Book Review: Wilam – A Birrarung Story, by Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly

A wedge-tailed eagle follows the river Birrarung’s journey through country in this picture book about the connections between the land and its inhabitants.

By
Wilam is more than just a story about a river. It’s an inspiration, leading us to find out more about the land in which we live.
Overall
5

Birrarung is wilam to many. Wilam means ‘home’ in the Woiwurrung language, an Indigenous Australian language of the Kulin Nation people from the Yarra River (Birrarung) basin in Victoria.

In their new picture book Aunty Joy Murphy, Andrew Kelly and Lisa Kennedy immerse young readers in a story of the landscape through which Birrarung flows. Using a blend of Woiwurrung and English, and with illustrations by Lisa Kennedy helping to build comprehension of unfamiliar words, they introduce us to the flora, fauna and natural features of the environment surrounding the river.

Sharp-eyed Bunjil, the wedge-tailed eagle, follows the flow as he watches the activity in the country below. At first, he sees only birds and animals living alongside the waterway, but when the path of the river reaches farmland, humans appear in the environment. His journey is long and winding. With ‘great slow flapping wingbeats’ the yanggai (black cockatoo) fly with him, over pine forests, in search of seed. In her burrow, a dulai-wurrung (platypus) nestles beneath the tangled roots of a tree, curled protectively around her newly hatched young.

Wilam is a vivid depiction of the connections between the land and its inhabitants. The merging of Woiwurrung and English is not limited to the token inclusion of a few key terms; instead, the authors have crafted an elegant weaving together of the two languages, each holding equal weight in the story. The text is informative but not at the expense of imagery—it’s a joy to read.

Kennedy’s illustrations, on pages drenched in colour from edge to edge, capture the glorious detail of the wildlife, water and plants in deep greens and blues, and the golden earth tones of blossoms, soil and bush paths. There’s so much to explore at each opening.

At the back of the book there are short biographical notes on the authors and the illustrator. There’s also a glossary with simple definitions of words used in the story, although direct translation is not possible from Woiwurrung to English. The glossary includes a guide to pronunciation.

Joy Murphy Wandin AO is the Senior Aboriginal Elder of the Wurundjeri People of Melbourne and surrounds. As well as being a storyteller and a writer, Aunty Joy has served as a member of the Equal Opportunity Commission of Victoria and of the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal. She believes in using stories to bring people together to grow understanding of Aboriginal culture. Wilam is her second book, a companion to her first—Welcome to Country.

Co-author Andrew Kelly is a Yarra Riverkeeper. This role (as part of an international organisation of Riverkeepers) involves advocating for the health and biodiversity of rivers and the green spaces that surround them. Telling the story of a river helps educate communities and governments about the waterway’s challenges and the importance of making good planning decisions.

Lisa Kennedy, illustrator, is a descendant of the Trawlwoolway People on the north-east coast of Tasmania. Lisa has connections to the Maribyrnong River and the Wurundjeri country, and her artwork reflects this sense of place. Wilam is her second title with Black Dog Books.

Wilam’s release reinforces the importance of bringing diverse Australian stories like this into our homes, kindergartens and schools. It’s a great conversation starter: How do we fit into our community? What do we see when we look up, down and around, when we take time to notice, to be still and open to the natural world? In Wilam there is an overarching representation of respect and caring, the words and images portraying the interconnectedness of humans and nature. We see creatures nurturing their young and people existing in harmony with their surroundings.

Wilam is more than just a story about a river. It’s an inspiration, gently leading us to find out more about the land in which we live.

Reviewed by Jo Vabolis
Twitter: @JoVabolis

Distributed by: Walker Books Australia
Released: April 2019
RRP: $24.99 hardcover

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