The Burnt Stick


Writing The Burnt Stick

The Burnt Stick Q&A


The Burnt Stick, by Anthony Hill, illustrated with black and white drawings by Mark Sofilas. Published by Penguin/Viking, 1994, paperback edition Puffin Books 1996, 54 pages. Winner, Christian Children's Book of the Year, Honour Book Children's Book Council of Australia. Buy Now  $16.95.

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Nobody asked the children before they took them away...

 An award-winning story from the 'Stolen Generations'

One of the outstanding children's books of recent times ... Kevin Steinberger

Anthony Hill's second book for children, The Burnt Stick has been widely praised and honoured. It won the 1995 Australian Christian Literature Award for Children and was 1995 Honour Book in the Children's Book Council of Australia Book of the Year Award for Younger readers.

Written and published before there had been much public discussion about the 'stolen generations', The Burnt Stick is the story of a young Australian aboriginal boy, John Jagamarra, who was taken from his mother by the Welfare Department, and sent to the Fathers at the Pearl Bay Mission.

 Nobody asked the mothers ... The Welfare believed they would soon get over their loss. And nobody asked the children - they would soon forget.

Yet John Jagamarra did not forget.  He was nearly five when the Big Man from Welfare came looking for him - and you can remember many things when you are almost five years old.


All through his childhood John remembered the life of the camp at Dryborough Station and the good trick his mother, Liyan, played with a stick burnt in the fire when the Big Man came looking for John. She rubbed the black charcoal into his skin to make John seem darker than he  really was – too dark to be taken away.


Twice she got away with it. But the third time...

The end is as certain as the sunset, but the tension here is palpable. Allan Baillie.

For more info

Go to  The Burnt Stick Q&A  and the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, AIATSIS, is a wonderful research source for indigenous Australians.


What the critics said about The Burnt Stick:

A beautifully shaped tale, told in a spare, detached style which serves to accentuate the poignancy of the story ... an excellent example of how an author can achieve more by doing less. Stephen Matthews.

... a book that manages to have it both ways. It deals with deadly serious social issues but the story survives. Duncan Ball.

Mark Sofilas' appropriately stark charcoal illustrations will haunt you long after the book is read Liam Davison.

This powerful book is a muted cry of pain for wrongs committed towards mothers and their children. Moira Robinson.

About the illustrations


Mark Sofilas's soft charcoal drawings envelop the text, echoing its quiet self-revelatory nature... They contain carefully chosen and composed images which are evocative and even confrontational, their symbolism conveying strong messages to the reader. Reading Time

... he seizes the essence of the tragedy. Where a white man says, ‘They are not like us. They soon forget', Sofilas has Liyan, naked and defeated, sagging on the long, empty dirt track which has taken her son. Allan Baillie

Book design, narrative style, illustration and the story itself combine in classic harmony to render The Burnt Stick one of the outstanding children's books of recent times. Kevin Steinberger             


Is The Burnt Stick a true story?
The idea is based on a story told to me by an Aboriginal man I met in north-west Australia. He told me how the Welfare had come looking for him as a boy and how his mother rubbed charcoal into his skin to make him dark. It was a good trick - but the Welfare knew one better, and came back to the camp in the early morning. The man told me he had never seen his mother again.

Why did you write it down?
It seemed to me such a powerful metaphor for this sad aspect of our history. These things happened until at least the 1960s. Aboriginal people I know in Canberra have themselves been taken away as children and sent to institutions.

After the book was published, other people told me of similar ruses tried by Aboriginal mothers in many parts of Australia. They rubbed ashes or dirt into the children to make them darker. In one case I heard of a child who had been held over a smoking fire.             

Many stories have since been documented in the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, Bringing Them Home (1997). At Hopevale in Far North Queensland in 2006 I was told of a little girl who was caked in mud from the creek – and got away with it until she went swimming.

For more info

Go to  The Burnt Stick Q&A  and the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Studies, AIATSIS, is a wonderful research source for indigenous Australians.


Picture credits:

The Burnt Stick paperback cover: courtesy Penguin Books Australia.

What's this? Charcoal drawing by Mark Sofilas.

Down the track... Charcoal drawing by Mark Sofilas.

Dawn. Charcoal drawing by Mark Sofilas.