Yakanarra Community School students visited Sydney to sings songs from their Song Book at the Opera House. (ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton)
In remote parts of Australia just one in 10 Indigenous school students meet the minimum national standard for reading and writing, according to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF).
But it wants to turn those figures around, and as part of the Indigenous Literacy Day they have launched four books representing stories from over 15 remote communities, giving a glimpse into their lives.
One of those books is the Yakanarra Song Book, illustrating life in the remote Western Australian community.
Together with well-known author and illustrator Ms Lester, the book was written and illustrated by students from the Yakanarra Community School and Elders.
What makes this book so special is that it is made up of songs in English and in traditional language.
“If you don’t ever read anything that has a life like yours, it’s kind of like you’re outside looking in all the time,” Ms Lester said.
Ms Lester, author and illustrator, worked with the community to produce the book. (ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton)
She said she was excited to be working together with communities to help them publish books in language.
“I think for kids it’s very hard… to learn to read in a language that isn’t your first language,” Ms Lester said.
“But if you can learn to read in your language it’s going to be much better.”
She said the book will also give middle class white Australian children a glimpse into the life of the Yakanarra community, as well as learning a few Indigenous words.
Ms Lester described Yakanarra as a “beautiful little remote community” located 60 kilometres south-west of Fitzroy Crossing in the Kimberley Region of WA.
“It’s a very beautiful country, wild desert country, huge skies,” she said.
Elders’ mission to save the language
Ms Lester had already helped produce a number of books with the community when she heard about songs created by elders during the 1980s and ’90s.
Two elders, Mary Purnjurr Vanbee and Jessie Wamarla Moora, had worked with the community to create the songs in the primary language Walmajarri, in order to ensure the kids kept their language.
“Because they were being taught in English at school and they were worried that they were going to lose their language,” Ms Lester said.
Ms Lester and musician Chris Aitken recorded some of the songs, and Ms Lester then worked with students to illustrate each song from the book.
“When they sat down to work they came up with these beautiful fresh vibrant watercolours that illustrated the book,” she said.
Yakanarra elder Ms Vanbee helped to translate the book and said the songs touched on topics such as where animals sleep, what they eat, as well as swimming and fishing songs.
“It’s very important because kids have to learn when they’re still little, [and] as they grow older they can pass it on to their generation,” she said.
Ms Vanbee, Ms Moora and the students from Yakanarra school travelled from their community to perform songs from the book on stage at the Sydney Opera House.
The Indigenous Literacy Foundation ambassadors Josh Pyke and Aitken performed alongside the students.
Yakanarra students sing songs from the Yakanarra Song Book at the Opera House along with Josh Pyke. (ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton)
‘Learning English helps open doors’
Karen Williams, executive director of the ILF, said their vision was to give every child living in remote communities the same opportunities and access to literacy resources.
“We believe through education they will improve their access to jobs, wellbeing and health,” she said.
Mary Vanbee and Yakanarra students Zarlia Vanbee [L], Keenan Vanbee, Ella Jubadah. (ABC News: Laura Brierley Newton)
She said the current statistics in Indigenous literacy levels were appalling, with little change in the numbers over the past 10 years.
“If anyone looks at the NAPLAN results for the last 10 years, it’s appalling that a wealthy country like Australia should have such shocking statistics,” she said.
“[For example] only one in 10 children living in a remote community in the Northern Territory can read or write at the basic minimum level.
“We’re not saying that English has to be the most important part of their education, they should learn to read and write in their own language.
“But they need to learn to be able to communicate effectively in English to go on to further education and to get a job — to be able to read a medical script, or their medicine bottle, just to participate in the world around us.”
Yakanarra students and elders sing onstage at the Opera House in front of a page from the Yakanarra Song Book