Our Village in the Sky by Janeen Brian, illustrated by Anne Spudvilas (Allen & Unwin, 2014)
© Dianne Bates
In Australian over the past five years there have been numerous verse novels published for teenagers and younger children. And, too, there have been any number of rhyming picture books for many years. But more recently a picture book written in free verse has been published here, which would seem to be a rarity. Australian Janeen Brian is an accomplished author and children’s poet (winner of the 2012 Adelaide Festival Awards for Literature), so she is well served to write this informative and engaging book for children aged 7 to 11 years.
Set in a village in an unnamed country ‘above/the great river,/nestled in the Himalayan mountains’, this is the story of the lives of numerous children during the summer months when ‘school is closed/ for the holiday time’. None of the children are named, except a few, and even then by their occupation. Washer Boy works in the monastery scrubbing clean lamas’ bed clothing and robes. Herd Boy is responsible for tending villagers’ goat herds while Rock Breaker builds the edges of tracks and roads. Other children wash dishes while one girl walks ‘Baby brother on my back/tied with my shawl’ and another gathers cow-pats, which when dried, will be used ‘for brick building/but most as fuel for cooking and to warm us/in the long snow-time.’ Very different activities, indeed, than those familiar to Australian children!
Luckily there is time for play for these holidaying village children. Some climb a flagpole, while others chase goats, jump puddles or build a play house. One boy improvises with a plastic tub, drumming on it as he goes to the pipe to fetch water. A group of children also improvise: with a ladder and stone they make a seesaw.
As the reader works through the book, learning of the activities of these foreign children, there are watercolour illustrations which extend the text by showing aspects of the village – the buildings – some stone, others mud brick, with roofs ‘flat-topped/and fringed with grass for animal food in winter.’ The illustrations also show finer detail – how the children are dressed, their carrying baskets, the mountains surrounding their village, their domestic animals, even clay and metal pots. Both written and visual text work smoothly together to give the reader a rounded view of childhood in a country that is so far away.
There is a lot to enjoy in this book which uses a variety of viewpoints and narrators to cover the child’s working and playing day until ‘…the day is coming to an end/Fathers return from fields/Mountain dogs begin their night cries./Cooking smells drift through the dusk and mothers call us in for the family meal’.
The writing of Our Village in the Sky was assisted by the Government of South Australia through ARTS SA.