Playing by the book

Reviews of kids' books and the crazy, fun stuff they inspire us to do

An Australian Alphabet

Posted on | June 7, 2010 | 23 Comments

Possum and Wattle – My Big Book of Australian Words by Bronwyn Bancroft was a recent impulse buy – I simply couldn’t leave the shop without a copy…

Photo: Marxchivist

This A-Z book of single words each individually illustrated is a great introduction to Australian, and more particularly Aboriginal culture. Some words are instantly recognisable as “Australian”, such as joey, possum, didgeridoo or boomerang, whilst others were new to me and my kids eg quandong (a tree bearing bright red, edible fruit), quokka (a small wallaby found on Rottnest and Bald islands off the coast of Western Australia), willy-willy (a spiralling wind of dust, like a small whirlwind) and yabby (an edible crayfish).

There’s a third group of words which we initially wondered why they had been selected as especially Australian eg sun and snowflake, but that’s where the glossary at the back of the book came in very helpful – for most of the words which appear in the book there is a sentence or two about them, explaining what the word means (“wobbegong: a type of shark with a flat body that lives on the bottom of the sea“) or why it has been included (“sun: According to Aboriginal dreaming, the sun came out of the earth. The sun is central to the Aboriginal flag.“)

Through just a small selection of Australian vocabulary M, J and I have been able to explore and discuss and think about lots of different aspects of Australian Aboriginal culture and for this alone the book is a welcome addition on our bookshelves, but I’d be lying if I pretended it wasn’t the illustrations that keep bringing us back to read the book again and again.

Bronwyn Bancroft’s father was Bundjalung – the Bundjalung people are Australian Aborigines whose homeland is on the northern coastal areas of New South Wales (Australia) and the illustrations in this book are so-called “dot” art, perhaps the most recognisable form of Aboriginal painting (click here for a helpful introduction to Australian Indigenous art).

We all adore the illustrations – you can’t help but feel cheerful when you look at them but I also have one tiny gripe about the artwork. Although the book includes great contextual information on the words chosen, there is no background information on the pictures and painting technique, and I think this is a lost opportunity. For example, I would have liked to find out if “dot” art is common to all Aboriginal groups, or whether it is a specifically Bundjalung tradition (perhaps a blog reader can give us some information here? :-) )

Photo: BotheredByBees

With such delicious images of course we were inspired to try our own hand at dot painting. I prepared the ground by painting black outlines of several animals, which the girls then filled in with dots – we used corks, pen lids and circular sponges to create a variety of dot sizes.

It was an easy but very satisfying project with results that made us smile just as much as the illustrations in Possum and Wattle!

Possum and Wattle – My Big Book of Australian Words *** (3 stars)

Whilst we “dotted” we listened to….

  • Some didgeridoo music – we downloaded a couple of tracks from Australia, Traditional Didgeridoo, Australian Aboriginal Music by Kristian Didgeridoo’s Ensemble. It helped that the girls had seen a recent Zingzillas’ programme all about the didgeridoo.
  • And the band played Waltzing Matilda and To the shores of Botany Bay by The Bushwackers (an Australian “bush” band)
  • The Wild One by Johnny O’Keefe (Australia’s answer to Elvis Presley)
  • New Sensation by INXS (…!)


  • Other Australian activities we might get up to include:

  • Everything in this edition of Kids Craft Weekly dedicated to Aboriginal Culture
  • Anyone of these adorable kangaroos from Danielle’s Place
  • Using up more of our corks by making this cork hat from Activity Village


  • It would be really interesting to have an Australian perspective on Possum and Wattle – My Big Book of Australian Words – I know that when I see similar things about England or Britain I often wince at the hackneyed stereotypes (although here’s one I haven’t yet read which I would like to see) that are reproduced. Please do leave a comment and let us know what you think! Or if you’re not Australian, are there any ABC books from your own country which you think provide an exceptionally good cultural introduction (to “insiders” or “outsiders”, for want of better words)?

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    Comments

    23 Responses to “An Australian Alphabet”

    1. Harriet M. Welsch
      June 7th, 2010 @ 1:36 am

      If you’re looking for another Australian craft, didgeridoos are not that hard to make. You can find one set of instructions here. It can easily be done as a project with children, especially if you prep the sanding and let them concentrate on the decorating part.

    2. amandab
      June 7th, 2010 @ 9:52 am

      We recently borrowed a similar book from the library, but the title escapes me. Again, I think it was the illustrations that attracte Princess.

      Most Indigenous artwork that I have seen has been dot painting, but the value in the painting is in the creation of it, as traditionally (and this is my understanding from study nearly 20 years ago) the artwork would be created with a story, so the story and process was of more value than the finished work, a Western concept that I thi nk amused the Indigenous at some point, probably when they first started getting the big dollars. That said, many artists have been ripped off, as have been collectors, and I remember watching something which was almost sweat shop art production.

    3. Choxbox
      June 7th, 2010 @ 10:32 am

      Wow. I’m always floored by the things you do around a book. Your girls are LUCKY!

      For alphabet around a country – ‘I is for India’ by Prodeepta Das is a whole A-Z with a picture per letter accompanied by a narrative. Nice.

      We also have A is for Africa, B is for Brazil and C is for China in our home library. All are great introductions to those cultures (though I don’t think Africa should be bundled up into one as if its a single country).

      I think there are many more along the same lines.

    4. Catherine
      June 7th, 2010 @ 10:38 am

      Looks like a great book, it doesn’t sound full of Australin stereotypes. I will say that each group of Aboriginal people has seperate language and traditions, so, for example, Aboriginal words are not common to all Aboriginal languages.

      There are 3 main forms of Aboriginal art –
      1) dot painting, mainly done in Central Australia. Originally it was done in the sand and last century they were introduced to canvases (and the value of selling their art). The stories are traditional and told using traditional symbols with many layers of meaning. Canvasses are easy to preserve making this a valuable, saleable form of Aboriginal art. I would say that the illustrations in your book are stylized to look Aboriginal rather than being traditional art.
      2) bark painting, mainly found in North Australia (they are difficult to preserve and so have less value).
      3) European-style art of the Hermannsburg school, a tradition started by Albert Namatjira

      There is also Torres Strait Islander art where they make beautiful, intricatle lino prints.

      Go here http://www.nt.gov.au/nreta/museums/exhibitions/natsiaa/index.html to the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Award and you can find virtual exhibitions (past year) showing all the styles from leading artists, plus examples of contemporary Aboriginal art.

    5. Zoe @ Playing by the book
      June 7th, 2010 @ 5:20 pm

      Harriet – Thanks for the tip and the link :-)

      Amanda, that’s really interesting about the process over the final product – and I think particularly relevant for arts/crafts done with kids too!

      Choxbox – I see that I is for India is illustrated with photos. I have to admit I tend to avoid books illustrated with photos – they’ve never won me over (and so I don’t really know what my girls think of them either). I don’t know what it is about photos – as I love looking at photos in the National Geographic, for example. What do you think about using photos as illustrations?

      Catherine – what a useful comment! Thanks so much for some context for these dot paintings. It’s exactly what I wish the book had included. The link to the art award is terrific – it’s great to be able to view so many examples from past years. Lots of inspiration there! And Bark painting looks like it would be a fun thing to try with kids – lots of patterns and the adventure of finding some bark to decorate… :-)

    6. Z-Dad
      June 8th, 2010 @ 3:15 am

      Great art!

    7. Zoe
      June 8th, 2010 @ 6:36 am

      Thanks Z-Dad! This was one of those projects that was easy to set up, easy to do and yet gave pretty lovely results – the girls were so pleased!

    8. Choxbox
      June 8th, 2010 @ 7:07 am

      Hmm. You always make interesting points. Had never thought of it that way!

    9. Bernadette
      June 8th, 2010 @ 12:11 pm

      Boy, I’m jealous of all the “Q” words that Australia has!

      I’m glad to have found your blog, Zoe. I love literature-based explorations and this book sounds like a great way to begin a knowledge adventure through Australia, as you’ve started with your little ones.

      And, as you’ve probably figured out by now on Goodreads, I have a thing for alphabet books. Although I am not Egyptian, I have lived in Egypt for over 15 years. One of my goals for my book, An ABC Escapade through Egypt, and blog was to teach others about the culture of modern Egypt because there is so little literature and information available. But it’s got photographs. ;-)

    10. Zoe
      June 8th, 2010 @ 1:19 pm

      Hi Bernadette,
      Yes, I loved looking through your website and then your blog – it’s definitely good to have made contact! Have you got any recommendations for us about Egyptian children’s literature, especially picture books – books that have been translated, or are set in Egypt? It would be great to discover some new authors (in addition to you :-) )

    11. Bernadette
      June 9th, 2010 @ 6:57 am

      Yes, recommendations I have…here is a link to a pdf file with recs for (the few!) books set in Egypt or the Middle East:

      http://www.bernadettesimpson.com/Children'sandYABooksaboutEgyptandMiddleEast.pdf

      See how short the list is?! That is why I wrote my book and I hope to encourage more young authors here in Egypt to add to this list.

    12. Bernadette
      June 9th, 2010 @ 6:58 am

      Sorry – looks like you’ll have to copy/paste that link.

    13. Zoe
      June 9th, 2010 @ 4:40 pm

      Thanks Bernadette for the pdf – it’s full of great suggestions, thanks so much for that. I’ve tried to fix the link from my end but the apostrophe is causing problems for some reasons aaarggh. Will try again later!

    14. magg, red ted art
      June 10th, 2010 @ 7:05 pm

      Zoe, your posts really are awe inspiring! So much thought and effort goes into the chosen books, the background and the craft project! Simply magnificent… will have to “slow down” my end and have a more “thoughtful” go myself. Sigh. Love the end result of crafts. Your girls are clever!!!

      Maggy x

    15. Leanne
      June 11th, 2010 @ 12:56 am

      I haven’t seen this book before, but it’s one I’d definitely use with my kids. I’m breathing a sigh of relief that it doesn’t appear to include words like “cobber” and “jumbuck” which no-one uses. The illustrations are lovely and bright. While they’re obviously not authentic (as other commenters have pointed out) they look like a good way to introduce the indigenous artform and storytelling to young kids.

      Great find!

    16. Zoe
      June 11th, 2010 @ 5:41 am

      Hi Leanne,
      I’ve now had to look up cobber and jumbuck to find out what they mean! And no, they don’t appear in the book! I’ve assumed this book is available in Australian, but I haven’t checked – I know that some book that I can get here in the UK aren’t easy to get hold of in Australia.

    17. Zoe
      June 13th, 2010 @ 7:29 am

      For reference, I’ve just found this lovely list of Alphabets And Counting Books Around The World:
      http://www.willesdenbookshop.co.uk/sections/section02/section02.htm

    18. Sangeetha
      June 14th, 2010 @ 2:39 pm

      We have another Bronwyn Bancroft book too, An Australian ABC of Animals, sent to us by family in Australia and we love it. If you make it to Melbourne, you should visit the National Gallery of Victoria which has an amazing indigenous art collection. http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/whats-on/exhibitions/exhibitions/the-indigenous-collection

    19. Zoe
      June 14th, 2010 @ 4:29 pm

      Thanks for the tip Sangeetha!

    20. sue
      October 15th, 2010 @ 11:03 am

      i am an aussie, and have never used the word ‘cobber’, i have been a child care educator for more than ten years.I will look forward To finding this book by Bronwyn Bancroft.Thank you.

    21. sue
      October 15th, 2010 @ 11:07 am

      p.s. we use cigarette filtters, from the tobacco shop to do the dot paintings.

    22. Zoe
      October 15th, 2010 @ 1:55 pm

      Hi Sue,
      Yes I wondered if some of the words were regional or “oldfashioned”. And thanks for the tip about cigarette filters.

    23. Jackie@My Little Bookcase
      February 25th, 2012 @ 12:40 pm

      Thanks for sharing the link to this post. It’s great to hear readers from all over the world enjoying Bronwyn’s books.
      The book I gave on International Book Giving Day, E is for Echidna (along with W is for Wombat) are abbreviated versions of Possum and Wattle)- perfect for the tiniest of readers.
      I love the images you created too.
      Jackie@My Little Bookcase recently posted..International Book Giving Day

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