Serious business for children


Neil Murray: My Island Home (ISBN: 9780980564334), Archie Roach: Took the Children Away (ISBN: 9780980564341), Shane Howard: Solid Rock (ISBN: 9780980564327). All published by One Day Hill, 2010, with paintings by Peter Hudson.

Archie Roach: Took the Children Away, ISBN: 9780980564341Children's business is serious business. It often makes adults angry. You have only to think about the debates about teaching literacy or history. Or of the defensive responses to the uncovering of the experience of the Stolen Generations and to the detention of asylum seeker children. Not to mention to the sexual abuse of children and more recently to reports of the tasering of children.

The suffering of children opens a door into the hardness of society. We are forced to see practices that we take for granted in a different light. And as we are pressed to change our perspective, we can easily react angrily or defensively by denying the truth of events and minimising the harm that people suffer. Societies try to close doors that open on to vulnerability. They try to control children's business.

These three little books do children's business. The text of each is a popular song through which mainstream Australian audiences became more aware of Indigenous Australians.

Archie Roach's 'Took the Children Away' tells the story of the stolen generations. Shane Howard's 'Solid Rock' is a song about dispossession. Neil Murray's 'My Island Home' tells of the lonnging for the sea felt by a man from Elcho Island, now living in Central Australia.

The books are splendid fare for young children. The rhythmic words are simple and are spread through the book, a line or two to a page. They are accompanied by carefully chosen and thematic paintings by Peter Hudson, and by drawings by children in the communities associated with the songs. Ruby Hunter, Archie Roach's late partner, provides haunting illustrations for Took the Children Away.

Together, songs and pictures create a vivid imaginative world that is both strong and gentle. For adult readers, Martin Flanagan's simple and informed introductions place the works into their rich human context. All that is missing in each book is a CD of the song.

These children's books also do serious business. They make us ask how we should encourage our children to see their world and society.

They are surely right in helping children to see from the inside a world that is not their own. The empathy the books encourage is the base on which all interest in history should be built. Later on, children will hear other stories, the connections between them and the timelines that situate them.

These songs open a door into the world of Indigenous Australians. The generous fellow-feeling that they inspire includes the recognition of what Indigenous Australians have suffered since white settlement. It provides a better starting point than the coldness, lack of interest and callousness that arise out of fear and lack of familiarity.

The artwork in the books is also serious business. Together with the songs, the illustrations help children to see the importance of place and school them in longing. Longing for what has been lost lies at the heart of the three songs, but they also touch a deeper longing for a world that no political or technological arrangements can ever provide.

Like all good children's books, these works do serious business in commending a subversive attitude towards time. The songs suggest that dreaming, play and song are important and that looking at pictures is as important as reading text. They encourage children to read slowly, to dwell on each page, and not to turn the pages quickly in order to finish the book. They cultivate the eye of the imagination.

These gifts are not valued in society, and so are normally lost. But if encouraged early, this attitude to time as the straw from which contemplation might be made has the potential to undermine the adult view that time is a commodity to be used and traded, to be saved and managed.

The songs tell of the terrible consequences that follow when the fundamental story told by a dominant culture is about technique and the efficient completion of narrow tasks. Children's business is to retain a richer view and to encourage dreaming. It makes less victims. 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is the consulting editor for Eureka Street. He teaches at the United Faculty of Theology in Melbourne. 

Topic tags: Neil Murray, My Island Home, Archie Roach, Took the Children Away, Shane Howard, solid rock



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Existing comments

Nice review, Andy, and only one reference to asylum-seekers, thank heavens. Maybe you will continue to use a wider lens?
Anna Summerfield | 15 October 2010

Thanks Andrew for a thoughtful and important review of these 3 books. The three songs that form the basis of these children books are amongst the most important Australian songs written. Your piece is a reminder of the terrible suffering inflicted on children within our prosperous capitalist market society
colin penter | 15 October 2010

They still take the children away. What about children detained against their will by order of the Family Court? Children awarded to unsuitable and often abusive parents and taken from their primary carer (who has done no wrong)are stolen and virtually in detention. Why is Australia so unwilling to stand up for these children’s rights? Human rights legislation can’t help them because the Family Court is outside their jurisdiction. Only Parliament can help them.

Why isn’t the Gillard government and the Opposition (who instigated at least one of the reviews as part of the 2006 reform package) willing to act to help these kids?
Suppression or ‘gag’ orders and the secretive nature of the Family Court mean that few cases are reported in the media so the public can’t know what’s really happening. The recent court decision to allow one father to get massive publicity by speaking out is quite remarkable. Will his wife and child get the same “privilege”? NO. Nor will the media be allowed to talk to them. Children affected by family law decisions are often silenced. Parents are silenced before and after the court’s decisions for fear of being labelled ‘unfriendly parent’ or because of court orders. Grandparents are silenced.
Government services and community organisations are often reluctant to intervene at any stage where the family court is involved. Children can be and are denied (by the court), the right to counselling after separation. This is a direct contravention of The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNROC) to which Australia is a signatory.
Justice for Children calls on everyone who cares about children to speak out now.

Ariel | 15 October 2010

I recently read the lyrics to "Took the children away". what a disgusting book to write for children. It encourages hatred and there is no chance I would ever buy that book for my children or anybody elses.
Kerri | 28 October 2010


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