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Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler, Black cockatoo (#BookReview)

January 9, 2021

Black cockatoo is a young adult novel written by Indigenous Australian author, Carl Merrison, and his non-Indigenous collaborator, Hakea Hustler, and illustrated by Indigenous Australian illustrator, Dub Leffler. It is a beautiful, little (in size, not value) book that made quite a splash when it was published. It was shortlisted for several children’s literature awards in 2019, including those by the Children’s Book Council of Australia, Readings, the Australian Book Industry Association, and the Queensland Literary Awards. However, it is not the sort of book that I would normally post on here, so I plan to keep this review short.

I say this for a few reasons. For a start, children’s and young adult literature are not my main interest, though I do occasionally make exceptions, as I am making here. My main reason, however, is that not only am I not the typical age demographic for this book, but I am also the wrong cultural demographic, which makes me two steps removed from its target audience. But, I ordered this book from Magabala because I was intrigued about what was being written for young Indigenous readers, and it is on that basis that I’m posting on the book.

The story is set in a remote community in Australia’s Kimberley region, and focuses on 13-year-old Mia. She is disturbed to see her 15-year-old brother, Jy, becoming increasingly alienated from his community and culture, but feels powerless to do anything about it. In the book’s first chapter she rescues a young black cockatoo (dirrarn) which had been injured by Jy who had been target practising with his shanghai. The dirrarn is her totem animal.

What makes this book interesting for someone like me to read is the way it conveys the issues that I, an outsider, am aware of through my reading. One of these is the issue of family breakdown in Indigenous communities. Mia and her brother are being raised by their mother and grandparents, and haven’t seen their father or his family for many years. It’s clear that this is a tough gig for the grandparents. Mia overhears her grandfather (her jawiji) tell her grandmother that he’s “just tired”, and that:

I’m not sure I have it in me to teach him the right ways anymore. He’s just so headstrong.

In one way, of course, Jy is a typical teenager – stubborn and defiant – but concern about this behaviour is magnified in Indigenous communities where disconnection from culture can leave young people, young men in particular, highly vulnerable. In this story, the grandparents, like many in Indigenous communities, do their best to inculcate knowledge of and respect for culture, while also supporting their grandchildren’s need to make their way in a world they don’t know themselves.

This brings me to the main subject of this story, Mia. Her angst stems not only from her concern about her brother, but from having to make a decision about whether to take up her place at “a fancy school down south”. She’s confronting that conundrum faced by young Indigenous people that I’ve also gleaned through my reading, the challenge of straddling two cultures. There is a lovely sense here of Mia being supported and encouraged by her family, but also of her having some agency in what she does:

“You live in both worlds,” her grandmother added. “You will be strong in both ways.”

Black cockatoo is a short story but Merrison and Hustler pack a lot in here about the warmth and humour within extended Indigenous families, which lightens the more serious concerns they confront. The tone is not heavy, which is appropriate given the aim of this book being presumably to support young Indigenous people in making good choices rather than to demoralise them with the challenges they face!

The book is illustrated by Dub Leffler, with stylish, sometimes realistic sometimes more subtle, black-and-white images opening each chapter. Words from Jaru language are lightly scattered through the text:

It had been a proper long barranga dry weather, so to hunt we didn’t have to travel far to find big fat bin.girrjaru bush turkey.

There are two small glossaries at the end, one of Jaru words, and the other of Aboriginal English/Kriol words, that are used in the text.

While not all issues are resolved by the end, as you would expect, the novel’s conclusion, as you would also expect, is positive, with Mia coming to realise both her own inner strength and that she has the ongoing support of family and culture. It’s a good message in an accessible book, it seems to me, but the real proof is whether it works for its target readers, and that, of course, I don’t know.

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Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler
Dub Leffler (illus.)
Black cockatoo
Broome: Magabala Books, 2018
62pp.
ISBN: 9781925360707

12 Comments leave one →
  1. January 9, 2021 23:21

    Great review.

    I think that a quality book is a quality book regardless of whether it is Young Adult or what culture it is aimed at or takes place in. It sounds like this is just a quality and worthwhile book.

  2. January 10, 2021 07:03

    I’m wondering about the nom de plume of the only non-Indigenous member of the trio ..

    • January 10, 2021 09:19

      yes, M-R, I wondered that too, but there was nothing on her author page on Magabala. It’s great name isn’t it!

  3. January 10, 2021 09:09

    I would like to have a look at this. I have often supported Magabala books as I like what they do and have checked out some of their books from the library. I don’t buy books for young adults or children but do enjoy seeing what the issues are they address. I also really enjoy the illustrations quite often in these works. 🐧🪆🪅

  4. January 10, 2021 16:34

    Terrific review, Sue. Makes me want to check this one out.

  5. January 10, 2021 17:48

    I went hunting for Magabala books for my grandchildren this year (on my one day out of iso before xmas). Luckily there’s a shop in Freo that specialises in them – unlike my local Indie (and its sister shop in Freo) which refuses to separate out Australian books and is rapidly losing my custom. I did pretty well, though I don’t remember seeing this one. The problem of the good student educated down south and losing their place in society comes up quite often (eg. in Kim Scott’s True Country).

    • January 11, 2021 08:00

      Oh good for you Bill. I know what you mean about separating out Aussie books… We discussed that just recently I think, didn’t we?

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