the Anzac centenary commission as an ‘important conduit’.  That’s not something that should happen by default.

Anzac’s Long Shadow is part of the Redback series, published by Black Inc.  Marketed as ‘books with bite, short books on big issues by leading Australian writers and thinkers’, this series looks like one to keep an eye on.

Author:  James Brown
Title: Anzac’s Long Shadow, The Cost of our National Obsession
Publisher: Black Inc, 2014
ISBN: 9781863956390
Source: review copy courtesy of Black Inc

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Cross posted at ANZ LitLovers

Posted in Australian History, Book Reviews, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on Book Review: Anzac’s Long Shadow, by James Brown

Book review: Jam for Nana, by Deborah Kelly

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 1, 2014


Jam for nanaAnother book about grandmothers!  This one is a charming complement to Damon Young’s light-hearted My Nanna Is A Ninja by (see my recent review) and is ideal for exploring the Foundation topic of families in the Australian History Curriculum:

ACHHK001 Who the people in their family are, where they were born and raised and how they are related to each other
  • identifying the different members of a family, (for example mother, father, caregiver, sister, brother, grandparent, aunty, uncle, cousin) and creating simple family trees with pictures or photographs (if possible using ICT) to show the relationship between family members
  • naming family members, finding out where they were born and raised and placing their photographs, drawings and names on a classroom world map

Part of exploring diversity for this age group  involves investigating family structures, and for many young children with both or solo parents at work, informal childcare with a grandmother becomes a highly significant relationship.  In Jam for Nana Deborah Kelly depicts a nana with nostalgia for apricot jam made in the old-fashioned way and her grand-daughter’s quest to find jam for her, with ‘the warmth of a hundred summers’.

(I myself can certainly relate to this nostalgia: store-bought jams and marmalades are generally flavourless, thin and runny, and almost fruit-free.  Busy as I am, I still make my own preserves, to a recipe, not a price).

The illustrations by Lisa Stewart are in soft pastel shades, but Nana is a stylish older woman in tunic and jeans, with a smart bob and a jaunty scarf around her neck.  She talks about jam ‘in the old country’ so she could be from anywhere, but it’s somewhere far away ‘across a great ocean’ which she had sailed as a little girl.

Nana’s memories – depicted in photo-frames – hint at a European mama feeding chickens but the jars of jam are labelled in English.  It’s a small quibble but I would have liked those labels to be as open-ended as the text is.  Pancakes, after all, are eaten all over the world, though of course they are made in different ways and have different names.  An imaginative teacher could easily make a multicultural PowerPoint to include a diversity of Australian children by using images from the different varieties on show at Wikipedia. 

That, I suspect, would lead naturally to a bit of cooking in the classroom, and perhaps that might even include making a small batch of real fruit jam?  There’s a very simple recipe – safely made in a microwave oven – at Taste.

Author: Deborah Kelly
Illustrator: Lisa Stewart
Title: Jam for Nana
Publisher: Random House Australia, 2014
ISBN: 9780857980014
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House

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Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Australian Curriculum, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on Book review: Jam for Nana, by Deborah Kelly