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Five years ago I packed my bags and moved from Australia to America. Since moving here, I’ve got married and had two children. The older child is 3 years old and the younger child is 9 months old. Although I think of the house and neighborhood we live in, America as a country is not at home. Australia is. It makes me sad that my children, who are citizens of both countries, do not have the same connection to my home country as I do.
Because we can’t be in two places at the same time and it is difficult to get back there (firstly because it is difficult to travel anywhere with a toddler and baby and secondly because the pandemic and travel restrictions show no signs of easing) , it’s me I do the next best thing to introduce my children to Australia: reading books to them.
I use books to fight my own homesickness and to give them a level of Australian. It’s a very small thing. I don’t read them as factual “birds of Australia” or Australian history books. But for my toddler, I read books, the illustrations of which are clearly recognizable in Australia – you can see it if you know what to look for, and you can recognize the trash cans, clotheslines and the colors of traffic signs.
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The language is different, and although you don’t typically see a lot of Australian slang in picture books for the 0-3 crowd, you still get Australian English: mom, sweater, lollipop, trash can, sultanas. The animals are different and there are books in which the characters are wombats or koalas or possums. The locations are different and some of the books specifically mention the Australian cities or streets where they are located.
For my baby, I read books that are loved by Australian parents and children and have become bedtime classics across the country. Its current bedtime book rotation doesn’t have much to do with Australian language or illustration, but if you mention the books to a parent or young child carer in Australia, you will likely get an approved term.
Books to read for expat Australian children
Note: This isn’t an incredibly diverse list of authors and books, unfortunately. While there are Australian children’s authors and color illustrators, there aren’t very many, and two of the most prolific I know, Shaun Tan and Ahn Do, don’t write books aimed at audiences as young as both of me and you Picture books are for older children.
The baby stage
These are the books I read to my baby before bed and before napping. I call it Mem Fox’s classic bedtime collection.
Where is the green sheep? By Mem Fox and Judy Horacek
The ultimate bedtime book. This is one that I think a lot of parents have memorized and it’s great at its rhyme and repetition. This is my baby’s favorite too. One night he went on and picked up the stack of books until I finally pulled this one out and started reading it. I didn’t know nine month olds could have such clear book preferences, but apparently they do.
Good Night Sleep Tight by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek
A great one because it’s full of nursery rhymes embedded in the story. This is an excellent way to introduce kids to nursery rhymes, and I’m pretty sure this book and its sequel, Bonnie and Ben Rhyme Again, is part of the reason my toddler knows so many nursery rhymes.
This and that from Mem Fox and Judy Horacek
Before going to bed, two mice embark on a wild adventure with many stories, characters and worlds, in which each distribution is somehow connected to the next through the illustrations. One of the fun things about reading is looking for the mice on each page, but the most fun thing is reading this book aloud.
The toddler years
No Way Yirrikipayi from the children of Milikapiti School, Melville Island, with Alison Lester
This book is about a hungry crocodile who hunts for dinner. It was created by students at Milikapiti School in a series of workshops moderated by children’s author and illustrator Alison Lester and published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. The story is fun as the crocodile is thwarted at every turn by the animals it tries to eat and ends up being eaten. (Australian storytellers, whether in books or on television, are less likely to gloss over their stories than their American counterparts). This book is also important because I want my children to learn and become more aware of the indigenous history and culture of Australia. They are a little young to learn the details now – I don’t think they even understand the concept of a country, let alone the ideas of indigenous people, colonization, history and culture.
Possum Magic by Mem Fox and Julie Vivas
An Australian classic. Two possums, Hush and Grandma Poss, live in the Australian bush. Grandma Poss does bush magic and makes Hush invisible. One day, Hush decides to be visible again, and that includes a trip across Australia eating Australian food like lamingtons, pavlova and a vegemite sandwich. I love this book for the story, reading skills, and food. Oh how I miss the Lamingtons.
Alexander’s excursion by Pamela Allen
A mother duck and her ducklings are walking one day and one of the ducklings, Alexander, falls into a hole. The book is specifically set in Sydney, with mentions of College Road and Hyde Park, and part of me loves the book for it. Another part loves it just because it is great fun to read, with fun and silliness: “And all his brothers and sisters quacked and quacked and fluttered and fluttered, but they couldn’t find Alexander anywhere.” It’s just fun reading this out loud.
Tricky’s Bad Day by Alison Lester
The story is about Tricky having a bad day for a number of reasons, but it turns into a really good day after walking outside to his favorite spot with his dad for some time. I love the Australian language in this (mom, sweater, sultanas, Til as a nickname for Tilly) the story itself, and one particularly lovely thing I like is the way Tricky wears his high heels to walk down the street , and this disturbance of the gender norm is not described as unusual or special, but merely thrown into it as a factual and completely normalized thing.
All the Factors I Love Tractors by Davina Bell and Jenny Lovlie
This is another really fun story about a boy who loves tractors, his mom who is fed up with his love for tractors, and their trip to the library so he can borrow a book about tractors. I love the library as a backdrop, and this is one with an example of using Australian words that don’t appear * Australian * *, using “shop” instead of “shop”.
Sing Me the Summer by Jane Godwin and Alison Lester
A stunning book celebrating the Australian seasons, with rhyming text that is calming and wonderful to read aloud and beautiful illustrations. I love the Australian of it, with lichens and kangaroos and everything that fits my mental picture of the different seasons there.
Arno and his horse by Jane Godwin and Felicita Sala (March 2, 2021)
A story about a boy who loses his special toy, a horse that his late grandfather carved for him. He and his friends look everywhere for it and when we look we see great illustrations of the Australian outback landscape, which is another aspect of Australia that my kids love to know. The book is a sweet story about loss, love, and memory and the importance that material possessions can have.
The books I save for when they are a little older
The last dance of Sally Morgan
A beautiful book about Australian animals in danger of losing their homes. The book is illustrated with Indigenous Australian art (Sally Morgan is a well-known Indigenous Australian author and artist), and the message is a bit grim, although there is hope. I hope this will teach my children more about indigenous Australian culture and help them learn the style of indigenous Australian art.
I’m also Australian from Mem Fox and Ronojoy Ghosh
This book is a celebration of Australia’s multicultural heritage. Several voices explain how their family came to Australia (one indigenous voice says: “My father grew up in Darwin, my mother in Humpty Doo. Our mob has always been here – now we share the place with you”). This is the most political of the books on the list (“Sorry I’m a refugee – I’m not an Australian yet. But if your country lets me in I’d love to be a vet”) and one that I look forward to being in a couple of years to share with the kids.
This list is just a tiny fraction of all the Australian books I have that we read. Some of these books are very explicitly Australian, either in words or in pictures, and some are just very subtly Australian. But I hope that all of these books will help some level of Australian woman to be absorbed into her subconscious and that one day they will speak Australian English fluently, consider clotheslines as normal household items in backyards, and be familiar with Australian wildlife. Reading Australian books is my way of exposing them to their other country so that they will not be entirely strangers when we return to Australia.