One of the winning aspects of this educational picture book for upper primary school students (and beyond) is its narrative flow: it reads like a story. Net Brennan has crafted her significant research into a body of work that is accessible from the outset: the historical figures that populated the era around Federation become three-dimensional characters that are weaved deftly into a compelling chronicle. The reader is introduced to names that perhaps already sound familiar to them – surnames they recognise from street signs, the names of universities, the suburbs of Canberra, their houses at school. Brennan brings such characters as Parkes, Deakin, Griffith, Barton (Tosspot Toby!), Reid, Kingston – and the women Catherine Spence and Mary Lee – to life as she relates the journey of their various roles in the move to towards Federation. The tension Brennan builds around the ever-present ‘yes or no’ question – will the colonies vote for a constitution that results in a federated Australia? – works well to keep the reader engaged.
The tone of the narrative is easy-going, the congenial voice of the narrator positioning the reader to gain insights into the ordinary lives of the men – and scattering of women – who effected change on the early political landscape of the nation. This, for instance, invites the reader to feel the frustration and disappointment around the many setbacks to the formulation of the Australian Constitution, having been made privy to the journey of those who worked towards its inception and eventual acceptance.
The visual impact of the book is immediately appealing. The text is broken up with a diverse array of illustrations into manageable chunks, a new story element introduced and featured on each double-page spread. The illustrations feature photographs of the time, paintings, political cartoons, diagrams and sketches. The book also features break-out segments that define terminology for the child reader, and includes a short glossary at the back. The background sepia tones and variation in fonts contribute to the accessibility and aesthetic of the work.
A criticism of this text is the cursory glance it gives to the original and subsequent impact of colonisation on the Indigenous population, and the dubious title of the first page opening/chapter: ‘A Name Without a Nation’, which, in this context, lends weight to an unfortunate subtextual reference to the assumption of terra nullius and its violent consequences (which the book does not address).
Apart from said criticism, the book is certainly an interesting, informative and engaging read.
Black Dog Books, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 2, May 2014)