FOUND: An interrogative children’s picture book text about the Stolen Generation in Australia

I love a multi-layered picture book that I can come back to time and again. I particularly like books that confuse me a little on first reading, but then open up on subsequent readings. These are the books that force me to ask questions, of them, of their creators’ intentions, and of the assumptions I bring to the book.

At uni I learned that the term for this sort of book is an interrogative text. Many people see it as a marker of literary merit.

Found, by multi-award winning author, Bruce Pascoe, is one of these books. The illustrator is debut picture book illustrator, Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, who was the winner of the Kestin Indigenous Illustration Award, which saw her paired with mentors Cathie Tasker and Deb Brown, along with the team at Magabala Books.

This book made me go back to it over and over. I imagine it could open up wonderful discussions, with children and adults of all ages, about perspective and point-of-view, family and Australian history, particularly of the Stolen Generation.

This is not a review, but rather a record of my response to reading Found for the first time. A reader response approach, if you will. Sometimes I’ve been able to find answers to some of my wonderings about the illustrator’s intent (included in italics, in square brackets, from an interview with children’s literature specialist, Joy Lawn). I’ve also included a response from a real-life child, so you get two reader responses for one!

Reader response #1:

40-something female, non-indigenous, avid reader

The front and back cover are striking. I feel my eyes drawn to gloss spots perfectly placed to emphasise the lone, lost-looking calf and then the title, Found. I find this juxtaposition a perfect hook on the cover, as the gap between the meanings of the illustration and text raise questions in my mind. 

Is the calf lost or found? Whose perspective are we seeing her from? Does this make a difference? She looks so small and afraid – why is no one there for her? I want to read the story to find out the answers.

The title page emphasises those questions and draws me into the story. The direction the calf is facing, when combined with p 2, conveys a sense of yearning for that left behind, as well as forward movement.

pp 2-3 

There are beautiful echoes in the lines of the spinifex, calf’s tail, and the calf’s eyelashes as she looks out pitifully at the world. I wonder on the third reading why GONE is written in a wider, squatter font than “mummy, sisters, brothers”. Why did the designer and editor make this choice? Perhaps it is to emphasise the finality of that word, and the fat sense of desolation it conveys—the heavy feeling in the pit of one’s stomach. I suspect that’s why it’s placed in the lowest corner, in the dark. All of these design decisions help convey a sense of despair.

pp 4-5 
Aerial view of calf, original illustration by Charmaine Ledden-Lewis

What a spread! I love the colours, the circular placement of the text, the perspective (of the ducks, perhaps?) and the calf’s expression. VERY effective. It’s making me think there is an omniscient narrator, flying above the wood ducks, perhaps a wood duck themselves.

pp 6-7 

Another great shift in perspective. There is a full frontal close-up of the calf’s face and eyes with a man’s image reflected in them. On first reading, the calf looks stunned or hypnotised. On third reading, there’s something unusual about the man. On subsequent readings, the image of the man is in the style of cave painting images of people (with the addition of a hat, of course). There is wonderful use of light and shadow in the calf’s pupils.

pp 8-9 

On first reading: Hang on, is this a typo? I find the change of tense disconcerting. If I was the editor, I would probably keep it all in the present tense. On second reading, I’m still not keen on the past tense but I now see it’s a flashback. Perhaps my gut feeling first reading about the calf being stunned is true. It’s a traumatic memory! Third reading: I love this! The illustration of the man is so realistic. The illustrator can obviously technically draw realistic humans as well as animals, so her decision to draw the silhouette of the man in the symbolic form of the cave-painting must have been conscious. [Correspondence from editor: the silhouette is based on Western art, not cave paintings at all!]

Development of illustrations, from correspondence with editor

I’d love to hear her reasons, but at this stage my theory is that it is to highlight the “Dreamtime” aspect of the calf’s memory. From what I know, Aboriginal Dreamtime covers all aspects of history, society, politics, culture. It was usually an oral tradition, with some recordings in the form of cave paintings and artefacts, along with traditions of dot painting, dance and music in different regions.

Ironically, even as the Stolen Generation was being taught to read and write in English, they were actively discouraged from speaking their mother tongue. This included stories and memories of  what must have been an incredibly traumatic act of being stolen. I’m thinking now that this trauma of familial displacement, and the ensuing cultural and political displacements, are all conveyed in that starry-eyed image on the previous spread. Seeing the fear and crowding of the cattle truck reminds me of images of genocide in the cattle trains of the Holocaust.

pp 10-11 

On subsequent readings, I wonder why the calf is running in the same direction of the truck. It works well visually, for forward momentum and to lead the eye to the page turn. It makes me think the calf is very fast, but then I remember that the truck is just accelerating from a parked position. So the calf would have jumped out the back and could have kept running away. For her to be running next to the truck she must have made the decision to stay with the truck (her family). 

pp 12-13 

Poor thing, she can’t keep up. It dawns on me that this is a different take on a familiar story. The child is left alone because her family is stolen. What a clever inversion.

[CLL: Children of the stolen generation were taken ‘in broad daylight’ so it needed to take place in the middle of the day.]

pp 14-15 

The colour palette changes. The calf is in the exact same place – the hill is at the same angle as the previous spread! That poor calf has been at a loss, not knowing whether to stay put and wait for her family to return, or whether to search for them. In terms of the previous page’s inversion, might this represent a family or culture left in limbo, waiting for the stolen children to come home?

pp 16-17 

I love this spread too, with its gradual darkening. It’s a different perspective, but the background still looks like dirt so I suspect it’s still the same spot on the road, from an aerial perspective. The spine of the calf bisects the spread diagonally, allowing very effective placement of text. The repeated refrain of what she misses is in the dark half, as if it’s the internal fear or longing a child might keep hidden. In the light half is the dawning realisation she must face, that she’s all alone.

pp 18-19 

She makes a decision to survive, so runs to the life-giving resource she knows, the river. There she sees horses again. I love this perspective of their reflection. I wonder why the illustrator makes all their reflections the same colour, despite us being able to see that in reality the calf is brown and the horses white. Perhaps it is a metaphor for the soul. Despite our skin colour, on the inside we are all the same. My 11-year-old daughter needed help interpreting this page, although she easily saw that it was from the calf’s perspective. We talked about how the picture could also represent looking at someone through a barbed wire fence—the ripples in the river reminded us of that. But when we saw the text and the dirt in the left bottom corner, we knew we were on a riverbed.

pp 20-21 

Another effective spread, with repetition of circles representing a circle of trust and acceptance. [CLL: I painted a rippling effect in the dust that surrounds the calf, symbolising the rippling effect that removing children from family can have for generations to come.]

There are obvious points of similarity and difference within the different identities. We suspect she could be happy and cared for here… [CLL: I wanted the horses to appear cold and alien, and very much not familiar. When the calf is finally reunited with family, the colours are once again soft and gentle, and lush with greenery, suggesting the nurturing qualities of being home, which in my opinion, is wherever family is.]

pp 22-23 

… but we cheer when we hear the Moo calling her. Charge is a great active verb showing the calf taking active steps to find her mother.

pp 24-25 

Ultra close-up – another unique perspective. With the text in bold font emphasising my mother the theme is clear, but the use of “hear” and “see” hides this amongst a “typical” early childhood/preschool narrative text about the senses. Here I pause on subsequent readings and wonder why the author felt the need to do this. It saddens me that perhaps, even in this day and age, for widespread acceptance, a preschool book has to have some sort of “developmentally appropriate” “educational” content. But it better steer clear of teaching explicitly about Australian history! 

Author, Bruce Pascoe, from publisher’s website

When I see the anguish and longing in the calf’s face I think of all the distracted and troubled children I have met professionally. They are looking and listening for love and for their mothers, carers or family. They are too distracted to be able to listen to stories and lessons about “developmentally appropriate” topics.

pp 26-27

The suspense!

pp 28-29

Hooray! What a unique perspective!

pp 30-31

The physical intimacy… aww.

pp 32-33 

Aah, this warms my heart. A personal bugbear of mine is the lack of images of breast-feeding in children’s picture books. Even though the science is in on “breast is best” (this is a qualified statement acknowledging many situations where breastfeeding is not possible), there is a preponderance of bottle feeding in the pages of picture books. The image of our calf being completely enveloped and sheltered by her mother is very effective.

pp 34-35 

On first reading, this image reminds me of seeing family groups hanging out in Papunya, Northern Territory, during my times out there. Our family is currently in Costa Rica, witnessing that so-called “lazy” family time that is present and valued in some cultures much more than in modern western culture.

On the fourth reading, I notice the different colours of the cows and that both calves are lighter than their mothers. I think this must be a deliberate decision on the part of the illustrator, and I think it works well. The mother and baby are easily distinguished in the spreads. It works in terms of the Stolen Generation metaphor since as we know, many of the children taken first were the fairer-skinned so-called “half-castes”. The emphasis on “My family” at the end is heart-warming and hopeful. The story chronology is short, but it could signify many years or decades in reality.

Illustrator, Charmaine Ledden-Lewis, from her website
pp 36-37 

I love that Charmaine is a Bundjalung woman, from the country I was born and raised in and where we live now.

Endpages: Love these. What a gorgeous book!!!

Reader response #2:

11-year-old female, non-indigenous, with background of national primary curriculum ~ focus area Indigenous Australian studies

She loved it and thought it was a very good and important book. When I asked her if it could be a metaphor for anything, she immediately said, “The Stolen Generation.” Her school is our local public school and it has a great ATSI program. They teach Bundjalung language to all year levels and have a Deadly Dancers program and lots of other extension programs, so she’s pretty aware of the history and cultural aspects. They “did” the Stolen Generation as a topic in Yrs 3-4. (This is so much more than we did in primary school in the 80’s…)

More questions…

Now, I’d like to know about the possible interrogative nature of Bruce Pascoe, Charmaine Ledden-Lewis and the indigenous publishing team at Magabala working with a non-indigenous editing and design duo. But alas, I think that will be a question for a future article!

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