CBCA 2017 Younger Readers, Part 2: Mrs Whitlam & Within These Walls

Mrs Whitlam by Bruce Pascoe  Magabala Books

Bunurong man from Victoria, Bruce Pascoe also wrote Fog a Dox, which won a YA Prime Minister’s Literary Award and Seahorse. Like Seahorse, Mrs Whitlam centres around an Aboriginal family, without emphasising Aboriginal issues. Pascoe here portrays well-functioning, happy, ‘normal’ families. He also won 2016 Book of the Year for the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards for his adult book, Dark Emu. I’ve interviewed the author for Boomerang Blog here.

In Mrs Whitlam, Marnie is surprised to inherit a Clydesdale horse called Mrs Maggie Whitlam after its young owner dies. The horse is named after the wife of the former Prime Minister who, as Marnie’s mother states, ‘Did a fair bit for black people too!’ The tale explores suffering at an appropriate level for young readers, introduces us to a very appealing girl who is brave but sometimes made to feel inferior, and culminates in an exciting rescue.

After finishing the short novel, children could re-read descriptions of the horse, research Clydesdales and then make an ‘assemblage’ (a 3D collage originating from Picasso’s cubist constructions). They could make the rough sculpture by using ‘found objects’ such as wire, cardboard and wool or twine.

Within These Walls by Robyn Bavati  Scholastic Australia 

Extreme suffering is evident in this well-written holocaust tale set in Warsaw, Poland during WW2. It is mainly placed in history just before Morris Gleitzman’s novel, Soon, another graphic account of violence against children and adults.

Within These Walls is not just another holocaust story. It is particularly interesting and engaging and reveals a depth of knowledge and research based on true events, especially in the sealed ghetto. The details such as Miri’s mother wearing a wig and baking challah create verisimilitude. The family reads the Biblical book of Esther and the Passover account of the Jews’ Exodus from Egypt, replacing slavery with freedom. Both books are pertinent to the story told here. Family is critical to Miri but, tragically, she loses her parents and siblings one by one.

We experience Miri’s life in the city, the open and closed ghetto and in a dark cellar. The novel begins with her time in the cellar and it is used to foreshadow some of Miri’s darkest times.

Even though Within These Walls is shortlisted for younger readers, parents and schools may wish to examine the contents before giving to all children.

The author also wrote Dancing in the Dark, which has a Jewish focus as well.

Mrs Whitlam

Dark emuAustralian Indigenous authors are writing significant works of fiction, telling their own stories in their own voices. Writers for adults include Kim Scott, Alexis Wright, Melissa Lukashenko, Ali Cobby Eckermann, Larissa Behrendt and Tara June Winch.

There are also prominent and emerging Indigenous authors writing for children and young adults, including inaugural Australian Children’s Laureate, Boori Monty Pryor; Bronwyn Bancroft, whose work will be celebrated at the IBBY conference in Auckland in August; Dub Leffler with Once There was a Boy; Brenton McKenna; Sue McPherson; Elaine Russell; Anita Heiss; Jared Thomas; Ambelin Kwaymullina; Ambelin’s mother, Sally Morgan; and Bruce Pascoe.

Sally Morgan is currently shortlisted for the CBCA awards with her verse novel about stolen children, Sister Heart, and Bruce Pascoe’s Dark Emu was joint winner with Ellen van Neerven of the 2016 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards inaugural Indigenous Writers’ Prize. Pascoe’s book also won overall Book of the Year. These names and others unite to form a potent “who’s who” of contemporary Australian writers.

FogBruce Pascoe’s novel for middle school (upper primary and junior secondary) Fog a Dox won the 2013 Prime Minister’s Literary Award in the young adult category.

I reviewed his next novel for younger readers, Seahorse for the Sydney Morning Herald.

His recent novel for children Mrs Whitlam is another incisive, unsentimental tale. Marnie Clark is given a horse named Mrs Whitlam. The horse’s former owner, Vicki, has died and her mother can’t bear to have the horse around as a reminder of her loss. Marnie would prefer another name but she knew her mum would say, ‘You should be proud to have a horse named after that lady – she was a wonderful woman, her old man wasn’t a bad bloke, either, even if he was Prime Minister. Did a fair bit for black people too!’

Marnie is bullied and harassed at times but the cause may not necessarily be because she is Aboriginal. Indie a girl from pony club, for example, feels she has to be better than anyone, and Marnie may be a threat because of her skilled riding.

mrs_whitlam_high_res_Marnie has a blissful experience riding Mrs Whitlam (Maggie) to the river and sea. Owning a horse gives freedom. But her beach escapade becomes terrifying when she and Maggie save a drowning baby. A family BBQ with popular George follows, but the book’s conclusion is strangely abrupt.

This is a clear-sighted story for readers in primary school and I particularly appreciate how Bruce Pascoe depicts Aboriginal children and families as being like everyone else. Like Tony Birch’s recent work, Pascoe allows the characters’ Aboriginality to remain in the background without ignoring it. They are strong characters in their own right.

The excellent Magabala Press has published all of Bruce’s books mentioned and I have previously interviewed Bruce for Boomerang Books Blog.Seahorse