Compiled by Janelle Mathis
April’s My Take/Your Take continues with two doctoral students, Nichelle Vaughan, a doctoral student and Graduate Assistant in the UNT Curriculum and Instruction Program, and Bill Visco, a doctoral student and high school English teacher, responding to a picture book they find intriguing in their exploration of international literature. What’s Your Story? (2013) written by Rose Giannone, illustrated by Bern Emmerichs, and published by Berbay, is the focus for week two.
An award winning Australian title, What’s Your Story? is a thoughtful narrative coming from the perspective of two children during Australia’s colonization era. Leonard is a young orphan boy who travels to a new environment inhabited by the Indigenous Eora people. Upon his arrival, he is astonished by the various objects, animals, and nature surrounding him that are mysterious yet intriguing. Leonard is accustomed to being seen as an outsider because he’s an orphan, often spending his time alone because he is teased for his stutter. This perspective seems to allow Leonard to be accepting of Milba, a young indigenous girl who is his complete opposite.
As the other tribal individuals in the community, Milba dresses minimally, wearing only the items necessary for survival, and enjoys living amongst the natural elements. Although this notion incited fear and concern for the other European travelers as they embarked on life in the new land, Leonard was all the more fascinated. Perhaps due to their innocence, Leonard and Milba create a friendship and a deep intercultural connection as they engage in a silent dialogue of sharing and discovery about each other’s way of living.
Unfortunately, the two eventually separate as Milba’s family and tribe decide to venture into new lands. Milba leaves a drawing in the sand hoping Leonard will understand the message that she has to go away. Seeing her message, Leonard realizes that Milba will not return and is saddened after losing his first best friend.
NICHELLE: The illustrator does an excellent job of depicting life for both the Indigenous community and the settlers from England. Images of soldiers in their red coats, the tribal individuals with their ancestral markings, and even the artistic representations of the island and surrounding ship filled ocean, seem to transport me to the colonial Australian period as if I were physically present. As though looking through a camera lens, we see a snapshot of the island scarcely populated with the Aborigines and the one fire they’ve made for cooking, as well as their attempt to ward off the arrival of the Europeans. On the following page, this image is juxtaposed by the overpopulation of the English immigrants constructing tents and houses, and farm land for their working and domesticated animals.
It is interesting that the two main characters, who are children, grow to have an affinity for each other, appreciating the individual qualities rather than the collective misunderstandings that could have arisen from their interactions. Although the book does not directly deal with the postcolonial or present day eras in Australia, we know from history that the integration of both cultural groups was not always based on respect and empathy. As adults, perhaps we can benefit from a more tolerant perspective like the one demonstrated by Leonard and Milba’s story.
BILL: The overall meaning of this book is great. The idea that two people from two totally different backgrounds and parts of the world can meet, learn from one another and become friends is touching. The addition that they still think of one another even after many years is also a wonderful sentiment.
However, that being said the rest of the book seems lacking to me. Don’t get me wrong, I love the idea that we all have stories, because that is true. The illustrator does an amazing job of this, like Nishelle mentioned, with the illustrations of the boat and how each person on the ship has a name written next to them and even a little blip of a story by their side — some more than others. While this is the overall theme and we get to see the “story” of both Leonard, and to a smaller extent Milba, the story is somewhat muted in a way. Sure we see the Aboriginal girl and the English boy learning from one another and sharing things with one another, and that is great; but when I look deeper into the book I see things glossed over that may in some way be a disservice to the Aboriginal people.
For instance, these new colonizers are basically taking over the land and driving off the Aboriginal people. To a broader extent, the fact that the author glosses over the fact that most of these people were convicts, and then tries to lighten that with, “Not all the convicts were bad, some had been so hungry that they had stolen food just so they could eat.” So it is okay to steal, but only if it is really necessary? That might be confusing for a child. In the end, the story is nice and the idea behind it is a good one, that we all have our own stories. I just wish that there was a little more clarity on those things mentioned.
NICHELLE: You are right that some historical facts about the Aboriginal people seemed to be glossed over, like being driven off of their homelands by the Europeans. In my opinion, the author chose not to approach these sad and truthful realities simply because that was not the focus of this book.
I believe Giannone wanted to take a focused look at Leonard and Milba to expound on the individual exchanges that came about from colonization. This is a perspective that is rarely addressed, so as to highlight the broader sociopolitical atrocities committed by the colonists against the dehumanized tribal natives takes away from this focus. How many times have we seen this story repeated in history? It is one that has been retold several times over, just with the backdrop of a different geographical location. So then, I don’t consider their stories “muted,” I actually think that by illuminating Leonard and Milba we see a more personal side of how individuals could have been affected by colonization.
Additionally, when I take a closer look at the illustrations, I can see some indication of the idea you’re referring to as far as more clarity on the historical aspects of colonial life. On the very first page there is a scene of the Australian island, the native people in their small boats living simply, with two larger British ships entering nearby. At first this page didn’t stand out to me because there is no text. However your response made me take another look.
Similarly, the last page of the book has another illustration with no text of the island inhabited primarily by the British and a few Indigenous Aborigines confined to the outskirts of the page. This version looks more like a modern day city with constructed roads, deforestation, various country flags depicting new territories, and even a docking area for ships to enter the island. Perhaps these images are both Giannone’s and Emmerichs’ own subtle way of addressing the truth and reality behind colonization in Australia.
BILL: Yes, I agree with you that Giannone probably wanted to focus on the nice story of Leonard and Milba. I get that. I just think that there is this minimalist whitewashing of what happened that seems to be mentioned, but also really glossed over. I do concede that the story of the atrocities of colonization have been told and retold over and over again, so that exact idea in context of all literature and society is not “muted.”
However, this particular story of the Aboriginal People (one that a lot of people are not as familiar with) is minimized. So, too, is the idea of the convicts coming from Britain, which I discussed earlier. I agree there is some reconciling of the colonization situation as you mentioned with the illustration on the front and back inside covers showing the land before and after colonization. That kind of makes up for it, but if you aren’t looking for that then you will surely miss it (as I did until you pointed it out).
Overall, the story is a nice one, and I get the idea that we all have our stories. I honestly appreciate that they want to tell the story of how people, even from different cultures and backgrounds, can live in harmony and care for one another. That, and the fact that we all come from somewhere and have experiences that shape who we are, is in fact what this story is all about. In the end it is the most important overarching theme to take away.
NICHELLE: You do have a point that there seems to be no further explanation about the convicts coming from Europe, or the reasons why those who came willingly decided to make this journey. There are some aspects that the author minimizes here. If you aren’t intentionally looking for these messages in the story, you will miss them as they are very subtle. On the outside back cover of the book the author writes, “Do you have a story? Everyone has a story to tell. Australia has a long history with many, many stories.” Perhaps this is Giannone’s way of balancing the various narratives by explaining that hers is simply one of many stories about Australia’s history.
Title: What’s Your Story?
Author: Rose Giannone
Illustrator: Bern Emmerichs
Publisher: Berbay Publishing
Date Published: December 1, 2013