Creating a children's language book
Editor Jo Karmel explains how National Library Publishing created Hello!
8 June 2016
Hello! Midh! Ciao! Konnichiwa! Marhaba! Sawatdi kha! Xin chao!
The plan was a preschool book about 12 children from linguistically and culturally diverse backgrounds, with four pages devoted to each child. We chose 3 Indigenous languages—Kala Lagaw Ya, Kaurna and Murrinhpatha—and the 9 foreign languages most frequently spoken in Australian homes—Chinese, Greek, Indonesian, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Lebanese Arabic, Thai and Vietnamese. We would cover topics like greetings, numbers, food, traditional costume, sport, crafts, music and dance, and games.
Sounds straightforward, right? Not in the least bit. When we started putting Hello! together, we realised we had to decide exactly which region in a country each character's family came from to get everything absolutely correct. You can't have the girl from Thailand wearing a traditional costume from one region while eating the food from another region, for example. And, we wanted to have activities that communities in Australia would do.
Fortunately, there were National Library staff members from 8 of the language backgrounds who were eager to help. There was a lot of consultation with these people over the content and the script (for example Japanese has several systems), the romanisation of the script (this can be quite fluid) and whether to use accents and other diacritics or not.
Working closely with the illustrator, Tony Flowers, was vital of course. We had to provide him with accurate reference images (more difficult than you might think and not easily solved using Google images!). His rough sketches needed to be approved by the language groups and there was often robust discussion. Even then, there was sometimes a large gap between the roughs and the final colour images and details that had to be corrected, such as the colour of Budi's shirt and the pattern on his sarong; the way the knotted tie was placed on the waistband of Emiko's kimono; the appearance of all the layers of garments that made up Ji-hu's traditional dress and the turned up toes of his shoes; and Hua's stance when learning the martial art of wu shu.
Without Library staff members to use as consultants for the 3 Indigenous languages and for Arabic, the process to create content for those pages took considerably longer. It meant liaising with the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, interstate phone conversations and emails and visits to the Lebanese Embassy.
We contacted the embassy with our fingers crossed and were thrilled when the Head of Mission himself agreed to meet with us. He and his advisors looked at the illustrations of our Lebanese character and the Lebanese Arabic words and romanisation and gave us valuable feedback: they suggested we change the name of the character and put us in touch with endlessly patient language teacher, Ibrahim Adhami, who helped narrow down which part of Lebanon Amal was from and changed our Arabic spelling and pronunciation notes to better reflect the language as you'd hear it on the streets of Beirut.
Communicating with Kaurna man Jack Buckskin, Kaurna Elder Uncle Lewis O'Brien and linguist Robert Amery was particularly exciting. Here were people who were working hard to reintroduce the Kaurna language from the Adelaide region, which has been in danger of extinction since the mid-nineteenth century. Jack even used Kaurna in his emails to me (like Niina marni jo-alya—Are you well, dearest Jo?, and Paitya—deadly) but I don't think I was a very satisfying student! After finding out that fishing was a favourite pastime, we focused on getting the details right: When kids go fishing, do they go in a boat? What kind of boat? How do they catch fish, with a fishing line or a spear? Do small kids use spearguns? Are spearguns fired from the boat or while diving in the water? Do people wear wetsuits when spear fishing? What kind of fish do they catch? How big are those fish?
The sketch came back from the illustrator. Jack said it wasn't right. The spear fisherman had to be in the water and the spear had to be three-pronged. (By the way, the fish is a butterfish, which are about one-metre long.)
And now, as the children in Hello! would say, goodbye! Selamat tinggal! Nakutha! Annyong! Yiasou! Zai jian! Ngurran warda!
Hello! illustrated by Tony Flowers was released by NLA Publishing in April 2016