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HomeCultureBooksLofty lifts off – an interview with Helen Milroy

Lofty lifts off – an interview with Helen Milroy

Dr Helen Milroy is recognised as Australia’s first Indigenous medical doctor and served as a commissioner for the Royal Commission into institutionalised abuse. In 2021, she is Western Australian of the Year and has also written and illustrated The Emu Who Ran Through the Sky, an exciting story for 5-10 year-olds about working together and finding the courage to be different.

The Emu who Ran Through the Sky is the second book in the Tales from the Bush Mob series. What inspired you to create this series for 5-10 year-olds?
It was part of staying resilient while working in difficult circumstances where I heard many sad stories. Writing Bush Mob helped me to see the world in a good way and have hope for the future. I also wanted to showcase our unique Australian animals and landscape and help kids to feel good about being in Australia. I also love Indigenous storytelling as it helps kids to be in a relationship with everything around them and build their resilience.

How did your colourful cast of characters come about?
I did a lot of reading about our amazing Australian animals and how they resemble many people I know and how communities work.

Do you have a favourite character? If so, which one and why?
Although I do love all the birds, my favourite character is Boss Dog Dingo. He is kind and caring and looks out for everyone. He has his own story which will be one in the series.

“For all the kids who just want to be part of the team” is the dedication at the front of the book. How do you hope the book will help children who are never or last to be picked for the team or picked but don’t fit in?
I hope kids can see there is always another solution to any problem. Making friends and learning from others is a good way to start. Lofty was also pretty determined even though the other emus gave him a hard time. It is important to have others around you who support you.

Lofty the emu is an especially endearing character with his fluffy hair and determination – but he’s also a slow runner, which means he’s picked on and having difficulty fulfilling his dream of winning the big emu race held each Sunday. Some of his strategies are to keep trying to improve, to honour his own uniqueness, and to draw on the wisdom of the bush mob around him. What guidance would you offer to a child who is different to help them to find their mob, and then to trust and draw strength from them?
I think that is absolutely right, find those who do support you and help you to achieve your dreams. Everyone has their unique place in the world and each one of us is irreplaceable. Lofty also achieved what no other emu was able to, by learning from others and working together. Lofty was kind and helped others. In turn, his kindness inspired others to be innovative and together they invented the paraglider!

You both write and illustrate the books in the Bush Mob series – an impressive achievement! Which comes first for you – the words or the pictures? Which is harder to conceive and execute?
Sometimes the stories come first and other times it is the illustrations. Sometimes I will be observing nature and notice something different. For example, once I saw a bright green cricket riding on the back of a peacock. It made me wonder why a peacock and a cricket would be friends and inspired a story called Fallen Feathers which is on the list for Bush Mob. Once I get the idea for the story or the illustration, it just takes over until I have finished drawing or writing.

The image of Lofty running through the sky on his Feathery Paraglider is truly magical. How did you alight on this marvellous idea and how have children responded to it?
I guess storytelling is also about letting your imagination run wild, where anything is possible. I try not to think directly but let the solutions create themselves. Sometimes it is a bit like daydreaming. I started with the idea of how we could make an emu fly and the rest just came into the picture.

Lofty delights in flying and achieving his goal – but he also shares his victory breakfast with his friends. I love the book’s emphasis on sharing and kindness, and group enjoyment and achievement rather than individual boasting and benefit. Why are these important messages to pass on to children at this point in history?
We all need relationships to be happy and healthy. We can achieve more together than on our own and have much more fun as well. A good life can be achieved by keeping our relationships in balance with each other and the world around us.

From your perspective as a respected child and adolescent psychologist, how can stories help children to build courage? What is it that makes stories such powerful channels for change and human development?
Storytelling is the oldest form of learning. We remember life through stories and learn so much from hearing other people’s stories as well. This is true for children and adults. Stories can help children see different ways of understanding challenges and learning new ways to solve problems. It can help children see their unique place in the world and feel proud of who they are. It can help them see there is a solution and be inspired by others.

Tales from the Bush Mob by Dr Helen Milroy is a series of books about a group of animals who work together to solve problems. Illustration: Helen Milroy

Lofty’s story should appeal to all Australian children, but are there messages or strengths you would particularly like young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to draw from it?
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children should be extremely proud that their cultures are strong in the importance storytelling as a basis to learning about life, people, relationships and the world in which we live. These cultural traditions have survived for many thousands of years and are still just as important today.

You are a descendant of the Palyku people of the Pilbara region of Western Australia and also born and educated in Perth. How has your heritage influenced your creativity and your commitment to First Nations storytelling?
Indigenous storytelling creates a place for everyone and everything. In Indigenous storytelling, everything is alive, has spirit and is in a relationship with each other. It embeds children in a broader attachment system and an ecosystem which helps children to feel connected, nurtured and part of the bigger picture. These are the kind of life lessons we all need to survive into the future.

What did it feel like to be chosen West Australian of the Year in 2021?
Very humbling.

West Australian of the Year in 2021 Dr Helen Milroy with her latest book in The Bush Mob series.

Who from your childhood (and/or since) most helped you to believe in yourself – to find the courage and resilience to be Australia’s first Indigenous doctor, contribute as a commissioner for the Australian Government’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse from 2013-2017, and (for more than 25 years) pioneer research, education and training in Aboriginal and child mental health, and recovery from grief and trauma?
My grandmother and mother were the most influential people as they survived many, many hardships and never lost sight of making sure us kids were ok. My grandmother was the sweetest woman I have ever known.

The first book in the Bush Mob series focused on Willy the Wagtail, and the second on Lofty the Emu. Can you give us a hint about which character we can look forward to meeting next and when this might happen?
The next one is about Bungarra’s birthday and some misguided reptiles. Fortunately, Bush mob works together once again. The stories highlight different animals and there are many more yet to come including a focus on platypus, numbat, turtle, quoll, possum, crocodile, wombat and dingo to name a few!

The Emu Who Ran Through the Sky
Magabala Books, $22.99

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