On Indigenous Literacy Day, award-winning children’s author Dr. Jared Thomas stands proud, knowing that his novels are not just stories but vessels for the rich tapestry of First Nations culture and language to flourish in the minds of young readers.
As a child growing up, Dr. Jared Thomas, now a UniSA Research Fellow and one of Australia’s leading authors of Aboriginal children’s and young adult literature, did not have the privilege of seeing his own culture reflected on the pages of the books he read. However, he was fortunate to be immersed in the wisdom and storytelling of his family members, who shared dreamtime stories and precious histories with him.
“I was lucky to be surrounded by lots of storytellers in my own family, and I was inspired by family history and cultural stories,” he says. “But there was very little in terms of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander texts and books where I could see my own experiences reflected. This is problematic because we know that First Nations children learn best when we see ourselves reflected in stories.”
Over the past two decades, there has been a growing hunger for First Nations storytelling in Australia and internationally. Dr. Thomas notes that many of the award-winning novels and films in Australia have either been produced by First Nations individuals or include First Nations stories. This demand for diverse storytelling underscores the importance of representing Indigenous experiences in literature.
In March of this year, Dr. Thomas released the first book in a six-part series titled “Uncle Xbox.” In June, the second installment, “Getting Dusty,” received the Daisy Utemorrah Award for Children’s Fiction as part of the Western Australian Premier’s Book Awards. “Uncle Xbox” tells the coming-of-age story of Dusty, an Aboriginal boy who spends much of his time immersed in online gaming. When his stepdad, Marcus, abruptly leaves and takes the Xbox with him, Dusty learns that life has much more to offer. With the guidance of his uncle Rick, he discovers a passion for surfing.
Next year, Dr. Thomas plans to embark on a research journey to renowned surfing locations like Bells Beach in Victoria, Raglan in New Zealand, Fiji, and Pipeline in Hawaii. During this trip, he will explore the connections between First Nations people and their relationship with the sea and their land. This research will not only inspire the remaining books in the “Uncle Xbox” series but also provide valuable insights into the diverse ways Indigenous communities maintain their connection to culture.
Dr. Thomas emphasizes that Indigenous stories hold importance not only for First Nations children but also for non-Indigenous children. They serve as a means for all children to understand the country in which they live and communicate knowledge systems that have protected the Australian continent for millennia.
“Many of my books include Aboriginal language as well,” he adds. “My writing always features Nukunu language, and that’s really important because Aboriginal language communicates the properties and meaning of place.”
Dr. Jared Thomas has achieved recognition for his literary contributions. In 2023, he was honored as the South Australian NAIDOC Person of the Year, and his 2022 release, “My Spare Heart,” was shortlisted for the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards for Best Young Adult Fiction and the Griffith University Best Young Adult Book Award.
Moreover, Dr. Thomas serves as an ambassador for the Indigenous Literacy Foundation (ILF), the organization behind Indigenous Literacy Day, celebrated this year on September 6. As part of the ILD celebrations, The State Library of South Australia is partnering with ILF to host a Great Book Swap from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Visitors can peruse the library’s bookstall and exchange a book for a note or gold coin donation. The funds raised will go towards the Indigenous Literacy Foundation to provide new, culturally relevant books to remote Indigenous communities. Access to books in these areas is often limited, as libraries and bookstores are scarce. To learn more, visit the ILD website or the State Library SA.
Dr. Jared Thomas’s literary contributions continue to bridge cultural divides, enriching the lives of young readers by immersing them in the world of Indigenous storytelling.
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