Kennedy, Mariah (ed) Reaching Out: Messages of Hope.
This is a brilliant concept, brought to fruition by a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl from Victoria, who aged eleven attended an international children's convention in Japan. That experience changed her life in that it motivated her passion for social justice that in turn inspired her to raise almost $20,000 for various causes and to develop youth advocacy groups. She became an Ambassador for UNICEF Australia and it was her initiative to approach a small, but passionate army of writers, illustrators and others with a social conscience to contribute stories, poems, nonfiction pieces and sketches for this publication. To quote Norman Gillespie, CEO, UNICEF Australia, 'There are pieces that will make your heart heavy, stories of sorrow, abuse, violence and injustice. However, there are also stories of young people who have seen the plight of others, and who have used their voices, skills and time to speak up against injustice and motivate those around them to build a better world.'
Following are some thirty-five entries that include well-known and prize-winning Australians such as Libby Gleeson, Libby Hathorn, Jackie French, Melina Marchetta, Bruce Whatley, Graeme Base, Morris Gleitzman and Andy Griffiths, to name a few. There are others less well known, but who have inspiring stories to tell from their travels and experience of the wider world. Three such are David Nyuol Vincent (The pain is never over) a former child soldier and peace activist, who was given a gun and trained to fight during the conflict in Sudan; Hugh Evans (A Global citizen) who was fourteen when he began his work as an Ambassador for World Vision providing humanitarian and educational aid in India, South Africa, Ghana, PNG and East Timor earning him Young Australian of the Year in 2004; perhaps Danielle Gram (The cheetah and the hare) is less well known to Australian readers, but she is co-founder of Kids for Peace (indeed each contributor has a personal story to tell). The mini-biographies of such contributors, in themselves make inspiring and motivating reading. The same can be said of Mariah Kennedy's personal introduction in which, among other things, she tells of her own reading as a child, and in later life. In itself this proves what many educators have long maintained, that a steady diet of childhood reading that may well include some popular 'roughage' can be inspiring and lead to a deeper understanding of the human condition.
The contributions themselves vary greatly in literary style. A few are obviously taken out of the writer's bottom drawer; some explore populist themes like the plight of boat-people; others could well be autobiographical; some explore literary traditions such as multiple voices or time and place shifts. Included are three very clever Leunig-calendar pieces, the first picturing A Child's Guide to the universe in Gaza where a child looks up at the stars and then, opposite at a tangle of barbed wire. Graeme Base offers From the Shadows a two-stanza poem with accompanying sketch. The first stanza tells of 'A world of ashes, leached of life', but the final lines of the second verse reads 'And from the shadows 'tween the trees/ New life will surely grow.' The accompanying subtle sketch is worth framing. Unlike some of the contributors Base practices Katherine Patterson's credo that no child should be bereft of hope. Unfortunately some of the contributors fail on that very score. We all know that we inhabit a violent world. This collection leaves us in no doubt of that. If read carefully with an open mind, here is an inspiring book, and it does raise genuine philosophical and ethical questions; but for some it could be emotionally devastating.
Wisely, the first entry, Michael Morpurgo's Dear Olly, is one of the most satisfying literary pieces; a beautifully balanced story of Olly's brother Matt who can act the clown to amuse young people, but who sickened by conditions he sees on television, secretly cashes his savings and takes himself to a war-stricken area in Africa to work in an orphanage where he becomes a beloved 'saviour' of one child in particular. Matt loses a leg when a landmine explodes, and he is repatriated. But, inspired by a legless sparrow feeding its young, Matt determines to return to Africa to continue his healing work. This is a balanced, compassionate and flawless piece of literature.
The final entry, in an entirely different way is just as wise, and cheerfully sanguine. Andy Griffiths calls it Literacy. He shares his own experiences with children from Daly River and how he helps them develop literacy. He perceptively defines the benefits of literacy, bringing among other benefits, 'a measure of independence and self-determination'. He diagnoses the causes of illiteracy in remote areas, then goes on to explain his success and his use of such techniques as having the children write and illustrate their own books. Simple, of course, but Griffiths modestly and convincingly chronicles his own 'message of hope'.
Just as popular and just as perceptive, another 'funny man' Morris Gleitzman tells his convincing story in Give peas a chance. Ben hates veggies, but he does watch documentaries of kids in Iraq being shot. In true Gleitzman style the writer has Ben vowing 'I'm not being a good boy any more ... until grown-ups get rid of all the guns and bombs.' Moreover Ben organizes school strike action that spreads even to New Zealand and Japan, then ... Crazy, of course; but this is a parable, just as Jesus used unpalatable truths to undermine the hypocrites and Pharisees of his day. So Gleitzman uses farce to aid Mariah Kennedy make her point. Reaching Out at its best interrogates issues of philosophical, emotional, ethical, and social importance. Occasionally horror overwhelms hope. MS