Jenni Connor, recognised education consultant, shares her rich knowledge of children’s literature to make curriculum connections to four stunning Australian picture books dealing with fire and its devastating aftermath.
Literature needs to assert its place in the sun in these data-driven, assessment-focused times. The Literature strand which is central to the English Curriculum creates that place. The curriculum recognises that engagement and enjoyment should be key features of student experience with texts. The curriculum also aims to develop an informed appreciation of a variety of literary texts.
Following the recent bush fire season across the nation, including in Tasmania, I have taken four picture books dealing with that topic to highlight what they offer in terms of ‘aesthetic value and potential for enriching students’ lives and scope of experience’ (Shape of the Australian Curriculum, 2009. P.5). I connect each book to elements taken from the English Curriculum Content descriptions. The year levels selected are only a guide and, in fact, all four books could be used as comparative texts with older students.
|Through the Smoke|
Phil Cummings & Andrew McLean
Through the smoke, Phil Cummings & Andrew McLean(Scholastic, 2019) is a tale of three children, their imagination and the terror of bushfire. The picture book, suited to 5-7-year -olds, uses the extended metaphor of knights and dragons and recognises the immense contribution of firefighters as ‘the knights’ in question. Phil Cummings’ rich descriptive language captures the children’s initial delight as they roam unfettered through the bush and their growing fear as the world around them changes – We rode our charges through the rolling swell of windswept wheat fields…. the sleeping dragon woke. We suddenly heard the ferocious flap of its wings, its hungry and angry hiss’. McLean’s illustrations support the language text gently, avoiding any hint of trauma.
Curriculum connections - Literature Year 1: Understand how authors create characters using language and images. Make connection with own experience. Discuss features of plot, character and setting.
|Fabish the Horse the Braved a Bushfire|
Neridah McMullin & Andrew McLean
Fabish the Horse that Braved a Bushfire, NeridahMcMullin & Andrew McLean (Allen & Unwin, 2016) showcases McLean’s extraordinary talent for visually portraying the Australian landscape. It is a story of two heroes, the retired racehorse Fabish, who instinctively rescued seven yearlings and brave trainer John Evett who risked his life to save racehorses in the Black Saturday bushfires of 2009. McMullin’s spare, evocative prose dramatically depicts the unfolding scene – the sun scorched the land…. Withered brown grass crunched underfoot…. That summer, every living thing was hot…. Billowing smoke turned the day into darkness. The farm was ablaze, and the sky was on fire. The author and illustrator notes provide historical and personal context.
Curriculum connections – Literature Year2: Compare opinions about characters, events and settings between texts. Explore how language is used to present features of characters and settings in different texts.
|Fire Jackie French & Bruce Whatley|
Fire, Jackie French & Bruce Whatley (Scholastic, 2014) is another story of courage and strength in the face of natural disaster. Jackie French’s taut, sharp word text conveys the terrifying ferocity of nature out of control and drives the momentum of the narrative – Leaves like paper, burning, bleeding. Trees turned torches, flaming, feeding. Fire, the beast that ate it all. McLean’s vivid, atmospheric images provide a powerful contrast between the serene outback landscape and the fierce onslaught of the fire that threatens all life and engulfs the land. Again, the author and illustrator notes add valuable information for readers.
Curriculum connections – Literature Year 3: Discuss how language is used to describe settings and how settings shape and influence the mood of the narrative.
The House on the Mountain
Ella Holcombe & David Cox
House on the Mountain, Ella Holcombe & David Cox (Allen & Unwin, 2019) is a heartbreaking and poignant picture book about one family’s experience on Black Saturday and the long process of healing and rebuilding. Told from a child’s perspective, we feel their growing fear as the heat of the day builds to a crescendo – My chest feels hollow, like a bird cage. The word text is impressively restrained but doesn’t shirk the harsh reality - …we talk about all the kids and teachers and families who will never come back. Cox’s illustrations, while striking, maintain a light touch in conveying the drama. In this case, the author’s notes are essential to fully understanding the true story and we deeply respect her commitment to ‘continuity, movement and growth’. The book is marketed as YA fiction, but I would use it in conjunction with related texts from upper primary on.
Curriculum connections - Literature Year 6: Analyse and evaluate similarities and differences in texts on similar topics. Explain how metaphor influences personal response.
Contemporary research confirms that it is the quality of a child’s vocabulary that predicts their success in literacy; it’s not just the sheer number of words a child has heard, but the richness of the conversation that matters. The ‘language’ of these picture books – in words and images – is carefully crafted and poetic. This language offers new ways to describe the world and ‘enriches and extends the life experience’ of young readers and listeners.