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Review: Chinese Lives, The People Who Made a Civilization, by Victor H Mair, Sanping Chen and Frances Wood

Posted by Lisa Hill on July 8, 2013

Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a CivilizationChina is becoming ever more important in world affairs, and for Australians, the inclusion of Asia and Australia’s engagement with Asia as a curriculum priority for all students of all ages, means that teachers need to get up to speed with a multiplicity of countries, their cultures and histories.

That’s where a book like Chinese Lives, the People Who Made a Civilization is so very useful.  The blurb at Fishpond has this to say:

China is the most populous country on earth, with the longest history of any modern nation. In the 21st century, it is clear that China’s future, as a political and economic world power, is set to be as significant as its past, and its achievements still depend upon its people. This book tells the story of China through 96 short biographies. We see the range of Chinese cultural and scientific achievements, as well as its military conquests, wars, rebellions and political and philosophical movements, through the eyes of real people who created or were caught up by them. Here is a colourful array of very different men and women: emperors and empresses, concubines, officials and political figures, rebels, exiles, philosophers, writers and poets, artists, musicians, scientists, military leaders and committed pacifists. Their careers, achievements, misdeeds, disasters, punishments, ideas and love stories make this an unforgettable read. The expert authors have drawn on a huge range of sources to assemble information about the widest possible range of individuals from all periods and parts of China, from an early warrior lady of the 13th century BC, Fu Hao, to the late-20th-century Communist leader Deng Xiaoping.

Dream of the Red Chamber (Real Reads)What is so useful for busy teachers is that these short biographies really are short – only 2-3 pages long at the most, so they are quick and easy to read.  It’s a book made for dipping into, so although it’s handy that the Table of Contents lists the subjects by Chinese dynasty, i.e. corresponding to chronological sequence, it’s a pity that there isn’t also a listing by occupation.  I had to browse through it to find my first ‘pearl’ which was a bio of Cao Xueqin, said to be China’s greatest author, who has a status similar to Shakespeare in English-speaking countries. It was a quick and easy task to whip up a potted version simple enough for my Year 5 & 6 students who are about to embark on a Biography project, and it was also quick and easy to find a children’s version of Cao Xueqin’s novel, Dream of the Red Chamber (Real Reads) which I have ordered for our school library.

Mind you, it was not exactly a hardship to browse through the book to find interesting people worth knowing about.  And what this experience made me realise was that whereas every school kid knows the famous names of western civilization (Benjamin Franklin, Marie Curie, Einstein, Jane Austen, Beethoven et al)  and adults would be thought ignorant if they did not know who these people were, we in the West (apart from a few Sinophiles) have absolutely no idea about the comparable roll-call in China, one of the most advanced and enduring civilizations in history, and one that now matters to us all.  (Notwithstanding aspects of China that we don’t like, such as its appalling human rights record, its censorship and the dreadful conditions under which its workers create the cheap goods that we are forced to buy because Chinese manufacturing has put our own manufacturing industries out of business.)

I haven’t finished reading the book, and probably won’t have read it cover-to-cover by the time it has to go back to the library, but I shall be cherry-picking the profiles of people of some interest to 10-12 year-olds and adding them to my wiki.  If I had money to burn in my school library budget I would buy a copy, because it would be worth it even if only one or two of my colleagues were to read it.  For secondary schools, I think it’s a must-have.  Just as a quick sample, there are stories of

The Shang to Han Dynasties (c. 16th century BC to AD 220)

  • Fu Hao, a woman warrior of the Shang
  • Confucius (of course)
  • King Wuling of the Zhao, a warrior, and the man who brought trousers to China!)
  • Zhang Qian, an explorer
  • Sima Qian, an historian
  • Cai Yan, an exiled woman poet
  • Shi Le, a slave who became an emperor

The Sui and Tang Dynasties (220-907)

  • Kumarajiva, who translated Buddist sutras for the court, apparently kidnapped from Central Asia to do it
  • Wu Zetian, the only female emperor of China

As well as poets, there are plenty of politicians, rebels and bandits in this era because it was a period of disunity.  But not so many interesting people, which perhaps proves that peace is better for making progress than war.

Disunion to the Yuan Dynasty (907-1368)

  • Shen Gua, historian of science
  • Su Dongpo, not only a literary genius but also a legendary cook whose Dongpo-style pork is still a delicacy
  • Yue Fei, a patriot and national hero
  • Zhang Zeduan, a painter (the pictures in the book are gorgeous)
  • Khubilai Khan (yes, that one)
  • Guan Hanqing, founder of Chinese drama

The Ming Dynasty to the People’s Republic of China

(This section, as you’d expect, takes up about half of the book)

  • Zheng He, the eunuch admiral who sailed to Africa
  • Hai Rui, who is famous for being incorruptible, and Heshen, famous because he wasn’t
  • Xu Xiake, a traveller and geographer, who did most of his exploring on foot, covering nearly all the provinces of Ming China
  • Feng Menglong, a popular writer of bestsellers (the Dan Brown of his day?)
  • Pu Songling, a popular writer of ghost and horror stories (the Edgar Alan Poe of his day?)
  • Lin Zexu, who took on the British at the height of their power and banned the opium trade
  • Qiu Jin, feminist heroine and martyr (who learned martial arts in spite of having bound feet)
  • Lu Xun, greatest Chinese writer of the 20th century

Of course there are bios of the Usual Suspects: Sun Yat-Sen, Chiang Kai-Shek and Mao Zedong, but you have to have been under a rock not to know who they are.  The last entry is about Deng Xiaoping, the leader who transformed post-Mao China into a market-driven economy while also maintaining its iron grip on dictatorial powers and the suppression of all dissent.

Authors: Victor H Mair, Sanping Chen, Frances Wood
Title: Chinese Lives, the People Who Made a Civilization
Publisher: Thames and Hudson, 2013
ISBN: 9780500251928
Source: Casey-Cardinia Library


Fishpond: Chinese Lives: The People Who Made a Civilization
Book Depository: Chinese Lives, the People Who Made a Civilization

(On the day I looked, it was significantly cheaper at Fishpond)

This review is cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers.

Posted in Asia & Australia's Engagement with Asia, Australian Curriculum, Book Reviews, Recommended books | Tagged: , , , | 1 Comment »

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 »

Book Review: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists, by Peter Macinnis

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 21, 2013

Curious MindsCurious Minds, by Peter Macinnis, is a lovely book.  I stumbled across it when I was at the library picking up a book I’d reserved (Simone Lazaroo’s (2006) The Travel Writer) and I’ve been reading it on and off over the weekend.

Australians often forget just how odd our flora and fauna seem to Europeans.  That Wallace Line which defines the boundary between our fauna and what’s in the rest of the world was only recognised in 1859, but long before that travellers’ tales were full of strange rats, greyhounds that hopped (i.e. kangaroos), swans that were black in defiance of Aristotle*, and double-ended reptiles.  Curious Minds is the story of the naturalists who came to our shores and began to identify and classify our strange animals.  It’s fascinating reading.

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

Dugong (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

It starts with my favourite ‘pyrate’ and his ‘hippototomus’.  William Dampier (subject of Dampier’s Monkey by Adrian Mitchell) visited Australia twice in the 17th century, and most importantly for science, wrote a book about his travels afterwards.  In A Voyage to New Holland (1699) he wrote about a massive shark that his men captured, which had in its mouth an animal still seen only rarely today :

Its maw was like a Leather Sack, very thick, and so tough that a sharp knife could scarce cut it, in which we found the Head and Bones of a Hippototomus, the hairy Lips of which were still sound and not putrified, and the Jaw was also firm, out of which we plukt a great many Teeth, 2 of them 8 Inches long and as big as a Man’s Thumb, small at one End, and a little crooked, the rest not above half so long.  (cited on p. 14)

A dugong!

Quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

A quokka family (Source: Wikipedia Commons)

But even before Dampier, there was Willem de Vlamingh (1640-c1698) with his Dutch crew .  They were searching for a ship lost at sea when they found themselves on an island they named Rottnest, (Rat Nest), in honour of the quokkas that they saw everywhere.    These cute little creatures will scamper up to visitors in hope of a treat – and from what I’ve seen they get a completely different reaction to an approach by rats – but then maybe sailors at sea were more used to rats than we are today…The men and women who observed these curiosities were indefatigable.  From the time of British Settlement, semi-professional and amateur naturalists gathered specimens, dissected them and sometimes (bravely) ate them.   They preserved their specimens with varying degrees of success, and they did their best to take them back, dead or alive, to Europe.  More in keeping with the way contemporary conservationists work, they also described them in painstaking (if sometimes inaccurate) detail, and drew or painted illustrations of them.  The book is lavishly illustrated with full colour pictures from the National Library’s collection and some of the botanical paintings are so beautiful one might almost buy two copies of the book to cut out and frame them.

Naturalists were not, however, always popular on board.  According to Nicholas Baudin (read more about him in my review of Encountering Terra Australis: The Australian Voyages of Nicolas Baudin and Matthew Flinders by Jean Fornasiero, Peter Monteath and John West-Sooby), the single-mindedness of these enthusiasts could be rather a headache …

More anxious than the rest, they had pestered me from the moment they dropped anchor to allow them to go ashore, and I had been obliged to give my permission in order to be rid of them I must say here in passing, that those captains who have scientists, or who may some day have them aboard their ships, must, upon departure, take a good supply of patience.  I admit that although I have no lack of it, the scientists have frequently driven me to the end of my tether and forced me to retire testily to my room. 

(The Journal of Post Captain Nicolas Baudin, 1802, translated by Christine Cornell, 2004, cited on p24)

I was very pleased to see that the contribution of women is acknowledged in this book.  I had read about Georgiana Molloy (1805-1843) in The Complete Book of Heroic Australian Women but I had never heard of Amalie Dietrich (1821-1891).  Molloy came to the Swan River Settlement with a ‘genteel love of gardens and plants’ but was worn out with childbearing and the drudgery of pioneer life when an amateur botanist called Captain James Mangles heard about her interest in plants and struck up a correspondence with her, asking her to collect specimens for him.  She sent him remarkable new species, complete with viable seed and pressed specimens that were ‘far better than those sent in by professional botanists’.   Tragically, she died aged only 38. Dietrich, on the other hand, was a professional collector.  Although the biography written by her daughter is unreliable, Dietrich seems to have had training in collecting herbs from her husband, and when the marriage failed, she sailed for Australia to collect specimens for a private museum in Hamburg.  She appears to have been undaunted by Australia’s most deadly species: she is thought to be the first European to capture a taipan, and may even have gutted a 6.7 metre crocodile.  There are wasps named after her, and her collection of spiders formed the basis of the first study of Australian spiders.

Our little Aussie platypus is one of the most intriguing animals on the planet, and the story of George Bennett (1804-1893) shows just how this elusive creature has fascinated scientists for so long.  His quest to breed the platypus was never successful – and like many in this period he sent rare and valuable specimens back to England instead of retaining them for Australia’s fledgling museum – but still, he made a remarkable contribution.

Curiously though, considering that Sir Joseph Banks is a Big Name in Botany,** his erroneous assumptions about the lush meadows of Botany Bay nearly cost the lives of the First Settlers in 1788.  There were ‘no farmers, no naturalists, no botanists, and nobody who understood mining or geology’ in the First Fleet and since they arrived in the middle of Sydney’s scorching summer, they almost starved to death.  It was up to the chief surgeon John White to accompany the governor Arthur Phillip when he went exploring, and he sent drawings, specimens and his journal back to England.  Macinnis also tells us about the mystery of the so-called Watling Collection which consists of paintings which were the first scientific descriptions of several Australian species, including some such as the magpie goose which is now extinct in Sydney.

Macinnis has an engaging chatty style, enriching his stories of these remarkable men and women with quotations from their journals and anecdotes about their lives.  But it is no hagiography: he is alert to the temptations of pride and hubris, professional jealousy and dishonesty.  There was occasional recklessness, unconcern for the safety of others, and single-minded selfishness.  He acknowledges the improper appropriation of Aboriginal artefacts and remains ‘in the name of science’ and he recognises the limitations of those whose enthusiasm was not matched by preparedness or organisational skills.  He is staunchly patriotic, devoting the latter part of his book to those naturalists who were either born here or settled here permanently and were the foundation of an Australian-based scientific community.  These include Baron Ferdinand Von Mueller (1825-1896) who founded Melbourne’s own Botanic Gardens; Louisa Anne Meredith (1812-1895) whose exquisitely illustrated travel books chart the transformation of her opinions about the Australian bush from dismissive to enthusiastic; the Scott sisters, Harriet (1830-1907) and Helena (1832-1910)  whose artwork, says Macinnes, has never been bettered; and Louisa Atkinson (1834-1872) who was lost to natural science through childbirth – her studies of birdlife are just gorgeous.

I was especially taken with Macinnis’s description of Von Mueller’s protégé Ellis Rowan (1848-1922):and the challenge to her artistic credentials:

In open competition with male artists, she had again taken out a first-class award [the first was the gold medal in the Melbourne Exhibition] and the boys’ own hissy fit brigade began to squeal.  Not to put too fine a point on it, the chaps were outraged that a mere woman (and a mere flower painter at that) should again beat them. (p.142)

It was a sign of mean-spiritedness to come, but today her collection is the pride and joy of the NLA.

There is a delightful chapter about William Sharp Macleay (1792-1865) and his bunyip skull and Macinnis reminds us to ‘think kindly on Macleay, for he was a creature of his time and society … [and] … an original thinker, an extremely clever observer, and an encourager of others who were keen to pursue natural history’ (p. 152)

What shines through this lovely book is a sensitivity to the courage of people who set out for the unknown and to the curiosity that drove them to search for knowledge.

Highly recommended as a gift book or as a science, art, or history resource for every secondary school library.

Visit Peter Macinnis’s website to see more about Curious Minds.

* Aristotle used the example of white swans as an irrefutable fact, i.e. because all swans were white, etc.

** One of our loveliest plants, the Banksia is named after him.

Author: Macinnis
Title: Curious Minds, The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists
Publisher: NLA Publishing (National Library of Australia), 2012
ISBN: 9780642277541
Source: Kingston Library

Availability Fishpond: Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

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

Book review: Seadog, by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellett

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 15, 2013

SeadogI am a complete sucker for picture books about dogs, but I especially like Seadog by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellett because it reminds me of a similar rapscallion from my childhood menagerie of pets.

On hot days, my mother used to pick us up from school and take us to Brighton Beach for a swim.  On one of these afternoons, we made the acquaintance of the dirtiest, smelliest, noisiest dog in creation, all alone and homeless.  He was also very big, almost as big as the thieving Rhodesian Ridgeback we once had, that sabotaged friendly relations with all our neighbours.  Anyway, somehow we squeezed him into the back of the Hillman Minx and took him home.

I suspect that my mother was desperately hoping that the calls to the Lost Dogs’ Home would bear fruit, but she took it stoically when his (possibly relieved) owners failed to materialise.  We named him Willoughby, and we loved him to bits, despite his penchant for rolling in the dirt and running away at bathtime.  Until one day he jumped our tall front fence and we never saw him again.  No doubt he found another family with whom to share his enthusiasms.  He was that kind of street-smart dog.

Seadog has a similar attitude to smelly things.  Teachers looking for texts for the Australian Curriculum English Literature strand will love the rhyme and rhythm of this book.  It’s perfect for Preps (Foundation) and Years One and Two:

Ours is not a clean dog,
a shiny or a fluffy dog,
our dog is a Seadog,
a find-and-roll-in-fish dog.
Pee-ee-euw, Seadog!

The illustrations by Tom Jellett are bright and colourful in cheery primary colours.  I won’t be surprised if this title is shortlisted in awards this year.

Author: Claire Saxby
Illustrator: Tom Jellett
Title: Seadog
Publisher: Random House 2013
ISBN: 9781742756509
Source: Review copy courtesy of Random House

Available from May 2013 (and you can preorder now)

Fishpond: Seadog
Or direct from Random House

Posted in Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Poetry, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | Comments Off on Book review: Seadog, by Claire Saxby and Tom Jellett

Book Review: Bakir and Bi, by Jillian Boyd and Tori-Jay Mordey

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 15, 2013

Bakir and BiAnother book to add to our collection of indigenous materials at school!  Bakir and Bi by Jillian Boyd and Tori-Jay Mordey, is a small-sized hardback picture book, a little bit smaller than A5.  I mention the size because it so perfectly suits the intimate feel of this book, which is beautifully illustrated with line drawings, in sepia, teal, and black-and-white.

What’s so special about it to me, is that it’s the first story book that I’ve come across from the Torres Straits.   This is the blurb from the publisher’s website:

Bakir (rock) and Mar (storm bird) live on a remote island called Egur with their two young children. While fishing on the beach Bakir comes across a very special pelican (Bakir’s totem is a pelican) named Bi.   A famine occurs, and life on the island is no longer harmonious. One day Bakir and Bi disappear and Mar and the children are forced to make the journey to another island by canoe … and so begins the adventure.

Bakir and Bi is based on a Torres Strait Islander creation story, but aspects of it are rather dark, making it perhaps more suitable for older children.  In the beginning island life is lush and food is plentiful, but when the famine strikes families turn against each other.  The family has to hide Bi (their pelican) otherwise he would be eaten by the other islanders who are starving.  Bakir has already warned his family that they may need to leave the island one day, but when it is time for Bi (the pelican) to leave because he has outgrown his hideout, Bakir disappears along with the bird, leaving his family to fend for themselves.  They then have a perilous journey across the sea to a new island, and Lusik is almost lost at sea.  When they finally reach safety, they are not reunited with Bakir: he has become a rock to guide and watch over them instead.

I think that older children would enjoy discussing the supernatural elements of the story, but could also tease out the ideas behind Bakir following his destiny.  They could also explore the Kedawar tribe’s belief that a person grows to become their name: the children could find out the meaning of their own names and decide whether their names suit their personality or achievements.  (My own name means ‘devoted to God’ which is not particularly apt for a non-believer LOL!) And while the book shows people needing to find a new home because of famine, it could also be used to discuss the impact of global warming on island communities and what Australia’s role might be in offering a home to displaced communities as the water levels rise.

Born and raised on Thursday Island in the Torres Straits, Jillian Boyd was the winner of the 2012 State Library of Queensland black&write! Indigenous Writing Fellowship.  The illustrations by her niece, 18-year-old Tori-Jay Mordey are very impressive.  This young artist has a rare talent, especially for depicting facial expressions and emotion, and the colour scheme is gorgeous.

Visit ABC Splash for more ideas about getting indigenous voices into the classroom.

Authors: Jillian Boyd and Tori-Jay Mordey
Title: Bakir and Bi
Publisher: Magabala Books, 2013
ISBN: 9781921248863
Source: Review copy courtesy of Magabala Books

Fishpond: Bakir and Bi
Or direct from Magabala Books

Posted in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures, Australian Children's Literature, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Indigenous Teaching Resources, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Comments Off on Book Review: Bakir and Bi, by Jillian Boyd and Tori-Jay Mordey

Book Review: Kitty’s War, by Janet Butler

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 15, 2013

Kitty's WarSomewhere in the archives of the War Memorial in Canberra, there is a small diary scribbled in pencil. It was donated by The Spouse’s family because old Eric was a gunner in the 7th Field Artillery Brigade and he was awarded the Military Medal in The Great War. Before he lost his leg in the conflict he recorded his impressions of the first tanks to arrive on the battlefield so it’s a most interesting document. Transcribing this diary is an eventual retirement project for The Spouse.

We had always thought that this would be a fairly straightforward task, but now that I have read Kitty’s War by Janet Butler, I realise that there is much more to a war diary than first meets the eye. What’s not in a war diary can be just as interesting as what’s in it… and what’s in it, is sometimes not much about war at all, but rather about changes in identity because of the war.

When Kitty McNaughton sailed away to do her bit as a nurse, she, like most of the other volunteers aboard, had never been out of Australia. The war (which everyone expected to be over soon) was an opportunity to see the world, and she devotes many pages to describing the journey. The troops and nurses were ferried to Egypt on the troopship Orsova, which was formerly a passenger liner. So this young woman enjoyed all the excitements that are common to cruise ships today: games and sports, fancy dress parties, a crossing-the-line ceremony, fancy dinners and so on. But there is no mention of any serious flirting because nursing was still cultivating a respectable image to counter Dickens’ Sarah Gamp. Kitty was always conscious that her diary was going to be read by others, especially her mother, and she is circumspect about what she writes.

That’s why, later on, when she’s nursing on the island of Lemnos, when she writes about the four young men who became important to her, she always refers to them as ‘boys’ or ‘youths’, and she always records the presence of some other person, making it clear that she is never alone with a young man. She is careful to adopt a sisterly tone, sometimes maternal, never romantic. Reading between the lines, we wonder what her feelings were, especially when we know that for most of the young men thrust into relentlessly all-male company for long years in that war, that mateship offered no outlet for emotional release. Men could talk about their feelings to women, but not to each other…

What’s also noticeable is that she doesn’t write much about the shocking injuries she encounters. Butler says that this is because Kitty feels constrained by her audience: these horribly mutilated young men often dying in dreadful pain were the husbands, sweethearts, brothers and sons of her friends and family back home. So, like others reporting to those at home both formally and informally, she maintains the conspiracy of silence about their suffering in order to protect them from the awful truth. It is when she is nursing German soldiers on the Somme that she finally feels able to write about the horror of what she witnessed, because they are Other, and she can describe their injuries and how their needs were addressed.

What is also most interesting about this period, is that for the first time, she indirectly acknowledges her own skills. A modest and self-effacing nurse had to be careful about this, because it was not thought seemly for women to have ambitions beyond their gender-assigned roles. It was in reading the passage below that I realised the importance of documents such as Kitty’s dairy being interrogated by an historian:

I have eleven with their legs off and a cuple [sic] ditto arms & hips & heads galore & the awful smell from the wounds is the limit as this Gas Gangrene is the most awful thing imaginable, a leg goes in a day. I extracted a bullet from a German back today, and I enjoyed cutting into him … the bullet is my small treasure, as I hope it saved a life as it was a revolver one… (p.130)

Now when I first read this I recoiled at the idea that Kitty ‘enjoyed cutting into him’ – to me it felt as if she was enjoying a sort of vengeance against the enemy. But what Butler’s analysis reveals, from looking at the diary in its entirety and comparing it with a host of other documents and diaries, is that what Kitty is enjoying is being entrusted with the scalpel and being allowed to perform procedures that traditionally were the sole preserve of male doctors. To read Kitty’s self-effacing diary at face value without realising that it deliberately undercuts her own achievements is to overlook that Kitty was in fact a very good nurse indeed: she received commendations; she was mentioned in dispatches; she was in sole charge of the whole Bosches Line of German wounded (more than one huge ward of very serious cases); and she was allowed to undertake surgical procedures as well.

What is also revealed by this rare documentation of the suffering of the German soldiers is that it offers Kitty emotional release. She describes her distress at the confronting injuries and the pitiable state of soldiers arriving with maggot-infested wounds, an outlet which is promptly closed when Allied soldiers arrive and she no longer gives herself permission to write about them.

Butler analyses the Conscription Referendum in terms of how it impacted away from home; the class issues including the hostility from Imperials to Colonials; and the decline of the ‘war diary’ from a place to share matters of interest to its role testifying to grief and despair. The appearance of gaps, when for long periods of time Kitty can find nothing of interest to write about, signals that the relentless tide of the wounded is contributing to what we would now call stress. When she is on the Western Front after the Somme, Kitty and her friends succumb themselves to illness, and she openly acknowledges it, perhaps in part because her own mother has died and she longer feels that she has to hide her suffering. (There is a remarkable pair of photos in the book that shows the impact of this ongoing stress on Kitty’s appearance. The nurses joke that first their hair goes, then their teeth and then their reputations, but it was true: the bad diet and the appalling conditions made Kitty’s hair go grey while she was still only in her thirties.)

While close female friendships were nurturing and supportive, they could not salve the ongoing stress entirely. This is especially true when Kitty is transferred to a clearing station near the front line, where the nurses are carefully chosen for their suitability and monitored for signs of strain. Where the official histories make no mention of the fact that the nurses are much closer to danger, Kitty and other nurses write about it in detail. She has to undergo gas training before the transfer, and we know from the diaries of other nurses that their clothes stank afterwards of the gas. Kitty also records shelling, missiles falling into the camp and the crash-landing of two allied planes in the field beside it, but she does not record her own bravery, as for example when she is ordered to fall back because of an impending German attack and refuses to go. Yet there is a striking absence of any commentary about the sick and wounded, at a time when the casualty rate is shocking. Medical officers reporting to their professional journals provide information about the horrific situation that is omitted from Kitty’s diary, and the testimony of a Matron O’Dwyer confirms that nothing – not even experience at the base hospitals further back from the front line – could prepare nurses for what they were to encounter at a clearing station. But Kitty’s experiences here are at war with the identity she has crafted for herself within this diary: as a tourist, a recorder of culture and a chronicler of the affairs of women, of family and of Anzac glory. (p. 181) In her four months at this clearing station, she does not know how to write about the relentless flood of seriously wounded men in pain.

There is so much more that I could write about this brilliant book but I will confine myself to recommending that if you read just one book about the ANZAC experience, it should be this one. Butler’s humane analysis covers much more than just the experience of one woman at war, and the issues raised by this book have been the subject of many conversations with friends and family while I’ve been reading it.

The book includes B&W photos of Kitty, comprehensive notes, a select bibliography and an index.

The launch at the Melbourne Shrine of Remembrance was a slightly more sombre affair than other book launches I have been to. Held in the visitor’s centre, proceedings began with a recitation of the Ode of Remembrance, and the book was launched by Colonel Jan Mc Carthy ARRC (retd) from the army nursing service. Many of the people there were descendants of Kitty McNaughton who shared the author’s pride that the story of this remarkable young woman has been told at last.

Highly recommended  for teachers of Australian History, teachers teaching on the topic of War, and teachers teaching Gender Studies.

Author: Janet Butler
Title: Kitty’s War
Publisher: UQP (University of Queensland Press) 2013
ISBN: 9780702249679
Source: Review copy courtesy of UQP, and autographed on the night by the author!


Fishpond:Kitty’s War

Or direct from UQP.

Cross-posted at ANZ LitLovers

Posted in Australian Curriculum, Australian History, Book Reviews, Recommended books, School Library stuff | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Book review: Meet Mary MacKillop, by Sally Murphy and Sonia Martinez

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 13, 2013

Meet Mary MackillopI’ve always rather liked the Catholic idea of sainthood.  Not because I believe in miracles or any of the spiritual concepts associated with it, but because I like the idea of acknowledging people just for being good.  Society rewards soldiering with military medals, and most countries have some sort of honours system for high achievers. There are bravery awards, and educational systems usually have some kind of award system for excellence in a variety of fields.  But (as far as I know) only the Catholics confer sainthood on people for being good, and so it’s rather nice that Australia has got its very own saint at last.

I teach in a secular school and so this is the approach that I would take in the matter of the canonisation of Mary MacKillop.  She was a pioneer of education for all children rich and poor, and she was an inspiring female role model who set up her own school and founded her own order of nuns.  This kind of leadership was not common for women in the 19th century and so her story in Meet Mary MacKillop helps to provide gender balance when teaching children about significant people in Australian history.

Teachers who do even a rudimentary bit of research at Saint Mary MacKillop and at Wikipedia will soon see that Mary MacKillop was a spirited woman with a talent for controversy.  As the timeline in the back of this book shows, she was excommunicated and even when this was rescinded and she had the Pope’s blessing for her new Order of Nuns, there was conflict with her superiors in Queensland.  Wisely, Sally Murphy has skipped over all these complicated dramas, and told the simple story of MacKillop’s first foray into teaching in Penola South Australia in a beautiful hardback picture book.  The full-colour illustrations by Sonia Martinez contribute to showing the pioneer lifestyle and the text focusses on MacKillop’s initiative, determination and devotion to her faith.

Meet Mary MacKillop is one of a series being produced by Random House to resource the National History Curriculum.

You can find out more about Mary MacKillop at Saint Mary MacKillop and at Wikipedia.

Author: Sally Murphy
Illustrator: Sonia Martinez
Title: Meet Mary MacKillop
Publisher: Random House, May 1st, 2013
ISBN: 9781742757216

Review copy courtesy of Random House.


Fishpond: Meet Mary Mackillop

Posted in Australian Curriculum, Australian History, Authors & Illustrators, Book Reviews, Recommended books | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

Book review: new series of chant and rhyme books from Peter Durkin and Peter Viska

Posted by Lisa Hill on April 2, 2013

Peter Viska chant and rhyme books

You know how it is: it happens to all of us sometimes.  I was just back at work after a week off with a crook back and still feeling rather fragile, and of course I didn’t have a work program ready for my first classes.   I needed to prepare something fast!

I can’t tell you how grateful I was to Scott Eathorne from Quikmark Media for sending me this new collection of chant and rhyme books by the inimitable Peter Viska and Peter Durkin (much-loved by children everywhere for their naughty collection –  Far Out, Brussel Sprout; All Right Vegemite and others).

There are four books in the new series and Scott had sent me two sets, so I had enough books for 4 tables of 4-6 children.  I told them that I wasn’t going to read them a story this week; I needed them to help me write a review of these new books.  I showed them where the poetry shelves were in the library so that they could find the books next time, and I read them a few samples from each of the books.  Of course they were delighted!

I gave the children the books and some paper to write and draw on, and then a hush descended on the room, rising and falling with the murmur of children reading and laughing and sharing with each other.  They loved these books, and there was a real sigh of disappointment at the end of the library lesson when we had to pack up.

Many thanks to Areesh, Dania, Emma, Gavin, Seth, Sina, Taonga, Amar, Ameer, Daniel, Justin and Nadia for letting me share their work with readers of LisaHillSchoolStuff.

This is the publicity blurb that came with the books, but I think the children’s work in the slideshow below it speaks for itself.

New Chant & Rhyme picture book series from best-selling illustrator Peter Viska

Peter Viska’s understanding of children has rewarded him with a lifetime of publishing and TV success. His Far Out, Brussel Sprout! series has been printed over 40 times by three publishers in Australia and have sold in excess of a million copies. Now Peter is set to release a brand new series of four children’s picture books through Alicat Publishing that are packed with fun, irreverence and good time cheekiness.

Titled In Your Eye Meat Pie!, Hang Loose Mother Goose!, Stay Cool April Fool! and Take A Stroll Sausage Roll!, these four books are packed with colourful chants and rhymes and matching outrageous illustrations. Readers learn what really happened to Mary’s little lamb, where Little Jack Horner really stuck his thumb – and just exactly what Old Mother Hubbard found in her cupboard! A fun read for children of all ages! Available from all good book stores at $7.95 each or online at

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

Book review: Robert Irwin, Dinosaur Hunter series

Posted by Lisa Hill on February 16, 2013

Random House has just sent me a new release that is bound to be popular with adventurous 7+ readers who love dinosaurs: the series is called Robert Irwin Dinosaur Hunter and there are four titles, with a further four due for release later this year:

The Discovery (Robert Irwin, Dinosaur Hunter) Ambush at Cisco Swamp (Robert Irwin, Dinosaur Hunter)Armoured Defence (Robert Irwin, Dinosaur Hunter) The Dinosaur Feather (Robert Irwin, Dinosaur Hunter)

The books feature Robert Irwin of Australia Zoo fame and his adventures as a keen dinosaur hunter.  The first one, The Discovery, features Robert enjoying his ninth birthday present, a trip to the Dinosaur Museum at Winton.  He has a friend called Riley (who is the object of some rather patronising characterisation) and he makes an improbable discovery of a fossil which leads to some not very convincing time travel.  No 2, Ambush at Cisco Swamp finds Robert and Riley at Cisco Swamp in Texas for an alligator survey where his dinosaur fossil takes him back in time again, and yes, Armoured Defence, set in the Canadian Badlands (No 3) and The Dinosaur Feather (back in Australia at the Australia Zoo (No 4) are more or less exactly the same formula.  I suspect that most kids are not going to mind the rather weak narrative at all, but will appreciate the familiarity in much the same way as they appreciate the weak narratives and predictable characterisation of Enid Blyton books.  At least these are Australian!

For older students investigating marketing, decoding the copyright page might be an interesting exercise.  The publicity material and the website tell us that the books are ‘co-created’ by nine year-old Robert Irwin and his name is the one that’s on the copyright page.  His cute picture is on the front cover too – but the title page suggests that the series is actually written by author Jack Wells.  Robert Irwin is also  ‘proud that his illustrations appear in the books’, and so they do, identified as ‘drawn by Robert Irwin’ at the back of the book where the facts about the dinosaurs are, but the copyright page names the illustrator as Lauchlan Creagh who presumably did the full-page B&W drawings that feature within the text.  (The books aren’t as profusely illustrated as you might expect in books for this age group).  There is also a message enticing the reader to scan the QR code on the back of the book, which could lead to an interesting discussion about the use of these codes as part of an advertising strategy.

It’s tempting to dismiss the series as a clever marketing exercise, latching onto the popularity of young Robert Irwin and the tourism that goes with him, but the books will appeal to young readers, especially boys at that difficult age when they start to abandon reading.   They will like the adventure, the humour, the field guide at the back of the book and the easy reading, and unless they have been under a rock and have missed the hype about the junior Irwins, they will enjoy identifying with the famous young hero as well.  I think they will be very successful in school reading schemes of one sort or another, and that parents will happily respond to pleas to buy the next one in the series.

However, they’re not as well written, well plotted or as exciting as Penguin’s Extreme Adventure series (Puffin) by Justin D’Ath, which I read to my Year 5 & 6 students when we do our Extreme Holidays projects (researching landscapes of the world, you can download the unit from here).  Hopefully the Dinosaur Hunter series would lead young readers on to explore these titles as well:

Killer Whale (Extreme Adventures) Anaconda Ambush (Extreme Adventures) Devil Danger (Extreme Adventures) Spider Bite (Extreme Adventures) Grizzly Trap (Extreme Adventures) Bushfire Rescue (Extreme Adventures)

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