“It makes me feel so small, but part of it all… and I realised how glad I am to be right here…”
Trace Balla’s books Rivertime and the sequel Rockhopping take you into a world of adventure, curiosity and love for nature – and instead of being a far-off, inaccessible land, the books take place right in our backyard.
In Rivertime, we are introduced to Clancy, a young boy who is (reluctantly) being taken on his first outdoor adventure by his Uncle Egg. He is as unenthusiastic as I remember being when I was dragged by my parents on what I considered “boring” family holidays out in the bush. At first Clancy is not happy – he sleeps terribly on the hard ground and he misses the telly.
What follows, however, is a beautifully relatable story of slowing down and truly appreciating the world around you. Trace Balla has captured that all-too-familiar childhood experience of being dragged somewhere you thought would be incredibly dull, and finding out it wasn’t so bad after all!
The cartoon style of the books allows Balla to introduce us to the vast range of native flora and fauna in her chosen area. In Rivertime we experience the Glenelg River in western Victoria, with images of red-tailed black cockatoos flying overhead, pied cormorants drying themselves in the sun, and long-necked turtles swimming below. Each tiny drawing is labelled, giving the reader just as much to explore on the pages as Clancy has in the story.
For me, Rivertime captured what we are often looking for when we head to the great outdoors – that feeling of getting in touch with the pace of nature. As Uncle Egg says when asked why they don’t have a motor for the canoe they are paddling: “That’s the whole point, not to go fast.”
In Rockhopping, the characters head to the Grampians with a plan – to search for the source of the Glenelg River. We explore with them the different habitat of the ranges, and the sense of adventure and curiosity that the characters show makes you want to get out there yourself.
Not all goes according to plan, however, and Clancy ends up alone in an isolated part of the National Park. At first, he is nervous and lonely – but then he realises “… I was wrong, I’m not in the middle of nowhere! I’m right here. In a rock shelter, on a beautiful mountain range among the other mountains, on this amazingly alive planet, spinning in the universe.”
Balla also pays homage to the traditional owners of the land, and in her research the author spent time with the indigenous people of the area to learn how they felt about their homes. What she learned comes into the books, for example in traditional names like Billawin (the Victorian Range) and Bochara (parts of the Glenelg River), as well as knowledge of bush tucker and rope-making techniques that are thousands of years old.
These books give kids a glimpse of the diversity, and history, of places that are right on our doorstep. There is so much information in there, it’s clear that Balla has done her research, going on both trips multiple times herself!
What these books really highlight though, to both kids and adults, is what you can see if you take the time to look. The simple act of slowing down and actually seeing the world around you helps you appreciate nature for the wonderful diversity and uniqueness that it possesses – and unlike a lot of children’s books, this is an adventure that we can all take.
As Clancy notes of an orchid he finds and decides to draw:
“The closer I look the more details I see”.
Ella is a PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne, where she spends a lot of time thinking about why some quolls don’t eat cane toads (if only she could ask them!). She also enjoys talking and writing about science, and would ultimately love to have an actual impact on the conservation of Australia’s biodiversity.
You can find her on Twitter at @ecology_ella.
Banner image courtesy of Trace Balla / Allen & Unwin