Anna the Goanna

Jill McDougall & Jenny Taylor, Anna the Goanna and other poems (Aboriginal Studies Press 2000)

This is a collection of poems written by a schoolteacher ‘in order to provide classroom reading material which reflected the daily experiences of her students’. That description, taken from Jill McDougall’s bio at the back of this book, could be a recipe for semi-literate, patronising disaster, all the more so when the students in question are Aboriginal. On the contrary, this collection is a delight, words and images both. Not that the opinion of a 65 year old urban middle class white men matters all that much, but I’d be surprised if this book didn’t go down very well indeed, in the classroom and out of it, performed for the students or by them or read in private, by curious non-Indigenous as well as Indigenous children.

Why did I read it? Well, reading the Kevin Gilbert books reminded me of how much I enjoyed his children’s poems, and this was a gift that has been sitting on my shelves for a couple of years now, waiting for a suitable child to turn up to be read to from it. I just decided to stand in for that hypothetical child.

As the title promises, there are silly poems about goannas. There are also mosquitoes, crows, flies, and a crocodile, but it’s not all animals. There are babies, big sisters, football and baseball, a sweet   comedy about the difference between Aboriginal and mainstream economics, and two pieces that depart from the general cheerful tone – ‘Too Many Drunks’ and ‘Sad Boys’ , the latter being about petrol sniffing.

Jenny Taylor’s illustrations demonstrate just how important the interplay of text and image can be in a picture book. One page that struck me in particular was ‘Sleep’. The poem:

Goanna like to sleep
In the sandy ground,
In a soft warm hole
Just a little way down.

Crows like to sleep
Near the starry sky,
By a big bird’s nest
That’s way up high.

I like to sleep
In a cosy bed,
With a blanket for my feet
And a pillow for my head.

The final stanza could be spoken by any child, anywhere. One could easily think of a room with pastel wallpaper and shelves of stuffed toys. The illustration is a revelation about possible meanings for the word ‘cosy’:

One response to “Anna the Goanna

  1. I am just back home (Caves Beach) from that same red dirt kind of country – Mildura/Wentworth/the Australian Inland Botanical Gardens at Buronga – and Lake Mungo. Stark, yet beautiful, ancient and now, Indigenous (Mutthi Mutthi, Barkindji, Ngiyampaa) and a vast cast of other ethnicities since the 1830s through to now, strangers yet constantly coming across friendship connections from 40+ years ago teaching in Hay, among whom especially was my student in Year 10 – before she headed off on a scholarship to Queenwood Girls (old girl Shirley HAZZARD) – writer Gayle KENNEDY (Streetwize “Reconciliation” mid-1990s, and David Unaipon literary prize six years ago, Me, Antman and Fleabag, 2007 UQP). Her father Roy KENNEDY, Ngiyampaa elder, is part of the Lake Mungo “Welcome to Country” DVD presentation! And a Barkindji mate of Gayle – from time living in Ivanhoe – Casey CLARK, one of the Mildura Tourist Information people we meet there.

    I taught English study units at middle-school level at Nelson Bay High in the late 1980s/early 1990s on Children’s Picture Books. I used to lug in my crates of books containing over 200 volumes, and my students would sit and read – as many as they wished – a brief checklist to complete at the end of each book read. Some books have no words, but can be quite complex in the “reading” nonetheless. And there were a number of readers from across northern Australia, compiled by Pamela LOFTS from Indigenous story-tellers (Agnes LIPPO, Jacko DOLUMYU/Hector SANDALOO, and the Lajamanu School Senior Boys Class) – not dissimilar in some senses to the Jill McDOUGALL book about which you have written Jonathan. My students went on to work in small groups and write their own picture books, after which we went off to the local infants school – or pre-school – with photos from the local press recording the achievement! Powerful! In some of my more challenging classes were students who had never before read a book. So they told me. But in this one unit at school they could confidently thereafter assert that they had read twenty or more! And written one! And read it to little children! Really powerful stuff!

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