26 Oct 2009

And you thought you had it hard...

Bett-Bett and her dog, Sue.

Whether homeschooled or not, most children eventually learn to read.

For some it is painless; without Mummy even noticing it, suddenly little Johnny is reading road signs, the cereal packet and the back of Daddy's newspaper. Before long you can't keep up with him as he devours everthing from The Boxcar Children on to Homer and Virgil.

For others the process is more difficult. Self-doubt rears its ugly head, "Who am I to think I can teach little Sally? Maybe she'd be better off in school." If we don't question ourselves, the judgemental grandparents and neighbours do it for us. There must be something wrong with him. He has bad hearing; bad eyesight; learning difficulties.

If this second group feels familiar then this little story is for you. It is the story of Jeannie Gunn teaching Bett-Bett a seven year old Aboriginal girl how to read.

The Little Black Princess of the Never-Never was written many years ago. Nowadays words like nigger, piccaninny and lubra are considered racially offensive by indigenous Australians, but they weren't back in 1905. I hope you can overlook them and enjoy the story as much as I did when I read it aloud to my family yesterday afternoon.

Yours is not the only child who has trouble learning to read.
"What name, Missus?"

I looked up to see her staring very hard at me, with a puzzled look on her face.

"What name, what?" I said, wondering what she meant.

She did not answer at once, but picked up a book, and held it so close to her face that it almost touched her nose; then staring at it till her eyes nearly jumped out of her hear, she said -

"What name, likee this? likee this? likee this?

I laughed at her and said -

"Bett-Bett, I hope I don't look like that when I read," for she looked a fearful little object. But I saw what was puzzling her;he could not understand why I sat looking so earnestly at little black marks on paper.

I explained that books could talk like 'paper yabbers,' as she called letters - papers that 'yabber,' or talk, you know.

Then I got a little ABC book, and some paper and pencils, and told her I would teach her to read; but it was easier said than done.

We began with the capital letters. Bett-Bett repeated 'A' after me, and made it on paper, then wanted to know what it was. Was it tucker, or an animal, or somebody's name?

I said it was a mark and it was called A. "What did the mark say?" she asked. "What name him yabber, Missus, this one A?" were the exact words she used.

You remember that on Goggle-Eye's letter stick marks were cut, and that every mark had a special meaning; so Bett-Bett was sure that 'A' must be the name of something.

I couldn't explain it, so told her that when she know all the names of the letters, I would tell her what they meant, and we went on to B.

The sound reminded Bett-Bett of bees and honey. "Him sugar-bag," she said, grinning at her cleverness. Then she made it in the dust with her toe, and told Sue - "Him talk sugar-bag, this one B." Sue looked wise and smelt it, and then offered to shake hands all round. And that was our first day's lesson...

...We plodded on day after day, and every day Bett-Bett gave me a hint that she did not think much of lessons.

"Me knock up longa paper yabber, Missus; him silly fellow," she kept saying.

I took no notice of her remarks, but i think the only thing either of us learned was patience.

The capitals were bad enough, but when we began the little letters, things got dreadfully mixed.

"Missus! this one no more 'A,'" said Bett-Bett, worrying over small 'a'.

I told her it was a little 'a'; but she insisted that it wasn't, and to prove it showed me a big 'A', and of course they were not a bit alike. To try and make her understand a little better, I said that capital 'A' was the mother, and little 'a' the baby. This pleased her very much.

"Me savey," she said, pointing from one to the other. "This one mumma; this one piccaninny." Then she wanted to know the baby's name; what its mother called it. She said that piccaninnies always had different names to their mamma's.

Of course, I didn't know the baby's name, and told her so...

...After this we said: "Mumma A and piccaninny belonga mumma A; mumma B and piccaninny belonga mumma B, and so on to the very end of the alphabet, till our tongues ached.

On the page Bett-Bett was learning from, every little letter was next to its mother. Little 'a' next to mumma 'A,' and little 'b' next to mumma 'B'; but in the reading lessons little letters were walking about by themselves. one day she noticed this when she was looking through the book.

"Look, missus!" she cried, excitedly. Piccaninny belong mumma 'A; sit down by meself." Then she scolded the little letter dreadfully. "You go home longa you mumma," she said, in a loud angry voice, shaking her finger at it. But small 'a' never moved; it just sat and looked at her, and Bett-bett told me it was 'cheeky fellow longa me," meaning it was not at all afraid of her. "My word! you badfellow alright," she went on, scolding hard; Debbil-debbil catch you dreckly. As little 'a' took no notice of this awful threat, she turned back to tell 'mimma A' about its naughty piccaninny. There she found that the little letter had slipped home, and was sitting quietly at its mother's lnee. She was so pleased about it.

"Look Missus," she said, coming to show me; "him goodfellow now."

"It's a very good little letter," I said, "and you're a good little lubra,
and may go and help water the garden."...

The Little Black Princess of The Never-Never, Jeannie Gunn 1952 pp 47-51


  1. Delightful Jeanne! I loved reading this post. The book oozes warmth and humour doesn't it! So glad you thought to write about it, books like this one should never be forgotten. I will be reading it to my children soon - I can already imagine their laughter! Thanks for sharing. x

  2. Long time no read 'em that one!
    Thanks Jeanne. Indeed my own children are sometimes fascinated with the way a word is written when they have heard or pronounced it in a sloppy way for years. Birfday is one that comes to mind!
    Imagine poor Bett-Bett trying to read the Kings English!
    Have a good week at your place, Jeanne.

  3. What a lovely excerpt - I must get my hands on a copy of that book.

    And you're so right about how reading comes easy to some and not others. My first two children were reading long story books by the end of the 6th year of live, yet at 7 and a half my third child is still struggling to decipher those little black marks on the page. (She is improving though.)

  4. Hi Jeanne,
    Hmmm...every time I come to your blog, I add more books to my wanted list. ☺

  5. That's a beautiful excerpt Jeanne. I loved watching the movie of that book - and I'll always remember the way they called Jeannie "Missus"!

  6. That was a super lovely read. Loved it.

  7. Ha again! This was like reading about how my children's minds work when they look at the page! It just makes noooooo sense at all- at least CM advocated for the whole word and you can make a bit of sense of that - but then "it" and "the" etc seem pointless to them too!!! Funny and encouraging to know others experience similar things!

  8. I remember it. And I ask if you have ever encountered another old favourite from my youth - Children of the Dark People, by Frank Dalby Davidson. Please look out for it in second hand shops. My copy has a green cloth cover. It is very non-PC, yes, but such a wonderful book, and had a huge influence on the games we played in the bush as kids.

  9. Ooh yes! I love this! Mine has illustrations by Pixie O'Harris. I think I remember her pictures more than the story, although I remember the evil Witch Doctor frightened me for a while there...

  10. Dear Jeanne

    I am linking to this post from a post of mine (if that is ok with you?) because when I read this I had started a post two days earlier about my daughter's struggles with learning to read. This post was just like an explanation of what she experiences as I attempt to teach her! So thank you for posting such an enlightening piece!!
    Blessings in Christ


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