This story tugs at my heartstrings. I travel extensively with my husband, a wildlife photographer, throughout regional Australia and it breaks my heart to see the downturn in once-prosperous rural towns: the dusty shopfronts of abandoned bakeries and butcheries, the empty family-owned department stores, a lone hairdresser opening for a few hours each day, grand old pubs without beer and the paucity of services such as doctors, vets, banks, functioning churches and schools.
I am a country girl familiar with the domestic and international economic imperatives that have led us to this position but the communities that have been lost in the process can never be rebuilt. Yet some small towns still prevail, and it is certainly within our power to retain the surviving bush towns and ensure their future prosperity. Not everyone wants to live in a big, sprawling metropolis and these small towns offer an alternative, with more affordable housing for families and many other benefits.
Having witnessed desperate and dispossessed refugees first-hand on the Nepalese borders, I have my radar tuned in to the programs and projects which support refugees settling in Australia, and for several years I have been following the amazing stories of successful initiatives of several country towns in Victoria. Towns such as Nhill, Pyramid Hill and Strathbogie have shown us a model for the settlement of refugees in regional Australia that is successful and long-lasting. It is wonderful to see this story being told for a new audience in a different way, spreading the message and hopefully garnering support for more programs of rejuvenation through immigration.
The narrator of this picture book is Milly, a primary-aged country girl who is proud of her town. Milly loves netball but her team loses players every time a family moves away seeking opportunity elsewhere. Soon there are not enough girls to fill the team. Will they have to ask the boys to play? Through Milly’s initiative, a group of refugee families arrive seeking jobs, homes and friendship. Will they be welcomed and given the opportunity to prosper in this small community?
Author Phillip Gwynne visited a school in Pyramid Hill a couple of years ago and felt the story of rejuvenation by immigration would make an excellent picture book for young readers. Phillip is no stranger to big issues in his books: his best-selling YA novel Deadly Unna? won many esteemed awards and has become a firm favourite with teachers and students exploring racism and injustice.
Award-winning illustrator Tony Flowers was very keen to work with Phillip’s story and told us:
“I really enjoyed the process of creating the town of Gong Gong for this book. I spent a lot of time on my drives around Tasmanian pulling into small towns and exploring their back streets to help find buildings and scenes to put into the illustration. When I create illustrations, I like to fill them with the things that are personal to me. The dog is based on a friend’s dog (I always like to put dogs into my books), my motorcycles and VW Beetle make an appearance, even some of the people are based on people I know.
The dog is based on a dog I know called Phoenix; he is a grey whippet. I changed his colour to the warmer brown tones, I really just like the way he moves. Stephen Michael King once said to me that if you give a character a dog they never seem to be as alone. As a dog lover (and a proud father of a German and Belgian Shepherd) I have to agree with him, and I always try to find a way to add a dog into my books.
Some people have asked about the ‘Flowers Bakery’ image in the story.
This is for 2 reasons, firstly I love to bake and I bake a lot and secondly in the late 1800s to early 1920 my Family had a bakery in Victoria called ‘Flowers Bakery’, just a fun personal reference.“
This book is perfect for kids 5+. There is a lot to explore in Tony’s finely detailed illustrations which give the story a quirky warmth and humour. I particularly loved Milly’s faithful hound who appears on almost every page. Phillip’s inclusion of Milly’s Granny is a clever device and integral to the story as well, demonstrating the value that grandparents add to the lives of many young children.
This book would be a very useful classroom tool for teachers and librarians, neatly bringing together complex concepts into an accessible story that is uplifting and heart-warming. With so much bad news in the news cycle every night it is a palpable relief to read a true story that ends joyously for everyone. It also taps into the idea that kids can make a difference, through activism as simple as letter-writing.
This is a durable hardcover edition with detailed endpapers so make sure to start right at the very front and read all the way to the very back to enjoy Tony’s celebratory end to the story