Aunty Joy Murphy and Andrew Kelly (text), and Lisa Kennedy (illustrator), Wilam: A Birrarung Story, Walker Books Australia, April 2019, 40 pp., RRP $24.99 (hbk), ISBN 9781925381764
Wilam is a truly beautiful story in both its words and pictures. Even more than a story, it is somewhat of a puzzle of the linguistic variety, rewarding rereading, and challenging the adventurous reader to learn twenty-odd words of the Woiwurrung language. Two of them are used in the book’s title and subtitle, which translate as “Home: A Yarra River Story”. All are listed, page by page, in a glossary at the back, along with a guide to pronunciation.
The authors of Wilam include Aunty Joy Murphy, Senior Aboriginal Elder of the Wurundjeri People of Melbourne and surrounds; Andrew Kelly, Yarra Riverkeeper, one of whose roles is to speak for the Yarra on behalf of the community; and illustrator Lisa Kennedy, a descendent of the Trawlwoolway People of Tasmania, who was born in Melbourne and grew up close to the Maribyrnong River. You may recall an earlier collaboration of Aunty Joy and Lisa in Welcome to Country (Walker Books, 2016). If you know that book then much will be familiar, including a few words of language, and certainly the style of the book as a whole – obviously designed as companion books. Wilam does have a strong character of its own, however, with richly filled and swirling illustrations depicting the river throughout.
The story tells of one day in the life of the vital, flourishing Birrarung. As we turn the pages the time of day on the river moves on, taking with it an element or two – line, colour, motif – into the next frame. The blues of the river move through all pages, ending with a glowing yellow sunset that, along with the city, roads and bush, is viewed from a garden path – and home. It takes a few pages before people begin to be visible along the river, but then they are increasingly present, part of the landscape as we travel through the city.
The language incorporated in Wilam consists of the names of many creatures and environmental objects – rain, leaves, trunk, earth – but the pictures include much more. Each double spread is an artwork in itself with detailed visual stories within, characterised by vibrant colours and visual texture. The front endpaper shows us the platypus swimming towards the river, then the day passes as we move through each page along the river and its banks, to the final endpaper illustration of many fish swimming back towards the river.
This is a joyful book that returns much to the thoughtful reader, and offers a great deal for classroom use. The publisher has excellent resources for Welcome to Country, and I am hopeful there will be some added for Wilam after its release.
Reviewed by Marita Thompson