Controversy over Sorry Sorry—a welcome debate arising from ECA’s Reconciliation Symposium

When a popular children’s picture book came under the spotlight at ECA’s 2018 Reconciliation Symposium in May, it was ‘reconciliation in action’: a chance to express and hear strong, conflicting views, to listen, learn and rethink. For ECA, it triggered reflection and a search for more perspectives.

An important and expanding part of ECA’s work over a number of years has been steps to foster reconciliation awareness in our own work and the early childhood sector more broadly.

ECA’s Reconciliation Symposium is key to this. In May this year, over two days in Fremantle, Western Australia, educators, academics, experts, advocates and leaders from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander and non-Indigenous communities came together to share and learn about reconciliation and educational practices in early childhood.

As ECA CEO Samantha Page said recently, the hardest part for early childhood educators can be knowing how to start. ‘What does it look like?’ ‘Am I doing this right?’ ‘I don’t want to be tokenistic or make a mistake.’ These are responses we hear from time to time from educators and early childhood education and care services. We also hear the excitement, and see the challenges and complexities that face educators from all communities when they come together at the ECA Reconciliation Symposium to learn more.

The stories, insights and new understandings that emerge can create uneasiness and prompt reflection, as well as inspire participants. One educator summed up the Symposium experience as: ‘emotionally charged, you meet some incredible people, your ideas will be challenged and it is an amazing discovery about yourself’.

Each year the symposium takes us further into rethinking practices and attitudes, as organisations and as individuals. This year’s discussions were no different, including one in the final session about a picture book, Sorry, Sorry by educator Anne Kerr. It has proved very popular with early childhood educators and attempts to introduce three to five year olds, in an age appropriate picture format, to the journey of reconciliation in Australia, including the government’s Apology to Australia’s Indigenous Peoples (Sorry Day, 13 February 2008).

Sorry, Sorry reaches from initial contact between First Peoples and ‘Other Peoples’, to contemporary times. It includes suggestions for how educators can use the book, as well as conversation starters, discussion drama, language, environment and other strategies to embed understanding ‘one step at a time’. Some educators think it is inaccurate, misleading and its language does not reflect the realities of contact between Australia’s First Peoples and ‘Other Peoples’. One had decided, with a colleague, not to use the book with children in their centre.

The conversation continued outside the session among individuals. Alternatives were discussed such as The Rabbits, a picture book by John Marsden, illustrated by Shaun Tan. Some think that The Rabbits is not aimed at or suitable for young children. Even its illustrator Shaun Tan comments that the controversy over The Rabbits is in part because people presume that a picture book can only be for children. He concludes that it defies most picture book conventions and is ‘not necessarily a good choice for pleasant bedtime reading!’

Some educators are enthusiastic about Sorry, Sorry because of what it enabled in their practice: a stepping-off point for beginning to think about how to introduce these concepts with young children. Some see it as one option and not the only or best option.

Symposium delegates later provided feedback about the impact of the discussion. Some wanted a chance to properly discuss and process the perspectives:

The Sorry, Sorry book created a lot of contention, so maybe having table discussion around content and uses of some resources.

One commented that it ‘was not a great way to finish’ the event, which had otherwise been positive. Some said it had left a ‘flat’ or ‘negative feel in the air’. Others said that the criticisms seemed to go against the spirit of the event:

We spoke about appreciating where everyone is in their journey, yet those who bought or used the book, were made to feel as though they had done something wrong. 

A key message throughout the symposium was to ‘just give it a go’, however people who purchased the book ‘sorry sorry’ were left in shock and felt like they had made the wrong decision by ‘giving it a go’. I felt like it undid the great work that had been done by previous presenters on day 1 and 2 of the symposium. Apart from this, being a non-educator, I found the symposium to be extremely engaging and it has given me some great ideas to come home with.

Is it appropriate for Sorry, Sorry and other resources to be made available by ECA and other early childhood organisations when there is disagreement about its truth or usefulness? Should we let you know when the picture seems to change as new perspectives and knowledge make us newly conscious?

In many ways this is exactly why ECA holds an annual symposium on reconciliation: to promote dialogue and ongoing conversations. We want to continue learning and improving. These conversations are not always easy. Often there is no conclusive outcome or single answer that everyone can agree on.

Sorry, Sorry is one resource. When first published there were few books for early childhood contexts that addressed the idea of ‘sorry’ and reconciliation. As with all publications in the ECA catalogue, the book was reviewed and quality-assured before being included. It is a title promoted through SNAICC—National Voice for our Children, the national advocacy body for all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children, as well as the Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies (AIATSIS).

In light of the symposium discussion, we have also invited the members of ECA’s Reconciliation Advisory Group to review Sorry, Sorry and this has further helped us to understand the controversies the book creates. As ECA Reconciliation Advisory Group member Gisella Wilson (Manager, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Programs at KU Children’s Services) says:

From my perspective as an Aboriginal woman, ‘Sorry, Sorry’ is not a book I see as respectful in the way past injustices and the true history of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia are portrayed. The beginning of the book paints a pretty picture of the welcoming of strangers to a land occupied by others. For me, the animation of ‘white cloud’ in reference to the sails of ships distorts my thinking—seeing it as fictional rather than factual. If we want to tell the truth and share the history, than let’s not gloss it over too much.

On a daily basis I spend time with educators who are yet to grasp the concept of Dreaming, and that although the stories come to us in words and pictures that may appear to be ‘fairy tales’, they are in fact our beliefs and told stories of our ancestors that have been documented, so they can be shared with others. I explain to educators that it is not okay and not appropriate to change the story to suit the children; if it’s too ‘gruesome’ or ‘violent’ for their liking, then don’t use it. By changing the story or the ending to paint a different picture, changes the meaning of the story and therefore is not respectfully acknowledging our Dreaming and spiritual beliefs.

At KU this hasn’t meant that services or educators are not allowed to use Sorry, Sorry or The Rabbits, but rather there needs to be a conversation about how the books will be used. While they may be a useful starting point for introducing the concept of displacement and colonisation with children. These concepts are hard enough for some adults and educators to grasp and it is for this reason, that both Sorry, Sorry and The Rabbits are encouraged within KU centres, to be used as tools to deepen the thinking and increase the understanding of educators and parents/carers/adults. They are not recommended for use with the children.

Other Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander voices recommend the book. Ray Minniecon, a descendant of the Kabi Kabi and Gurang Gurang nations of South-East Queensland, and a pastor and widely respected Elder, believes that Sorry, Sorry ‘is honest enough to suggest that we may not be able to change the past, but together, we can influence change and forge a brighter future …’. He suggests it is one way of opening a difficult and painful subject with the youngest Australians if we are to be reconciled as a country:

How do you tell our children about the pain and trauma felt and experienced by Australia’s First Nations peoples? … The Sorry, Sorry book explains our complex history in such simple language. It is written to help our younger Australian children understand our shared history.  As we help our children learn and acknowledge the pain and traumas of our shared history, educational resources like the Sorry, Sorry book, helps teach all young Australians how to understand, appreciate, respect and honour each other’s cultures. I recommend this book because our reconciled future as a nation depends on educational resources like the Sorry, Sorry book.

ECA contacted the publisher, Boolarong Press, and author Anne Kerr for comment. Anne Kerr said she is ‘passionate about the reconciliatory journey that the book is on’. Describing herself as both challenged and humbled, she was also ‘excited that it [the book] has caused such robust conversations at the recent ECA [event]. Sorry, Sorry, she says, is a children’s picture book and:

as such begins with simple terms, concepts and language. It’s written from a non-Indigenous perspective with the intent to start the uncomfortable conversations, begin the journey of awareness and recognition about the parts of our story that we don’t talk about; admitting the wrongs and horrors that have been inflicted on Australia’s First Peoples by the ‘Other Peoples’, the community that I belong to.    

Anne observed that throughout her own schooling, Australia’s hidden history was never discussed, leaving no awareness, sense of accountability or need to apologise or advocate’. When it came to working with young children as an early childhood educator, Anne said she:

needed support in taking the first tentative steps towards embedding and enabling Australian Indigenous understandings in my kindy program …  

In researching the earliest experiences of first contact when writing Sorry, Sorry, Anne says:

I learned that in the very beginning, among the fear, distrust and violence, there was also evidence of small delightful moments—indications of curiosity, learning and possibility. Sadly, these did not last but they are a reminder that things could have been different.

For Anne, the reconciliation journey continues. She began collaborations with author Rhanee Tsetsakos, an Adnyamathanha woman of the Northern Flinders Ranges in South Australia, which resulted in Walking to Corroboree, published in February 2018. Through the experience Anne says:

Rhanee coached me about cultural matters, enriching my understandings which I then incorporated into my kindy program. Conversely, I coached Rhanee about writing, illustrating and publishing children’s books. As a result, Rhanee now has the opportunity to publish cultural picture books.

ECA agreed with the author and publisher that the feedback is a chance to revisit the language and themes. Both author and publisher welcomed the chance to work with ECA and our expert networks in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to increase the relevance and usability of Sorry, Sorry with young children and early childhood educators.

For now, the place to start might be to continue to build children’s empathy and understanding of each other’s feelings, connections with family, community and culture—strengthening the sense of belonging and identity in all children to better understand the effects of displacement and dispossession of others.

We have compiled a list of reconciliation resources that you can find here, and Narragunnawali has an impressive list of free curriculum resources for schools and early childhood services.

ECA is putting together a strategy to support increased Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander content and quality assurance. We’ll continue working to improve the resources we have and identify new ones as they emerge.

In the meantime, Sorry, Sorry remains available from ECA with the caution that educators consider the language and perspectives offered: does it match with your understanding? How does it fit with other resources you use? What other sources can you use for this theme? One suggestion is that Sorry, Sorry could be useful as a provocation for the educator’s own thinking and programming towards understanding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and ways of knowing, rather than as a resource to read with young children.

We would love to hear from you about your views and experiences. Have you used Sorry, Sorry or The Rabbits in your practice? What are your preferred picture books and resources for reconciliation?

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Early Childhood Australia

Early Childhood Australia (ECA) has been a voice for young children since 1938. We are the peak early childhood advocacy organisation, acting in the interests of young children, their families and those in the early childhood field. ECA advocates to ensure quality, social justice and equity in all issues relating to the education and care of children aged birth to eight years.

9 thoughts on “Controversy over Sorry Sorry—a welcome debate arising from ECA’s Reconciliation Symposium”

    Catharine Hydon says:

    thank you for this reflective response to the issue raised at the Symposium. It is a sign of our collective efforts to change the future that we can engage in these debates!

    Anne Kennedy says:

    The controversy over the book Sorry Sorry, reflects the complexity of the issues from both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal perspectives. That there is disagreement about the book from both perspectives is not surprising, but it does make it even more difficult to know ‘What ought I to do’? Using the ‘best interest principle’, leaving children ignorant or misleading them about the history, traditions and cultures of the First Nation peoples is not in their best interests. Ethically and pedagogically, we have to reflect as always, on how we approach this issue with different age groups in partnership with families and communities.

    Juanita Johnson says:

    I have used Sorry Sorry and feel that reading it to young children gives them a start to look at the beginning of Australia, it may not be totally factual or real however in my experience it gave 4 year olds a different perspective and made them aware of the injustice done to our indigenous people. I am sorry some people felt it wasnt factual enough but I feel it helps start the conversation.

    Lisa says:

    I am the educator who was at the Symposium who started the conversation about this book.
    My non-aboriginal team leader had purchased the book thinking it was a positive step toward Reconciliation at our centre. We both read the book and had mixed reviews but both had come to the same conclusion that we were not going to share this with our children for obvious reasons and the main one being, the story did NOT tell the truth.
    As a goori growing up in a regional Australia my parents were made to sit in a SEGREGATED classroom with their non-aboriginal peers listening to Cooks history. I too had to sit through this as the only goori in my class and so did my daughter ONLY two years ago in a mixed class with a couple of other gooris. Can you imagine what that is like? Being told what happened to your people but from the OTHERS point of view. Being made to read racist words such as coon, blacks or nigger in front of your non-aboriginal peers?
    WE know OUR history but MAINSTREAM Australia doesn’t because the TRUTH is still NOT being told. My people were massacred, raped, poisoned, removed from our mob, sold out, racially vilified just to name a few and this is still happening TODAY! THIS IS THE TRUTH! And I can’t understand for the life of me why ANYONE would want to write a book about Reconciliation in THIS country that is not truthful?
    I believe these books should be truthful and the local Aboriginal community need to be consulted and involved throughout the WHOLE process as it was our people, the First People of this land who the book is written about.
    I also believe as a visual learner we need to take into account skin tones because we are not simply black or white, we ALL come in different skin tones. And from personal experience ALL my life when the black word is thrown around my people DO take offence as I’m sure anyone else would too.
    I attended the Symposium and learnt so much and went through so many different emotions during the process. After meeting family there and listening to powerful speakers share their stories I realised I’m still on the right track and I need to continue speaking up. Working with children is my way of giving back to my people and when I’m teaching them about Reconciliation it will ALWAYS be in a most truthful manner.
    Just like the ONE Elder who reviewed the book I am ONLY ONE goori educator and this is ONLY my opinion, I only speak for myself not for ALL my people…

    Leanne Mits says:

    I read this article with interest. Thank you to ECA for giving this article such consideration. I was not able to attend this years Symposium, so was very interested to read this article, in response to a presentation and conversations from the Symposium. It is encouraging and positive that these important conversations are provoked and shared. As an ECA member, I am grateful for this important communication with the membership and beyond.

    Yarrow Andrew says:

    Yes, it was great to read such an in-depth and thoughtful blogpost on ‘reconciliation’ issues. It is always valuable to hear a variety of perspectives on what is frequently a painful topic.
    Keep it coming, and I look forward to a revised edition of ‘Sorry, sorry’ (this could be a first for a picture book).

    Amanda says:

    I recently attended a conference on the central coast where Jess Sinnott spoke. She likened using the dreaming stories (e.g. How the birds got their colours) to bible stories and said that if we wouldn’t use bible stories in our teaching we shouldn’t be using the dreaming stories. This confused a great many people as many of us use these stories to develop our own understanding and to also increase the children’s understanding and appreciation of Aboriginal culture. The following week after the conference, my sons teacher (who is Aboriginal) used a dreaming story as a focus for a unit of work they were doing in class (he is in year 1). I told his teacher about what I had learned and she was offended that someone from her culture would say that using them was offensive, she felt that to understand the stories and concept of the dreaming is a good start to understanding, accepting and appreciating culture. So now I am very confused as to what we are supposed to be doing in the EC setting, and what an acceptable approach is or if the the perception of what is best practice in regards to exposing children to history, and Aboriginal culture varies dependant upon which expert we talk to. What would be helpful is a consensus among Aboriginal elders and leaders to help us understand what is acceptable so that we do not cause offence in our efforts seeing as the notion of ‘any effort is a good effort’ no longer prevails. I guess the best question to ask would be to ask Aboriginal elders and leaders ‘What do you want children in early childhood settings to know?’ and ‘How can Early Childhood educators facilitate this learning?’

    ECA says:

    Thank you for your comments Amanda. Wherever we are on the journey to better understand and acknowledge Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, situations always arise where we have to think and question further, just as you’ve done. Across Early Childhood Education and Care there are many instances—whether it’s educational practice, culture or reconciliation, to name just a few—where there is no single, correct answer. Many issues bring out diverse and sometimes strongly-held conflicting views. As there is no single Aboriginal culture in Australia, but many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and countries (each unique), it makes sense that we can’t ask Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander peoples to come to a single ‘acceptable approach’ on what young children need to learn. Sometimes we have to stay with the uncertainty and not knowing, in order to discover more.

    All of us, adults and children, are constantly learning from each other. Your experience shows your openness to this: you sought professional development, you heard one Aboriginal educator’s perspective and continued to think, question and discuss so that you were exposed to other, quite different, views.

    The mention of Aboriginal cultural stories raises an interesting parallel with other cultural stories. Leaders across history have not been able to agree on key points of belief yet we don’t expect them to have a single ‘acceptable approach’. Instead we accept differences and many approaches. (Every election reminds us that we can’t agree on a single best way forward as a society!). It’s up to each of us to discover what is meaningful and workable in our own early childhood contexts. It’s not always straightforward or easy, but it is often rewarding and exhilarating learning together.

    We really appreciate you taking the time to share your experiences.

    Thanks also to Catharine, Anne, Juanita, Lisa, Leanne and Yarrow Andrew for contributing your observations and feedback: an important part of a shared conversation and deepening understanding.

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