Welcome to Australia, the first stop on our world tour! With side trips to New Zealand and Micronesia for good measure.
There are gobs of cute stories out there featuring koalas, wombats and the like which often appear in “Learn about Australia” lists. They are darling stories! Just now what I’m looking for by way of introducing the continent. I was surprised as I searched what sparse pickings we have for excellent children’s literature that reveals this area of the world and its diverse cultures. Especially absent was contemporary life or books beyond folktales and mythologies.
Searching for New Zealand titles turns up almost zilch. Ditto for the many, many islands and peoples of Oceania. With the recent Moana-mania, that is about the only thing that pops up when searching Polynesia. So — as a tour guide, this is disappointing!
I would welcome suggestions from those of you who live in these parts of the world. What books do you think introduce your home or your people best? Let us know in the comments. What I did find, I loved.
So, off we go…
To get a tour of the Australian continent, I recommend Alison Lester’s awesome road trip travelogue:
Are We There Yet?
written and illustrated by Alison Lester
published in 2004 by Viking
From Bungle Bungles to Thorny Devils, on surfboard and horseback, 8-year-old Grace and her family experience it all on this glorious circle tour encompassing all of Australia. This has been a favorite of mine for many years. I’ve reviewed it previously, so just click on the title to read lots more about it.
Take a dive into the fragile, exquisite beauty of the Great Barrier Reef with…
This is the Reef, written by Miriam Moss, illustrated by Adrienne Kennaway
published in 2007 by Frances Lincoln Children’s Books
There are lots of factual, school-report types of books on the Great Barrier Reef. I love this little book as its lyrical language and brilliant colors work together to weave a proper sense of wonder over this gorgeous ecosystem. Ages 3 and up.
For middle-grade readers who snarf up facts served up with a side of humor, Lonely Planet has you covered:
Not for Parents Australia: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know
published by Lonely Planet in 2012
And by the way, these are definitely for parents, too 🙂 They read a bit like the old Usborne books. Gobs of photos accompanied by snappy blurbs on everything from Aussie food to history to those nasty poisonous snakes that seem to have a penchant for the Land Down Under. Ages 9 and up.
To catch a glimpse of Australia’s history and diversity, check out:
My Place, written by Nadia Wheatley, illustrated by Donna Rawlins
published originally in Australia in 1988; American edition 1992 by Kane/Miller Book Publishers
I’ve loved this book for many years. It’s a brilliant way to learn a bit of Australian history and culture, and have our imaginations sparked as well.
Beginning in 1988, children from 21 receding decades of time describe their home and life on the same plot of Australian soil. Watch the world change, notice different immigrant groups arrive in Australia, witness world events through the eyes of all the children who have called this spot, “my place.” It’s a fascinating book, wonderfully illustrated to give us visual cues to these eras, with a short glossary of Aussie lingo to help with some of the entries.
Read this bit by bit with children as young as 6 and think together about who might have come before you on “your place.” Or imagine what’s been happening over the last 30 years at this Aussie address. Who lives there now?
I searched for books available to U.S. readers that shed a bit of light on Aboriginal culture. I found quite a few titles I wished I could get ahold of! But from what I could access through libraries, the best I found are:
Ernie Dances to the Didgeridoo, written and illustrated by Alison Lester
published in Australia in 2000; first American edition 2001 by Walter Lorraine Books
Arnhem Land in northern Australia is home to the Aboriginal people as it has been for eons of time. There, in the community of Gunbalanya, Alison Lester’s fictional boy,Ernie, settles in to live for one year. What do his new friends do there during all the various seasons of the year — monsoon and harvest, cool time and dry season?
Discover this fascinating ancient land and culture, learn a few words in the Kunwinjku language, and pour over Lester’s vibrant illustrations. Lester partnered with schoolchildren from Gunbalanya to create this book. Ages 3 and up.
Big Rain Coming, written by Katrina Germein, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft
published in 1999 by Clarion Books
Author Katrina Germein taught for some time in an Aboriginal community in the Northern Territory and artist Bronwyn Bancroft is a descendant of the Aboriginal Bunjalung people. Together they have crafted a story that exudes a strong sense of this culture.
The intense heat of the Outback has everyone longing for rain. On Sunday afternoon, Old Stephen declares that a big rain is coming. All week long folks wait for it, hope for it, try to keep cool, until finally, on Saturday, those rain clouds burst open!
The iconic dots, swirls, and brilliant hues of Aboriginal art are masterfully incorporated into the illustration work here. Every book I’ve seen with Bancroft’s art is equally stunning so just snap up all you see in your library! Share this one with ages 2 and up.
If you want to delve a bit more into Aboriginal Australian creation stories and folktales, I discovered two books which are written and illustrated by members of aboriginal peoples. Their authenticity plus the memoir sections in each of them make them my top choices:
Dreamtime: Aboriginal Stories, by Oodgeroo Nunukul, illustrated by Bronwyn Bancroft
first U.S. edition 1994 by Lothrop Lee and Shepard
Half of this book relates stories from the author’s childhood. She was born in 1920 and grew up on Stradbroke Island off the coast of Queensland. The other half contains traditional Aboriginal stories. It would make a good read for older children, ages 10 and up.
Jirrbal: Rainforest Dreamtime Stories, by Maisie Yarrcali Barlow, illustrated by Michael Boiyool Anning
published in 2002 by Magabala Books Aboriginal Corporation
Maisie is an elder of the Jirrbal people. This book includes a chapter telling about growing up in the rainforests of far north Queensland. For ages 7 and up.
To walk through a day in contemporary, urban Australia, and score a bonus trip to Morocco besides, try:
Mirror, written and illustrated by Jeannie Baker
published in 2010 by Candlewick Press
This wins a prize for one of the most unusual books I’ve seen. Open the cover and you’re faced with two sets of pages, one attached to the front cover, one attached to the back.
This allows you to open up parallel stories of two boys, two families, two cultures — a city in Australia and a town in Morocco.
Turn each set of pages simultaneously and see the stories mirror one another as we walk through a day in each of these boys’ lives, noting the striking similarities and intriguing differences. Phenomenal! Ages 4 and up.
Not quite contemporary, but great fun…
Audrey of the Outback and Sun on the Stubble
Both of these delightful reads take place in 1930s Australia; one follows an adventurous girl, the other an adventurous boy. Take your pick! I reviewed Audrey some time ago so click here to read more about her.
Honestly, the contemporary multicultural flavor of Australia comes through nicely in Bob Graham’s books. Especially relevant here would be:
Greetings from Sandy Beach, which I reviewed here.
There are several excellent titles about Australian wildlife — by far the easiest Australian subject matter for us Americans to find in our libraries! — plus a railroad-riding Aussie dog listed in my Subject Index under Cultures: Australia/Oceania/New Zealand so search there to expand your reading.
Like a side of classic Australian children’s literature to add to your travels? These books aren’t about Australia. They are classic books that Australian children have read over the years.
Seven Little Australians, by Ethel Turner
This is an old Aussie classic originally published in 1894 and full of moxie but beware — it’s got some serious sadness to it. We read it aloud when my kids were young and despite the tragedy involved, they quite loved it. Not for the very young, at any rate.
The Magic Pudding, by Norman Lindsay
Originally published in 1918. Super quirky and humorous; be sure to get a volume with the original illustrations in it. A ridiculous, fun read-aloud for ages 6 and up.
The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, by May Gibbs
A fantasy with fairy-tale-esque notes of darkness, loved since its arrival in 1918. Bit of trivia: This was the book presented to wee Prince George when, at age 8 months, he visited Australia with William and Kate. So, there’s that.
The Complete Adventures of Blinky Bill, by Dorothy Wall
Old-fashioned charm originating in the 1930s following the adventures of a mischievous koala. Ages 5 and up.
Now New Zealand — why do we not have more books available to us about this gem of the South Seas? I found a couple of titles to recommend to you, but I have not actually laid my hands on either of them.
A Kiwi Year: Twelve Months in the Life of New Zealand’s Kids, written by Tania McCartney, illustrated by Tina Snerling
published in 2017 by EK books
Five children representing the cultural diversity of New Zealand walk through the year telling us about their favorite activities, excursions, snacks, and so on. The book is more of a catalogue with tidbits of Kiwi-life strewn about the pages, charmingly illustrated. You’ll read a lot of Kiwi-lingo but be left without much in-depth explanation of anything. Still, it’s about the best thing I could find that pulls us into everyday life in New Zealand.
Land of the Long White Cloud: Maori Myths, Tales, and Legends, written by Kiri Te Kanawa, illustrated by Michael Foreman
published in 1990 by Arcade Publishers
I am not planning to dig out folktale collections from the regions of the world. There are Oh So Many. But if your kids have watched Moana, perhaps you owe it to them to read some authentic versions of Maori stories. These are retold by Dame Tiri Ke Kanawa who has Maori ancestry. There are 19 stories. My guess is ages 7 or 8 and up.
Previously I’ve reviewed a book about a seal that wanders too far up river in Christchurch. It’s a tiny glimpse of New Zealand.
Elizabeth, Queen of the Seas — you can read my review of it here.
Finally, I love this story offering a vibrant excursion to Micronesia!
The Biggest Soap, written by Carole Lexa Schaefer, illustrated by Stacey Dressen-McQueen
published in 2004 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Sizzling tropical color welcomes us to the Truk Islands of Micronesia in this thoroughly happy story about a little fellow named Kessy and his busy day. It’s laundry day for Mama and her cousins, a day Kessy loves for the storytelling that bubbles up from the women as they scrub, and the splash of joy awaiting him in the washing pool.
Today, though, Kessy’s got an important errand to run first: Mama needs him to nip off to Minda’s Store and fetch the biggest piece of laundry soap she’s got. Kessy hurries off, not wanting to miss a single story, but his own adventures add up to the grandest tale of all! Warmth and joy soak every page in both text and illustration in this happy tale for ages 2 and up.
Please let us know of other great titles for these areas, especially you Aussies and Kiwis who are tuning in. Our next leg of the tour brings us a bit north, to East Asia.
And here are links to the previous tour entries: