by Jennifer Castles, illustrated by Paul Seden – Allen & Unwin, 2017
ages 6 to grownup / picture books + diversity, powerful lives, s.o.s.e.
There’s an important anniversary coming up on May 27. It will be 50 years since an enormously successful 1967 Australian Referendum led to change in our Constitution to ensure that Aboriginal people were counted in reckoning the number of people in Australia.
It seems almost dystopian that there was a time when Aboriginal people were not counted in the population statistics. And when the laws and powers that were held by each State government resulted in segregation and broad discrimination. (For young people it will be, thankfully, hard to imagine.)
Say Yes does a brilliant job of exploring what those laws really meant to Australians at that time, in their everyday lives:
There’s a young narrator who has an Aboriginal friend, Mandy. The segregation laws mean they can't go swimming together, or to school, or even to a movie. And Mandy and her mother must seek the sanction of the State before they can travel to visit Mandy’s ill grandmother.
Those everyday realities are mingled with information about early civil rights activists like Jessie Street and Faith Bandler—impressive women who somehow managed to see beyond the bounds of quotidian life to notice injustice and to work against it.
They weren’t alone of course, but they were bold and clear minded. They also managed to convince just over 90% of Australian voters to vote Yes!
It was a result that changed the Constitution and the way Australia thought about itself.
The power in this book:
1) There’s a promise that noticing, calling out, and seeking to change injustice is worthwhile. Reading about past activist successes points to the worth of current activism—the book is brilliantly empowering that way.
2) The history and connections to the people who lived it build a sense of interconnectedness and empathy. The story of Mandy and her narrator friend provides a personal backdrop to what is essentially a history, albeit condensed and somewhat sanitised because it's written to connect with a young audience.
3) The personal equality between the girls in the story, even when they are living in unequal circumstances, is inspiring. It's a good reminder that we remain sovereign over our own actions even when faced with discriminatory practices. I especially like that Mandy’s mum buys the girls ice cream at the end of the book, resting at least some of the power to create happiness in her hands rather than in the hands of the government.
4) The story is simple and direct. What shines through the whole book is both the inherent injustice and the unflinching goodness of those who worked to change that. Younger children will probably take it at face value—while older children and adults will be prompted to ask questions and search for deeper understanding.
A small reading hint:
This is a book that can be read quickly by reading only the narrator’s lines, or slowly by reading through all the extra information. Either way, questions will likely arise. Some may be philosophical and soul-searching about man’s inhumanity that will need unpacking slowly; others will be information-based. You might like to explore this website for answers—it includes a video of Faith Bandler talking about why the referendum mattered.
It also calls the referendum ‘one of the glowing coals that keeps the fires burning.’ Rather like Mandy’s mum, who says at the end of the book:
And how grateful we are for good beginnings. This would be a lovely book to buy or borrow from a library now—to read just ahead of or on May 27.