When Campbell Kerr’s class at Cobargo Public School returned in late January, embers from the fire that had devastated their town were still burning on its outskirts. Two of his 19 students had lost family, and two had lost homes.
The adults around them were tense with stress and grief. "[The children] were wound pretty tight," Mr Kerr remembers. "They were still in shock." That shock was only beginning to ebb when COVID-19 turned their lives upside down again.
So when normality returned in term three, and Mr Kerr suggested they create a book, 5-6K was unanimous; they would write about the fire. The book would be a thank you to firefighters, a love letter to their community, and a memorial to all that was lost.
But it has become much more. "It created a medium for discussion about a really rough event, a really rough summer," Mr Kerr said. "It was a medium for a healing process, of exploring how they were feeling.
"From there, taking the book home and sharing has made families stop and talk about the fire with their kids. It has opened up lines of communication with families and within communities and between neighbours. It has given the adults opportunities to talk and share and heal as well."
Zoe Pook’s daughter Lila, 11, is in Mr Kerr’s class. The family lost its house and a much-loved horse in the fire. "I think the book gave them a voice," Mrs Pook said. "There’s been so much attention on the town, but not specifically on the kids."
Over the six weeks the class spent writing the book, her daughter began to express her feelings about the fire for the first time. "For Lila, her emotion over the horse started to come out," Mrs Pook said.
"One of her best friends started to get quite emotional, going back through the process of grieving for her house and talking to her parents about the fact she actually missed it, which she hadn’t done before. There’s been lots of donations and counselling but there hasn’t really been something that tells the story from [the children's] point of view."
Their illustrated book, The Day She Stole the Sun, describes the battle between Mother Nature and Ganyi, the traditional Dhurga word for fire.
"Mother Nature called out to the creature," the students wrote, as a flaming black beast crouched over their town. "‘Stop!’ she cried. But Ganyi ignored her. She summoned her own thunderstorm and scattered her anger across the bush."
The book was produced and published through Littlescribe, a writing platform for schools. Chief executive Jenny Atkinson said storytelling was a gentle, powerful way for children to process their feelings. "It has given them permission to have conversations that haven’t finished and haven’t started," she said.
"[The children] bring a perspective and truth and honesty to the story, and I think they are creating a roadmap for the rest of the community. When big people see little people get on with their grit and resilience, it gives them permission to move on as well."
The children want everyone to read it, but three people in particular; former NSW Rural Fire Service boss Shane Fitzsimmons, actor Hugh Jackman – they’re just big fans – and Prime Minister Scott Morrison who was famously heckled by a truck driver in Cobargo.
"[One student] wanted the rest of the country to know they are kind generous people, and that moment was not reflective of them as a community," Ms Atkinson said.
The book is available through Littlescribe, and $10 from each copy goes to Cobargo Public School.