Birrarung Wilam: A Story from Aboriginal Australia
by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly; illustrated by Lisa Kennedy
What’s home, and how do you describe it? What’s special about what lives there? Those are the questions answered about the great Australian river Birrarung, in English the river Yarra, by the partnership of Murphy (the Senior Aboriginal Elder of the Wurundjeri people, and a noted storyteller), Kelly (the Riverkeeper of the river Yarra), and Kennedy (descended from the Trawlwoolway people). Drawing on the Woiwurring language of the Wurundjeri, this gentle story chronicles a day in the life of the river and those who live in its habitat (“wilam” means “home”), traveling from its source to its mouth as the day goes on.
Woiwurring terms for local flora, fauna, and geography combine seamlessly and unitalicized with English in what is essentially a bilingual text (“Deep in the yerin, wallert comes home. . . . Parnmin falls on djerang, flows down wirrup, and soaks into yeameneen beek”). It’s a musical and well-crafted text that evinces Murphy’s roots in storytelling, but the synthesis of languages immediately sharpens listener attention. Young audiences will enjoy scrutinizing the art and using their deductive skills to guess what the words mean (an appended glossary of the Woiwurrung words, keyed by thumbnail to each spread, offers a pronunciation guide as well as definitions for preparation of readers aloud and revelation of answers for those guessing youngsters). The text starts and ends with Bunjil, the wedge-tailed eagle that is the creator spirit of the Wurundjeri, in between noting birds, mammals, and fish, river, farmlands, and city. The result is an evocative depiction of an ecosystem that emphasizes the view of the people who have been there longest.
The acrylic illustrations are intoxicatingly beautiful. Lush full-bleed double-page spreads are packed with flora and fauna (including people) and they glow with saturated color. Kennedy’s deft hand ensures that compositions are perfectly weighted, with white and light highlights lifting every page, patterned elements echoing traditional Aboriginal design, and easy visual rhythm suffusing every spread. Nor is it just the river that shapes the illustrations: in one, rhyming pale tree trunks provide vertical emphasis, in another, an underground burrow snakes across the page (a shape echoed by a bike trail on a subsequent spread); in all, plants grow and flower vigorously, bursting with life, and animals unusual to American eyes go about their riparian existence. There’s an Edenic flavor to some scenes, like the one featuring kangaroos grazing alongside the winding river, knee deep in verdant flowering vegetation, but this is less Eden than a kindly post-industrial world with people biking alongside the river or rowing in it, and the gleaming city skyline is a geometric accent rather than an intrusion.
Kids who would normally snooze through a travelogue will find this inviting, and those already interested in in ecosystems may be encouraged to similarly document their own. It’s also a book that offers many possible approaches. You can draw on it it for a discussion of place alongside books like Wheatley’s My Place (BCCB 7/90), or as an introduction to Australian wildlife in partnership with Nic Bishop’s photoessays such as Nic Bishop Marsupials (BCCB 11/09). Or bring it out as part of an exploration of rivers, alongside Cooper’s River (BCCB 10/19) or even that old American classic, Holling’s Paddle-to-the-Sea. However you use it, it’s a dazzling literary journey. (See p. 489 for publication information.)
Deborah Stevenson, Editor
Cover illustration BIRRARUNG WILAM: A STORY FROM ABORIGINAL AUSTRALIA. Text copyright © 2019 by Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly. Illustrations copyright © 2019 by Lisa Kennedy. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA on behalf of Walker Books, Australia.