Great reads from Magabala Books

Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation in Broome has sent me some beautiful children’s picture books to promote.

Magabala has been in the game since 1990, producing high-quality Indigenous Australian literature.

I highly recommend you browse their collection at

Here are some of their latest goodies:

The spotty dotty lady

Josie Wowolla Boyle & Fern Martins (Ill.)

2014, 31 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website:

This is a beautifully illustrated book with vibrant colours and stunning art. It has large and clear font.

It is about friendship among all races and types of people.  The sad lady’s only friends are her flowers.  She finds a spotty dotty flower which inspires her to paint spotty dotty designs on her tea cups, and then her kitchen, and then her whole house.  This attracts interest in the neighbourhood and the neighbours and their friends come to look.  They begin to get to know each other and make friends.  The lady throws them a party and paints their tea cups and after that she is never lonely again.  It shows how much we connect emotionally with nature, beauty and colour.

It is a great book for discussing the importance of friendship and community; and how hobbies like gardening and art can bring people together.

The little corroboree frog

Tracey Holton-Ramirez and Angela Ramirez (Ill.)

2013, 32 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website:

This book has large and clear font and has bright, watercolour-painting style illustrations.

The little corroboree frog is ultimately a conservation story – a frog wakes up from winter hibernation, mates with a female frog, waits for eggs to hatch but is troubled by the weather changing. The winter rains are not coming and there is rubbish in their habitat.  Meanwhile, a little boy and his father are exploring the area and the frog jumps on to the boy and leads the boy to his nest to show his home.  The boy realises that the frog is unhappy about humans’ treatment of his habitat and he and his dad clear it up and drive home discussing what they can do to help the frogs.

This is a great book to study within a unit on environment/conservation, and it includes a non-fiction section with frog facts.

Spinifex mouse

Norma MacDonald (writer and ill.)

2013, 40 pages


Teacher notes available on the Magabala website:

This is a stunning book with lyrical language and elegant illustrations by an award-winning artist.  Little spinifex mouse is called ‘Cheeky’ and dances and teases the snake as she rests warming up on the rock – until the snake strikes, and the eagle comes and picks up the mouse, saving it.  He drops the mouse but the snake has caught up and strikes again; this time the eagle picks up the snake.  The mouse goes home and tells his family, saying he learnt his lesson and won’t be silly again – and the family decide to change his name to ‘Lucky’.

The writing is sophisticated, in third person, past tense and using dialogue and a range of literary devices such as repetition, alliteration and rhythm and simile.

There is a clear moral, that greed and boastful/showing off behaviour will make you unpopular and cause trouble.

There is information about habitat and the life cycle/predators, so this book also fits in with units on environment.

Silly Birds

Greg Driese (writer and ill.)

2014, 32 pages

Hard cover

Teacher notes available on the Magabala website:

This evocative book tells a Dreaming story – Maliyan the eagle is a bird who always looked and listened because his parents taught him speaking too much was for the silly birds.  Maliyan grew wise and met Wagun, a silly bird who boasted that he was the best; he was loud and ran around, knocked people over, didn’t listen to elders.

Maliyan thought he was fun and followed him and started to act like him. More birds followed; they became careless and didn’t look after their environment.  The parents grew worried and upset.  Maliyan felt bad and went to the elders for advice. He remembered to look and listen and he grew wise again.  Wagun continued to be selfish.  He lost his ability to fly, and scratched around on the ground to find food. Today all Turkeys scratch around on the ground and can’t fly well.

The coda of the story is: “it is hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys”.

This book has beautiful art, incorporating traditional symbols such as dot designs and animal tracks. It teaches children in a lovely manner, gentle but firm, like you are sitting with elders.

It is a great book to use when talking about peer pressure and setting your own goals, your own path in life; not letting others steer you off your course.

Two Mates

Melanie Prewitt, Maggie Prewitt – ill.

2012, 32 pages


Bold font, quite small

This book is based on a true story about Raf , a non-Indigenous boy who has spina bifida, and Jack, an Indigenous boy. They are growing up together in Broome and share a life of hunting, swimming, fishing and quad biking.

The story is reasonably simple, and takes us through illustrations of the boys doing each activity.  The illustrations are cleverly done so that it is not until the end of the book that the illustrations reveal Raf in a wheelchair. The illustrations, too, are simple – like bright crayon drawings. The understated appearance makes the revelation about Raf’s condition all the more compelling.

It is a story about friendship and crossing barriers – around both race and ‘disability’ (although, clearly, Raf is not prevented from participating in cool, fun little-boy activities).

The book includes photos of the real boys and their families as well as information about spina bifida.

It is a great book for teaching about compassion and embracing each other’s uniqueness.

Why we need to put James Maloney’s ‘Dougy’ series to rest

You know the one. Dougy, Gracey and Angela. Addressing the “issues” facing Aboriginal society. Highlighting the familiar tensions of small town Australia: fear and misunderstanding between white and black communities; resentment of Aboriginal ‘hand outs’; how quickly communities can descend into violence and chaos when tested, exposing the anger, fear and mistrust between black and white people that is found when you scratch the surface.

Very important messages and issues presented in well-written and engaging novels by a highly-acclaimed Australian author.

But – when I open the book and read on the first page that the Aboriginal protagonist’s father was “drunk again”, and that his mother was giggling at him and calling him a “silly boong”, I find it difficult to get my head around teaching it.  So much frontloading needs to be done to prepare students for it, and to explain why we are seeing these stereotypes and racist terms on the page (Maloney is presenting one particular experience of Aboriginal families, and not all families have an alcoholic father; there was a time when Aboriginal people took on the racist terms white people used against them in their own interactions as a joke, a little like how African Americans appropriated the word ‘nigger’, but that is less commonly accepted in Aboriginal circles these days).

And ultimately, I just want to say to students that “not all of us live like this”.  My family, my home town of Dubbo, contains elements of the experiences in this novel but there are a great many more positive things I see that I don’t feel get enough air time in Maloney’s novels.  The love and warmth and laughter. The beautiful stories of land and culture.  My Uncle receiving an award for employing and training Indigenous boys in his panel-beating business. My Aunty and Uncle getting involved in heritage discussions with council to protect the scar tree uncovered in a new residential development area. My many cousins achieving in education and the workforce, and some working to give back to the Indigenous community through education and Indigenous Community Volunteers. My father’s life’s work in Aboriginal policy and higher education, being part of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the Bringing them Home inquiry, running Aboriginal student support centres at universities and setting up Indigenous programs across a range of universities.  My brother educating the local community and school children about Bush Tucker. Our family’s emphasis on hard work, personal responsibility and, above all, maintaining a perfectly clean home, car, and well-groomed appearance!!!   (I must admit this is becoming somewhat diluted through the generations – I keep a pristine home but couldn’t care less about the car, to my dad and uncles’ disappointment!).

Maloney’s novels may have been a good starting point for teachers in the 1990s to begin engaging with Indigenous perspectives.  But – as you can see on my previous blog entries – there are so many contemporary Aboriginal authors who are presenting these perspectives for themselves.  Some present positive representations, some negative, some a bit of both. But the important thing is they are authentic Aboriginal voices.

Furthermore, I’d like to see teachers move away from the “issues-based” teaching of Aboriginal perspectives – or at least provide some balance.  Aboriginality is not a curse. It is not a bad thing to be Aboriginal and not every Aboriginal person or family or community faces unending “issues” and “challenges”. This is a bit of a deficit-model way of thinking.  And it is very pessimistic. Yes, we all have challenges – black or white – and we also all have opportunities and fantastic role models and great achievements to celebrate.

I encourage teachers to move on from Maloney in regards to ‘Aboriginal literature’.  But if you simply can’t, please consider the following points and discuss them with your class to frame your study.

Who’s telling this story?

James Maloney is a non-Aboriginal author representing Aboriginal people and lives, based on 2 years’ experience living and teaching in Cunnamulla, a regional town in QLD.

In his ‘FAQs’ on his website he includes a question: “What experience do you have of Aboriginal life?”

Below are extracts from the website and some comments to think about in terms of framing the text for students.

“I can’t really say that I have any direct experience of Aboriginal life. After all, only an Aborigine could claim this. However, for two years, 1977 and 1978, I watched Aboriginal children growing up, the difficulties they faced, the close family relations that mean so much and the ingrained prejudice of the dominant white culture around them. This was when I lived in Cunnamulla, a small town in south-west Queensland. As a teacher in the State School, there was part of the dominant culture, I must admit and I can’t really claim to have done anything to improve things for my Aboriginal students. There’s not much one person can do and I was only young. The experience had an effect on me though.”

Is 2 years working in a community enough to make general comment on all Aboriginal lives?

As a white teacher he would not have been trusted by the Aboriginal community during a time of much racism and division.  Therefore it is unlikely they would have told him much detail about their lives and cultures – he may only have a small piece of their story. He might not understand all the reasons behind the issues they face.  He might not know any positive aspects of their culture, rituals or knowledge which they likely kept secret from him as a white man and a teacher/representative of the government.

Could his statement “there’s not much one person can do and I was only young” be considered defeatist, or show a resignation to the poor conditions of Aboriginal people? There are many examples of single people, black and white, who have become activists for reconciliation and change.

“It was those years that formed the basis for “Dougy” and “Gracey” though the towns described in the books aren’t supposed to be Cunnamulla. That wouldn’t be fair. I could have lived in any town in Australia with a mixed population and it would have been much the same, perhaps many times worse.”

Is it fair for him to think that all towns in Australia have the same, or worse, problems than Cunnamulla?  Some communities function better than others, and all towns have their positive and negative aspects.

“Since leaving Cunnamulla, I have maintained a deep personal interest in political and social issues associated with Indigenous Australia, even if I don’t have any close Aboriginal friends. My “experience” today stems more from reading newspapers and watching television news and documentaries.”

In the ‘about the author’ section of his website, Maloney says he lives in Brisbane and loves travelling overseas, meeting new people and learning about their culture and history. Why do you think he does not know Aboriginal people or have any experience with them beyond the media? As someone who knows how to travel, explore and meet people he could perhaps do a little exploring around Brisbane and go to local events such as NAIDOC week, go on bushwalks (Boondall wetlands, Musgrave park), visit the DandiiriMaiwar culture centre, attend events at the kuril dhagun Indigenous Knowledge Centre at the State Library of QLD, attend the annual Dreaming festival or look up the ‘Black Book’ which lists all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island events around Brisbane.

These events were found in 5 minutes by looking up ‘Aboriginal cultural events in Brisbane’ on google.

For someone who claims to have maintained a deep personal interest in Aboriginal affairs it would seem relevant for him to interact with local Aboriginal people an organisations.

“Can a white person write about black experience? It’s a vexed question. Some answer no and criticise me for doing so. Others praise me from trying to understand the viewpoint of Indigenous Australians even if I haven’t got everything right. I have never claimed to speak for Aboriginal people. That would be wrong. But having observed and been both moved and troubled by what I saw, I think I was right to produce these novels.”

The history of colonisation in Australia includes periods of time where Aboriginal people were not listened to – the government made policies about them and designed services for them without asking them for their opinion (as we normally would do in a democracy).  Therefore ‘representation’ is a sensitive issue an Aboriginal people are sceptical of non-Aboriginal people who claim to represent them and their viewpoint.

In 1993, when Dougy was published, Aboriginal authors were less well known in the mainstream, but they were around: Boori Pryor, Sally Morgan, Kerry Reed Gilbert, Ruby Ginibi Langford and Archie Weller, to name a few notables.  There were plenty (and still are plenty) of Aboriginal people writing for themselves – it is not necessary for a non-Aboriginal person to ‘be their voice’, and Maloney acknowledges that.

There is a general belief that in fiction an author can choose to represent whatever they like, however they like, because it is fiction.

The lines become blurred when an author seeks to teach others, or provide some understanding of reality, through the fiction – as Maloney says he was “trying to understand the Aboriginal viewpoint”.  If this “viewpoint” in a fictional novel is taken by readers to be based on reality, then it becomes complicated: whose reality is this?  Is this really the reality of all Aboriginal people? Does a non-Aboriginal author have the right to present an Aboriginal person’s ‘reality’ without asking them?







Capitalising on Curiosity The Australian Association for the Teaching of English (AATE) and Australian Literacy Educator’s Association (ALEA) are holding their Annual Joint National Conference in Canberra this July. This year, we have liaised with the United Ngunnawal Elders’ Council and a local artist, Leah Brideson, to create a theme and logo which represents Canberra as a meeting place and its Ngunnawal heritage.

We’re very excited to have Anita Heiss speaking at the event, too.

See the conference site for more information: Keep up to date with all the conference news at: