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Ngurrara: A Ngarluma Story app review

ngurrara menuInteractive graphic novel Ngurrara: A Ngarluma Story (written by Tyson Mowarin and illustrated by Stu Campbell; Yijala Yala/BighART, 2013) introduces users to the history of the Ngarluma, the indigenous people of the Burrup Peninsula in north western Australia, and of Murujuga, one of the world’s oldest and most extensive petroglyph sites now threatened by industry and vandalism.

The story begins (we later learn) approximately 15,000 years ago, a time when “Mountains reach to the sky. Tharnarri [ocean] is far away.” It is the day of a young boy’s first hunt with his father: the pair spots a kangaroo, and the boy declares, “Marndanyingu. You feed my family now.” Dynamic panels — with no text, only well-placed sound effects — show the boy following his father’s guidance to kill the kangaroo with a boomerang-like weapon. When they stop for the night and make a fire, the boy carves the kangaroo’s image into a rock next to a petroglyph commemorating his father’s first kill. “Marndanyingu,” the boy says, “you tell my story.”

ngurrara words

“Thousands of years pass,” bringing the story forward to about 5,000 years ago. “The ice caps melt and the sea rises up. Our freshwater people become saltwater people and they have new stories to tell…” This time a young boy tracks and kills a turtle for his family’s food. Again he carves the image of his prey into the rock at Murujuga to tell his own story and to honor the animal’s spirit.

ngurrara turtle hunt

In the present time, another father-son pair drives toward Murujuga. The father tells his son to turn off the music he’s listening to with his earbuds and to “listen to the country.” As the two explore the many petroglyphs, the son asks in awe, “How long have our people been here?” His father replies, “We were always here.”

The app’s supplementary material (a substantial “about” text and a brief making-of video) supports this statement: at Murujuga there are around one million rock carvings made by the Ngarluma people, some more than 30,000 years old. In the video, co-creator Tyson Mowarin says, “I wanted to demonstrate the continuous connection of our people, the Ngarluma people, with the rock art…. We’re still the custodians of the art.”

An optional full-cast narration; subtle, atmospheric music; and a few animations and transitions complement the text and illustrations. Touching the bolded Ngarluma words in the text reveals their English-language equivalents and, in some cases, the petroglyphs associated with them. An interactive rock-art “carving” activity allows users to create their own petroglyphs.

The app isn’t perfect: it’s not particularly polished, and the title “ngurrara” (a Ngarluma word meaning both “home” and “country”) never appears in the text, which may be confusing for users completely unfamiliar with the Ngarluma. Nevertheless it makes excellent use of its format and presents a rarely-seen thread of human history in an effective, affecting way.

Available for iPad; free. Recommended for primary and intermediate users.

Katie Bircher About Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, associate editor at The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons College. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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