Oz for Kids
Don Watson
The Story of Australia
Nelson, 201pp
0 17 006349 6
Australian Book Review, Dec/Jan 1984, pp. 10-11.

“By the 1960s, Australians had forgotten a lot of their own history. It was often said that Australian history was too short to be history at all. Nothing very important had happened in Australia. At school, Australians learnt a lot of English history, and when they did learn Australian history at secondary school, it was called British history anyway.” With those sentences, Don Watson opens a chapter called “Pictures of Australia”. His book aims at overcoming this neglect. The result is real history, not the “history-less history” of school curricula. Change and conflict abound.

Women do better than in almost every general history book for any age group. Elizabeth Macarthur gets her due as the founder of the fine fleece industry. There is Mungo woman from 25,000 years ago. I would have preferred Mum Shirl to Daisy Bates, yet in presenting the latter, the point is well made about the limits of white charity. Could we not have had Mary Gilmore in place of William Lane, and a nun instead of Caroline Chisholm again? Anne Summers is listed on the front page as a consultant. The publisher’s blurb mentions all three male consultants but omits Summers.

The liveliest passages are those that present us with life as the felt experiences of football, farming and radio. The smells of Collingwood in the nineteenth century are marvellously evoked. There should have been much more sensuous human activity and less politics.

The sections on Aborigines are excellent at demonstrating that pre-historic Australia was not “timeless”. Change was the order of the millennium. These chapters also destroy the notion of one kind of Aborigine. We read of desert, river and island peoples.

Accounts of exploration could have noted that Aborigines got everywhere first. Watson headlines: “Captain Cook did not discover Australia”. Neither did Ch’eng Ho, the Portuguese or the Dutch. Nor were Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth the first people to cross the Blue Mountains. Since Watson’s aim is to lead readers into new ways of thinking, these conventional accounts of exploration could have been shaken harder.

A pen portrait of Namatjira stops short of mentioning the ways in which Aboriginal art is being used today by the Aborigines and the whites, here and abroad.

Race relations is a continuing theme in Watson’s story, and rightly so. In the wake of Blainey, I wonder whether telling potential racists that their grandparents were racists will do much good. There needs to be more than exposure. What more?

With so many advantages at the starting post, it is sad to tell that this children’s history is off track. The continuing difficulty is its failure to decide upon its audience. Is the book addressed to parents or to kids? To children of what age? Are they reading it, or having it read and explained to them? Are they at home or in class? In trying to cover all possible markets, the publishers have got a book for parents to read at each other while children watch the videos.

Sentences, especially those in the opening sections, are not only too long but, like this one, have, for children, too complex a structure. The words chosen can be recondite, for example, eunuch and caravel. Terms are not always explained. “Treadmill” is dropped into a sentence but is neither illustrated nor described. Elsewhere, the reader learns that “A white feather was a way of saying ‘Coward’.” There could have been a lot more of that kind of quiet defining.

Children need precise instances. Even when Watson’s sentences are short and his words simple, his account is often abstracted. Too little of the material is related from a child’s point of view.

The time lines are the worst feature. They are full of scholar’s facts that will not interest parents, let alone children. These lines also make the book look more like a school text than it is. They do nothing to simulate the young reader to explore the facts for themselves.

The layout of double-page spreads is dull. The commissioned illustrations are off-putting; they look like an adult’s view of what a lively textbook might contain. Archival sources provide two of my favourite images: the cartoon of women immigrants as butterflies and a photograph of a camel laden with a crate market PIANOLA.

If the authorial voice were more surely in tune with a child’s ear, factual and interpretative wobbles would be less worrying.

Take the instance of television. Like many commentators, Don Watson assumes that because telecasts began in 1956 that year marks the start of the TV era. In fact, the spread was staggered in Melbourne and Sydney; there were no channels in Brisbane or Adelaide until late 1959. Rural coverage took longer. Television is a part of the 1960s, not the 1950s. Watson’s notion of 1956 at the start of television highlights the book’s bias towards Victoria.

Without doubt, Don Watson’s The Story of Australia is better than everything else available. Good intentions have not been enough to realise all its aims for children.