by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Donna Rawlins - Walker Books Australia, 2008
ages 4 to grown-up / Australia, s.o.s.e.
This is one of my favourite Australian books, but the ideas and messages are universal and you certainly don’t need to be Australian to appreciate them.
First published to coincide with the bicentennial of the landing of the first fleet in Australia, the book tells the history of Australia through the stories of children and their lives.
Beginning in 1988 and going back in ten-year increments to 1788, each page tells the story of a child who lives on the same plot of land. It’s the story of the house as well as of the children.
The child on the 1988 page is Laura, an indigenous child whose family have moved to the city in the hope of finding more work. Her personality shines through the way she tells us about her life and her home—she has a loving family, but they are not without challenges.
This is true of each child in each era. And, like each child in the book, Laura leaves a map that lets us have a peek around her community.
After Laura comes Mike in 1978 – Mike is Greek. It’s the same house, but the map he leaves for us is slightly different.
And so on back to 1788 when we meet Barangaroo, another indigenous child who lives in more or less the same place, providing a lovely symmetry to the story.
Of course, the individual children are fictional but they are so beautifully representative that they might as well be real.
Many of the major events that shaped both Australia and the world generally are alluded to here—both World Wars, the Vietnam War, the depressions of the 1930’s and the 1890’s, the waves of immigration from Greece and from China, the Rum Rebellion and so on—making this a great book to take just one page as a lead-in to a discussion about an historical era. Especially the way that history impacts lives.
There is tremendous amount going on in this book, both in the story itself and in the ideas transmitted through it. Ideas like families working together, connectivity in communities, rising above pain, forgiveness, empathy, and even environmentalism as the creek slowly becomes polluted and eventually is nothing more than a canal.
A small reading hint:
While the story takes a while to read because there's so much detail, it’s worth the extra time to go all the way through a few times—then to read it backwards, starting with Barangaroo and ending with Laura. By reading it backwards, the continuity between the families living in ‘my place’ is clearer.
I feel a tremendous sense of privilege reading this book. Privilege to share a country with children and families like these; privilege to share life experiences that are common to all of us; privilege to have been spared some of the traumas facing the children; and privilege to be able to share their stories.