I visited the local Public Library recently to see what was available about Ned Kelly. My search on their Computer based catalogue for anything containing “Ned Kelly” as a subject produced exactly 50 hits. After excluding material that wasn’t really about Ned Kelly or the outbreak – for example a book about John Jarratt, the actor who played Ned in the Last Outlaw TV Miniseries of 1980 – there were 37 books and DVDs available that were actually about Ned Kelly and the outbreak. A number of these books were about Bushrangers in general and had chapters on the Kelly Gang – one was called “A Guide to Australian Folklore”, another “Great Australian Speeches” and another “The Encyclopedia of Australian Crime”. Of books specifically devoted to the Kelly story many of ‘the usual suspects’ were there, such as “The Fatal Friendship” and 3 versions of “Ned Kelly : A Short Life” by Ian Jones , Peter Fitzsimons book, the Corfield Encyclopedia, and the books on Glenrowan by Paul Terry and by Ian Shaw. Noticeably absent were the recent important additions to the Kelly scholarship, “The Kelly Gang Unmasked” by Ian MacFarlane, “Ned Kelly a Lawless Life” by Doug Morrissey and “Ned Kelly Under the Microscope” Edited by Craig Cormick, meaning that our local community is seriously under-informed about where the Kelly story has gone to in recent years. I will be recommending this deficiency be corrected as soon as possible.
It was the illustrations in many of them that delighted me – they were very colourful and often slightly whimsical portrayals of Bushrangers, trains, horses, the bush and the Kelly Gang. Kids must find them really appealing! There was a minimum of gore and murder. In fact when you think about it, the Kelly story is packed with colourful imagery and dramatic events that lend themselves to illustration and artistic interpretation.
Heres an example from Anna Shepherds “Australia’s Most Notorious Bushrangers”
“Red was eventually arrested and Gaoled for horse stealing and died before finishing his sentence”
“Ned knew that Kennedy would not live and believed that right or wrong the best thing to do was put him out of his misery. He shot him in the head” (Geoff Hocking :The Kelly Gang: The last of the Bushrangers”)
So what are we to make of this genre? Firstly I don’t think outright errors of basic facts are excusable. There are so many of them in every book that I looked at that I found myself becoming quite angry about this careless disregard for basic facts and the truth. None of these mistakes were about obscure details but, as Ive illustrated , they related to basic information and easily verified parts of the story. Why do these writers treat children with such obvious contempt by not caring about the truth of the stories they are telling? Remember these books were all in the Non-Fiction part of the Childrens section of the Library.
Apart from a big question about the motivation of these writers, the other question that these books raise in my mind is whether or not these errors of facts are important, and whether or not its important that children are being fed a line about Ned Kelly thats not actually true, mythology as true history?
One might argue they are being taught about the value of standing up for yourself and not putting up with bullying and corruption, about bravery, about respecting your family, about caring for the poor and underprivileged, the downtrodden, the disenfranchised? It might also be teaching kids that if you break the Law, no matter for what reason you will suffer the consequences. Nobody would dispute that these are worthwhile values, but is it acceptable to use a mangled version of history to teach them? Personally I don’t think so.
Ive been giving it a lot of thought and have realised that we have two important agendas being mixed together in these books – one is to teach history and the other is to learn lessons from it, and I think both are being done very badly. Firstly I believe that if you’re going to teach history you have to get the facts right, no matter who your target audience is. Its disrespectful to children to write as if facts, and truthfulness are less important for them. In fact I would say that for parents there is almost nothing of greater importance than telling the truth to children and being open and honest with them. Once they catch you out trying to pull the wool over their eyes your credibility and their respect for you is on a downhill slide.
The second bit, learning lessons from history, is much more tricky. Learning them from made up stories is much easier – in fact thats why all cultures have myths and legends, fairy stories – they are exciting made up stories that act as vehicles or frameworks for the teaching of important values and social customs and mores. Everyone knows they are not strictly “true” stories but they contain “Truth” . But if you are going to use an actual historical event like the Kelly Outbreak to do a similar thing, your first duty is to get the story right, but if you don’t how can you expect the value lessons to be taken seriously?
With Kids books however, I don’t have to guess that they might not be getting a balanced and reasonable account of the outbreak – I can read what theyre being told for my self – and they aren’t! They’re being feed the syrupy fairy tale of the gallant Ned Kelly with the occasional token reference to his bad behaviour, or rhetorical question about his right to defend himself or stand up and fight for his rights. “Was he a victim of Police abuse or merely a villain?” asks Anna Purcell, placing before young minds that tedious false dichotomy and asking them to chose! The same old “Hero or Villain” nonsense.
These books are mostly a disgrace. They treat kids as mugs and ought to be in the Junior Fiction section of the library. Or listed as Propaganda : Not suitable for Young Children.