On the 25th and 26th of July 2010, a group of booksellers, publishers, Indigenous Literacy Project and Fred Hollows staff took a trip to Wilcannia in NSW to launch ‘Book Buzz’.
After a drive into the morning sun from Broken Hill, passing emus picking at the low lying saltbush and countless road kills, the group arrived at Wilcannia, to encounter an encouraging painted sign hung with artworks, that read “Take the Time to Read a Book”.
After meeting up with Deb Dank and Maddy Bowers, the Fred Hollows Foundation staff who have been working so hard this year on introducing the ILP and the Book Buzz concepts to the Wilcannia community, we arrived at St Therese’s Catholic school to begin some writing and singing workshops with the kids. There we found an enthusiastic and highly competent staff. They had the complete attention of the preschool and kindy-aged children, who sat quietly down on their digdis (bottoms) with their mara (hands) down.
We broke into two groups. Faith Baisden, who was running the musical workshops, demonstrated her ‘talking’ poster. The poster is accompanied by a ‘pen’ which is fitted with a microphone. Touching this on different body parts displayed on the poster, it enunciates the relating words in eight Indigenous Queensland languages. The kids were fascinated and often amused by the different words (they themselves are learning body part names in their Paarkantji language), and took care to share the pen around so that they could all have a turn.
Faith taught them a song “My Hands Love to Clap”, about body parts with actions, getting the kids used to the tune. With help from teacher Veronica and the aunts and uncles, the kids were able to fill in the names of body parts in the tune in Paarkantji, and sang through the song again with actions and language.
Faith introduced ‘Lenny’ the character from her book Lenny and the Big Red Gullai (bag), which he fills with things on his trip through the bush, and asked the kids to draw what they would put in their bags. They quickly learnt the accompanying song, adding in the names of the animals that they had drawn. There was some great talent, and each kid was shyly delighted when his/her picture was held up for us to sing about.
Andy Griffiths, ILP ambassador and well loved children’s author, taught his group how to write and illustrate their own small picture books, and how to tell their stories. They told stories about fishing, motorbike riding, hunting, wild pigs, dogs and roos.
The workshops were more difficult to run at Central School, which takes kids from grade one to grade twelve. There we had a group of young people ranging from grade five to grade tens, and what had worked with the small children in terms of easy involvement and quick trust certainly didn’t wash here. A lot of the kids seemed disinterested or shy, but they were keen to sing. When Faith explained that we needed their help to fill in the Paarkantji words to help the younger children learn their language, the kids and language teacher Uncle Murray Butcher helped to fill in the words that the kids at St Theresa’s hadn’t learned yet. Because there are only 3 fluent speakers of Paarkantji left in the Wilcannia community, it is important to support language teachers like Uncle Murray.
Some of the boys were keen on the quarter sized guitars Faith brought for the school, even if they hadn’t learnt any chords yet. They sat and strummed while their music teacher taught the ILP group a song using body-part words in Paarkantji.
Andy had the Central School kids drawing their own stories and illustrating them, and two kids stayed on even after the lunchbell went. Others couldn’t understand why they should care about writing, and were uncomfortable in the school environment.
These kids later came alive in the Wings Drop in Centre, a well set-up shed with computers, tv, pool and table tennis tables, and a footy field at the back. It’s sponsored by several Not for Profit Organisations, including the ILP, and is run by two trained schoolteachers, who after leaving their jobs at Central, wished to stay on in the community.
This is the place where ILP has organised and funded a reading room for the kids, complete with cushions sewn by Deb Dank and the women’s centre at Wilcannia. The kids responded enthusiastically to the giant nest of pillows, but again the older ones were distracted by sport (on tv and on the footy fields), and it was the younger ones who we were able to engage with impromptu board book readings on the cushions. Andy and I began reading with 3-5 yr old children who were shy to even tell us their names, but got gradually more vocal as we pointed to animals and colours on the page, and gradually moved onto stories like ‘Where is the Green Sheep’ and ‘Bob the Builder’. One little girl (maybe 4 or 5) finished up ‘reading’ a book to me, which consisted of her repeating phrases from the Disney books we’d been looking at, and adding her own, “Once upon a time there was a King and his horse, and another fella.”
It was great to see how even the kids who were most disconnected in the classroom were so involved at the Drop In Centre. They were clearly finding stimulation in sport and relaxed company, and were excited by some multimedia projects including a rap they’d made that day with the help of some visiting university students. Ursula, a little girl who’d broken her arm playing soccer, sat and typed out a story with Faith on one of the computers. It’s easy to see how sharp these kids are, despite their shyness.
On the day of the Book Buzz launch, the younger kids who came to collect their ILP ‘Reading Opens Doors’ shirts, were very excited. Some of them asked to see Faith’s interactive poster again. Community mums and relations and the official party arrived, with Governor of NSW, Professor Marie Bashir AC,CVO.
Governor Marie Bashir read ‘Where is the Green Sheep’ with the children of St Therese’s School and Central School’s prep classes, and was excited that there was such a great exchange during the reading, and that some of the kids had already had experience with that book. Her reading was very interactive, and the kids all fell in love with her.
Outside, the kids sang Faith’s song “My Hands Love to Clap” to the Governor. David Gaunt, chair of the ILP addressed the community and the official party, giving thanks to traditional owners, the Paarkantji people. He spoke about the ILP’s history and thanked Maddy Bowers and Deb Dank for all their work in getting the ILP reading room, and Book Buzz launch up and running in Wilcannia. Elder Uncle David Clarke spoke, welcoming the ILP group into the community. He spoke about the fact that there are numerous problems in Wilcannia, but that looking at the kids in front of him he could see hope for their community’s future.
Governor Marie Bashir spoke to the kids, saying that it was wonderful to see them all here, and that the Book Buzz books would give them things to think about, adventures, and that they would learn things about people in other countries. She said that the richest and most precious things are our children, and that the more we do for them and invest in them the greater Australia will be. She hoped they would read the books in the Book Buzz Bags to their siblings, parents and even their dog if they had one. Three children who’d workshopped with Andy the day before, made a special presentation to the Governor, bravely doing a public reading of the books they’d made (about pig hunting, motorcycling and a driving trip), and then giving copies to the Governor, who told them she’d treasure them and keep them forever. The Governor presented the bags to the representatives of the schools and Drop in Centre.
Deb had enlisted the help of the women’s centre , who helped to make and serve lunch for the people who attended the launch.
After the kids had blown off some excitement in the playground, they opened their Book Buzz bags, to have a read of the books inside. We all sat down with the kids and helped them read, and it was wonderful to see them really engage with each book. Before we left, the kids from St Therese’s sang us songs they’d been learning in class, to thank us and say goodbye. One included Paarkantji words for colours (the classes are broken up into teams named after colours), another about being proud river people, and Marie Bashir’s favourite which had the lyrics: .
“Walk tall, and hold your head up high, .
That’s what my papa told me when I was about knee high.”
It was a wonderful end to a great day. Andy Griffiths was high-fived out of the room, and many of the kids who had lost their shyness of the day before gave us hugs as we left. It was incredible to see the potential in these young kids, and the opportunities lost by the disengagement of the older ones. As Uncle David said, he could see a bright future for these kids, and the ILP hopes that our contribution of Book Buzz packs will help with the first steps along this path.