Review of ‘Our People’ Series

26th May 2014

‘People of the Murray’ by Anne Bickford, 1982, Sydney: Methuen, ISBN 0-454-00351-X
‘The Tasmanians’ by Sandra Bowdler, 1982, Sydney: Methuen, ISBN 0-454-000353-6
‘People of the Sydney Coast’ by Federick McCarthy, 1982, Sydney: Methuen, ISBN 0-454-000349-8
‘People of the Lakes’ by Majorie Sullivan, 1982, Sydney: Collins, ISBN 0-454-000352-8
‘The Peopling of Australia’ by Percy Tresize, 1987, Sydney: Collins, ISBN 0-7322-7223-8
‘The Aboriginal Children’s History of Australia’, by Australia’s Aboriginal Children, 1977, Adelaide: Rigby, ISBN 0-7270-0236-8
‘Exploring Ancient Australia’ by Wade Hughes, 1988, Sydney: Horwitz Grahame, ISBN 0-7253-0938-2
‘The First Australians’ by David Corke, 1985, Melbourne: Nelson, ISBN 0-17-00-6549-9
‘Peoples of Australia: The Aborigines’ by Howard Groome, 1981, Sydney: Hodder Stoughton, ISBN 0-340-26603-1
‘ Before the Invasion: Aboriginal Life to 1788’ by Colin Bourke, Colin Johnson and Isobel White, 1980, Melbourne: Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-550589-9

Review by Anne Skates

This is a selection of children’s books that deal primarily with Aboriginal prehistory. It is by no means exhaustive, but I think it is representative. Many of the books also contain material on contemporary Aboriginal Australia. A few general notes need to be made here. When assessing children’s books (or any books for that matter) writing, illustration, design and general expertise need to be taken into account. It seems that the major emphasis of non-fiction books for children is in he illustration and design area. It is in the area of really good and careful writing that many books fail to come up to standard. The poor writing standard is reflected in inappropriate language levels and careless scholarship. There seems to be an attitude that good writing is not really necessary and rigour in factual writing not a major concern in children’s books. There are of course notable exceptions.

The Our People series is a good example of material produced with an understanding of children’s needs and an ability to communicate ideas and information on Aboriginal history in a positive and authorative way. These books were compiled with the assistance of the Aboriginal Education Consultative Group. There are four books in the series, three of which look at areas of New South Wales, and one on Tasmania. The iIIustrations are comprehensive and informative and enhance the clear and unambiguous text. The books, by concentrating on south eastern Australia, have helped to fill a gap that has existed in this area of Australia.

Another recommended book is Percy Trezise’s The Peopling of Australia. The wonderful illustrations give a rich and varied picture of the changing continent of Australia from the Gondwanan period, through Ice Ages, extinct megafauna, Aboriginal arrival in Australia and their long occupation here through to the arrival of the ‘First Fleet’.

However this book, like most of the ones viewed, falls down in the area of language. It is unnecessary to use words like ‘verdant’, ‘utilise’ and ‘abundance’ when ‘green/leafy’, ‘use’ and ‘plenty’ can do just as well, and the use of the term ‘race memory’? Is the author referring to oral history or does he mean the knowledge of past volcanoes has been handed down in some other way? A difficulty many authors have is with the use of the term ‘animals and birds’. Most often the author means mammals when the term ‘animal’ is used. This sloppy use of this term when birds are clearly animals is just another indication of lack of care when writing children’s books.

A further concern in the text of this book, as with others, is the distortion of geological time. In an effort to make it simple writers lose the sense of vastness and make Ice Ages and the geological consequences of them seem like events that occur overnight

Aboriginal Cl1ildren·s History of Australia is a delightful book sponsored by the Aboriginal Arts Board. It is beautifully illustrated with clear, simply written text. It was written and illustrated by Aboriginal children from all over Australia and reflects an Aboriginal perspective of Australian history from the remote past to the present.

The following four books have a more traditional ‘text book’ approach In their layout. They present the material in chapters which look at Aboriginal origins from both an archaeological perspective and some Aboriginal explanations of their origins. They are more suited to older readers.

Exploring Ancient Australia by Wade Hughes has too many errors and makes too many sweeping statements and generalisations to be taken seriously as a book to recommend to children. It starts badly with an inaccurate time chart of early history which confuses the major eras with the periods and misses out on Oligocene and Miocene altogether! The first sections look at Earth history from its beginnings and fits Australia into this. From page 40 we have suggestions about the ancestors of Aboriginal people arriving In Australia. It is written as a dramatic and speculative account. The book then looks at early vegetation and the fossil record. Again this is outside the scope of this review until we return to Aboriginal people hunting large animals that are now extinct. It is here that ‘Stone Age people’ and ‘primitive’ are introduced, and a page is spent speculating about why Aboriginal people didn’t become the world’s first major sea-power. The book is trying to build up a positive picture of Aboriginal adaptation to diverse environments but in the effort to provide the broad sweep It produces details which say the ‘young men roamed ahead of the main group, hunting larger animals like kangaroos. The women followed behind … ‘. It seems to deny that women independently went out on food collecting trips, not tagging behind young men as is implied here. It may not have been the author’s intention to give that impression but, if not, it is another indication of careless writing in books written for children.

Chapter 8 looks at the beginning of archaeology in Australia. The flippant writing style pokes fun at some of the earliest dates. ‘Five thousand years was popular for a while. Then 10,000. Someone came up with 15,000.’ Here was an opportunity to explain the process of dating and to give people some idea about the increasing information that the archaeological record has revealed within recent years but the author has chosen to use a light hearted style to almost ridicule the earlier proposed dates. However the writer goes on to promote a positive picture of archaeological endeavours in Australia so one can only suggest that the writing style helps form these inappropriate impressions. Given the numerous Inaccuracies a further disturbing point made at the end of the book is that the Australian Museum has been cited as the source of ‘expert advice’ used by the author.

By comparison the remaining books under review look wonderful. They all suffer from similar problems encountered by many authors trying to write books for the younger reader, but the texts are much tighter and more factual.

The First Australians, Peoples of Australia: The Aborigines and Before the Invasion all begin by looking at Aboriginal Dreaming explanations for human origins In Australia and a discussion of the archaeological record and the possible migration routes taken by ancestors of present day Aboriginal people.

Bourke, Johnson and White have written In a easy to read, almost conversational style, amply illustrated with drawings, maps and photographs. The book titled Before the Invasion, doesn’t really allow the authors room to imply continuity into the present and it is written in the past tense. This could lead to the impression that Aboriginal life was so radically changed at the point of invasion that nothing carried into the period after 1778, a conclusion which the authors would not want the young reader to draw. Despite this however, the book is recommended as both its style and presentation make it very accessible to children at primary level and as an introduction at the secondary school level.

The Aborigines (part of the Peoples of Australia series) is a small book written in a conversational narrative style. Of some concern are generalisations used such as ‘Wherever they lived all Aboriginal people were hunters of kangaroos, emus, lizards, and other meat, and gatherers of seeds, berries, roots and fruit’ (p.8). The author over-uses the term ‘tribal’ referring to tribal children, tribal Aborigines and tribal country, for example. On page 17 is a careless oversight by not putting ‘savage’ in inverted commas and ‘white man’s (sic) diseases’ reflects a careless use of English in the use of sexist terms.

The First Australians relies heavily on Josephine Flood’s Archaeology of the Dreamtime. It devotes more time to the archaeological evidence than the other books cited and introduces the idea of Australia being inhabited by both ‘gracile’ and ‘robust’ ancestors of Aboriginal people. The book comprehensively describes and illustrates the archaeological record. Ample photographs, charts and location maps help in the interpretation of data.

The author spends some time explaining archaeology and the work of archaeologists. The explanation of Aboriginal origins through the archaeological record is slightly counterbalanced by Aboriginal accounts of their origins from Arnhem Land. However the major emphasis is on prehistory from the archaeological evidence.

The book is very informative and tends to be a bit dense at times in an effort to convey an enormous amount of material. Although it makes some effort to explain the terminology when it is introduced there are many times when the text could be much simpler.

If it seems that I have been unduly pedantic about the texts it is because the examples cited were unfortunately very common. All the books tended to be well illustrated with attractive layouts. This is not enough. The accuracy of the text, the writing style and the choice of layout of other data should be as attractive and accessible to children as the illustrations. Language is a very powerful part of culture. It conveys strong ideas and images. It is especially important in writing about Aboriginal or any other people because careless use of language can convey unwanted and negative messages which may not be the author’s intention.

Skates, A.
Review of 'Our People’ Series
December 1990
Book Reviews
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