Briggs turns author: ‘I wish I’d had a book like this when I was a kid’

When Eva Mills, the head of children’s publishing at Allen & Unwin, heard that Adam Goodes was writing a children’s book, she moved with lightning speed to snap him up and sign a deal.

Her determination to be his publisher was not just because the former Swans star and Australian of the Year is a household name. She knew the series he was working on with journalist Ellie Laing, Welcome to our Country, would tap into the groundswell of popularity in the genre. She’s expecting the book, illustrated by Barkinjii artist David Hardy, to fly off the shelves when it comes out in November.

After decades of being under-represented, First Nations children’s book authors and illustrators are stepping into the limelight and making regular appearances on our bestseller lists.

The cover artwork for Somebody’s Land by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David HardyCredit:Allen & Unwin

Almost every mainstream Australian publisher, as well as specialist publishers such as Broome-based Magabala Books, is producing Indigenous children’s books as never before.

Fuelled by the Black Lives Matter movement and Australian parents and teachers thirsting to explain and embrace Indigenous culture and history, First Nations creatives have seized this opportunity to tell their stories in their own voices, illustrated by their own people.

Goodes says being a new father – his daughter, Adelaide, is two – encouraged him to write Somebody’s Land, the first of a five-part series with Laing. “I love reading to my daughter and I can see how the story is being processed by her. I hope the series gives readers the opportunity to learn something new and have more conversations because of it.”

A spread from Somebody’s Land by Adam Goodes and Ellie Laing, illustrated by David Hardy.Credit:Allen & Unwin

Goodes is just one of many big First Nations names and artists from other fields who have branched into children’s books recently. Others include musician Archie Roach, rapper and comedian Adam Briggs, Archibald finalist Blak Douglas, actress Miranda Tapsell and activist Thomas Mayor.

Last year’s Archibald prize winner, Vincent Namatjira, has also joined the party,with a children’s picture book about his great grandfather, one of Australia’s most beloved landscape painters. Albert Namatjira will be published by Magabala Books in August.

A spread from Albert Namatjira by Vincent Namatjira (Magabala Books).Credit:Magabala Books

This fresh wave of books is illustrated in vastly different ways to the ochre-hued, dot-painted Dreamtime stories many of us grew up with; they’re often in crisp, eye-catching colours and reflect contemporary life. They’re not being published because they are “worthy” or because they show that a publishing house values diversity, but because they’re beautifully written and illustrated books. In many cases, exceptionally so.

Albert Namatjira by Vincent Namatjira (Magabala Books)Credit:Magabala Books

An unprecedented six children’s books by Indigenous authors and illustrators were shortlisted in this year’s Australian Book Industry Awards. Two other shortlisted authors, Maxine Beneba Clarke and Cath Moore, drew on their Afro-Caribbean heritage.

“There are countless Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories that are worthy of publication – 60,000-plus years of stories, in fact,” says Alyson O’Brien, associate publisher at Hardie Grant Children’s publishing. “The big difference now is that mainstream Australia, and trade publishing, are finally beginning to recognise that.”

An extract from Our Home, Our Heartbeat by Adam Briggs, illustrated by Kate Moon and Rachael Sarra.Credit:Hardie Grant Books

O’Brien was thrilled but not surprised by the success of Yorta Yorta actor and rapper Adam Briggs’ Our Home, Our Heartbeat. It’s already sold more than 25,000 copies, making it one of the best-selling children’s books in the company’s history – despite being launched in May last year, in the middle of a national lockdown. It won the ABIA Children’s Picture Book of the Year award.

A colourful message in Our Home, Our Heartbeat by Adam Briggs, illustrated by Kate Moon and Rachael Sarra.Credit:Hardie Grant Books

“It’s exciting that there’s a thriving market, but as we race to find the next big Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander writer or illustrator, it’s vital we move forward sensitively and authentically,” O’Brien says.

Briggs says working on the book with illustrators Kate Moon and Rachael Sarra, which celebrates Indigenous stars such as Cathy Freeman, Miranda Tapsell and basketball player Patty Mills, has been one of the most satisfying things he’s ever done, and that his manager’s inbox has been flooded with thousands of emails, many from parents, thanking him for helping them explain Indigenous culture to their children.

Actor Miranda Tapsell has written a children’s book and also makes a cameo appearance in Briggs’ bestseller.Credit:Simon Schluter

“There were messages from Indigenous kids who didn’t fit the stereotypical ‘Indigenous look’, excited to see themselves represented in characters within the pages of the book,” Briggs said. “This is the kind of book I wish I’d had at school when I was a kid – showing a vibrant, vast community of Indigenous people, rather than … a culture existing in the past.”

Adam Briggs with illustrators Rachael Sarra and Kate Moon.Credit: Wolter Peeters

Briggs was keen to create a bright, uplifting story that leaps off the pages.

“Australia is comfortable with reminiscent and mournful stories about Indigenous people, narratives that place us in a past tense, but we wanted to talk about all the great things we’ve achieved. We felt that’s something Australia hasn’t truly embraced yet. Kids these days might know the Indigenous names of the cities, locations and towns, but there’s still a long way to go.”

‘Australia is comfortable with mournful stories that place us in a past tense. We wanted to talk about all the great things we’ve achieved.’

At the forefront of this movement is Magabala Books, based in the remote Kimberley region of Western Australia.

The company began more than 30 years ago with a small group of local Aboriginal elders who wanted to take control of their own stories, and has become a rising star in the Australian publishing industry. Sales have grown 360 per cent in the past five years, chief executive Anna Moulton says.

Magabala publisher Rachel Bin Salleh says she is often asked to account for the increasing interest in Indigenous children’s publishing.

“We have been doing business in much the same way for more than 34 years … what has changed are the audiences; their openness, curiosity and genuine interest in affecting change,” she says.

‘What has changed are the audiences; their openness, curiosity and genuine interest in affecting change.’

It helps that the company is publishing the likes of Bruce Pascoe’s Young Dark Emu, which has sold 95,000 copies. That’s not in the same league as Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s Treehouse series, which usually shift 200,000 copies for each new title, but it’s still wildly successful.

A metaphor for the Stolen Generation: Found by Bruce Pascoe and Charmaine Ledden-Lewis.Credit:Magabala Books

Pascoe’s latest children’s book, Found, illustrated by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, about a lost calf finding its family in a metaphor for the Stolen Generation, is another visual delight and was shortlisted for the ABIA Small Publisher’s Children’s Book of the Year awards. Pascoe has noted an explosion of interest of Indigenous children’s stories.

“An Aboriginal person writing a kid’s book eight or nine years ago would have been an aberration. The market wasn’t ready and that reflected the Australian mind and psychology. Slowly, excruciatingly, change is afoot, and it will be transformative,” he says.

“There’s great relief and excitement that our stories are finally being heard. As a result, our people are feeling like they are really part of society.”

ABIA award-winning writer Kirli Saunders (left) and Dark Emu author Bruce Pascoe with illustrator Charmaine Ledden-Lewis.Credit:Nic Walker

The book has launched the career of Ledden-Lewis, who has since signed contracts with several other mainstream publishers, including a children’s book about Cathy Freeman with Penguin Random House.

Of Found, Ledden-Lewis says, “The story really resonated with me because my great grandmother was part of the Stolen Generation; she was taken away from her family and culture to live on a mission. She had to assimilate and never made it back to her Bunjalung home. The effects of that ripple for generations.” She hopes Found fosters a sense of understanding and empathy.

The inclusion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander themes in the National Curriculum has certainly fanned the surge in demand. Paul Macdonald, who owns The Children’s Bookshop in Glebe, in Sydney’s inner west, says the biggest request at the annual Teacher Librarians Conference over the past few years has been for Indigenous picture books. “Schools just can’t seem to get enough of them.”

Bindi by Kirli Saunders – illustrated by Dub Leffler – was named Small Publisher’s Children’s Book of the Year at the ABIA awards.Credit:Magabala Books

With children’s books making up to between one third and half of the market, according to the Australian Publishers Association, that’s a lot of potential for Indigenous stories.

Some publishers have revised their strategy to keep a foothold in this floodtide. Allen & Unwin and University of Queensland Press have had a long commitment to publishing Indigenous literature. The former has always ensured a First Nations cultural adviser is employed on any book that touches on an Indigenous theme written by a non-Indigenous person. Now it is publishing more books in First Nations voices, as well as, increasingly, producing educational support material for many of its Indigenous children’s books.

Archibald finalist Blak Douglas illustrated Thomas Mayor’s Finding Our Heart.Credit:James Brickwood

Today’s authors are not afraid to broach some of the heartbreaking aspects of their history. Singer Archie Roach says he found singing Took the Children Away – drawn from his experience of being removed from his family when he was two years old – was a cathartic experience, and writing a children’s book version has been equally healing.

Illustration by Ruby Hunter from ‘Took the Children Away’ by Archie Roach and Ruby HunterCredit:Simon and Schuster

Took the Children Away (Simon & Schuster), illustrated by his late partner, Ruby Hunter, has so far sold 10,000 copies and was shortlisted for the ABIA Book of the Year for Younger Children.

A children’s book based on the famous song saw Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach’s book shortlisted for an ABIA.Credit:Sandy Scheltema

“I didn’t know my mum and my dad, but I know their stories,” he says. “That’s why stories are so important: they let us know who we are and where we are from.”

He’s thrilled that his book has become part of the education curriculum. Even more so by the afternoon his grandson rushed home from school to tell him: “They’ve got your book up on the shelf, Pop!”

“It’s good that younger children are growing up knowing the whole story,” he says. “It’s part of this country’s history, and it’s good that books like these help them think independently rather than just being taught the old prejudices.”

‘It’s good that younger children are growing up knowing the whole story … books like these help them think independently.’

Political issues are gently addressed too. Thomas Mayor – one of the first Torres Strait Islander authors to have a book published by a mainstream publisher – writes about the Uluru statement in Finding Our Heart (Hardie Grant). And Bindi, by Kirli Saunders (Magabala Books), which was named ABIA Small Publishers’ Children’s Book of the Year, is a verse novel about climate change and bushfires. Its exquisite illustrations are by Dub Leffler.

“Our stories are 60,000 years old and have a deep ancestral wealth,” Saunders says. “We have an intimate connection to the landscape that allows us to tell stories in an intuitive way.” The author recalls struggling to find black and Indigenous writers when she was growing up. “Young people now are growing up with our stories as the norm. It’s such an exciting time for Indigenous creatives. ”

A spread from Respect by Aunty Fay Muir, Sue Lawson and illustrator Lisa Kennedy.Credit: Magabala Books

This flowering of children’s literature by Indigenous authors is mirrored in adult publishing with the success of books by well-known commentators such as Stan Grant and Marcia Langton. In the coveted Miles Franklin Literary Award, following in the footsteps of Kim Scott (in 2000 and 2011) and Alexis Wright (2007), Melissa Lucashenko took the prize in 2019 for Too Much Lip, followed by Tara June Winch in 2020 for The Yield. In commercial fiction, the latest novel by academic and writer Anita Heiss, Bila Yarrudhanggalangdhuray (River of Dreams), is the first book to be published with its Wiradjuri title. In the ABIA awards, Yuwaalaraay woman Nardi Simpson, who is also a musician and composer, was shortlisted for the Matt Richell New Writer of the Year Award for Song of the Crocodile and Archie Roach won Audio Book of the Year for his narrated version of his memoir Tell Me Why.

Books have always been a way of seeing the world with new eyes; now, the last image children may hold in their minds before they close their eyes at night might include a dark emu, as well as the owl and the pussycat. The last words from their parents’ lips before they turn out the light might well be Cooee Mittigar – Come here, friend.

After all, these are stories that, as Indigenous children’s author Aunty Fay Muir puts it, shimmer through tall grass, and are as old as the shimmering stars. At long last, it seems, we are ready to listen.

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