Kids Corner: Australia

Raisin and I enjoyed learning about Australia for our school time this month. Since he was born there, I have a special place in my heart for the country, even though we really only saw a smidgen of the country: a few scenic places within five hours of where we lived in Melbourne.

We began our study of Australia by coloring a map with the geographic features (mountains and land with vegetation as opposed to the desert). Then I copied Small World at Home’s idea and we made a giant cookie in the shape of Australia. We added frosting and green sprinkles for the coastal/forested lands, chocolate chips for the mountains, and gel for the major cities. Then we cut it up into the various states and ate it! Raisin loved this project. He was excited to tell his friend, “Guess what? We ate Queensland this afternoon!” He thought it was so funny. Given his age, I’m not surprised that he’s forgotten the names of the states and cities. But weeks after the fact, he still can find the city he was born in (Melbourne) and he remembers about Uluru, which we talked about briefly.

One picture book we enjoyed helped us appreciate the size of the country and the various scenery. Are we There Yet? by Alison Lester was a child’s perspective of a month-long road trip around Australia. Raisin enjoyed learning about the various landmarks and began to understand the vast scope of the country since the road trip lasted so long for their family. He liked following their progress on the map. It was also fun to show him our family picture in the Victorian mountains (he was two months old) and a picture of him with me by The Twelve Apostles when he was about six months old. (We compared our picture  to the illustration of the family by the Twelve Apostles that was in the book!).

We also spent about a week learning about the Great Barrier Reef. We watched a National Geographic video about it (it was geared towards adults, so I sat with him and we talked through the entire movie, and even then he barely made it through it.). We watched Finding Nemo, of course, and make a food chain chart using images from that movie to talk about which animals were predators to whom. We made another board game, The Finding Nemo Game, which rehashed some of the facts about reef creatures, but we didn’t play it nearly as much as we played our Earth Game so Raisin has forgotten a lot of what we discussed. In general, though, he remembers the Great Barrier Reef is a cool thing off the coast of Australia, and he knows what a “predator” is, so I consider that success for us!


Raisin did not show immense interest in learning much about Australia: neither the people (I loved the Dreamtime stories, but I could not get him interested), the history, nor the landmarks interested him. Our unit study ended up being mostly about the animals of Australia, which was fun too. Koala Lou by Mem Fox told of a koala who wanted to impress her mother, so she entered a gumtree climbing contest. I loved the illustrations, which featured all the various animals of the Australian outback. Wombat Stew by Marcia Vaughan was a silly tale of various animals getting the dingo to add icky things to his soup in order to trick him in to not eating the wombat. Although Raisin insisted he didn’t like this story, I caught him singing the Wombat Stew song after we read this book!  Snap! by Marcia Vaughan told the story of some young Australian animals playing nearby the crocodile. They use their wisdom to avoid being eaten. And finally, the ridiculous My Grandma Lived in Gooligulch by Graeme Base is about a woman who adopts the animals of the bush. Told in poetry, the book gets more and more amusing as grandma’s pet animals fill the pages.

I also tried to give my son a very basic introduction to Aborigines and culture, but, as I said, it didn’t go over so well. He did like Big Rain Coming by Katrina Germein, which had Aborigine style artwork. I liked the subtle way the book introduced the young reader to the Aboriginal sensitivity to the land. Together, Raisin and I looked at the boomerangs we purchased when we lived in Australia and we talked about how the art of dots and lines created symbols. He didn’t want to try his own hand at art (he’s just not into crafts most of the time). We did read a very silly folktale called Whale’s Canoe which is supposedly based on a Dreamtime tradition. Joanna Troughton‘s retelling was perfect for Raisin’s age (4).

Whew! It was fun to focus on Australia for two months. It’s hard to believe that I was moving there five years ago. It feels like yesterday at the same time that it feels like a lifetime ago.

We also found a few other wonderful picture books in the past few weeks, but I’ll have to save those for another day!

What great picture books have you read about Australia?

Wise Women of the Dreamtime: Aboriginal Tales of the Ancestral Power edited by Joanna Lambert

Wise Women of the Dreamtime: Aboriginal Tales of the Ancestral Power (Inner Traditions International, 1993) is a fascinating collection of tales from Australian Aboriginal woman as dictated to a Western woman in the late 1800s. Editor Joanna Lambert expands upon these tales by providing commentary and discussion after each tale, focusing on the various folkloric traditions around the globe and emphasizing both the uniqueness of the Aboriginal tales and the similarities the Aboriginal folklore has with other cultures. Given the thousands of years in which Aboriginal traditions flourished essentially unaltered, I found it fascinating to read the folklore.

Kate Langloh Parker was fascinated by the Aboriginal traditions as a child, and as an adult, she collected the stories the women told her. Tragically, in her day, such folkloric anthropological research was not appreciated in Australia. In the past century, Aboriginal traditions have been overshadowed by the Western traditions entering into the territory and the 60,000 year old culture is losing it’s solidarity.

Ms Lambert’s volume reintroduces Ms Parker’s anthology of collected stories with sensitivity into a world that may be better equipped to appreciate the culture of the Aborigines. Although I am not an anthropologist, I greatly enjoyed Ms Lambert’s commentary. The stories of Dreamtime are a fascinating look at an ancient culture and religious tradition. I only wished Ms Lambert and Ms Parker had more folklore collected to share with me!

Why Read Moby-Dick? by Nathaniel Philbrick

I’ve been looking forward to rereading Herman Melville’s masterpiece, Moby-Dick, since I first read it about a decade ago. Alas, my book club meets in two weeks and I’m struggling to get time to read the marvelous epic!

Before I picked it up, I decided to read Nathaniel Philbrick’s small tribute to the novel, appropriately titled Why Read Moby-Dick? (published 2011, Viking). I loved reading of Phillbrick’s personal experience with the novel! Part literary criticism, part author biography, and part personal tribute to a favorite novel, Why Read Moby-Dick? certainly reinforced to my mind the many ways that Melville’s epic surpasses expectations and extends beyond its contemporary era into our own.

I enjoyed reading Philbrick’s manifesto as I began reading the novel myself. It was a reminder that the complexities of Moby Dick are best appreciated when encountered slowly.

A few examples of some concepts and quotes I loved from Philbrick:

The first wave of critics to appreciate Melville’s novel, which was not until after World War I, were impressed that Melville “conveyed the specifics of a past world even as he luxuriated in the flagrant and erratic impulses of his own creative process.” (page 7)

After quoting from the chapter on Nantucket (which ends with a tribute to the sperm whale), Philbrick writes:

And so it ends, this little sidebar of miraculous prose, one of many that Melville scatters like speed bumps throughout the book as he purposely slow the pace of his mighty novel to a magisterial crawl. (page 21)

There is an inevitable tendency to grow impatient with the novel, to want to rush and even skip over what may seem like yet another extraneous section and find out what, if anything, is going to happen next to Ahab and the Pequod. Indeed, as the plot is left to languish and entire groups of characters vanish without a trace, you might begin to think that the book is nothing more than a sloppy, self-indulgent jumble. But Melville is conveying the quirky artlessness of life through his ramshackle art. “Careful disorderliness,” Ishmael assures us, “is the true method.”

I’m about 25% finished with Melville’s novel. I’m entering the first of many treatises on cetaceans. While I know I must read a bit faster to finish in time for my book club, I’m still really hoping I can enjoy the methodical crawl Melville so carefully created in his tome — and I certainly am enjoying, once again, the parallels to today that Philbrick so wonderfully illuminated.

While I don’t think Philbrick is going to convince anyone that is decidedly against Moby-Dick, he may encourage the intimated reader to give it a try. And he certainly got me, an interested reader who enjoyed the book a decade ago, very excited to revisit it.

Kindred Souls by Patricia MacLachlan

Because my son is so young, I’m just beginning to re-familiarize myself with middle grade fiction; I haven’t really read much since I was a youngster. I remember really loving the gentle rural setting of Patricia MacLachlan’s Sarah, Plain and Tall when I was a young girl: it was one of my favorite books. When I saw a new book by Ms MacLachlan, I thought I’d give  it a try; the publisher, via LibraryThing Early Reviewers, sent me a copy for review consideration. I’m also delighted to see Ms MacLachlan has an extensive back list of titles to explore.

Patricia MacLachlan’s Kindred Souls (2012, Katherine Tegen Books) is set in a pleasant contemporary rural setting, a setting that I’m not familiar with as a suburban dweller myself. Young Jake treasures his friendship with his aging grandfather, Billy, who longs for the simplicity of his childhood. Jake and Billy visit the rundown sod house in which Billy was born and raised, and Billy challenges Jake to rebuild it. Although Jake does not feel he can do such a hard project, his love for his grandfather prompts him to try.They are “kindred souls,” afterall.

Kindred Souls is a story of inter-generational love, an inspirational story of a child who succeeds in doing a hard thing,  and a gentle reminder to enjoy life now, for life is fleeting. Parents should be away that the easy-to-read middle-grade novel addresses a tough issue, the obviously approaching death of the boy’s elderly grandfather. Not every child will be ready to consider mortality, but for those that are, Ms MacLachlan treats it with tenderness. I doubt children will be disturbed by any implications. The novel is a sweet reflection on a grandparent/child relationship, and the rural farm setting provides a unique perspective on life for a young reader.

I enjoyed Kindred Souls and I look forward to reading more middle-grade fiction as my son gets older.