Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Island Children’s Book Illustrations

Bugarri-gap balangngan-ji nganka inyjunda jayida
in dreams ancestral stories are told to us1

Children’s book illustration is traditionally categorised as craft, a specialised medium, targeting the younger audience – mainly those up to twelve years old. Although often stylised and cartoonish, children’s stories and illustrations are often a powerful and efficient medium of communication.

The illustrator becomes the second author of a picture book. The illustration helps to describe a variety of ideas and artists work in a variety of mediums to achieve the effects that best describe what the author is attempting to convey. Author and illustrator work closely together to achieve a common goal: to educate, while entertaining, the young mind.

There has been an outstanding output of Indigenous Australian and Torres Strait Island children’s books in the last decade. Many Indigenous writers and illustrators have produced fine work, drawing stories and images from their traditional heritage. In the book Do Not Go Around the Edges, published in 1990 (Magabala Books, Western Australia), Daisy Utemorrah has woven the story of her life into prose and poetry and Pat Torres, drawing from her own dreaming, has illustrated her aunt’s words. This highly evocative book was short-listed for the Children’s Book of the Year in 1992. It was winner of the Multicultural Children’s Literature Award in 1992 (Utemorrah and Torres were the first Indigenous Australians to win this award), short-listed for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award in 1991 and received the Special Commendation Human Rights Award in 1991.2

Traditionally, the history and culture of Indigenous Australia has been conveyed through oral means. Through ‘dreaming’, stories were told to educate children about their ancestors, and these stories would be passed down from one generation to the next. Dreamings were also expressed pictorially. Australian Aboriginal engravings on stone which date back 30,000 years or more, have been located in various parts of the continent. In Arnhem Land and the islands to the north, bark paintings attained their zenith. Further south, in the desert regions of central Australia, the principal means of perpetuating tribal culture was through engravings on stone, notably the sacred tchuringas of the central and western deserts. Other visual story-telling or spiritual representations occurred on decorated grave posts; elaborately carved tree-trunks; decorated skulls; painted wood-carvings of heads and figures; paintings on ceremonial objects and ground objects; and in body painting.

Starting in the 1970s and breaking through to wide acceptance during the 1980s, Aboriginal art has emerged as a significant contemporary art form as well as being a conveyor of traditional culture. Aboriginal children’s book illustrations, which gained popularity in the 1990s, have allowed many young artists to convey stories from both their ancestral past and contemporary life.

The languages and dialects within Aboriginal communities are numerous, but many are disappearing (often undocumented) as elders pass away. Consequently new generations adapting to contemporary society have been alienated from their traditions. With the loss of many of these languages, linguists, historians and archaeologists are working throughout different regions of Australia in an attempt to standardise orthographies for each language.

The medium of the children’s book has also enabled artists and authors to communicate their rich oral histories in their own languages as well as English and help in this process of documentation. Artists too are investigating the histories of their ancestors and are bringing indigenous history and culture into their engaging illustrations with the aim of preserving sacred traditions.

One such author and illustrator, Pat Torres, is a leading advocate for the preservation of her culture and a determined educator. Torres was born in Broome, and belongs to three Indigenous groups – the Jabirr Jabirr from the north of Broome, the Nyul Nyul from the Beagle Bay area and the Yawuru people from south of Broome. She trained in Linguistics at Curtin University and the University of Western Australia, graduating with a Masters Degree in Education and spent several years retrieving the languages of her grandparents and collecting oral histories from the Yawuru and Nyul Nyul traditional elders.

Torres has ably transformed the stories of her childhood and of her people into beautifully illustrated books. She wanted these to be printed with Aboriginal text, requesting that they be bilingual and bicultural. Collaborating with her community, publishers and linguists, the outcome was the highly successful children’s book, Jalygurr Aussie Animal Rhymes, Poems for Kids, published in 1987 by Magabala Books (Western Australia). Torres wrote and illustrated the book, adapting poems and rhymes from the rich oral histories of the Kimberley people and the text was translated into the Yawuru language by Jack Edgar, Elsie Edgar and Thelma Saddler. It includes stories of Ganada, the Painted Lizard, Barni, the Sand Goanna, Ngardi, the Devil Man, who looks for naughty boys and girls, and Walga Walga the Salmon. The book is very popular and has resulted in many reprints. It has also been translated into French and Spanish.

Walga Walga
Wangal inarrbarrun
Guliyarrgub yanban.
Wubadu nagula.
Bilajbilaj yindiran warli.
Walga Walga
Ngananyan wirliwirligun

Walga Walga, the Salmon
When the south-easterly wind blows,
Walga Walga the salmon swims in the Galrwara yindiran shallows,
Silvery blue’s the colour of her skin,
Flashing bright and beautiful as you pull her in.

Torres’ works are essentially an extension of traditional painting and she uses natural ochres as well as acrylics to represent her own stories and those of her people. She has said that she feels a sadness in giving oral history to editors or publishers, ‘because I am giving away our oral tradition, but on the other hand, making it written, I am facing reality – our learning that goes on today in schools and in society is one where information is put into books.

Although not the first, Torres was one of the most influential and many Indigenous artists and authors have followed her lead. Their art and stories reflect both local customs; and personal experience and the styles in which they work also vary, reflecting the artistic practices of different community groups.

Contemporary Indigenous art practices have enabled Aboriginal artists to work in a variety of styles and mediums which fundamentally reflect personal responses to traditional stories. Such practices have also influenced children’s book illustrations, which although stylised to suit a younger audience, are as personal and sonorous as the stories themselves. Elaine Russell’s illustrated book, A is for Aunty, published by ABC Books in 1999, is an ‘alphabet’ story about her life. Her inspiration comes from her childhood experiences and her aim is to record her history and pass it on to her children and future generations. Her art is ‘… about my life living on a mission when I was a young girl, letting them know just what it was like in the 1950s.’4 She represents daily life on a mission, recording her childhood experiences with brightly coloured illustrations. Russell uses gouache and acrylics, employing a flattened pictorial space and integrating traditional artistic practices with those of contemporary children’s book illustration.

Dennis Nona is a young Torres Strait Island book illustrator whose work represents the verve and colour of life on an island. Growing up on Badu Island and then settling on Thursday Island, Nona’s work signifies the colours, textures and stories of the sea. Dabu the Baby Dugong – Kazi dhangal, published by Magabala Books in 1992, was written by Selena Solomon, illustrated by Nona and translated by Ephraim Bani. It recounts the story of the life and rites of passage of the Dugong whale. Nona has moved away from traditional art practices and has embraced his own unique style. His work typifies the changing views of the younger generation towards art, life and traditional story telling. He expresses his ideas, which come from dreams and the imagination, through lino-prints and paintings.

Children’s book illustrations are as varied and colourful as the languages, traditions and stories belonging to the artists. Whether by illustrators such as Pat Torres, Francine Ngardarb Riches, Shawn Dobson and Arone Meeks, who adhere to traditional art practices, or by a younger generation of artists who prefer to employ contemporary techniques, a fundamental aim is to recount the stories in their own language, thus preserving oral traditions in another form. The education of young minds through these books ensures the perpetuation of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island heritage. These resplendent picture books are a celebration of the rich oral culture belonging to the Australian Indigenous community.


1 Text by Pat Mamanyjun Torres, 2000, in the Yawurungany language, Julbayi dialect (south of Broome, Western Australia). Created for the exhibition, As told in our Dreams: an intriguing journey.
2 Susan Lewis, Education Guide for the exhibition The Book on Tour: A Graphic Insight, 1996. A Waverley City Gallery Touring exhibition.
3 Pat Torres interviewed by Susan Lewis
4 Elaine Russell interviewed by Susan Lewis in 1999 for the exhibition As Told in our Dreams: an intriguing journey.

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