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Gaolbird (Simon Barnard, Text)

Simon Barnard’s latest convict story for children presents a boisterous slice of Australian colonial history using lairy illustrations and a persistent and multi-stranded narrative. Unlike his meticulous, information-loaded CBCA Award-winning A-Z of Convicts in Van Diemen’s Land or his elegant, fascinating coffee-table book Convict Tattoos, Barnard’s third book abandons visual realism for a more outlandish, sometimes comical perspective of our penal history. Convict and chronic absconder William ‘Swallow’ and his fellow criminal mutineers are represented by cartoonish birds, while the British and Australian officers and authorities are bulbous, red-faced caricatures of ridicule on a vigorous and ebullient pursuit of colonial justice. A parallel story of mutiny-resister Popjoy trots along the bottom third of the pages, whiel calligraphic sub-headings and convict-ballad lyrics increase the feeling of the period. The visual style will appeal to lovers of Horrible Histories or the ever-increasing range of graphic novels. The text itself is less flamboyant, chronicling the main events in Swallow’s escapades, making this a good starting point or accompaniment for middle- to upper-primary classroom teaching. While Gaolbird will certainly sustain revisiting, it may not quite stand alone as either a reached-for favourite or an in-depth reference resource.

Anica Boulanger-Mashberg is an editor, writer and a bookseller at the Hobart Bookshop


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