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

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.

Challenge logo

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

Monday musings on Australian literature: Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award

Yes, you read right. This week’s Monday Musings on Australian Literature focuses on an award established by the Swedish government, but it is an international award. Established in 2002 to honour the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren (as you’ll have guessed), the prize is five million SEK, making it, says Wikipedia, the richest award in children’s literature and one of the richest literary prizes in the world.

The award, continues Wikipedia, “annually recognises one or more living people and extant institutions” for “their career contributions”, in the case of people, and for their long-term sustainable work, in the case of institutions. The winners should be “authors, illustrators, oral storytellers and promoters of reading” and their work should be “of the highest quality, and in the spirit of Astrid Lindgren.” The award’s aim “is to increase interest in children’s and young people’s literature, and to promote children’s rights to culture on a global level”.

Alert readers here will have seen it mentioned here before, most recently in my post on Alison Lester, because she has been nominated for the award. However, she’s not the only Australian to have been so listed, and in fact, Australians have won it.

Aussie winners

The first winner, in 2003, was Maurice Sendak, but in its short history, Australians have won twice: Sonya Hartnett in 2008 (whose adult novel Golden boys I’ve reviewed) and Shaun Tan in 2011 (whose little book Eric, from Tales of outer suburbia, I’ve reviewed.)

The Chinese paper, People’s Daily Online, reported Hartnett’s win, quoting the award jury as saying:

Sonya Hartnett is one of the major forces for renewal in modern young adult fiction …

and

With psychological depth and a concealed yet palpable anger, she depicts the circumstances of young people without avoiding the darker sides of life. She does so with linguistic virtuosity and a brilliant narrative technique; her works are a source of strength. 

Shaun Tan, Eric cover

Reporting Tan’s win, Claire Armitstead of The Guardian wrote that

Larry Lempert, the chair of the jury, described Tan as “a masterly visual storyteller” whose minutely detailed pictorial narratives touched everyone, regardless of age. “His pictorial worlds constitute a separate universe where nothing is self-evident and anything is possible,” the citation says.

The Guardian article describes the prize as focusing on work with “a profound respect for democratic values and human rights”. That certainly describes Shaun Tan’s work, and ethos, as I know them.

Announcing the British contingent for the 2020 award, The Guardian quoted the jury’s citation for British past-winner Philip Pullman (whose His Dark Materials series Daughter Gums loved) for writing that

stands firmly on the side of young people, ruthlessly questioning authority and proclaiming humanism and the power of love whilst maintaining an optimistic belief in the child even in the darkest of situations

I rest my case – I think!

Some Aussie candidates

As far as I understand it, candidates are nominated by organisations around the world, but the winners are chosen by, quotes Wikipedia, “a jury with broad expertise in international children’s and young adult literature, reading promotion and children’s rights. The 12 members include authors, literary critics and scholars, illustrators and librarians. One member represents Astrid Lindgren’s family.”

Book cover

I’ve already said that Alison Lester has been shortlisted (or, announced as a “candidate” as they call it), but given our strong children’s literature culture here, many Australians have been shortlisted over the years, too many, in fact for me to discuss in detail.

Children’s/young adult author John Marsden was nominated in 2008. I enjoyed reading his books when my children were young, and was impressed by the fearlessness with which he tackled some difficult issues, including domestic violence in his 1987 novel, So much to tell you.

Some authors have been listed multiple times. For example, Jeannie Baker, Ursula Dubosarsky, Susanne Gervay and Margo Lanagan were candidates for the 2020 Award, and are again for 2021. The specialty Indigenous Australian publisher Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation are also in this 2020 and 2021 group.

I know and have read works from some of these writers and organisations, but not all. However, it’s clear how and why Magabala Books and the Indigenous Literacy Foundation would meet the prize’s interest in “democratic values and human rights”.

I could go on finding more Aussies to tell you about, but I think you get the gist. This is an impressive, and significant award in both value and what it is trying to achieve (or so it seems to me).

Are you familiar with it?

Jarrah Dundler, Hey Brother (#BookReview)

Jarrah Dundler, Hey BrotherIs she ever going to write another actual review you’ve been probably wondering but yes, I am – and it’s for the young protagonist book I mentioned in my recent Reading Highlights post. The book is Jarrah Dundler’s debut novel, Hey Brother, which was shortlisted for the The Australian/Vogel Upublished Manuscript Award in 2017 under the title Tryst. Tryst is quite a clever title: it’s the nickname of the 14-year-old protagonist Trysten, and suggests actual and hoped for trysts between the teen couples, but maybe it also has overtones of something more genre-like so was rejected? As it is, the published title conveys both the familial and broader meanings of brotherhood, which are played out nicely in the novel.

Publisher Allen & Unwin categorises Hey Brother as Popular Fiction, and describes it as “a genuine and compellingly portrayed family drama of a tough kid from rural Australia”. I would describe it, however, as a coming-of-age novel, and it reads to me as more Young Adult than Adult. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it explains my uncertainty about how to read it – or, to be more specific, how to write about it.

So, the book. Hey Brother has a first person narrator, the aforementioned Trysten who lives on a property in northern New South Wales with his mother, Kirsty, and his big brother Shaun. His father, Old Greggy, is there too, but prior to the novel’s start he’d been exiled by Kirsty to a caravan down by the river. So, it’s a somewhat fractured family, but not devastatingly so, because it becomes quickly clear that there’s an underlying love and respect between them all. The novel starts with big brother Shaun going off to fight “the Taliban in Afghanistan”, where he’d “been keen to head from the get-go, back when the dust from the Twin Towers was still settling”.

Into this mix comes uncle Trev who turns up to support his sister, Tryst’s mother who is worrying about her son off at war. Her form of “worrying” includes self-medicating with alcohol and letting her other responsibilities fall by the wayside. Unfortunately, Trev, who has some lovely moments of wisdom, also self-medicates his own demons the same way. It’s not a lethal mix, but it creates its challenges, and in fact offers Trev some insights. There is also Tryst’s best friend Ricky, and, as the book progresses, their girlfriends, Jessica and Jade. It’s a tight little community, and Dundler handles the relationships well. They feel real, with the tensions authentic, understandable, and not over-dramatised. In fact, Dundler’s characterisation is a strong point. His people live and breathe from the moment they appear on the page.

Hey Brother, then, features the typical YA narrative – a young teen meets his first love and is desperate to spend more time with her. But this particular story is complicated by the teen’s relationship with his brother whom he hero-worships but who returns from war psychologically damaged, suffering from PTSD. The novel’s crisis is, in fact, triggered by Shaun’s mental distress, and complicated by the conflict confronting Tryst between his love for Jessica and for his brother.

The novel is told first person by Tryst, in the vernacular of a rural, teenage boy. It’s fresh, direct, immediate, full of the profanity and colloquialisms that are appropriate to the context – but, here’s the thing, it is also more descriptive than reflective. Tryst comes across as a loving, heart-of-gold young man, but he is about the moment. To some extent we can see the deeper issues at play here – the PTSD, the complexity in the adult characters’ lives and relationships – but these are not the novel’s focus. The focus is Trysten, his life and, ultimately, his growth. This, to me, makes the novel Young Adult – and makes it quite different from, say, Laguna’s The choke (my review) where, although the story is young Justine’s, the themes focus on the impoverished environment – economically, socially, spiritually – that makes her life the way it is.

Did, then, I enjoy the novel? Yes, in that its protagonist and setting are foreign to my experience and I like to read about lives different to mine, and because the writing was engaging, lively, and appropriate in language and imagery. Here, for example, Tryst describes Trev confessing to past troubles:

It was like he wanted the words to go straight down the plughole after he’d uttered them.

And Trev, late in the novel, gives Tryst some advice:

‘Decisions, mate. That’s what defines you in the end. Some advice for ya–before you make one, try and give it a little thought beforehand, would ya? ‘Cause, believe me, regret’s a f****n c**t of a thing to live with.’

I also liked that late in the novel, we learn, in passing, that Ricky, Tryst’s friend, is indigenous. The reference is somewhat didactically done, but Dundler clearly wanted to do what we need more of, that is, to include indigenous characters without their indigeneity being an issue in the story. How you do this is the challenge.

However, Young Adult Fiction is not really my interest. Young Adult concerns belong to a long-ago part of my life. I appreciated Dundler’s skills in plotting and characterisation, not to mention his heart and desire to give life and air to some big issues, but I did tire at times of Tryst’s concerns, perspective and voice. Not his fault, mine. I would unhestitatingly recommend this book to YA readers – and would willingly check out Dundler’s next work. A good debut.

For a beautiful post on this book, check out Theresa Smith’s (Theresa Smith Writes).

Jarrah Dundler
Hey brother
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2018
281pp.
ISBN: 9781760631123

(Review copy courtesy Allen & Unwin)

Note: The asterisked words in the quote are to defect the wrong sort of hits coming my way.

Charlie Archbold, Mallee boys (#BookReview)

Charlie Archbold, Mallee boysReading synchronicities strike again. Both my last read, John Clanchy’s Sisters, and this one, Charlie Archbold’s Mallee boys, are family stories with a guilt about the death of a family member at their centre. Both, too, are set in non-urban areas, Clanchy’s in coastal New South Wales and Archbold’s in the dry Mallee region of western Victoria. Here, though, the similarities end. Clanchy’s book chronicles a month in the lives of three late-middle-aged sisters, and the person who died was their four-year-old baby brother – a long time ago. Also, Clanchy is a male writer, writing about women, in third person voice. Archbold, on the other hand, is a female writer writing about men. Her subjects are farmer, Tom, and his two sons, Sandy and Red, 15 and 18 at the beginning. The death they are dealing with is their wife and mother, who died just a year before the book opens. This novel, which spans a year, is told in the alternating first person voices of the two brothers.

Mallee boys, however, also reminds me of another book about a farming father and two sons whose wife and mother had died, Stephen Orr’s The hands (my review), but while Orr’s book sits squarely in the literary adult fiction fold, Mallee boys is Young Adult fiction. Its concerns are, therefore, a little different, but it is worth looking at. It won the 2016 Adelaide Festival Unpublished Manuscript Award, and has now been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Book of the Year for Older Readers Award.

Now, that was a long intro – even for me – but I have managed, I think, to include in it a fair introduction to book and its main storyline. I’ll add that while the story is told in the alternating voices of Sandy and Red, the main protagonist is Sandy. He starts and ends the story, and he is presented as the more thoughtful, more reflective, of the two boys. Also, he is not the one carrying the guilt. This is his brother, who was with his mother when she, a pedestrian, was hit by a car.

Like Clanchy with his women characters, Archbold captures the voices of the boys and their father well, their tensions, their squabbles, and most of all the challenges they face in running their home without a mother’s touch! “Chops” for dinner again tonight says it all. Late in the novel, the father Tom admits to being lonely, but his pain is not the focus, this being a YA novel. Sandy is in Year 10, and as a rural boy, is at schooling cross-roads. Their farm can’t afford to send him to boarding school in the city, but can he get a scholarship? Red, on the other hand, is not the scholastic type. He has left school and works the farm with his father, with the usual father-son tensions. Added to this are the boys’ relationships with their friends – not all of whom are “suitable” but Red, in particular, can’t be told and needs to learn the hard way. And, of course, there are girls.

This is all told naturally, neither sensationalised nor sentimentalised, but with enough drama, and humour, to keep readers, particularly the intended audience, interested. I wouldn’t call this a crossover novel exactly, but I did enjoy the read despite its YA intent.

Underpinning the narrative, the plot, is the setting, and this also the London-born Archbold, who has lived and worked as a teacher in the area, evokes beautifully. The setting is the Mallee, which borders the riverland area in which Laguna’s The choke (my review) is set. It’s a dry area, known for sheep and dryland crops like wheat. Farming is tough here, but communities are close. This comes through too, with locals helping each other out, in the natural way people do, something which is surely good for young readers to see and relate to. I do love to see good – but realistic – role modelling in media!

In addition to this, there’s the language. I enjoyed the descriptions of the Mallee, such as Sandy’s of Lake Bonney:

When the river runs low, the water in the lake huddles to the middle, leaving it fringed with smelly sticky mud. It’s a strange place. Because of the drought a lot of the trees around the edge have died. Bony old river red gums stick in the ground like a perching cafe for pelicans and kookaburras.

Tom, the father, tells Red what’s kept him going, despite his loneliness:

“I know it’s the rhythms of nature that have kept me going. This isn’t a glamorous landscape, but it’s in my veins.”

And I enjoyed how the boys describe feelings. Here’s Sandy describing his brother Red:

He acts hard because it gives him control but I know he’s all mushed up inside. Like a beetle with soft guts crammed in under the shell.

And here’s Red, just after his girl has suddenly broken up with him without explaining why:

And so she’s left me hanging, like a daggy bit of wool caught on a fence. Knotted in with no way to break free.

As you’d expect in a coming-of-age story, lessons are learnt, wisdom gained. Sandy says near the end, and this is surely one of the novel’s themes:

… because time doesn’t heal all wounds, like Dad once told me, but it does scab over them.

It sure does. And every now and then those scabs break off and have to re-form, n’est-ce pas? An effective metaphor I think.

Mallee boys, then, is an engaging book about growing up, about facing some of the hardest challenges, and most of all about being male. It’s a book that has something to offer both rural and urban young Australians, and I hope it gets widely read.

AWW Badge 2018Charlie Archbold
Mallee boys 
Mile End: Wakefield Press, 2017
285pp.
ISBN: 9781743055007

(Review copy courtesy Wakefield Press)