Reviewed by Magdalena Ball
by Oliver Smuhar
Mountain Blue Publishing
ISBN13: 9780648332016, Paperback, 275 Pages, March 2021
Oliver Smuhar is a powerhouse of youthful energy. At the age of seventeen, while still doing his Higher School Certificate exams, he published his first novel The Gifts of Life which he soon expanded into a two book series. By twenty, he had created the FireWorks’ Fund (FWF) a registered charity designed to raise funds for a variety of worthy causes including the Blue Mountains Koala project, WIRES, the Save the Bilby Fund and many others. As a means for raising funds for his charity, Smuhar wrote a young adult book geared specifically for 8-14 years olds. The book is beautifully presented, with hand drawn illustrations, photographs, quotations, and facts about the different animals in the book and the events that inspired them, particularly the 2019/20 Australian bushfires, which were particularly devastating in Smuhar’s Blue Mountains hometown and which had some an intense impact on Australian flora and fauna (for example, some 60,000 koalas were negatively impacted by the fires). Smuhar’s goal with this book is not only to raise funds, but to entertain and educate. The story is narrated by anthropomorphic animals, particularly Illuka the koala and Bouddi the sugar glider, whose story is narrated to an enthusiastic and sometimes impatient audience of younger animals. The antagonist in this story is Alinta, the angry and ravenous bushfire, who destroys all in her path with ‘dancing orange lights’. The story moves quickly, driven along by Illuka and Bouddi’s charming narrative as the koala, sugar glider, and their growing band of friends as they try to escape Alinta.
Smuhar’s deep knowledge of the Blue Mountain Grose Valley setting provides the perfect backdrop for the story, and his descriptions of the flora against the raging fire are evocative:
Gums, bloodwoods, ashes, apples, oaks and Lilly Pillies fell slapping the ground as the lights raged on. There is nothing as loud as an ancient tree falling onto the land. You can hear its weight as it drops, feel the grass suck up the collision and taste its history leaving its roots. (31)
Each of the animals who joins Illuka’s band of friends has its own unique personality which young readers will find charming. There is Myaree the energetic and cheeky peep-wren, Coda, the self-effacing dancing bat, Kalinda, the cheeky and soft-hearted dingo, and Tyler, the kind walker (aka human) to name just a few. All fo the creatures in this book learn something and there’s a gentle camaraderie that grows as the novel progresses. Smuhar does a good job of bringing these characters together, building the relationships slowly as new animals join the ‘family’. Smuhar has also created several free activity books as companions for the novel, including Find-A-Words, CrossWords, Mazes, Math Puzzles, Colouring In Sheets, and Word Puzzles for readers 5-8 and 9-12. The activity books, the story and the facts in the book combine to make FireWorks an excellent resource for primary classrooms, and these could be used in conjunction with lessons or projects around the bushfire, or around conservation or reading comprehension.
Though bad things happen to the characters in the story, for example, Illuka loses his mother to the fires early on, the tone throughout is hopeful, with the underlying message being the power of cooperation and mutual support. Illuka in particular sets a strong example in keeping positive in the face of adversary:
“Wait! What if I fail? What if Alinta wins?”
Illuka returned to Omeo’s side. “Then she wins,” he said. “And the trees will be black and burnt, the grass scorched and sore, and the animals lost and weary. But there will always be a tomorrow. And what is hurt, whether it is a gum, a fern, a bloodwood or a critter, it will heal.” (252)
With everything that happened in 2020 and 2021, the 2019/20 bushfires seem like a long time ago, but it is almost certain that longer fire periods and hotter summers are on the horizon. FireWorks will continue to be an important resource for parents, teachers and younger readers to learn about the impact of fires and the importance of preparation and conservation without either causing undo anxiety or understating the severity of the impact. More information on FireWorks including samples, the workbook downloads, and audio material can be found at: http://www.oliversmuhar.com/fwf.html