And Jackie does gold so well.
In this first book of the Secret Friend series, Jackie introduces us to the life of Mr Richard Johnson, Australia's chaplain to the new colony in 1790. Set during the time when the first colony were awaiting the second fleet (a time they believed they were starving and forgotten by England), Jackie sends the chaplain and his wife a young (fictional) orphan named Barney, and his mute charge, Elsie.
Barney and Elsie are taken into the household, where Barney develops quite a crush on the couple's adopted Aboriginal girl. Known as Abaroo historically, the young girl's name (thanks to the impeccable research skills of this dedicated author) was more than likely Birrung--and it's this friendship, along with the closeness between Barney and Elsie, that brings a sweet childlike magic to a world that pretty much stripped children of their childhood.
Birrung the Secret Friend is relatively short (and therefore accessible by younger readers), beautifully crafted and fascinating to read. It sends us straight back to the shores of Sydney Harbour in an effortless way, and into the minds and hearts of the Johnson household. It shows us the rawness of life in the first colony, the fragility of life, the desperation, but also the hope and the innate understanding--even in the very young--that we have the ability to forge our own future.
It offers tantalising glimpses into the lives of real life people like Governor Phillip, the Macarthurs and Bennelong, and real life events like the woeful arrival of the second fleet and the birth of Mrs Johnson's daughter, who was given an Aboriginal name--Milbah. But it also offers us warm and inspiring relationships and dialogue, along with simple everyday moments that make life (and story) so inclusive and moving.
With chapter headings illustrated in ink by Mark Wilson, this is just the beginning of what is sure to be a must-read series of many secret friends, peppered through our country's past--and the fertile mind of Jackie French. I can't wait to see who's next.
Title: Birrung the Secret Friend
Author: Jackie French
Illustrator: Mark Wilson
Publisher: A&R, $12.99 RRP
Publication Date: 1 February 2015
For ages: 7 - 12
Type: Junior Fiction, Historical Fiction