Thursday, 24 March 2016

Language Education 2: Children’s Literature Author Study-Narelle Oliver


Narelle Oliver is an Australian author and illustrator from Queensland who has written thirteen picture books. Several of Narelle’s books have been shortlisted for the Children’s Book Council of Australia Awards including The Hunt which was awarded picture book of the year in 1996. Her interest in picture books began as a primary school teacher where she worked at the Queensland School for the Deaf. 

Many of Narelle’s books are based upon the natural environment and the flora and fauna of a particular area in Australia. Examples include the mangroves of South East Queensland for her book The Best Beak in Boonaroo Bay or the deserts of Central Australia in Sand Swimmers and Baby Bilby, where do you sleep? (Oliver, 2009)

These picture books and the many others written and illustrated by Oliver reveal a fascination she has with native Australian fauna. In particular  their ability to adapt to the environment they live in (Oliver, 2009).

More recently, Oliver has written three books which have been a departure from her Australian flora and fauna theme. These include Mermaids Most Amazing, The Very Blue Thingamajig and Dancing the Boom cha-cha Boogie, which rely on fictional animals.


The recurring themes in Narelle Oliver’s picture books are that the main characters are usually animals, either real or fictional. Animals have been chosen for a number of reasons which include;

·         Narelle enjoys working with and drawing the animals in her books.

·         She highlights parts of the animals and the patterns in their beaks fur and skin as they work well on linocut, which is the technique she uses for her illustrations.

·         The illustrations feature bold outlines and patterns which make animals the ideal subject for the picture books (Oliver, 2016b).

·         She enjoys the creative process of designing and making up fictional animals such as the Very Blue Thingamajig.

·         Striking illustrations through the use of the lino cut medium.


While her books are based upon animals and how they have adapted to their surroundings, Oliver has been careful to include a fictional story with characters in her books. Throughout the development of the books Oliver was aware that the animals in her books such as the bilby offer opportunities for imaginative characters to be created to tell the story rather than writing an information book (Oliver, 2009).  


Throughout her picture books, Narelle uses a method known as lino cut to produce her illustrations. This process involves creating the illustrations which are then copied onto a sheet of linoleum, a material often used for floor covering. Using a variety of sharp objects, she then cuts her illustrations out of the linoleum and then rolls them in ink to give them the desired effect. 

Oliver uses the lino cut medium in her illustrations as it emphasises the patterns and textures of her subjects and helps create striking characters through the use of bold outlines.

Creating a picture book

As for many authors, the process of creating a picture book for Narelle Oliver is a detailed process which has required many field trips to study a particular natural environment and the plants and the animals.

Preparing the story for her book Sand Swimmers, Narelle spent several weeks investigating the various deserts of Central Australia researching and observing the landscape and the animals which call that environment their home. The award-winning picture book The Hunt was also commissioned for publication in America and Narelle spent several weeks in there studying the native animals of America for the edition.

Narelle Oliver also spends much of her time organising workshops on writing and illustrating picture books for adults and children around Australia.

 Selected Book

Sand Swimmers
The front cover of Sand Swimmers. Image courtesy of Booktopia
Identify the Year level
This text will be used in a year 5 classroom.

Identify themes and how it may integrate with Australian Curriculum.
Sand Swimmers has a variety of themes throughout the text which make it an ideal text to use with year 5 students. The book covers topics including science and animals adapting to the natural environment, the importance of Indigenous language groups as well as English explorers as part of Humanities and Social Science. These form major parts of the text Sand Swimmers and are also major parts of the Australian curriculum for children in year 5.

Two themes that form the backbone of the story throughout Sand Swimmers are the different types of desert found in Australia and the various animals that live within these environments.

Narelle Oliver has also included the Indigenous language groups of the Arrernte and Pitjantjara in the story.  The inclusion of this in Sand Swimmers also allows for the cross curriculum priority of Indigenous language histories and cultures to be included in the lesson by embedding perspectives of the Indigenous language group in the text.

General Capabilities

As part of the Australian curriculum there are seven general capabilities which aim to assist children in developing the knowledge, skills and behaviours which will assist them both at school and outside of school.

The text Sand Swimmers helps student’s literacy skills through analysing the Narelle Oliver’s picture book. Class members are encouraged to think critically and creatively about Sand Swimmers and why the author made certain choices. Students are also developing their intercultural and ethical understanding through studying Sand Swimmers as they research the Indigenous language groups of Central Australia and the early European explorers in Australia.

 Content Descriptor

Sand Swimmers is text which provides the opportunity to investigate the following content descriptor with year 5 students taken from the literature stream of the English curriculum.

Recognise that ideas in literary texts can be conveyed from different viewpoints, which can lead to different kinds of interpretations and responses (ACELT1610). While this text will be used in conjunction with the students work in Science and Humanities, when using Sand Swimmers in the classroom the focus will be on the above content descriptor. 

Activity 1

As a class, a discussion will be initiated on the narrative voice of the explorer Charles Sturt and the effect this has on the opinion of the reader. The class will investigate how the language used by the author Narelle Oliver influences their opinion of Charles Sturt and his team. As the book discusses the local Indigenous language groups, working in groups of four students will be required to write about the desert from the point of view of someone who was able to see how much life could be found in the deserts of Central Australia.

Activity 2

Working in pairs, students will be provided with two passages of text, one from the local Indigenous perspective and the other from the point of view of Charles Sturt. The class will then be asked to discuss the three different levels of meaning contained in the passage that is literal, inferential and personal providing an example of each from the Indigenous and explorer perspective. Students will then be asked to contribute to a class discussion about the passage and how it had different meaning depending upon the perspective it was written from.

Activity 3

As the chosen content descriptor asks students to investigate the different viewpoints a text can be written form, the final activity student are to undertake will be a book review. This will be an individual activity. Students will be asked to consider the illustrations and what they add to the story, the narrative and whether it is just the opinion of one person or several. The task will also require students to indicate what they enjoyed and disliked about the book and why they came to form this opinion. What aspects of the book formed your opinion of this text? For example, the language used, the central characters or the illustrations. Students will then have the opportunity to share their review with the class if they wish.


Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority. (2016). Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and cultures.   Retrieved from

Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority. (2016a). English Foundation to Year 10 Curriculum.   Retrieved from

Australian Curriculum and Reporting Authority. (2016b). General Capabilities.   Retrieved from

Booktopia. (2016). Sand Swimmers: the secret life of Australia's dead heart.   Retrieved from

Oliver, N. (1999). Sand Swimmers. Melbourne, Victoria: Lothlain Books.

Oliver, N. (2009) Interview with Narelle Oliver/Interviewer: J. Lawn. (Vol 4), Magpies Magazine.

Oliver, N. (2016a). About Narelle.   Retrieved from

Oliver, N. (2016b) Q&A: Questions to Narelle Oliver. Narrelle Oliver.

Seely Flint, A., Kitson, L., Lowe, K., & Shaw, K. (2014). Literacy in Australia pedagogies for engagement (1st ed.). Queensland, Australia: John Wiley & Sons.
Walker Books. (2012). Classroom Ideas for Sand Swimmers.   Retrieved from