Two Summers by John Heffernan

In the current climate, this book needs to be introduced.

Our creek is dry. Some of our dams are dry.

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It wasn’t a big dam to begin with.

There isn’t much dry feed and our little oat crop is struggling.

Our cows are getting ready to calve.

We’re ready to hand feed them.

Year to date, we’ve had about a third of our annual rainfall.

It’s winter now.

And we’ve been lucky.

We’ve managed to get under a couple of clouds. Irregular and unpredictable, enough to settle the dust but not enough for runoff into dams and tanks.

We’re okay.

So many aren’t.

But if you watched the evening news, you’d think nothing was wrong this side of the Sandstone curtain. What I have seen on the television is highly emotive and it galvanises in-kind support and private philanthropy which is great for the people who need immediate assistance. There is a bigger issue with how agriculture and farming is seen, or not seen, in our media. I took umbrage on the weekend when a national morning show showed a map that only reflected half of the information.

Did you know that presently 53.0% of New South Wales (July 2018, DPI NSW) is considered to be in Intense Drought or, in Drought, and a further 46.8% is Drought affected?

That’s 99.8% of New South Wales affected by drought. Not just ‘over 50%’ as the television reported.

NSW DRought Pie
NSW Drought Summary NSW DPI, 15 July 2018

The last drought wasn’t that long ago, the Millennium Drought in New South Wales was 2001-2010. That’s not long ago. Queensland has 57.3% of the state drought declared.

I strongly believe that good quality children’s literature can help bridge any gaps in understanding what impacts different families. Be that lifestyle, culture or perceived difference.

Two Summers by John Heffernan is a story about the cycles of nature. It is not necessarily about drought but, I think it offers a window into drought conditions. The narrator has the honesty of youth and tells it as he sees it. Last year, this year. We don’t get much narrative detail but that’s okay. The illustrations by Freya Blackwood, use a muted colour palette and is sensitive to the natural colours of the landscape as it changes. The country is vast, the human and animal characters are part of the greater landscape. I cannot imagine it is easy illustrating a dead cow with sensitivity but, the style of illustration softens the blows and fills in some of what the narrator omits. You can see some of this subtlety on this double page spread when the boys are helping move cattle across the river. Last year, this year.

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Two Summers, John Heffernan

“Last year the heifers were too fat, Dad said.

They aren’t too fat this year.” -Two Summers

I love the honesty and I love the pattern. Last year, this year. The jobs around the farm haven’t changed. They still need to be done. There is still fun to be found but, there is a different tone. The farm goes on. The story isn’t really about the visitor from the city. But it is about the stark differences that outside eyes might notice. Even if he’s kept “so busy he won’t have time to notice how crook the place looks.” I hope questions about the environment, water, stock, food security and lifestyle are raised by readers. There might not be clear answers but if it starts a conversation I’m happy. As readers, we’re not really sure how hard it is for the family. Are the bills mounting up? How much longer can they hand feed? How much water do they really have? Mum and Dad are pictured having a glass of red over dinner but the narrators’ glass is empty while the tired visitor has a glass half-full.

An alternative gentler text is A Year on Our Farm by Penny Matthews and Andrew McLean. This awarded picture book follows a family through the seasons, the changes, additions to the family and jobs that need to be done around an Australian farm through the year.

Image result for a year on our farm

When I first bought Two Summers for the collection, DHB was unimpressed. I recall the comment being, ‘that’s a bit dark’ and it was swiftly tucked away on the shelf of ‘Weird. Not yet. Not ever. Poorly written’ books. It has periodically made it’s way out of obscurity and now, is on regular rotation. As then, I insist that this book offers us a gentle yet realistic way of initiating a conversation about what is going on outside in the paddocks and within our regional community. This isn’t a normal season passing on an Australian farm.

This is a drought.

And who knows what it will be like this time next year?

Last year, this year, next year.

P.S. If you like the look of any of these books, please support a local bookshop.

Even better, buy from a local bookshop and then, donate to an after school care, preschool, community playgroup or, school library.

Classroom ideas: If I was still in a classroom, to begin with, this book would be wonderful to use in a range of literacy exercises. There is a very clear visual guidance allowing you to delve into the comparative narrative structure between last year and this year. Activities that compliment deepening knowledge and understanding of the text and the use of grammar to convey the story. There is a lovely structure for exploring Here – what we can see, Hidden, the answers are there but you need to look, Head – what we think about the situation presented and, Heart – what do you feel? I can see it developing into a lively social studies theme encompassing our local situation, the weather patterns we’re experiencing, the impact within our own families or families we know and what we can do to help.

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