A bestselling children’s book features a new kind of hero – she’s a girl, she’s an indigenous Australian and she’s a warrior.
Guardians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior is an illustrated book of chapters; a fantastical adventure set 40,000 years ago in the lands of Peek Whurrong in South West Victoria.
Australian children became instantly obsessed with Wylah, making the book one of the best-selling children’s novels of the year so far, and sending it to the top of the charts at booksellers Booktopia and Readings.
And the good news for kids who have already read the book is that the authors have mapped out a whole world of new characters and new adventures to ensure the Wylah series can run for years to come.
Authors inspired by their single mothers
Warrnambool co-authors Richard Pritchard and Jordan Gould said the book began with the vision of Wylah – a strong First Nations girl who would embody the kindness and courage that Pritchard and Gould experienced from women who raised them.
Pritchard grew up in New Zealand in a single parent home with three siblings,
He said he saw the sacrifices his mother made for her children.
“I’ve always been in awe and have great respect for women, and I have a very strong wife and daughter,” he said.
Gould is a Peek Whurrong man who was brought up in Warrnambool by a young single mother.
He attributes his success to the strength of his mother.
“My mom had me when she was 16 and she did her best to raise me, an autistic child,” Gould said.
He said he had very low-level autism.
“She just stayed with me and did the best she could – and now I’m here.”
Pritchard said their similar childhoods had a huge influence on their creative work together.
“Jordan grew up with very strong female role models and so did I,” he said.
“I’ve always thought that if the men don’t stand up, then the women will.”
A true Australian hero
Guardians: Wylah the Koorie Warrior is a fast-paced action adventure about a young woman whose courage is tested by an invading force of dragons under the command of greedy humans in search of gold.
Wylah must connect to her ancestral matriarchal knowledge and powers in order to find the strength to fight for her people, Peek Whurrong, who have been captured.
The story is set among the natural sites of Warrnambool, such as the Hopkins River and Moyjil (Point Ritchie), where geographically specific megafauna roam.
Pritchard said he and Gould knew from the start that they wanted the book to be more than just a fun tale to entertain children, an intention Pritchard made clear in his preface.
“To all Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Australia, may Wylah be a vehicle to start a conversation of love, acceptance, unity and empathy,” he wrote.
Before writing a single word, Pritchard said he “wanted to match what is happening in New Zealand in terms of exposure to indigenous culture”.
“It’s very celebrated, it’s on every corner, it’s rooted in school, in politics, everyone speaks a language, everything is embraced,” he said.
“I always wanted this for Australia because I know what they are missing.
Pritchard, an animator who has worked with Hollywood directors including George Miller, said he and Gould needed to create a character “that people can pick up on, that all of Australia can relate to”.
Wylah was inspired by the real-life Peek Whurrong women known to be warriors, as well as the women Pritchard grew up surrounded by in his Samoan culture.
“I know the history of Samoa, Maori are female warriors, so immediately the image was of an indigenous female warrior,” he said.
“I’ve never seen this (here) before because I didn’t grow up in this culture (but) I certainly haven’t seen it in public.
A 40,000-year-old hero in the making
Gould only found out he was Indigenous when his mother marked him as of Indigenous descent when she enrolled him in high school.
He was approached to join a cultural program at Brauer College.
“A group called Clontarf is for aboriginal boys, they helped me through my schooling and got me through to grade 12,” he said.
After finishing school, Gould came into contact with two of Warrnambool’s Peek Whurrong elders, Uncle Robert Lowe and Uncle Locky Eccles, who taught him about his culture and language.
The book is culturally specific and borrows heavily from the language and culture of the Peek Whurrong, who have lived in South West Victoria for tens of thousands of years.
Pritchard said the specificity was important because he learned from the mistakes seen in popular children’s animated films made in recent times.
“You can’t mix cultures and create a nameless culture that offends everyone,” he said.
“It’s like saying ‘You all look alike’.
He said Wylah should be from a real culture with a language so everyone can celebrate her rather than mixing cultures to say “here’s a princess for everyone”.
The authors said they drew heavily on the knowledge of local elders, as well as a unique book by James Dawson and his daughter Isabella, written in the 1880s, which compiled detailed notes on the peoples’ language and customs. natives of the western district of Victoria. .
Pritchard believed that a worldwide shift in racial politics led to Wylah’s success.
“I think a lot of things in society have changed over the last few years,” Pritchard said.
“You have the Me Too movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, Change the Date, there is still a lot of controversy and conflict today with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
He said it led to a huge underlying desire to reconnect with native culture.
“And Wylah does it for them, so that’s his strength,” he said.