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Silly Stories With A Serious Message

HIS cheeky, even crude style has been expressed in more than 20 children’s books that have sold 5 million copies around the world. But what happens when you take Andy Griffiths and his fart, food and bum jokes to remote indigenous communities?

The short answer: the response is just the same.

Although they usually don’t know who he is, Aboriginal children are swept up in his naughty and sometimes disgusting stories — and through their byplay yarns emerge, such as one about a crocodile with a passion for eating little boys.
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“A lot of indigenous kids don’t read my books, they may have had a teacher read to them but their reading level is so basic,” he says. “I’m not quite sure what it is, but when I get with kids it’s ‘Let’s make up some silly stories’ and that’s the level we connect on.”

Those silly stories arose from his role as ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Project.

For the past five years, Griffiths has travelled to remote indigenous communities — from the edge of the Great Sandy Desert to the Kimberley — holding writing workshops for children aged six to 13.

The result is The Naked Boy and the Crocodile, a book of 13 stories edited by Griffiths but written and illustrated by some of those children he met.

The stories slowly grew as Griffiths connected with rural Aboriginal children.

“They knew I’d written a story about a bum that ran away but that’s it,” he says. “At first I tried to tell them my stories and I could see I wasn’t quite connecting because they are full of suburban details, which don’t necessarily mean a lot to these kids. So I said: ‘Let’s make books, you tell me your stories’, and that’s where it started to happen.”

Happen it did as tales emerged of terrifying turkeys, hunting for emu eggs and a crocodile with a taste for bare flesh who eats a boy and poops him out.

The idea of publishing the stories arose at a writer’s festival, when audience members asked if they could buy them.

“No one expected this to happen, we were really using this as a way to engage with the kids and when we took the books back to the cities and showed them at events, people were laughing at them, feeling the poignancy of them and we thought, ‘Oh we’ve got enough varied ones to put into a book’,” he says.

“The book has this natural kind of charm, the kids’ personalities come out without a set agenda . . . you have these funny stories to balance their traditional stories.”

It has been a transforming experience for Griffiths, who is passionate about improving literacy standards and the future for indigenous children.

Only one in five children living in a remote indigenous community in the Northern Territory can read at the minimum standard, which has serious ramifications for their future education.

It is such figures that compelled Griffiths to get involved.

“It is a complete injustice and completely unacceptable that only 15 per cent of indigenous kids are learning to read,” he says.

He was struck by how much reading and writing was taken for granted in our print-driven culture. Literacy standards are generally poor in remote indigenous communities, for children and adults. Many start school with little or no experience with books.

“It’s not that they can’t operate language, it’s just that they don’t see the printed word until the first day at school,” he says. “Even the idea of a book has to be explained, how to open the page and turn it, stuff that kids who grow up in the print culture pick up on their mother’s knee, which is why we need to get them into the homes of these kids because this is where the crucial early relationship with literacy happens.”

It is a situation that the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, an initiative of the Australian Book Industry, has been trying to redress through its Book Buzz program. The project recognises that exposure and access to books at a young age is essential to the development of literacy.

Under the program, popular picture books such as The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Dear Zoo and Where is the Green Sheep? are translated into local languages and supplied to preschoolers in remote communities.

One of them is Warburton, a community of 700 indigenous people with about 45 children under the age of four located near the Great Sandy Desert.

Anne Shinkfield, the early literacy co-ordinator at Warburton Early Childhood Centre, says the project started in 2009 and has achieved amazing results because the books are translated into the Ngaanyatjarra language.

“From an educational point of view, having a link between their families and their home to what they are going to see in school is really wonderful,” she says.

“The kids are quite familiar with the whole story, how to look at stories, talk about stories and it just means when they go to school they’ll just have to switch to English and learn English like an ESL [English as a second language] program.”

The project has had a much wider impact on the community than anticipated, lifting literacy levels for parents, aunts and grandmothers as well.

“Playgroup attendance has jumped as they have seen the value of having lovely story books in the kids’ own language so it has given them a new understanding of what could be happening with children and reading.”

Wednesday is Indigenous Literacy Day. All proceeds from The Naked Boy and the Crocodile will go to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.


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