Book Review: Our Australian Girl: Poppy by Gabrielle Wang

Our Australian Girl is an incredibly popular historical fiction series by Penguin Books. So far there are six Australian Girls, with each character’s story being told across four books. (Confused? There’s a useful chart here.) Gabrielle Wang* is the author of the Poppy books in the series, and was one of our guests at our recent booktalkers event focussing on middle grade readers.

Poppy is eleven years old and living in 1864 rural Australia. Her Chinese father has disappeared and her Aboriginal mother has passed away, leaving her and her elder brother, Gus, to be raised at a Mission House. The Mission is a tough place, where beatings and other punishments are frequent, and where the children’s Aboriginal heritage is denied and their culture forbidden. When Gus runs away to make his fortune at the Victorian goldfields, Poppy must also escape if she is ever to find him again. Her travels from the Mission in Echuca to the Beechworth goldfields, and the many colourful characters she meets along the way, are told across the four titles Meet Poppy, Poppy at Summerhill, Poppy and the Thief, and Poppy Comes Home, and the books need to be read in order.

The Poppy books are, first and foremost, about adventure. There are bushrangers, swindlers, fights, and chases. Poppy navigates situations of racism, violence, and sexism with bravery and compassion. Even though the series is very heavily branded as “girl books”, the plot is certainly enjoyable for readers of any gender. Poppy, in fact, spends most of her journey disguised as a boy. Apparently librarians in boys-only schools have been known to cover the books in brown paper so that their students can read them without prejudice.**

The serialised nature of Our Australian Girl has proved very successful with middle grade and reluctant readers, while its historical aspects make them popular classroom tools. Wang has researched extensively and taken great care to depict life in 1864 as accurately as possible. She has also drawn upon her own Chinese heritage, and consulted extensively with the Koorie community to ensure an accurate and sensitive representation of Indigenous culture. Wang’s passion is evident in the books, as Poppy’s spirituality informs her journey and her connection with the world. There is a very physical element to the culture and the mythology, from spirit trees to animal spirits:

It was as if she was born with a book inside her, a memory of a long time ago on each page. It was as if the animals, the rocks, the trees, the mountains held these stories inside them too. They had been whispering to her since the time she was born.

– Poppy and the Thief, p 93

Recommend for middle grade readers and older, who love their action served in a historical context. Also check out the Our Australian Girl website for a wealth of support material, from teacher’s notes to fun activities.

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*Tip: Gabrielle’s surname is best pronounced “Wong”.

**Penguin have announced that 2014 will see the release of a “boy equivalent” to Our Australian Girl, called Do You Dare. It is likely to be very differently branded, and not have stories spanning across four books. They welcome any feedback.

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