Wednesday, May 29, 2024
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Backyard Footy 

Backyard Footy
Carl Merrison (author) Samantha Campbell (illustrator)
Hachette HB $19.99
Imprint: Lothian Children’s Books

A superb energy flows through Backyard Footy – carrying the reader into the lives and landscapes of some footy-crazed kids.

The first image sets the scene beautifully. Houses are spread across the town which has a main street made of red dirt and is framed by red hills in the distance leaving us with no doubt this is outback Australia. It’s a small town in the Kimblerley, in fact.

Jy is playing football alone in his small backyard – but, when he accidentally kicks the ball over the fence, his friend can’t help but join the fun. Momentum builds and we discover that, with each wayward kick (“Whoops”), another friend is drawn into the adventure.

Just as readers are gradually introduced to the new players, we’re also steadily given new AFL terminology to explain what’s going on. For example: “Kstel goes for a contested mark” and “Irving knows how to kick bananas”.

I’ve had limited exposure to Aussie Rules, so I had to look most of these terms up. A good opportunity to give kids, who are equally untutored in AFL, a chance to get involved in research. (My favourite word, by the way, was a speckie; a mark ([or catch] in Australian rules football that typically involves a player jumping up on the back of another player.)

As the book progresses, the more kids that join in the fun, the more fun they all have.

When the punchline comes, it’s very easy to agree: “Footy by yourself is fun but paying with mates is better.”

In the book’s closing pages, Irving, Jy, Kitara, Cedric, Krstel, Francis and Samo are heading beyond the built-up area of the town to a place of widely spaced trees and a lovely river and where a bright green footy field that holds pride of place.

This image made more sense once I’d learned that author Carl Merrison dedicated Backyard Footy “To all my mates growing up – those who are here and the ones kicking up in the sky. And to my dad, who helped build sports complexes in Halls Creek.”

Carl Merrison is a respected Jaru/Kija man from the Halls Creek area who came WA runner up Australian of the Year – Local Hero in 2016. He has worked for over 10 years alongside Aboriginal youth as a mentor and coach.

Carl was the winner of the black&write! Fellowship in 2020 for his young readers’ series Backyard Sports (of which Backyard Footy is the first). He was also shortlisted for the State Library Western Australia Writer’s Fellowship for his proposal, Kimberley Kickers series.

Illustrator Samantha Campbell grew up in the Northern Territory and lives in Darwin. She is descended from the Dagoman people from Katherine and as a child lived in remote communities across the Top End. Her first book, Alfred’s War, written by Rachel Bin Salleh, was short-listed for the Premier’s Literary Awards and the Speech Pathology Awards.

Campbell’s drawings help keep the story bobbing along. They immerse us into the kids’ world where they are really enjoying gathering a crowd to play footy together.

It will be great to see where Merrison and Campbell take the series next.

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