Although the peaks and valleys of history tempt us to assign ultimate values to events and the people who propelled them along, where nations are concerned, there are no “goodies” or “baddies.” Rather, there are good moments and bad moments. There is greed and there is generosity. There is shame and there is celebration.
Armin Greder’s picture book, Australia to Z, tackles this dichotomy head on in an abecedarium that points to one characteristically Australian idea or image for each letter of the alphabet. With minimal text and vivid illustrations, it resembles picture books more generally targeted to young children. However, this unsettling book provides more food for thought for older readers, right from its opening images: a double-page spread showing the silhouette of an Indigenous man (A for Aborigine) standing on a rocky outcrop overlooking the water while on the B side opposite a little convoy of boat people paddle their way to shore -- not the boat people that popular news media would have us consider when we hear those words, but an earlier group of boat people: members of the First Fleet, arriving from England.
This disarming and surprising examination of Australian culture continues throughout the book. All the icons we think of when we consider what it means to be Australian are present, evoking images of wide open spaces, sunshine, and the laid-back larrikin ideal we’re so fond of. All the things we love to laugh at about our country are present. But they are there alongside the things that shame us, making us grin on one page and pause on the next.
It’s a book that’s gently funny in spots and starkly sobering in others. It’s also darkly beautiful, with a thoughtful, limited colour palette and paintings in fluid, scratchy lines, reminiscent of sketches by Matisse.
In this text, Armin Greder challenges the idea of what comprises our national identity and confronts the mingled shame and pride of our history. Alongside that, he manages to embody all that is important and potent about picture books. The loveliest of them are works of art which engage the mind as well as the senses, and Australia to Z certainly falls into this category.
Australia to Z
Allen & Unwin, 32 pages