Juxtaposing words and images, the multi-award-winning author of The Island shines an uncompromising light on what it is to be Australian.
Armin Greder was born in Switzerland. In 1971 he migrated to Australia where he worked as a graphic designer and later taught design and illustration at a tertiary art institution. Books he has illustrated include The Great Bear, An Ordinary Day and I Am Thomas, all written by Libby Gleeson. Books he has authored and illustrated include The Island and The City.
His work, in which charcoal is prominent, reflects his European background. He is the recipient of a number of international recognitions such as the Bologna Ragazzi Award and has been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Prize. He now lives in Lima, Peru.
Australia to Z is Armin Greder at his uncompromising, most confronting best. From the creator who brought us The Island which really turned a spotlight on our treatment of newcomers, comes this totally different alphabetical look at Australia which is just perfect for getting students to have a look at what it means to be Australian. While ‘soft’ investigations focus on icons, anthems, heroes and food, Australia to Z takes a much tougher look starting with the A for "Aborigine" looking out and seeing a First Fleet ship on the horizon to the deliberately juxtaposed B for "Boat People" showing more recent arrivals.
This is political commentary brought into the lives of children so they need to think and investigate… why has Greder chosen “Calories” for C, "IKEA" for I, and R for "Rupert"? But there are flashes of humour to lighten it too, with K being for the kangaroo that springs from nowhere in the night to take out the front of your car, and the ominously raised finger of the umpire for O for "Out"! And finally, there is Z for Zoo but the illustration is not what you would expect – but is perhaps the most poignant of all. This really is Australia under the microscope as the title page image suggests.
The choices make us think about how others see us, and with Greder being a Swiss immigrant, his perception may be sharper than others. But the inclusion of Advance Australia Fair almost as an appendix is a masterstroke – how different are the words we sing to the life we live?
Often in an ‘alphabet book’ the illustrations are more important than the text itself, but in this one the two are interdependent. Yes the text is biting but it is the powerful illustrations that accompany it that add the extra punch. Why are Rupert’s eyes blank? What does the picture of the "Digger" represent? With bold black strokes and a minimal palette, each image says all it needs to say and leaves a lasting impression long after the page has been turned.
Working in a highly multicultural school which has a significant population of children who come to learn English for the first time so they can work comfortably in their neighbourhood schools later, it never ceases to amaze me how these kids get along and understand each other so well without a common language let alone skin colour. There are many quotes and memes online that state 'Children are not born racist –they learn to hate' and that is certainly my experience. Using Australia to Z in a focus on identity and belonging would be a most powerful way to raise issues, investigate and discuss them because knowledge leads to understanding, understanding leads to tolerance and tolerance leads to acceptance. Maybe this year’s Year 5 and 6 students will be a turning point as they create their own with the theme 'what could be'.
Barbara Braxton, Teacher Librarian, NSW
This book by Armin Greder is not your typical A-Z book. Like his book The Island, it is thought provoking as it challenges the ‘norms’ of Australian Culture e.g. I for "IKEA", C for "Calories" and P for "Pokies". The drawings are rustic using very little colour but very symbolic. The book ends with a double page depicting the National Anthem surrounded by traditional symbols of Australia.
In the classroom, this book is suitable for stage 3 students. It fits in with both the English and History Curriculum. Some ideas for the use of the book in the classroom include:
Creation of A-Z of past Australian culture eg. Football, meatpies, kangaroos and Holden cars
Narelle Adams, Teacher Librarian, Smithfield West Public School, NSW
As Teacher Librarian of the English as an Additional Language (EAL) Library in Tasmania, I am always on the lookout for alphabet books. We have students arriving in Tasmania, needing to learn English and an alphabet book with an Australian theme is a good starting point. So I was pleased to review a copy of Australia to Z by Armin Greder.
My initial reaction on seeing the book was disappointment. This was no cute alphabet book. Greder’s illustrations had figures drawn with thick, unruly brush strokes. There was lots of black, beige and brown with only occasional use of bright colour. Instead of P for possum, Greder had "Pokies" and the illustration showed a black page with a line of lit faces with arms reaching towards stylised poker machines. This was not what I was expecting.
However, reading the book made all clear. Greder has delved deeply into portraying Australian culture. It’s there to see in the illustration on the title page: a person (Greder?) is holding a magnifying glass up to a stylised globe of the world and Australia is sharply defined.
And then there’s the first double page spread. "Aborigine" (showing a single Aborigine on a headland looking out over the sea with a sailing ship in the distance) opposite "Boat People" (showing an overcrowded open boat on a dark sea). There is much to discuss here and similarly with the rest of the book. Teachers could use this book for teaching about popular culture and identity. With mostly single words – “Calories”, “Digger”, “Esky”, “Rupert”, “Yakka” (to list a few) –and a telling illustration, our culture is laid bare.
The last double page spread is Advance Australia Fair, with illustrations framing the words of the anthem. What jumped out at me was part of the second verse:
“For those who’ve come across the seas
We’ve boundless plains to share;”
And what illustration does Greder have? People in a small open boat looking at a sign on a jetty saying "GO BACK – WE’RE FULL". Highly recommended for upper primary and secondary level.
Mary Blake, Teacher Librarian, TAS
Don't be fooled into thinking this is a conventional alphabet book: it certainly isn't. Always confronting and compelling, Armin Greder's picture books are required reading for all high school English-literacy teachers. Australia to Z, continues Greder's tradition of conveying scorching critical social commentary using bold brush strokes with sparse but dramatic use of colour.
While the alphabetical list of words is mostly conventional, the startling images deliver highly provocative images of Australian culture in the twenty first century. The book begins with “Aborigine”. The illustration reveals the silhouette of a single spear-carrying indigenous person standing on a cliff watching the arrival of a very small sailing ship. When this is juxtaposed with
“Boat People”, the silhouettes of women, men and children crowded on a small, white dinghy, the irony is clearly apparent. Especially with the visual connection of a pale beige sky filling both pages while a murky black and dark blue sea cuts a horizontal line across the bottom third of the pictures.
Each page subverts the dominant Australian cultural paradigm, encouraging rich discussion and critical thinking among both teachers and students. I particularly enjoyed the visual representation of “Rupert” (Murdoch) whose glowering, gloating visage looks disapprovingly down to us while his empty eye sockets assault our senses. Like many of Greder's images in this book, students will need to have a strong referential background in Australian culture if they are to understand the significance of the chosen words and images. Fortunately, the teachers' notes on the Allen and Unwin website give detailed explanations that will assist in deconstructing each complex text so that its strong emotional impact can be fully appreciated by its readers.
Before revealing the text, I would ask students in pairs or groups to create their own list of words to signify their understanding of the Australian way of life (a quick Google search will provide the alphabox templates they can use for this activity.). A comparison of the students' cultural icons with Greder's will spark students' interest and the resulting discussion will lead to a deep exploration of Australian identity.
Australia to Z is an essential and accessible text in which to explore Australian identity in years 9 and 10 English and History units for the Australian Curriculum. Armin Greder's picture books are also very worthy of an author study approach for middle school students. His unique combination of thought provoking words and images extend students' thinking about important social and cultural perspectives - one of the important content descriptors in the Australian Curriculum English. Most people regard alphabet books as superficial texts for young children: Armin Greder has taken the genre to a new level.
Pamela Powell, Lead teacher-Literacy, Rose Bay High School, TAS
Australia to Z is a thought provoking text that challenges the reader to interrogate what it means to be an Australian. The iconic Australian lawnmower presents a familiar introduction and one that many native Australians would connect to but its sketchy depiction sets the scene for the minimalist art that provides space for the reader to interrogate and fill in the details. Visual imagery is used effectively as it presents the reality of being Australian from different perspectives and lenses, positioning readers to make their own sense of how modern Australian representations have shifted. At its very essence, the art work draws attention to the way some Australians and Australia itself have pushed back on previous conceptions and beliefs such as our current resistance to refuges and migrants. Greder’s cleverly researched text enables the voice of the other to be visible. The stark, bold brush work evokes with startling vividness what other’s perceptions of Australia are. Both the text and the visual imagery throw up for examination these most elemental aspects challenging who we are and who we have allowed ourselves to become. Whether our own interpretation fits with the author’s view or not it is a question only the reader can answer.
Australia to Z is a very useful teaching text able to be used across curriculum subjects in both English, Human Society and its Environment, History and Creative Arts as it has a capacity to reach across subject areas. Possible uses could include; as a starter stimulus for discussion about what it means to be an Australian, probing past and present conceptions; examination of how authors position readers through text and visual imagery and how art can create meaning and opening up difficult or challenges spaces to explore.
Maria Bennet, Charles Sturt University, NSW
Seldom has an Alphabet picture book been such a confronting read. With its references to invasion, colonialism, sexism, racism, exclusion, and just plain self-congratulatory narcissism, Australia to Z, written and illustrated by Armin Greder, shows starkly in just 40 words, plus two verses of Advance Australia Fair, the contradictions in the Australian psyche. The text is easy to dip into, allowing time to contemplate each raw image, or it can be read as a whole, almost like those ‘flick’ books that we used to teach animation with, pre the digital age. The illustrations are drawn in paint with thick brush strokes, and tell the story of Australia as much as do the words. Opening with a lawnmower, a somewhat light hearted start, time could next be spent contemplating the meaning of the magnifying glass examining Australia in the second illustration. Is it the arse end of the world? Or navel gazing?
Clearly intended for an adult audience, teen readers could profitably spend time debating the images of Australia and Australians, and the links between images and words that are presented. There are opportunities for studies in Inter Textuality, comparing images with any current media stories reporting on refugees, the treatment of Aboriginal people, the meaning of Australia Day/Invasion Day, Anzac, gambling, the place of women, the working class, and other themes. Art students may appreciate the work of creating the paintings, and the process of choosing the depictions of Australians and stereotypes, as well as the words, to illustrate the various letters. Whilst there may be parents or other adults who might view Australia to Z as confronting and anti-Nationalist, the opportunities for discussion provided for studies in World History, Studies of Society, Politics, and Psychology are apparent.
Greder ends his book with the irony of Advance Australia Fair’s “boundless plains to share” alongside a “Go back – we’re full” sign, after opening with a play on “Boat People”. This helps the book to be a cohesive whole. Almost incidentally, the Anzac tradition is reduced to the status of a tourist destination. The final quiet image of cricket stumps is almost a ‘you’re caught out’ symbol, with just one bail removed.
Helen Wilde, SA
Swiss-born Armin Greder knows how to confront an issue. After his successes first with Libby Gleeson on I am Thomas, then The City and The Island, Australia to Z moves away from the strong crayon/chalk character drawings of his earlier works to adopt a no-less-challenging symbolic representation of Australia’s identity in simple pen line and colour images. Each provokes thought. Each forces the reader to find and appreciate the differing viewpoints offered, oblivious of their own which may or may not be recognised.
The range of contrasts and juxtapositions are blatant from the start: “Aborigine” and “Boat People”; political commentary and honest sociological reflection. We get to Xmas and clearly our identity is wavering… reindeer horns and turkey? Is that Australian? Are we becoming that commercialised image? We are brought back to reality with Z. “Zoo” is so fitting. But I still wonder: are we visiting or are we being visited? WOW!
I used this book with Senior Secondary English students to investigate how texts work; positioning the reader and the use of semiotic systems to communicate. Alone it was useful, as part of the ‘set’ it was far more effective. What a fantastic conversation piece for any class!
Michael Cruickshank, Hellyer College, TAS
Armin Greder's picture book Australia to Z is a very interesting text, one that I suspect might be geared more towards senior students than junior students, or lower primary students, the target audience for most picture books. Containing 26 entries which span the letters of the alphabet, the text is set out like a dictionary, but one which uses very Australian, very now references, like “Boat People” or “Lamingtons” for instance.
There's clearly an agenda at play here as the words chosen, accompanied by simple yet powerfully evocative images, paint a picture of a country with a lot of unresolved issues. I think in that lies the true value of this book. As a conversation starter. And just in case we miss it, the final pages include the words to our national anthem and a series of images that highlight just how uncaring we can be.
Anthony Catanzariti, English Head Teacher, Griffith High School, NSW