Heroes that Aren’t!

I realised early on in my life that the men I was supposed to look up to were not deserving of my admiration. To be fair, kids don’t always get the ‘full’ or ‘back’ story to a scene they witness, so may not have a rounded perspective on a situation. However, unlike adults, many kids respond instinctively to experiences; they haven’t learnt to intellectualise. For example if a child sees a man hit a woman, then the child’s fight or flight response is triggered. Other emotions such as wanting to protect the victim may also be evoked, but may be secondary to the child’s need to survive. They will not think about whether there is a valid reason for that act to take place (there isn’t) or that the aggressor is deserving of empathy. (Knowing someone’s story does not excuse their behaviour, but may be useful in preventing further violence). They are afraid of the aggressor and act accordingly. If the child is a victim of an adult’s abuse or aggression, they are not going to analyse the actions of the aggressor except in relation to themselves as being somehow responsible for what happened (they aren’t).

The results of childhood abuse are many and if perpetrated by a trusted adult then that violation of trust incurs an understandable suspicion of other people who may fall into the category of a potential abuser as identified by the victim. Whether or not they are abusers is not the issue; if trusted, respectable, powerful men abuse, then any man can.

With the second wave of Feminism in the 1960’s to 1990’s and the establishment of Rape Crisis Centres, Women’s Refuges and Women’s Health Centres, women broke the silence surrounding abuse and began speaking out about their abusers. Feminist lawyers and advocates lobbied for Australian law reform, reflecting the wider community’s call for more just and equitable treatment of women under the law.

The long held belief that women and children lie has been challenged and proved wrong. This notion was enshrined in Australian law as sexual assault complainants (mainly women) and children were not considered reliable witnesses by themselves and needed corroboration. Corroboration warnings by judges about the potential unreliability of categories of witnesses are now recognised as discriminatory and based on prejudice rather than empirical evidence.

While the fight for justice for all women in both the criminal and family law courts is by no means over, the process of exacting justice has meant that many myths about sexual abuse and violence have been shattered. The truth that resonates strongest in me is Rape is about Power not Sex.

Once that is understood then we are no longer surprised by celebrities, statesmen and leaders being abusers. Their use of sex as a means to threaten, humiliate and punish a woman or child is effective in reinforcing their power. The fact that they may derive sexual pleasure from their abuse is an added incentive for them.

 The exposure of more abusers has come to pass not because there are more of them, but because the victims are testifying to that abuse. More women are feeling empowered to speak out. In our own families and communities we may offer our support personally to the victims of abuse, and in the world-wide community we may send messages of support, but how do we respond to the perpetrator, if he is a celebrity?

Do we separate the abuser from his work? It was easy for me to deal with Gary Glitter. Yes I loved his songs as a teenager, but I don’t listen to them now. Rolf Harris was harder. I had grown up with his songs, his personality on TV shows and I often performed his songs. I will never sing Six White Boomers at a library christmas party again!

I am sure there are many artists who, if I knew what they did in their personal life, I would turn my back on. As a musician I am clear on not performing material that is created by abusers. (I may do so unknowingly but upon discovery I literally turn my back on them as a protest at their acts.) But what about the ‘good guys’ who turn out to be ‘bad guys?’

I had a recent experience with liking the work of an ‘environmentalist.’ His social media presence was a positive one…many photos of him doing good work. Until I discovered his role in one of the grossest acts of racism perpetrated on the Aboriginal people of Australia. He told lies about the perpetration of sexual abuse of children by community members and numerous other malicious tales of abuse that served the political agenda of a government who enacted the Northern Territory Intervention over a decade ago. The community he slandered is still suffering from the damage caused by this man and nowhere have I seen him take responsibility for his actions.

Is his present work an attempt to redeem himself for the suffering he caused to so many Aboriginal people?  Unfortunately not, because for all the animals he purports to be saving, he has used his privileged position to deny that deforestation is a key factor in the destruction of habitat and subsequent endangerment of wildlife. He continues to serve a lobby group with an agenda at odds with conservation, protection and justice, in much the same way he did a decade previously to impel the Northern Territory Intervention.

So I have ‘unliked’ his facebook page! The equivalent of turning my back on him. Given that I have written primarily about sexual abusers in this post, it may seem odd that I have included him. I have no evidence that he is at all, and I do not make that claim, however for my purposes he fits into the realm of men who abuse their power and inflict  misery on their victims, and profit from it.

In researching him, I was reminded of the following folktale about mischief-making.


More information on the Northern Territory Intervention and Habitat Destruction.





I’m Telling!


Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

George Orwell 1984

I read on social media that my Uncle had just died. Another ‘good bloke’ gone to meet his maker.  What tales would they tell about him at his wake? Not the beatings and the rapes, not the abandonment of a young mother and child in a country he occupied. He is like all the other ‘good blokes’ in my extended family; the pedophile with a plaque dedicating a park and playground to him for his ‘good works,’ the murderer who killed his wife and three children before shooting himself, the football hero who imprisoned and beat his wife for two days, the arsonist who burnt down a house out of spite, all ‘good blokes,’ or so the stories that are told about them claim.

I imagine the mourners at my Uncle’s wake will regale each other with tales of mateship and bravado. We do not speak ill of the dead, so no one will challenge his ‘good bloke’ status by speaking of the horrors endured by his victims. Even if some are present, they will not tell their story for fear of ridicule, disbelief or accusations of madness. The stories of the victims continue to be buried with the perpetrators, unless we make a safe space for their telling.

My mother was who women in my family told their stories too. Over the years she told me many of those stories. But even she didn’t know them all; some stories never find a listener.

As a child she would say to her visiting woman friends, ‘little pigs have big ears,’ and my sisters and I would be sent outside to play, so we couldn’t overhear the Womantalk; the secret, sad and shocking stories of their lives.

As teenagers many of us were the subject of Womantalk, but telling our own stories was rarely an option. Victims were shamed into silence, suppressed by the threat of violence or sent away. In the 1970’s the time for advocacy was well overdue. The second wave of feminism had risen in the form of the Women’s Liberation Movement, and feminists were not only telling their stories publicly, they were acting on them, demanding law reform, the provision of Women’s health and information services and equal rights. Their stories had been kept secret long enough. Breaking the silence around issues of violence against women was a political act, a catalyst for achieving justice for women.

I became privy to many women’s stories while working in Australia’s newly created Rape Crisis Centres and Women’s Refuges in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was here I learnt that every woman who came through the door had a story to tell, and often it was similar to the stories of the women who worked in the centres. I read Germaine Greer and Anne Summers seminal books, The Female Eunuch and Damned Whores and God’s Police, to gain a framework in understanding the oppression of Women as a class. With my feminist sisters I sang American song writer, Holly Near’s song Fight Back, at demonstrations:

‘Women all around the world,

every colour religion or age,

one thing we got in common,

we can all be battered and raped,

We can all be battered and raped.

And so we gotta fight back,

In large numbers,

Fight back,

I can’t make it alone,

Fight back,

In large numbers,

Together we can make a safe home.

Together we can make a safe home.’

My belief in the power of women as a force for political change emboldened me to tell my own story and advocate for the right of others to tell theirs. However it would be many years before I understood how best to advocate for myself.

While the foundation of my belief system is grounded in Feminism, I discovered that the oral telling of traditional folktales was a creative and exciting medium for expressing those beliefs. It did not take me long to find tales of wily women and clever girls. Sheroes. These were the stories I needed to hear, and thereby reasoned that others did too. Storyteller, Gill Di Stefano became my friend and mentor, and together we worked on stories of empowerment.

For the past thirty years I have told folktales, not the personal stories of women from my work in Women’s Services. Aside from the ethics of sharing another’s story in a context they are not aware of, I choose to tell folktales because they are the stories of the people, all people. They are our global inheritance. The joy of working with traditional stories is that there is a story for every purpose. They are a mirror reflecting our humanity, or lack of it. My task is to find the right story to tell at the right time to the right audience!

I am often asked why I became a storyteller, and for many years I gave explanations about the application of oral storytelling in the promotion of cultural diversity, literacy, oral traditions, education and communication. All valid reasons that I still subscribe too. However, one day I answered without thinking; because I want to be heard.

The most important validation any storyteller can receive is to be listened to. A story does not live without a listener. For centuries folktales have travelled from from tongue to ear and in recent times been written down, only to leap off the page and continue their journey with a new generation of tellers. Some stories have died with the tellers, and others have been resurrected and given new meaning.

Storytellers, Bettina Nissen and Harriet Mason said respectively, ‘ All stories are personal,’ and ‘If you want to be heard you will be.’ I have taken these words to heart, allowing them to guide me on my storytelling path. This is why I tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood.

This ‘protection’ story is a metaphorical tool for understanding power within society. It is also a story of empowerment with active agency by the girl. Unlike the reality for many victims of violence, a folktale has clear delineation of good and evil, goodness prevails and justice is dispensed. Little Red Riding Hood is not blamed for the wolf’s attack and the wolf is not free to attack again. End of story.

Given that so many women have loosed their stories upon the world, how is it that there is not an end to violence, in all its forms? Have they not been listened to? Have their stories been twisted into fantasies, buried or ignored?

While I have breath in my body, fire in my belly and a song in my heart, I am beholden to tell the stories of ‘the poor mother,’ ‘the hungry girl,’ ‘the foolish boy,’ ‘the abandoned baby,’ so that they may rise to the surface of our consciousness and be a torch to light our humanity and promote civil and compassionate societies.

Photo by Roman W. Schatz

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Beyond Storytime

There is no substitute for live storytelling! Please give your children that experience. If you don’t tell stories yourself, or people in your family don’t, then take them to listen to professional storytellers! Where can you do that?  Depends on where you are in the world. Libraries, Schools and Festivals are a good start. The Beyond the Border Storytelling Festival in Wales is one of the World’s best storytelling festivals with a large contingent of Welsh storytellers and guest storytellers from every continent.

The festival will be celebrating its 25th anniversary July 7th – 9th in 2018, so treat yourself to over 100 performances of musicians and from storytellers from different cultures.  However, if you can’t make it to a live event then don’t despair, they have created an online storytelling site where your children can listen to stories in the comfort of their own homes for a yearly subscription of £11.95. You can subscribe for yourself or if you want to, give a subscription as a gift. Throughout the year, more storytellers will be adding their tales to the site, so your purchase will be an ever expanding one… neverending stories!

When I listened to the stories on Beyond Storytime I was transported back in time to  putting my youngest child to bed. After the requisite story I read to her most nights, she would listen to stories on CD’s. She had definite favourites that she played over and over again. They brought her comfort and helped her settle at night. I trusted those stories in the same way I trust the stories on Beyond Storytime.

Most of them are traditional tales or adaptations thereof, and the voices of the tellers are authentic and lyrical. Complete with talking animals, fairies and dragons, plus a generous helping of Welsh folklore, the collection is unique and diverse.

If you are looking for the perfect gift that expresses love and keeps our oral traditions alive, then subscribe today.

Beyond Storytime

Photo by Roman W. Schatz




Making a Difference… or Not

There comes  a time, and it comes with increasing frequency, to reflect on the purpose of my work. According to Will Durant’s definition, We are what we repeatedly do. (Will Durant 1885-1981) I’m  a storyteller, a writer and a musician and if called for, I can elaborate on the genre, medium and style of my practice. However, the diversity and context  of my work has changed over the years and I find myself opting for a more general and inclusive term to describe my work – artist.

I am an artist. I am no more special than any other human being, and my work is no more important than anyone else’s, or less for that matter. Obviously if your house is burning down you want to have a firefighter on hand, not a storyteller, and if you have a brain tumour you want a neurosurgeon not a ukulele player.

Generally speaking, artists don’t ‘save’ lives, so we don’t fall into the ‘heroic’ category of workers. However many of us in the arts education and health and well-being field believe our work can improve the lives of others, and this is at the heart of what we do. We want to make a difference.

One of the first things many artists are told when working with marginalised people or undertaking community development or health education projects that address ‘big’ issues in communities or sections of them, is ‘don’t think you can make a difference,’ or words to that effect. We are reminded that we are ‘not the first to try and make changes here,’ and that we ‘shouldn’t expect too much.’ Health workers and educators may also be greeted with similar sentiments. Rest assured I have spent many hours reflecting on the impact of my work and whether I and other community artists make a difference.

Evaluating the work of artists in communities is problematic because evidence-based programmes and projects often expect the artist to also be the researcher. The fashion of having everyone do everything does not lead to excellence. It’s not the democratisation of skills (unless people want to learn them).  That, a reliance on quantitative rather than qualitative methodology, (numbers versus stories)  and a lack of sustainable funding has meant that many arts programmes are not ongoing or connected to each other.

So why do I continue to be an artist and not a (substitute what you like)? I have listed a few examples of why I believe my work makes a difference. It may not make a difference to a lot of people but to make a difference in one person’s life is enough for me.

The two year Storytelling for Literacy and Connectedness Programme had many outcomes, from picking up on children’s hearing problems to strengthening their relationships with their carers. However one outcome stood out for me.  A young mother told me she read a book. Seeing the joy her children experienced from being read to and told stories in the storytimes, we brought to the young mothers group, inspired her to want that for herself. She hadn’t read a book since being at school, and then she only read the prescribed texts because she had to. Now she chose to read a book for her own pleasure. Modelling storytelling and story reading is empowering and now she was modelling to her children.

Over my three decades of storytelling I have twice considered the impact of storytelling on people who found it difficult to communicate their responses. In the first instance I would visit a group of people with Alzheimer’s disease and conduct reminiscence sessions, telling stories set in Australia during the 1930’s and 40’s. A worker told me not to worry because half my group went to sleep. She reassured me that  the stories relaxed them and made them content. One woman was often in an anxious state and picking at her clothes, when the sessions began but by the end was showing much calmer behaviour. Another of the ‘awake’ participants told the worker that at the end of a session she felt very happy. She didn’t know why she was happy, she just was. I learnt from this, the power of being in the moment and that the emotions experienced listening to stories are more important than the stories themselves.

At the Support Unit at my local primary school I spent a number of years playing music and storytelling with children who had disabilities, some with severe and life threatening illnesses. While some children were active participants, others, because of their illnesses could listen but it was difficult for me to gauge their responses. Working closely with the teachers and aides helped me to interpret individual responses and interact accordingly.  A child who I mistakenly thought was happy because she was was smiling was in fact, fitting. As I got to know the children over the years and in consultation with the aids, I became familiar enough with their verbalisations and movements to be able to understand when they were engaged in the storytelling. They taught me about being in the present, spontaneity and communication, and I will be forever grateful for their teaching.

As an artist I have learnt the following and much more:

I am not an engineer who can build a bridge across treacherous terrain that will shorten the distance and make it safer for children to walk to school, but I can build a bridge of desire for knowledge, where a child can learn from and care for others.

I am not a surgeon who can restore a limb, remove a cancer or heal a broken body, but I can facilitate the telling of a story to demand justice, heal pain and ease sufffering.

I am not a farmer who grows food to nourish family, friends and community, but I can plant seeds into the minds of young people so that they will grow and mature into productive, resilient and beneficial human beings.

Artists Can Make a Difference


Photo by Roman W Schatz

The Story of Philosophy: the Lives and Opinions of the Greater Philosophers by Will Durant,(1924) New York: Simon & Schuster

At the age of 57 she realised all she wanted was a living wage

How do you survive? Not by selling crocheted hats at markets that’s for sure! I admire any artisan who can make a living as a market seller, but most I’ve spoken with supplement their income from markets through selling online and they usually have another ‘proper’ job or income support. For the first time in my life I have no income from any source but my music and storytelling. I am too young for the pension and too old to be on the checkout at the reject shop. I am not going to centrelink to be taught how to write a job resume and then spend my precious time applying for inapproriate positions in marketing and sales. So before anyone takes it upon themselves to see me gainfully employed there are a few points to consider. I am a feminist, a socialist, and a humanitarian. I have a strong sense of ethics, will speak out against injustice and advocate for the disempowered. Too late to be a candidate for the United Nations new Secretary General, but even that position is not up my alley because I’m a storyteller and musician. These are the mediums I work in.

How about volunteer work? Often seen as a way into paid work I believe all artists volunteer in their communities, or all the artists I know do, to varying degrees. For the past sixteen years I presented weekly storytime sessions to the kids at my local school, the last ten years working with children with learning difficulties through to children with severe diabilities in the school’s support unit. This was my heart work, because the children in the support unit taught me how to be a better human being, and I am eternally grateful to them for the privilege of sharing songs and stories with them. However having an income also meant that I could commit to voluntary work. As to ways into paid work, there was never any interest expressed by the leadership in the school to have me conduct storyarts programmes or be an artist in residence. I suspect an attitude typical of many schools in Australia.

So maybe you just aren’t good enough? I have worked in some of the world’s elete international schools and given papers and workshops at international teaching and librarian conferences. I travel to urban and rural areas in Australia to provide professional development training in oral literature and storytelling to early childhood educators. I still do and tomorrow I may receive a reply from one of the hundreds of organisations I email each month saying ‘we want you’ for whatever project/professional development/concert/programme they are organising. Then again, I may not. Much is dependent on funding and getting to the right person. My degree is in performing arts, not librarianship or teaching so those two traditional employers of women are not a haven for me.

So what is the solution? A living wage for every person, regardless of what they do. I hear the haters harking back to that old eighties term of abuse, ‘dole bludger.’  What about the capitalists who make money out of money? No one ever calls them investment bludgers and demand they pay tax! (Actually some of us do but they are more likely to be revered as heroes or larrikins and put on congratulatory rich lists than be made accountable as white collar criminals).

Still, having a living wage is a human right. A more equitable society is not only more just and compassionate , it is more productive. It means that my friends in their 50’s and 60’s who are not working full-time can continue to look after their grandchildren, make art and carry out the tasks associated with their role as community  elders.

Pictured is Artist Joy Serwylo and granddaughter

Shared Reading Experiences

In my first year working in public libraries I was asked by an elderly patron the inevitable. Have you got any Enid Blyton books? Naturally being a young and enthusiastic promoter of quality children’s literature I made alternative suggestions, because ‘nowadays there are so many ‘good’ picture books and chapter books for kids.’ All true, with the exception of the patron being elderly, she was probably only a few years older than I am now, but I was young and thought anyone over 50 was old, let alone 60!!! This grandmother had requested the books for her grandchildren; the same books she’d read as a child. While my thoughts were about expanding reading repertoires, she was attempting to create a shared reading experience.

As a storyteller I have learnt the importance of shared storytelling experiences; it’s not about the story it’s about the listener. This adage also translates to reading books together. It’s not about the literary quality of a story, it’s about the effect of the story on the reader/listener. There are many things that a shared reading or storytelling experience does for the participants: it brings them closer together, it connects them, it forges understanding, it opens hearts as well as eyes and ears.

As a young woman I was a self righteous advocate. I think that a few decades on I have tempered the self righteousness in my advocacy and am more open to the perspectives of others. This leads me to the choices I make for shared reading experiences with the children in my life. I have not scoured libraries for copies of The Magic Faraway Tree, even though Enid Blyton figured large in my childhood. (Aside from Milly Molly Mandy author, Joyce Lankester Brisley and in later years Mary Grant Bruce and her Little Bush Maid series and Elyne Mitchell of Silver Brumby fame) books were not endemic in my household. I have kept most of the books from my childhood, but the majority of children’s book in my personal library are those read with my children, usually discovered in a public library and loved so much they were bought for keeping.

Public Libraries have been the equivalent of a dating site for me; one where I don’t have to pay, I can have as many or as few as I want, where I am safe and in control and where I invariably leave satisfied. Further to this I can join a group and discuss my ‘date!’ The difference between a public library and a dating site is that children too can meet books and find passion, comfort and love in their local library.
With the announcement of the 2016 Notable Children’s Books I hope that many new shared reading experiences can be born.



Pictured are some of my ‘old flames.’

Teaching Young Children about Australian Native Animals Through Story, Song and Poo

Everybody poos! Well animate creatures anyway, and this can be endlessly fascinating for young children and many adults alike. So how does this fact reflect my philosophy of celebrating diversity and promoting literacy and compassion through story and song?

Aside from the poetic licence used in the title of my CD celebrating Australia’s unique wildlife, The Koala Went Cooee,  the content of each song is scientifically correct, with ‘facts’ embedded in their lyrics. Please note that having lived next to a koala habitat for the past 4 years I can readily testify that the sounds they make, (not a Cooee) particularly when mating, are more suited to a punk CD rather than a children’s one!

Poo is referred to in a few of the songs and the CD’s accompanying booklet. It not only serves an educational purpose but challenges ideas of ‘cuteness’ in Australian marsupials. Ringtail possums eat their own poo, but only their soft, daytime poo, koala joeys eat their mother’s poo (pap) and the poo of flying foxes contains the seeds of rainforest plants. Perhaps the most exciting poo fact for me was discovering the shape of wombat poo. As I don’t live in wombat country I was unable to check it out for myself, so I enlisted the support of environmentalist Kelly Coleman for documentation.

As a child I grew up on a sheep farm at the foot of the Snowy Mountains in NSW, so was familiar first hand with various types of bird and animal poo. While I never thought much of this at the time, I realise now how lucky I was to spend so much time outside observing not only farm animals but native animals and birds. What is a normal way of life for many children, i.e. spending time in the bush, is fast disappearing and being replaced by a virtual experience of the natural environment. (TV and internet)

Understanding about extinction, conservation, predation, domestication, native and feral animals is essential knowledge for everyone living in Australia. The traditional owners, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, passed knowledge on to children from the earliest age, to keep them safe and living in harmony with the land. However as more and more people live in urban environments, both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people become disconnected from the natural environment. When this happens, then everyone misses out.

I acknowledge that singing songs about animals is not the same as ‘real life’ experiences of being in natural environments, however, if a song can create a sense of delight and inquiry in a child then it is fulfilling its teaching role; if it inspires educators to actively connect children with their natural environment then I am happy.

Pictured are participants from Armidale Community Preschool who attended a Koala Went Cooee workshop.


The Koala Went Cooee

I teach through story and song. Not only are these effective mediums for passing on information and inspiring an interest in the pursuit of knowledge, they are in and of themselves fun, even joyous experiences. That is reason enough for my vocation as a storyteller and musician. And why I have decided to focus on performing The Koala Went Cooee concerts to preschools, playgroups and storytimes in 2016.

In collaboration with Roman (my companion in arts education, philosophising and food gathering) we will be presenting 30-45 minute music and storytelling concerts featuring songs from our CD of the same name. 

I began writing the songs a decade ago during my artist residency at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre in Port Macquarie, NSW. I was engaged to collect the stories of the people, flora and fauna in this national park. Songs like Goanna about the relationship between the brush turkeys and the lace monitor lizards were the result of studying the reptiles and birds indigenous to that area. However I included songs about other Australian fauna, not native to the region, such as wombats, emus and crocodiles and produced the CD with 24 songs and a downloadable booklet of activities.

The most important component of storytelling and music is listening. This can be undertaken in private or within a group. Every child has their listening preferences. I am a firm believer in the notion that familiarity breeds confidence,  in regard to listening. That’s why children often ask to be read the same story over and over again. They love repetition because their anticipation is successfully rewarded. “I know that!” They will often retell a story they are being read or join in reciting a rhyme if they have heard it enough times. Their expressive language skills are developed as a result of their developing listening confidence.

I love being able to work ‘live’ with children, but also have the resources available for them to deepen and build on their listening experience. I see arguing what is a better children’s literature experience;  reading out loud to them or storytelling, in the same light as comparing the merits of live music listening experiences to  recorded ones. In each case they are complementary and individuals may have personal preferences. I am happy to be able to offer a range of choices through both performances and cds.

Photo taken by Roman Schatz at a concert at Sea Acres Rainforest Centre, Port Macquarie, Australia 


Storytellers With Style

It was Susan Loban, the Assistant Head of Lower School at The International School of Amsterdam, who brought us together to share how we work with story in schools and communities throughout the world. Roman and I were in fine company. From the United States came Stuart Stotts presenting on The Hero`s Journey, Patrick Ryan from Britain who presented on Storytellng and the Brain and Niall de Burca from Ireland, who focussed on finding your own Storytelling Style.

We presented a workshop on storytelling-based arts projects that could be replicated or adapted for the classroom. What each storyteller had in common, aside from a passion for storytelling, was a philsophy, research and experience governing our storytelling practice. Participants in the workshops were able to experience the diverse application of storytelling from building resilience in children through to expanding vocabulary and listening skills and affirming cultural identity.

As well as recommending all of the storytellers for any age group, educators could benefit immensely from in-services. Storytellers travel the world!

In the meantime for early childhood educators, avail yourselves of Stuart Stott’s book Beyond Nice: 149 Ideas to Nurture Kindness in Young Children. This is my discovery for 2015

Pictured are Storytellers at Work and Play


Books Light Up My World

I was thrilled to be invited by Port Macquarie Children’s and Youth Services Librarian, Virginia Cox, to co-host a celebration of Children’s Book Week 2015: Books Light Up Our World. It was a ‘family’ event with participants aged 4 to 90 sharing how books had illuminated their lives. The usual suspects were there including the girl with her head stuck in a book, the girl who was inspired to be a librarian, and then worked for the next sixty years as one, the young man who read a book that sent him off round the world. Precious books were shared: those cherished since childhood, others passed down from one generation to the next. Pippi Longstocking announced her arrival – we need more strong girls! No one was going to argue with that assertion. My contributions to the evening were a folktale and a retelling of one of my father’s stories. I have written his story here in relation to one of my favourite books.

Elyne Mitchell was the author of The Siver Brumby series which she began writing in 1958. She lived about sixty kilometres from us on Towong Hill, near the Murray River. I loved her stories about the Thowra the Silver Brumby, not only because I loved horses but because the stories were set in the country I lived in, the Snowy Mountains. They shone a light on my life.

We had brumbies on our farm because my father and his mates were stockmen, and they spent a lot of time in the high country droving cattle and chasing brumbies. Each year they would bring a mob of wild horses down from the mountains to be buckjumpers for the Tumbarumba rodeo. This story harks back to a time he was camped in one of the huts in the Snowy Mountains in the 1950’s droving cattle.

The Fire

It was his turn to cook up a feed and stoke the fire. Jimmy’d been grateful for the chance to stay inside all day, out of the cold. Even if he was lonely. It started sleeting a few few hours back, and any minute they’d all come trooping through the door cursing the weather and crowding round the fireplace.

It was his second year with Bluey, Jacky, Tom and Old Bill. They’d brought the mob up to the high country at the end of September and been camped in the hut near on a fortnight. He nearly didn’t come, but thought this time it would be different. It wasn’t. The same thing happened every night since they got here and he was fed up. But not tonight.

He put the camp oven on the hearth while he set about building up the fire. Half an hour later he sat in the chair and stared at the flames leaping from the logs. The door opened and the drovers entered.

‘Strewth Jimmy, you’ve got a rip roarer of a fire going,’ said Bluey.

The men took off their coats and hats and drew close to the fireplace. Jimmy put the plates on the table and ladled out the stew on each one.

‘If I wasn’t already married, I think I’d marry you, Jimmy,’ joked Jacky.

All the men laughed then concentrated on clearing their plates, while Jimmy boiled the billy to make the tea.

‘I tell you what,’ said Old Bill,’I got a full belly, and I aint never been so warm. Now I reckon I’ll have a bit of a read and I’ll be a happy man.’

‘I reckon I’ll join ya,’ said Tom, and went over to the camp bed in the corner.

He pulled back the rugs and turned to Jimmy.

‘You seen me book Jim?’ he asked.

‘I can’t find mine either,’ said Old Bill, as he dug around the sugar bag he carried his private things in.

The other two men went to look for their books and turned to the others.

‘Gone,’ they both said in unison.

All four men looked at Jimmy.

‘What have you done with our books Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill.

‘I burned them,’ said Jimmy.

The men stared at the fireplace as the realisation of what had fuelled the fire sunk in.

‘What the blazes did you do that for Jimmy?’ asked Old Bill, shaking his head.

‘I can’t read, so now none of youse can neither,’ Jimmy replied. Youse bastards are gonna have to talk to me instead.’

In 1953, the American author, Ray Bradbury, wrote Farenheit 451 a novel about book burning. Fahrenheit 451 was named to represent the temperature at which paper ignites. It’s a story about a future American society where books are banned and firefighters burn any that are found. At the time it was written the author was concerned about censorship and the suppression of books and the works of particular writers in the United States.

Public book burning has occurred throughout history at many times and in many countries. The reasons encompass vandalism, anti-intellectualism, censorship and bigotry. When undertaken by totalitarian regimes or militias, book burning, often on a large scale, can only be seen as an act of terror, often accompanied by other targeted and systematic violence against particular groups of people.

The motivation of an illiterate individual to burn a book, such as that in my father’s story, is in stark contrast to the ideology of punishment promulgated by political and military enforcers. While books may be seen as ‘the enemy’ in both accounts, the actions of the young man in The Fire are those of a lonely human being whose inability to read creates dependency and despair. The book burning is a desperate act driven by feelings of powerlessness.

I feel sadness for the 776 million people, two thirds of whom are women and girls who are unable to read, because I know the joy books have brought to my life and I want everyone to experience the wonders of the written word. I also feel angry because literacy is a Human Right that they are denied.

Books can illuminate truth, they can shed light on ideas, be a beacon in the darkness and a guiding light for all humanity. For these very reasons, books can also be viewed as powerful and dangerous. Those people who want to keep others in the dark are threatened by universal literacy, free public libraries and the widespread publication and promotion of literature.
Books have always been my friends, chiefly because they are a repository for stories that speak to me. But many stories cannot be held in the confines of a book cover. Since the invention of writing, folktales, told and retold have jumped on and off the page and many have never set foot in a book. Wild stories leaping from tongue to ear, nestling in the hearts and memories of the listeners, painting images on their mind’s canvas. For this reason I am a teller of tales before I employ the craft of writing them. So let me finish with a traditional tale to light up your life.

Filling the Barn
A father once set a competition for his three children. Each child was given a sum of money to buy whatever they could to fill the barn. Whoever filled the barn to the fullest would be the winner. On the appointed evening all the people from the village were invited to witness the results of the competition. As the sun sunk slowly below the horizon, the first child brought in tapestries and carpets and succeeded in covering the barn’s floor and walls. The second child brought in tables and chairs and couches and scattered them over the floor. But where was the third child?

The father invited the villagers into the barn and they settled themselves on cushions and chairs and couches and waited for the third child’s entrance. As darkness descended there were murmurs of discontent among the people. They wanted to see the artistry of the tapestries, the patterns on the carpet, the grain of the wood in the chairs and realised that if the third child didn’t come soon they would all trip over each other on their way out. It was so dark. Finally the door opened and the third child entered the barn carrying two burning torches, and singing a song. The light of the torches illuminated the tapestries and reflected the smiles on the faces of the villagers. They listened with rapture to the song praising the beauty of human invention and endeavour. When she had finished her song, the father clapped his hands together and turned to this children and smiled. First child, you have filled the barn with works of beauty for us to enjoy, second child, you have brought the means for us to comfortably enjoy our lives and third child, you have filled the barn with light, and light is knowledge, and you have filled the barn with song and song is joy. Together, knowledge and joy make wisdom. And when the children’s mother brought in great pots of spicy stew and bread for everyone to eat, not only was the barn full, but so were the hearts and bellies of everyone there.

Photograph by Roman W. Schatz