Q&A with Andrew Kelly, co-author of Wilam: A Birrarung Story!

by |May 30, 2019

Andrew Kelly is the Yarra Riverkeeper, part of an international organisation of Riverkeepers. He has written numerous books for children and adults.

Andrew has teamed up with author and senior Wurundjeri Elder Aunty Joy Murphy and artist Lisa Kennedy for Wilam: A Birrarung Story, a picture book that tells the Indigenous and geographical story of Melbourne’s beautiful Yarra River, from its source to its mouth; from its pre-history to the present day.

We asked Andrew a couple of questions about Wilam: A Birrarung Story and about what it’s like to be a Riverkeeper – scroll down to read what he had to say!

Wilam: A Birrarung Story is a story featuring many native Australian plants and animals. How did you go about bringing them to life through the story?


Andrew Kelly

I have always been a bit of naturalist and being on the Yarra regularly through my job as Yarra Riverkeeper really helped me to understand and appreciate the native plants and animals on the river. I came to understand some of their daily and yearly cycles. My favourite animals are a flock of little black cormorants that roost above Princes Bridge in an old gum tree. Little blacks go fishing in a mob, driving the fish before them. Unfortunately, they didn’t make it into the book!

Can you tell us a little about your inspiration and where you got the idea to write this book?

Since I became riverkeeper I have always wanted to do a book on the river and convey how I feel about the river. The writing of the book was a process of bouncing words and ideas between myself and Aunty Joy. The first draft of the manuscript had many more words and it was a matter of whittling them down to a sufficient elegance. The other part I really liked was working with Aunty Joy on the language and creating a seamless flow between Woiwurrung words and English. I look forward to the day in Melbourne when we talk of Warin instead of wombats and Dulai-wurrung instead of platypus.

“Wilam” means “home” in Woiwurrung. How important was this concept to you when you were writing Wilam: A Birrarung Story?

That idea was very important. The first image I had in my mind was a family of the critically endangered Leadbeaters Possum snuggled up together in their bark lined tree hollow in the Central Highlands, high above Melbourne, in the magnificent ash forests. That was their home.

What was your favourite part about creating Wilam: A Birrarung Story?

My favourite part was holding the finished book for the first time and seeing Lisa Kennedy’s beautiful artwork in the place it was intended to be – all bound together in a book. They sing for me.

A glimpse at Lisa Kennedy’s gorgeous illustrations for Wilam: A Birrarung Story.

Andrew, you’re a Yarra Riverkeeper. What does a day in the life of a Riverkeeper look like?

My perfect day is getting up early in the morning before the sun rises, driving down to Burnley Harbour and meeting my friend Neil Blake the Port Phillip Baykeeper and take our boat for a microplastics trawl. We use a manta net to collect microplastics. These are tiny bits of plastic that get washed from the river into the bay. Fish and other wildlife think they are food and eat them, but they are not good eating and the fish and birds can starve to death. We want to stop that happening.

Do you have any advice for any kids wanting to grow up and become a Riverkeeper?

My biggest piece of advice is to learn to love the place you live in. Nature happens here wherever you are. You don’t have to go far. The next piece of advice is to join the Yarra Riverkeeper or your nearest waterkeeper organisation and learn about the work we do and how it is done, and if you live close enough come down to one of our clean-up events.

What’s the most important thing that you want kids to take away from Wilam: A Birrarung Story?

The place you live is your home. We need to look after our homes and build closer and closer connections to the places where we live. I look forward to the day in Melbourne when we use Woiwurrung words, like New Zealanders use Maori words, when we slip effortlessly between one language and another, acknowledging in that act the place where we live and the traditional owners of that place.

Thanks Andrew!

Wilam: A Birrarung Storyby Aunty Joy Murphy, Andrew Kelly, Lisa Kennedy (Illustrator)

Wilam: A Birrarung Story

by Aunty Joy Murphy, Andrew Kelly, Lisa Kennedy (Illustrator)

In this stunning picture book beautifully given form by Indigenous artist Lisa Kennedy, respected Elder Aunty Joy Murphy and Yarra Riverkeeper Andrew Kelly tell the story of one day in the life of the vital, flourishing Birrarung (Yarra river).

As ngua rises, Bunjil soars over mountain ash, flying higher and higher as the wind warms. Below, Birrarung begins its long winding path down to palem warreen. Wilam – home...

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About the Contributor

Olivia Fricot is the Editor of the Booktopian Blog. After finishing a soul-crushing law degree, she decided that life was much better with one's nose in a book and quickly defected to the world of Austen and Woolf. You can usually find her reading (obviously), baking, writing questionable tweets, and completing a Master's degree in English literature. Just don't ask about her thesis. Olivia is on Twitter and Instagram @livfricot - follow at your own risk.

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