Australia to Z
Allen & Unwin, 2016
32pp., hbk., $A29.99
Australia to Z is Armin Greder at his uncompromising, most confronting best. From the creator who brought us The Island which really turned a spotlight on our treatment of newcomers, comes this totally different alphabetical look at Australia which is just perfect for getting students to have a look at what it means to be Australian. While ‘soft’ investigations focus on icons, anthems, heroes and food, Australia to Z takes a much tougher look starting with the A for Aborigine looking out and seeing a First Fleet ship on the horizon to the deliberately juxtaposed B for Boat People showing more recent arrivals.
This is political commentary brought into the lives of children so they need to think and investigate…why has Greder chosen ‘calories’ for C, Ikea for I, and R for Rupert? But there are flashes of humour to lighten it too, with K being for the kangaroo that springs from nowhere in the night to take out the front of your car, and the ominously raised finger of the umpire for O for Out! And finally, there is Z for Zoo but the illustration is not what you would expect – but is perhaps the most poignant of all. This really is Australia under the microscope as the title page image suggests.
The choices make us think about how others see us, and with Greder being a Swiss immigrant, his perception may be sharper than others. But the inclusion of Advance Australia Fair almost as an appendix is a masterstroke – how different are the words we sing to the life we live?
Often in an ‘alphabet book’ the illustrations are more important than the text itself, but in this one the two are interdependent. Yes the text is biting but it is the powerful illustrations that accompany it that add the extra punch. Why are Rupert’s eyes blank? What does the picture of the Digger represent? With bold black strokes and a minimal palette, each image says all it needs to say and leaves a lasting impression long after the page has been turned.
Working in a highly multicultural school which has a significant population of children who come to learn English for the first time so they can work comfortably in their neighbourhood schools later, it never ceases to amaze me how these kids get along and understand each other so well without a common language let alone skin colour. There are many quotes and memes online that state “Children are not born racist –they learn to hate” and that is certainly my experience. Using Australia to Z in a focus on identity and belonging would be a most powerful way to raise issues, investigate and discuss them because knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to tolerance and tolerance leads to acceptance. Maybe this year’s Year 5 and 6 students will be a turning point as they create their own with the theme “what could be”..