Indigenous Literacy Day: Bringing First Nations stories to life on the page

UncleXbox2.jpgAward-winning children’s author Dr Jared Thomas will be celebrating Indigenous Literacy Day knowing that his novels are bringing valuable First Nations culture and language to the minds of young people.

As a child growing up, the now UniSA Research Fellow who is one of Australia’s leading authors of Aboriginal children’s and young adult literature, never saw his own culture reflected on the pages of the books he read.

The Nukunu man from the Southern Flinders Ranges did, however, soak in the wisdoms of his family members who told dreaming stories and shared precious histories.

“I was lucky to be surrounded by lots of storytellers in my own family and I was inspired by family history and cultural stories,” he says.

“But there was very little in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander texts and books where I could see my own experiences reflected. This is problematic because we know that First Nations children learn best when we see ourselves reflected in stories.”

“If we look at Australian literature overall in the last 20 years most of the award-winning novels and films have either been produced by First Nations or include First Nations stories so there’s a real hunger for First Nations storytelling in Australia and internationally.”

In March this year, Dr Thomas released the first in a six-book series, Uncle Xbox. In June, the second instalment Getting Dusty, won the Daisy Utemorrah Award for Children’s Fiction as part of the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards.

Uncle Xbox is a coming-of-age story for young readers and centres around Dusty, an Aboriginal boy who spends a lot of time playing games online, usually with his stepdad, Marcus.

When Marcus ups and leaves one day he takes the Xbox with him, leaving Dusty to learn there is more to life than video games. With the help of his uncle Rick, he discovers a love for surfing.

Next year Dr Thomas will travel to surfing hotspots Bells Beach in Victoria, Raglan in New Zealand, Fiji and Pipeline in Hawaii to undertake research with First Nations people and their connections to sea and country.

The trip will form inspiration for the rest of the Uncle Xbox series, as well as allowing Dr Thomas to gain valuable insight into how other Indigenous communities are connected to culture.

Dr Thomas says Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories are not only important for First Nations children, but non-First Nations children too.

“It’s a way for children to understand the country in which they live. These books communicate knowledge systems that have been used to protect the Australian continent for thousands of years,” he says.

“Many of my books include Aboriginal language as well, my writing always features Nukunu language and that’s really important because Aboriginal language communicates the properties and meaning of place.”

Dr Thomas is the 2023 South Australian NAIDOC Person of the Year and his 2022 release My Spare Heart, published by Allen and Unwin, was shortlisted in the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction and the Griffith University Best Young Adult Book Award as part of the State Library of Queensland Literary Awards.

He is also an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF) which founded Indigenous Literacy Day, this year celebrated on 6 September.

On the day, The State Library of South Australia in partnership with ILF, will host a Great Book Swap as part of ILD celebrations from 10am to 4pm.

Visitors can browse the library’s bookstall and take a book in exchange for a note or gold coin donation. Money raised will go towards the Indigenous Literacy Foundation to provide new, culturally relevant books to remote Indigenous communities. Access to books in remote communities is challenging, as there are often no libraries or bookstores.

For more information visit the ILD website or State Library SA.

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