Guest blog by Yvonne Mes (writer and illustrator) www.yvonnemes.weebly.com
I wasn’t familiar with Leonie’s stories before attending her workshop, but having lived and worked in North-West Queensland and aware of some of the realities faced by remote Indigenous Australians I bought her book The Barrumbi Kids before I arrived for the session.
So I was really glad when Leonie picked up the same book and read parts of it to us. Through her words, voice and her storytelling ability the whole room was transported from a small neon lit room in Marburg to the wilds of remote Australia being chased by a crocodile!
Leonie shared experiences of her upbringing when living with her family in an Aboriginal community south of Katherine in the sixties. She was raised with the spirituality and language of both Irish Catholicism and Aboriginal spirituality and a respect and love for both.
Leonie wants to create books that Indigenous people can get the full experience from. “Children need books set in their own country.” She doesn’t feel that it is important whether it is written in English or not but “Learning in context is what is important.”
“I grew up in a world (the community) where Indigenous people were the most powerful people, the people with true power.”
Learning English at school was important to the people living in the community. They believed this would help them succeed in the world and were disappointed when this did not happen and may explain why this is no longer embraced as much in the aboriginal communities.
Her picture book You and Me: Our Place, illustrated by Dee Huxley was difficult to get published because of its subject matter: Indigenous homeless people in an urban setting. The story started out as a novel and took her seven years to write, finally cutting it down to 80 words.
“Literature is taking an experience and bringing it inside you,” she said.
Through her stories Leonie wants make connections from one reality to another, she says “We have to bring people close, face to face with each other.”
Her picture book Look see, Look at me, also illustrated by Dee Huxley, was written in response to the intervention. With it she wants to show the love and care within communities, and that “We are just the same as you” and “everyone loves their children.” Leonie says these are all complex issues but “literature is the most powerful thing.”
All her stories are written with the permission from the community and checked for legitimacy. This may mean the stories need to be translated for the community in order to go through this process “to make it O.K.” (for these stories to be published).
Leonie finished her fascinating session with another read from her Aussie Bites story Crocodile Jack.
Quite a few participants were so fascinated with Leonie’s story they found it hard to move on to the next session. I didn’t leave before asking her to sign my copy of The Barrumbi Kids, which she appropriately inscribed with: For Mateship and Country.
You can find out more about Leonie here and I recommend her About me section in particular for a greater insight into this fascinating children’s writer.