The many worlds of Australian Indigenous children’s literature

Children’s stories by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers and illustrators are funny, sad, thoughtful, silly, profound, and joyous. As an Aboriginal author and illustrator, people so often ask me where they can find out more about Indigenous people, and my answer is always the same: read the stories we tell about ourselves.

Enter into our worlds on our terms, and listen to our voices speaking of our realities.

The tales below represent multiple points of entry into the many worlds of Indigenous Australia, and they are only a small fraction of the children’s narratives that exist. This list is not an end point, but simply places to begin an exploration of the great diversity of Indigenous Australia.  

This is not a picture book: transcending genre
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Indigenous writers and artists have produced a number of genre-defying picture books that transcend Western literary boundaries. These books are works of art, philosophy, culture, history and language that speak as much to adults as to children.

Books like this include: Tjarany Roughtail (Gracie Greene, Joe Tramacchi, Lucille Gill), Down the Hole (Edna Tantjingu Williams, Eileen Wani Wingfield, Kunyi June-Anne McInerney), Maralinga: the Anangu Story (Yalata and Oak Valley communities, working with Christobel Mattingley) and Welcome to Country (Aunty Joy Murphy, Lisa Kennedy).

These books are works of art, philosophy, culture, history and language that speak as much to adults as to children.

Tjarnay Roughtail and Welcome to Country tell nuanced stories of Indigenous cultures from different sides of the continent – Tjarnay Roughtail contains the ancient narratives of the Kukatja people of the Kimberley region of Western Australia, while Welcome to Country is grounded in the tales of the Wurundjeri people of Victoria, exploring the deep layers of meaning embedded within the Indigenous practice of welcoming people to Country.

Down the Hole is a resistance story of the Stolen Generations era, speaking to the lived experience of “running from the State”, while Maralinga tells of Anangu culture and history, including the atomic testing that devastated people and Country. All these books are rich sources of Indigenous cultures, perspectives and experiences that speak both through bilingual written narrative and stunning Aboriginal artwork. 

What is My Grandmother's Lingo?
Introducing My Grandmother’s Lingo – a new interactive animation that highlights the plight of Indigenous languages by exploring Aboriginal culture and the endangered Aboriginal language of Marra.

Reading the art: Indigenous illustrators
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The layered depths of Indigenous artwork provide another means of interacting with Indigenous story-spaces. Among the talented Australian Indigenous illustrators are Bronwyn Bancroft, a prolific writer, illustrator and artist and the first Indigenous recipient of the Dromkeen medal; artist Dub Leffler whose celebrated debut Once there was a boy was shortlisted for the Deadly Awards; and the Indigenous children story-makers such as the creators of the award winning Neomad comics.   

The rise of the diversity hero
Comic book and fantasy universes are no longer limited to white superheroes, with an increasing number of creators diversifying fantasy realms.

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Many stories: book series
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The need for more Indigenous stories for children has seen a number of series produced containing multiple Indigenous perspectives, including Yarning Strong and Waarda. ‘Waarda’ is a Noongar word for sharing stories, and the Waarda series is a West Australian based project which published WA Aboriginal women writers telling stories for and about Aboriginal children for primary school readers.

The Yarning Strong series is a national initiative that contains novels by different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, and includes books suitable for eight year olds through to the first two years of high school. Both Waarda and Yarning Strong showcase the joys, difficulties and complexities of being Indigenous in Australia today from multiple Indigenous perspectives. 

First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.

Young Adult: Indigenous writers entering new territory
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The past few years have seen an explosion of Indigenous authors writing within the Young Adult genre, joining earlier YA works such as Melissa Lucashenko’s Killing Darcy and Boori Monty Pryor and Meme McDonald’s Maybe Tomorrow.

Calypso Summer tells of the multi-faceted experience of a contemporary experience of being an Indigenous teenager

To give a small indication of the range and depth of this field: Ali Cobby Eckermann’s Ruby Moonlight tells a story of frontier violence in searing verse; Bruce’s Pascoe’s Fog a Dox speaks to courage and understanding with Pascoe’s trademark wry humour; Jane Harrison’s Becoming Kirrali Lewis shifts between the 1960s and the 1980s to tell a generational story of a young Aboriginal woman searching for her identity; and Jared Thomas’ Calypso Summer tells of the multi-faceted experience of a contemporary experience of being an Indigenous teenager, including coping with racism and negotiating the protection of cultural ecological knowledge. 

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Small presses speak large: Indigenous publishers
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Australian Indigenous publishers – such as IAD Press, Aboriginal Studies Press, and Magabala Books - play a critical role not only in publishing Indigenous voices but in doing so according to appropriate cultural and ethical protocols. In this regard, Aboriginal Studies Press has recently produced an Ethical Publishing Guide that is a must-read for all Australian publishers dealing with Indigenous authors and illustrators.

The publisher with the largest range of Indigenous children’s literature is Magabala Books; and a brief glance at their catalogue is perhaps the best illustration of many different ways in which Indigenous voices are speaking in the children’s literature field, from poetry (Alison Whittaker, Daisy Utemorrah) to speculative fiction (Tristan Michael Savage, Teagan Chilcott) to graphic novels (Brenton McKenna) to the astounding range of stories told in picture book form such as explorations of identity (Fair Skin Black Fella), life in remote communities (Our World: Bardi Jaawi Life at Ardiyooloon), and tales of Country (Nana’s Land, My Home in Kakadu, Kupi-kupi and the Girl).


 

Ambelin Kwaymullina is an Aboriginal writer and illustrator from the Palyku people. The homeland of her people is located in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. Ambelin has written and illustrated a number of award winning picture books as well as writing a dystopian series – 'the Tribe' – for Young Adults. 

First Contact (season 2) premieres
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First Contact (season 2) airs on 29 November, 30 November and 1 December 2016 at 8:30pm on SBS. Across 28 Days, six well-known Aussies take an epic journey into Aboriginal Australia. Watch the trailer here, and catch-up on episodes after the program airs via SBS On Demand here.