The value of seeing yourself in the pages
When the best books available to some Australian kids are getting flushed down the toilet, it’s time to reflect.
Merrilee didn’t have access to books at home while growing up. The ones she could get her hands on at school did not reflect her identity as an Aboriginal Australian, nor her environment in Western Australia. Comic books like ‘the Phantom’ made more of an impression on her, and these were often recycled as toilet paper.
As a founding member of Magabala Books, Australia’s leading Indigenous publisher, Merrilee is acutely aware of the need for books that are contextually relevant for readers.
“It can open doors to the future and can be fun too – we just need to ensure our children see themselves and their experiences in books,” she said.
Now, Merrilee and her grandchildren are part of the movement to make this happen.
In collaboration with Library For All’s Our Yarning, the first free digital library made by and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, Merrilee has become a published children’s book author. Her first contribution to the collection, in collaboration with Collette Cox, explores the impact of littering on the sea life near Broome.
Merrilee’s first book for Our Yarning, which is set off the coast of Broome.
Photo: Library For All’s Our Yarning collection
“We wrote The Dreaded Net to educate our readers about the importance of looking after Country. We all need to play our part in taking care of our Mother Earth,” she told us.
For her nine-year-old grandson MJ*, who has become a prolific book reviewer for the Our Yarning library, it was a joy to read his grandmother’s work.
“I felt happy for her. I felt happy to read her book too…I like the pictures and the colours of the sea animals…It made me want to go outside more and do adventures instead of sitting inside,” he said.
The right kind of education
Education should help a child to reach their fullest potential by developing their cognitive ability, as well as a respect for their cultural identity and natural environment. This is not just a wish, but a fundamental human right enshrined in Article 29 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC).
Research from Library For All shows that children gain higher levels of literacy when they have access to ‘mirror’ books, those that reflect their lived experience, in addition to ‘window’ books that offer glimpses into other cultures and contexts. By helping to publish stories from authors like Merrilee, Our Yarning is upholding children’s right to quality education by improving their access to the mirror books that are so crucial to their development.
Merrilee’s second book for Our Yarning reflects the reality of children living in the Australian bush.
Photo: Library For All’s Our Yarning collection
Since the success of The Dreaded Net, Merrilee has authored another book for the digital library, Sounds of the Bush, with Pop. Illustrated by her son Scott Wilson, the story explores the rich soundscape of the Australian bush. By embedding her stories in the local environment, Merrilee provides children with the opportunity to see themselves and their reality in the books they read.
“My favourite memory is the wonder in the faces of my grandchildren and the discussion about the books,” Merrilee said, “they depicted where we live so well and the grannies talked more about what they saw on the pages as they love fishing and hunting.”
Dr Julie Owen, Cultural Advisor for Our Yarning, says this type of engagement builds towards their ultimate goal of improving literacy for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children.
“They struggle because they don’t have the books to learn or some way to get them to love to read… [Our Yarning] is looking at that aspect. When the kids get to school, they have a love of learning and reading already. It’s easier for the kids to achieve, and the teachers to cope,” Dr Owen said.
Only the beginning
The digital library has already helped to create 60 original children’s books in just six months, but it’s only the beginning. With an ambitious goal of publishing 500 books and reaching 80,000 children in five years, Our Yarning is striving to rewrite the narrative of representation in children’s literature.
Merrilee’s hope for the collection is that it will inspire “a love of reading in our children and a medium through which our children can find themselves in the pages and be proud of being the first peoples of this country.”
This aspiration seems a world away from the days of recycling comics as toilet paper. From the words of her grandson, it is clear this change is already underway.
“It was good to see my kind of people in the books,” said MJ.
*Name has been changed.