As one strolls about this wondrous planet, one encounters a variety of individuals who may astound, influence, enrich, or even, deplete you. Not everyone we meet ends up a friend. Life is often an ongoing cycle of trials and consequences. How we survive and interpret the progression of life builds character and shapes us as individuals. Some like Maliyan, the Eagle look, listen, and learn. Others like Wagun, the wombah thigaraa, a silly bird disdain the words of the wise often to their ultimate detriment.
Silly Birds by author illustrator Gregg Dreise, is an indigenous new picture book that focuses on the oft heard yet frequently ignored adage that it is ‘hard to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys’. At once dramatic and charming, this light-hearted yet meaningful narrative fostered from family yarns and a love of sharing (Dreamtime) morals reminds young readers that respect for each other, the environment in which they dwell and above all else, themselves is the true measure of power. Beautifully illustrated by Gregg, Silly Birds evokes the vivid spirit of the Dreamtime, depicting both the soaring majesty of Maliyan and the Elders and the reckless scorn of poor misguided Wagun, the silly turkey, with understated sensitivity.
Gregg Dreise is one of those individuals who fills the room the moment he cracks a smile. Recently, I had the immense pleasure of meeting and learning more about the impassioned creator and educator behind Silly Birds and today share his incredible art and deep respect and admiration for family at the Draft Table.
Who is Gregg Dreise? Describe your writerly / illustrating self. Which role describes you best?
I am proud. I am proud of my family, of where they have come from and where they are heading too. I am proud of my father Rod, a mechanic (I follow in his footprints building old cars all pre 1940s). He taught me that you can do anything that you put your mind too – if you give it a go and practice. I am proud of my mother Lyla, she has always had the gift of storytelling (especially through ballads). I am proud of my relatives; our families have ongoing stories of talented family musicians, artists, dancers, and athletes. I am proud of my brothers, sisters, and brother/sister in-laws. Almost all of us have worked hard to finish university (some even with Masters Degrees and Doctorates). I am proud of my children; they know to listen, learn lots and try their hardest. They are showing great signs of keeping family traditions alive with storytelling and art. They usually help open my book launches with traditional dance. I am proud to be a part of my dad’s family tree originating in Germany. And my mum’s family tree, originating from the Gamilaroi (Grandad / Knox) and Yuwalayaay (Grandma / Simpson) people. I am a proud cancer survivor. I am proud to be a teacher, I love to educate and entertain at the same time. I am an entertainer. Writing, oral storytelling, painting, playing musical instruments…. they all take me (and hopefully my audience) to the days before television and computers. I love to take an opportunity to captivate and teach morals at the same time.
Is Silly Birds your first picture book? How does it make you feel seeing it out on the shelves? What is it that pleases you most about it?
Silly Birds is my first published book. I sent a manuscript off almost ten years prior, it was accepted, and then I got cancer inside my spinal cord. (The diagnosis was 6 months to live, luckily, the recovery was years.) Sadly, that manuscript/contract/and the lady who worked for Scholastic no longer works there. So that book never made it to the shelves. It is so exciting when you see the first ones in shops. I don’t think that excitement has ever wavered. I love the morals. I think my artwork is very unique too.
The inspiration for this story came from your Uncle, Reg Knox. What appealed to you about his story and made you want to celebrate it?
Definitely the morals. When I was younger, I used to listen to and later did a couple of murals and school talks with Uncle Reg. He has always known how to tell a yarn. Sadly, age is catching up to him. Gladly, he has done so much. He is an inspiration. He has artwork in The Vatican, and an award from the Queen. National NAIDOC Elder of the Year, and more. He doesn’t brag about these things, but someone should share this with the world to celebrate. He has an exhibition (Muliyan-Go Reg Knox Retrospective) at the Logan Gallery in November. I hope this helps to bring back great memories that he has lost.
Silly Birds broaches the topics of family relationships, cultural differences, unlikely friendships, and social imbalance. What is the main idea you are trying to share with young readers?
Choose your friends wisely. Friends should be fun, but they shouldn’t change you into someone you never wanted to be. If other friends and family are reaching out trying to help you see what you are missing – look, listen and respect their guidance.
Maliyan endures a rite of passage and a fair bit of internal conflict before he emerges stronger and wiser. He regains the respect of his Elders and the younger, formerly ‘silly birds’ but his friendship with Wagun cannot be saved. Why is it important to show this eventual division of loyalties? Is this a key aspect of Dreamtime stories, to show the differences between right and wrong?
It is definitely an aspect of Dreamtime stories; they don’t ‘all’ live happily ever after. It is an analogy of life; that we don’t always remain friends with all of the people from the past. Sometimes we grow and move on. Wagun only creates the division with his stubbornness. Silliness can develop into maturity, however stubbornness can develop into loneliness.
I love your illustrated traditional line and dot paintings accompanying this story. How do you think this style enhances the integrity of your tale? What sort of symbolism did you infuse?
I really wanted the paintings to have texture to them. Like old paintings. I love it when I see people rub their hands over the cover – like they are going to feel the blobs of paint. (My Miss 9 actually did! Dimity) I knew that the artwork couldn’t be totally traditional. Too much symbolism would confuse my target audience (young children). Therefore, skies and horizons were added, but I kept the earth connected to spirits. Even some smart children have noticed that the Rainbow Spirit in the earth leaves when the billabong is being disrespected.
Had you considered a less traditional style of illustration for this book? Would you ever incorporate other illustrative styles and techniques into subsequent Dreamtime tellings?
The one definite thing I know about these stories is that if I can’t illustrate them, then someone from my tribe should. I wouldn’t publish Dreamtime morality tales with less tradition. I am currently writing a chapter book for upper Primary students, and the illustrations for the edges of the pages are designed like comic books. Keep an eye out for “The Adventures of Captain Wombah” coming out in hopefully the not so distant future. I am also writing an inspirational picture book, about being proud of my culture. I have been working with my niece (an art student) to illustrate that. She does beautiful portraits of young indigenous faces.
We are all surrounded by turkeys from time to time. Are you ever tempted to be one yourself? Do you think Wagun and turkeys like him could ever change, eventually?
Like lots of authors, there are bits of your characters in you. I was once a teenage boy. I was loud, tried to be funny, and looked for an audience. Yes, there are bits of Wagun in me. My next book Kookoo Kookaburra, is all about a story teller that took things too far. I am sure in my attempts to entertain as a teenager, I crossed the line and was very much a turkey. Luckily, I have always tried surround myself with motivated and proud people. As they say “no-one is perfect”. Support, guidance and honesty, can go a long way. I do act wombah (crazy) every time I do a live show!
What’s on the storyboard for Gregg Dreise?
Silly Birds is a part of hopefully a bird trilogy. Silly Birds 2014; Kookoo Kookaburra 2015; Mad Magpie 2016??? The Adventures of Captain Wombah is almost ready to send to the publishers. I have finished two other picture books that I am in the process of sending off, “Dreamtime Dance” and “My Culture, My Spirit & Me. Plus there is a top secret chapter book for adult fiction slowly coming to life. I am about to record the song/animation for Kookoo Kookaburra – Look out for it on Youtube soon. I would love to find the time to record an album of my own soft rock music. A friend and I are looking to form a band (we both lack time), it has been years since I was out and about gigging. Sometimes I wish there were more hours in the day.
Just for fun question. If you were given a chance to go back and reinvent yourself, what would you change and why?
I would change something that a lot of my family doesn’t have. We have talent, but we don’t have self-promotion. Over the years, I have seen talented people who can’t sell or promote themselves – their talent goes sadly unnoticed. I have also met ‘very’ driven people (with less talent) make it. Please support new talent. Go to a young local art exhibition – Don’t wait for a big name tour. Go see an up and coming band for $10 over a famous one for $500+
When you find a great one – tell everyone you know about it. It just might start a career for someone, before they give up on their dreams.
Magabala Books June 2014