Edie Wright of Magabala Books discusses bringing Indigenous stories into the classroom

Earlier this year it was announced that remote publishing house Magabala Books had teamed up with the Copyright Agency and the Australian Literacy Educators Association to devise a series of specially created teaching resources for 15 Indigenous stories, which will be made available to teachers via the Reading Australia website.

The resources were devised and designed to facilitate the introduction of new Aboriginal perspectives and Indigenous stories into classrooms around the country. In the first of two interviews and with the first stage of resources being released this month, we caught up with Magabala Books chairperson Edie Wright, herself a former teacher and school principal, to discuss the program and its benefits for educators, authors and remote communities.

How did you go about choosing the 15 titles for this program? Was there anything in particular you were looking for in these books?

We selected the books in partnership with the Australian Literacy Educators’ Association. The selection process was difficult, however the books were chosen for their educational and literary value, as well as their appropriateness for different primary year levels covering Foundation to Year 6. In the second half of 2017, resources for a further seven Magabala titles will be uploaded onto the Reading Australia website, which is an initiative of the Copyright Agency.

Is there an overarching theme or message that can be found across these 15 titles?

The link between all of these titles is that their authors are Australian Indigenous people and represent an Indigenous perspective on the world. One of the books, Girl from the Great Sandy Desert, for example is a collaboration between storyteller Jukunua Mona Chuguna and non-Indigenous writer Pat Lowe, who wrote down Jukuna’s story.

However, not all of the books contain Indigenous-themed content. For example Once There Was A boy, by Dub Leffler, is a beautiful universal tale about a boy with a broken heart. The stories are diverse, as are their authors, and include Dreamtime stories, morality tales/wisdom of the elders, narrative non-fiction and contemporary fiction. A number of the stories work across different areas of the Australian Curriculum.

What are some of the teaching resources that will be available for these titles?

The resources for our books can be found by searching Magabala on the Copyright Agency’s Reading Australia website. They are detailed, practical and user-friendly guides for teachers contemplating using the texts.

As stated on the Reading Australia website “[t]hey are designed to help teachers navigate Australian texts within the framework of the Australian Curriculum. The units include curriculum codes, sample classroom and assessment activities, and links to other relevant online resources featuring all the links you need to comprehensively teach and engage your students across a suggested time frame.”

They also refer back to our own website and resources contained there.

Are there plans for a similar program to be developed for high school students?

Reading Australia currently includes Magabala Books’ author Brenton McKenna’s graphic novel Ubbys Underdogs: The Legend of the Phoenix Dragon. Brenton is Australia’s first Indigenous graphic novelist. We would love to see more Magabala Books’ titles included as recommended reading for secondary levels and hope we will achieve this next year, if not sooner.

We have some excellent YA fiction by authors such as Jared Thomas (Calypso Summer and Songs that Sound like Blood) and Jane Harrison (Becoming Kirrali Lewis, shortlisted for the Prime Minister’s Awards in 2016). The NSW Premier’s Literary Award-winning Ruby Moonlight by Ali Cobby Eckermann, and Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe also deserve to feature strongly in the Australian Curriculum.

What impact do you hope this program will achieve?

We want to make it easy for teachers to access and use books by Australian Indigenous storytellers. While many of Magabala Books’ titles are already well used in schools, Reading Australia is a wonderful free resource for teachers of English and literacy, and specifically promotes Australian writing.

Some of Australia’s finest authors and illustrators are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and we are seeking to ensure that their work is included in national and state curriculum reading lists from foundation/kindergarten to year 12. We hope this partnership will help us progress towards this goal.

We are grateful for the support of the Copyright Agency who gave us a grant of $33,550 through their Cultural Fund for this project, and for ALEA’s support.

Of course the project is also wonderful promotion for the work of our authors and illustrators, who dream of having their books in the hands of school children throughout Australia.

Given that these resources are going to be going out into classrooms around the country, how difficult was it to ensure diversity in terms of the stories being told?

When it was first established three years ago, Reading Australia developed resources for a Magabala Books classic: Do Not Go Around the Edges by Daisy Utemorrah. There were also some other fine texts authored by Indigenous people on the website. We were very pleased when the Copyright Agency enthusiastically embraced our proposal to include more Magabala Books titles on the Reading Australia site. We hope this will help us fulfil our dream that books by Indigenous authors and illustrators will be well-used in every year level of the Australian Curriculum.

Within the books selected there is also diversity of themes and authors. Some of our authors live in remote areas and others in cities. Assisting teachers and students to understand the diversity and richness of Australian Indigenous voices is a core part of our mission. It is worth reinforcing that not all books by Indigenous people have Indigenous content or cultural themes. However, books help us to see the world through another’s eyes and we believe the use of texts by authors from diverse backgrounds is critical to a well-rounded education.

The titles haven’t been rolled out yet, but what has the initial reaction to the announcement of the program been from teachers?

There has been a lot of enthusiasm from teachers. Over the years we received feedback from teachers all over Australia that they would like to use Indigenous titles in the classroom but have lacked the confidence to do so, feeling they don’t have enough understanding of history and context. In response we developed teachers notes and some general information about using Indigenous literature which are available on our website

However, the beauty of the Reading Australia resource is that it’s free and a one stop portal to the best of Australian literature, with detailed links to the Australian curriculum and suggested activities and lesson plans.

What has been the reaction of those authors’ whose work has been selected?

Thoroughly pleased and excited! All of our children’s authors and illustrators hope that their books will be used in schools. To see their books included in a list featuring the best of Australian literature is a great and well deserved honour.

Can you expand on the benefit this program has to the authors and their communities?

The inclusion of their books on www.readingaustralia.com.au is a great encouragement to our authors and illustrators. Increased sales will mean increased royalties for our authors, illustrators and their families. There is a great deal of pride in the community when a book is launched, and a matter of pride that these classic books remain in print, in some cases up to 20 years after they were first published. That is because the stories are just as relevant today and to new audiences of children as they were when first published.

Magabala Books is a not-for-profit publisher, and so proceeds from sales are all put back into new books and the development of emerging authors and illustrators – so increased sales have a much broader impact.

There is something else that all of our storytellers have in common: the hope that their books will sew the seeds of understanding and respect in the hearts and minds of children and adults around Australia and overseas. Reading Australia is helping us do just that.

For more information on the program and to access the specially created resources, essays, monthly updates, book news and competitions, teachers can visit the Reading Australia website and register for FREE.