NOTE: Sue McPherson is both the writer of Brontide AND one of its characters. She will be referred to as ‘McPherson’ in her capacity as a writer, and as ‘Sue’ in her capacity as a character.
1. The art of conversation
Have students consider the nature and purpose of interviews and conversations. This is a key structural component that frames the narrative in Brontide. Students should reflect on their experience with interviews in different contexts, e.g. a job interview, social television interview (such as The Oprah Winfrey Show, Ellen, The Project or The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon), formal research interview, teacher interview over an incident at school, etc.
Discuss the intended audiences and purposes of these nuanced texts, pointing out that interviews and conversations are a form of storytelling that can be unpredictable, open-ended OR structured with an end in mind. Students could complete a table like the one below, and could even locate and share model/mentor texts that demonstrate different interview styles.
|Type of interview/conversation
|Social television interview
|Formal research interview
View excerpts of Anh’s Brush With Fame via ABC iview (with multiple series available, teachers can select episodes based on their contexts and students’ interest). Analyse with students the ways in which Anh Do, as the conversationalist, guides his guests on a journey of vulnerability, sharing and disclosure. Students can map the conversations on visual charts according to their modality, language, body language, voice, and overall tone.
Model storytelling to the class using a Bildungsroman moment from your youth. Students will then form groups of 3–5 and take turns telling a teenage/coming-of-age story. Once everyone has taken their turn, debrief as a whole class about the personal dynamics of people sharing stories and opening up. Consider and discuss the shared nature and unity enjoyed through narrative.
NOTE: Take time to set clear expectations for sharing, and remember to use protective interrupting should someone share information that is not suited to the class setting. You could also use this as an opportunity to increase student awareness about the support services available at your school.
Discuss with students what makes a great question – one that is open-ended, purposeful, targeted, and relevant – then play the hot seating game. Have one student sit in the ‘hot seat’ (they can pretend to be anyone they want) while the rest of the class asks them questions. A variation on this activity would be to play celebrity heads.
These activities will help students see how McPherson crafts questions to draw out as much information as possible from the social capital and relationships in Brontide.
First Nations storytelling
- Discuss with students the significance and centrality of oral storytelling in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures.
- Refer to the Queensland Curriculum and Assessment Authority (QCAA) for information about different types of stories, their cultural contexts, and the mediums in which they have been told.
- Watch and discuss Jacinta Koolmatrie’s TED Talk, ‘The myth of Aboriginal stories being myths’, and consider how sharing orally can be a key aspect of identity and belief for First Nations peoples.
- Discuss the concept of yarning and having respectful communication and dialogue.
- Model a yarning circle with students, following the QCAA guidelines.
- Consider how Sue (the character) builds respectful relationships with the boys in Brontide via her opening questions and the ensuing dialogue.
Discuss the topic of risk-taking, using this meme as a prompt. Have students complete a PMI (plus, minus, interesting) chart about risk-taking based on their own experiences. Working with a partner, they should develop a definition of ‘risk-taking’ and refine this as a whole class. Students can then share examples of what they think constitutes safe and unsafe behaviours at school. As a class, walk around the school grounds and complete a risk assessment for ‘a day in the life of a student’: assess the risks themselves, how they could be minimised, and how a judgment call could be applied in terms of safe or unsafe behaviour.
Revisit the risk-taking behaviour and examples students identified earlier and discuss emotional risk-taking: being vulnerable and ‘opening up’. Ask students about the contexts in which they would be more willing and comfortable to share, and the contexts in which they would be less willing. Have students do some stream of consciousness writing to illustrate how they can be open and foster a sense of trust and connection – in this instance, between themselves and the page only.
Survey students to see if they identify different levels of honesty and ease in sharing stories (e.g. how comfortable they feel generally, whether this changes depending on age, what other factors contribute to someone being able to open up). As a demonstration, students could undertake a game of ‘would you rather’ using either a random generator OR their own questions drawn from a hat. Be sure to maintain active supervision and oversight throughout this activity.
Discuss the options that might go through a person’s mind when taking risks, and the social pressures to impress one’s peers/mates. Students could view Kashfia Rahman’s TED talk, ‘How risk-taking changes a teenager’s brain’, and discuss the research presented. Finally, talk about the different types of risks – both explicit (tarping) and implicit (being vulnerable, sharing) – in Brontide.
3. The cover
Examine the front and back covers of the text. Discuss the word ‘brontide’ (students can research the meaning if they don’t know) and connect it with the content on the covers. Talk about examples of pathetic fallacy, meaning and symbolism to enhance the narrative storytelling nature of the text.
Examine the body language of the four boys on the front cover and discuss its impact on the reader. Have students connect the visual imagery in the text (Nig the dog, Old Man tree, thunder, etc.) with wider parallels in meaning that McPherson explores in her writing. How does the cover continue to add layers of meaning here?
Personal response on reading the text
Brontide is highly accessible and could easily be read in one sitting. Have students record any questions and comments they think of in a reading response journal. They could also work in groups of 4–5 to read the parts of the different characters. After reading each scene, they can write some notes in their journal, then share and discuss their initial thoughts, reactions and responses with their peers.
Have students read ‘Parents need to learn to love their kids taking risks’ and create a Venn diagram that reflects what this opinion piece says about risk-taking compared to Brontide. What connections and similarities do students see with their own experiences? They can reflect on the riskiest thing they have ever done and compare this to the experiences captured in the text.
The theme of mateship manifests in Brontide in many ways. Students can discuss what makes a good friend and reflect on how this is explored in the text. They can also discuss the difference between mateship and friendship, drawing on information from this Macquarie Dictionary blog post to support their understanding.
Students should research the conventions surrounding plot twists. Have the class vote on whether they prefer a pleasant or unpleasant surprise, and why. Then, using sticky notes, students can identify the elements of foreshadowing in the leadup to Brontide’s ending. Have them consider what message this conveys about the nature of taking risks.
Outline of key elements of the text
Discuss with students the similarities between Brontide and the Bildungsroman style of writing and content. Have them reflect on the wide appeal and relatability of such coming-of-age narratives. They are to explore how the Bildungsroman elements of the plot are observed in the four main characters – each with their unique dispositions – and how, as they share more honestly with Sue, their responses become more candid. Have students map on a visual chart the unfolding plot (scenes) as told through the storytelling sessions. Highlight where yarning takes place and the boys narrate their life stories vividly. Students can discuss how humour, language, and tone colour the written expression so that it leaps off the page and into the hearts and minds of the reader.
The four main characters – Rob, Pen, Benny Boy and Jack – collaboratively drive the narrative, guided by Sue’s questions. Consider the nature of fragmented characters and the revelation of small bits of information over time. Sue is also a key character, and although she is a guest at Taralune High School, we can see how she builds relationships with these young men and how their language becomes more familiar. This highlights the centrality of relationships to the story and connects back to the earlier discussion about yarning.
Conversations between Rob and Sue reveal a stark contrast in their attitudes towards race and what they consider to be appropriate (or not). Students can consider differences between adult/youth perspectives, male/female perspectives, outsider/insider perspectives, and so on.
Reflect on how mateship and bonding seem to revolve around risk-taking behaviour for many of the characters in Brontide; where this is not the case, it mostly stems from similar interests. Students can consider what aspects of mateship and bonding emerge from Sue’s relationships with the boys.
Explore some of the language around masculinity and gender in the text. In particular, students should identify language use that reflects different characters’ perceptions of gender. They can then reflect on how this language might align or collide with their own views.
The power of words drives much of the impact, tension and characterisation in the text. Students can reflect on how some words are used for particular purposes, both in Sue’s questioning and in the students’ responses to her.
In pairs, students are to write a conversational script and present an interview that explores the theme of risk-taking. The interview may focus on why risks are so attractive; the impacts and consequences of taking risks; or perhaps on revealing the riskiest thing the interviewee has done (this can be fictional). Students may choose to write in either a semi-structured or structured interview style, and could present their interviews live, pre-recorded or as a podcast.
The writer’s craft
Read the Author’s Note at the start of the book and discuss its impact. Students can debate whether it is more effective and meaningful because it appears at the beginning of the text as opposed to the end. Also discuss the role of the character profiles McPherson has written for each boy. How do these help to not only frame the narrative around different voices, but also to map the characters’ key aspects?
Examine the way McPherson has structured the text around four distinct voices. Students can offer justifications for the order in which they appear. What might the impact have been if the order was different in some way? Students could map out one or more alternate narratives, reflecting on the impact that structure has on storytelling. Consider, as part of this discussion, how the current four-voice narrative structure leads to maximum engagement for McPherson’s readers.
As students read and re-read the text, they can map the sequence of events using the time and date stamps provided at the start of each scene. They should consider the impact of this five-day timeframe on the intensity of the narrative.
Approaches to characterisation
Invite students to comment on and evaluate the effectiveness of McPherson’s portrayal of the male teenage voice. Reflect on the evidence and context provided in her Author’s Note and consider what other sources of information and inspiration she might have drawn from. Find some examples where the voices of the four boys are quite distinct.
By way of extension, highlight the intentional variations in typography between characters, including font size, handwriting style and physical layout. What impacts do these variations have on the reader and how do they communicate more about each character?
Rob, Pen, Benny Boy and Jack also drive what happens in the reader’s experience. What might be the significance and message behind the fact that, for these main drivers of the plot, the age spread is between twelve and seventeen years old?
Examine the silhouettes on the front cover and draw links to specific quotes from the text that reflect the individual characters and their body language. Students can take this further by expanding on the boys’ character profiles (pp. 1, 56, 73 and 122) using evidence from the text. The combination of visual and written storytelling allows McPherson to communicate her insights and highlight the main themes and ideas in the narrative. The concept of the storyteller as one who interweaves and questions to help draw out – and, in turn, co-construct – the narrative, makes a significant difference to any analysis of the text.
Discuss sensitively with students the racial expressions and profiling that occurs within the text. How do they add to the authentic voices McPherson is representing? Students can consider the discussion between Sue and Rob about language (pp. 40–42, 51–54), as well as other labels mentioned throughout the text and how these impact on an individual. You can link the discussion to any nicknames the boys have and their preferences for what they want to be called. The discussion about what a loser is (p. 50) provides another helpful reference point.
NOTE: It is important to foster cultural safety throughout this discussion. Consider inviting some support staff from different cultural backgrounds to assist and be present as you unpack the racial expressions used in the book.
Have students record any identifiable features of Queensland that are mentioned in the text. They could also identify aspects of the broader Australian context in references to place, time and space. Students could then map the location, qualities and features of Taralune High School on a Venn diagram and consider the similarities and differences with their own school. They should use specific quotes from the text to support their ideas.
Place students in the role of ‘narrative detectives’ who are leading an investigation into a tarping incident, using Brontide as their main source of evidence. As narrative detectives, they must locate evidence of setting and location in order to report on the details and whereabouts (time and place) of characters throughout the story. The ongoing references to past events will prove particularly useful in painting a picture of the text’s setting.
Use of parallels and contrasts
Sue’s use of language to parallel and contrast attitudes towards race is highly effective, especially in her conversations with Rob. Have students find examples where another character makes a racist comment to Sue, and analyse the way she uses parallels and contrasts to challenge and subvert these comments and the prejudices behind them.
Point of view
Explore point of view with students and discuss/analyse the similarities and differences between points of view in Brontide. In particular, consider the way Sue draws out Rob’s perspective on Benny Boy, who he calls ‘Legless’ (pp. 48–50), which is in stark contrast to his actual character. Students can evaluate the level of realism of Rob’s portrayal.
In her Author’s Note at the start of the text, McPherson reflects on her interview techniques and lists some of her perceived shortcomings. Find some examples of these in the text and have students reflect on how this style of interviewing was key to eliciting the right response at that time and in that context. Students can discuss and reflect on whether they felt McPherson’s point of view on her own technique was justified.
McPherson’s opening comments are interesting in and of themselves. Discuss with students:
- Do you interpret the Author’s Note as a ‘trigger warning’?
- Is this necessary?
- Does the inclusion of the Author’s Note make a difference to your reading of the text?
- Is McPherson attempting to position the reader in her favour?
Compare McPherson’s interview style with Anh Do’s (Initial Response > Introductory Activities > The Art of Conversation). Which techniques are common to both interviewers and which effectively emphasise the interviewee’s point of view?
Consider how each of the boys’ voices is unique to their role, story and purpose. Students should seek out textual evidence of how McPherson portrays them as alternately rude, flawed and real. Discuss the concept of voice and wrestle with the question of whose narrative Brontide is. This is a significant question, as Sue gains as much from the experience of sharing stories as the boys do. In thinking about the concept of voice in connection with storytelling, students can also identify ways in which Sue gives the boys a ‘voice’ in her storytelling workshops (despite their resistance to anything related to reading or writing).
Language and style
Brontide is a highly accessible text written in a personable style. Discuss how this might influence and inform its intended audience (e.g. if teenage boys are the intended audience and the content is representative of their experiences and emotions, might their engagement be higher?).
Examine with students the range of texts in Brontide and how they enhance its impact for a contemporary audience. Students can identify the different forms included (e.g. interviews, emails, newspaper articles, social media feeds) and evaluate how McPherson has used these as storytelling tools to maximise engagement.
In small groups, students are to discuss Pen’s ‘story’. This can be considered alongside other included texts as part of a discussion about grief. Finally, students can explore how Sue encourages the boys’ drawings, and how their inclusion in Brontide adds another layer of meaning.
References to youth culture, adolescence, family and safety reflect the context in which the boys have grown up. The blurb on the back cover – which alludes to them being alternately demanding, rude, funny and profound ways – conveys McPherson’s honest and humorous writing style. Find examples from the text in which the boys speak or behave in such ways. Finally, discuss how the definition of ‘brontide’ foreshadows the text’s themes and outcomes.
It should be noted that some of the characters in Brontide depict Aboriginal culture in a negative light; in the midst of this, however, there is also sensitivity and hope. The text challenges stereotypes about Aboriginal people and illustrates diversity among cultures as well as individuals.
Brontide is one of the texts helping to improve representation in the Australian publishing industry.
Students are to choose ONE character from the text and evaluate their relevance/importance to wider societal issues. You can determine the nature and style of the evaluation according to your class’ social context.
Ways of reading the text
A cultural lens
Consider the different perspectives and theoretical approaches McPherson employs in her construction of life and identity in Brontide. In particular, have students identify any aspects of First Nations culture and language that are present in the text. In identifying specific examples, reflect on how they have been used to help create an authentic cultural perspective throughout the story.
A gendered lens
Examine the ways in which masculinity, gender and identity are conveyed in the text and to what extent students agree with their portrayal. One of McPherson’s strengths is her ability to draw different responses from each of the boys. Find some specific examples of the following:
- In what ways is a gendered reading more relevant to some characters than others?
- What impact does the authorial female voice have on shaping Sue as part mother, part mentor, and part support person, facilitating sharing and vulnerability among the boys? Find some examples where this is evident.
Turn to the back cover and unpack Rob’s belief about men taking risks. Students can debate this idea in light of the wider narrative position.
A (post-)colonial lens
The impacts of contemporary Western society on Aboriginal culture and identity are explored throughout the text. For many First Nations peoples living today, Australia remains a colonial country. Students should discuss how they can identify, critique and comment on the aspects of colonialism highlighted in Brontide. Consider references to racism and other aspects of race relations. Find some specific examples where these are evident. Students can revisit Rob’s references to Shaz and how he presents Dave’s attitude towards her (pp. 7–8, 39, 54–55).
Students could also reflect on the power of language as evidenced by Sue and Rob’s discussions about the N-word (pp. 40–42, 51–54) and their engagement with its historical connotations.
A youth lens
Consider the role of teenage and youth voices in Brontide. Given their experiences throughout the text, what can readers learn about morality, judgment, risk-taking and masculinity? With these provocations in mind, students can share some ‘silent conversations’ with each other, writing their thoughts on a sheet of paper to be passed around class OR viewed all together in a gallery walk.
Brontide provides a springboard into many conversations that are relevant to young adults. Talking openly about complex topics like racism, belonging and family can strengthen students’ ability to explore and meaningfully engage with other challenging ideas.
Consider the slightly conservative lens through which Brontide could be read in relation to risk-taking. Talk through the skills required for students to be able to assess risks in their own lives (e.g. self-regulation).
- Students could write a short article or blog for their school newsletter entitled ‘What teens want parents to know about taking risks’, keeping in mind the parental audience and how this differs from their peers.
- Students could discuss whether they think there may be different attitudes towards risk-taking in urban versus rural areas.
- Students can conduct some research and consider which demographics may be more likely to take risks and why. They can also consider the extent to which this fits with the Australian notion of larrikinism.
- Have students conduct a risk assessment in their own heads; talk them through the thought process, including ‘What is the worst thing that could happen?’
- Students could create a poster raising awareness of risks in their local community.
- Have students research the meaning and history of ‘compliance’ and ‘duty of care’.
As a class, discuss the idea that there must be a mutual level of trust when one person shares something personal with another. How is Sue able to build this trust so quickly with her interviewees, and what impact does this have on the overall storytelling?
Re-creating the text
Given Brontide’s dramatic nature and focus on voice, students could work in small groups to reimagine the text in new modes, media and contexts. A scene from a play or a short film, for example, would effectively highlight the personal nature of the plot.
In her Author’s Note, McPherson reveals that the boys didn’t see themselves as storytellers. Yet their willingness to share, combined with other aspects of their nature and behaviour, very much fit into that category. Consider why the boys may have shied away from being labelled ‘storytellers’. What might they have associated with sharing and discussing their feelings, experiences and beliefs in a particular way? Have students explore whether this process may have been perceived differently for people of another age, gender, demographic, etc. What impact does this have how we see others and ourselves in the world?
Consider how the boys’ authentic voices have been captured and conveyed so effectively in Brontide. Students can look at other interviews, reflecting on who they might like to talk to and how they could draw out the desired information through questioning. Compare a short, promotional TV interview (e.g. The Project) with a more in-depth conversation from Enough Rope with Andrew Denton. Discuss how these interviews differ in style, purpose, technique and content, and ask students which one feels more personal, targeted, directed, etc.
Consider how the use of authentic voices lends weight to any narrative based on true events. McPherson instils her writing with verisimilitude, which lends the story credibility while also heightening its emotional impact. The text serves as a window into genuine youth experiences while also acting as something of a cautionary tale.
Evaluation of the text as representative of Australian culture
Ask students how familiar they are with Australian colloquialisms, especially those that can be used to downplay a serious or dangerous situation. Students could research the origins and applications of the phrase ‘she’ll be right’. Invite them to articulate their beliefs about their own generation:
- Do they think adults do enough to keep teens from becoming bored or disengaged from everyday life?
- Are they concerned about (potentially problematic) manifestations of masculinity in society and culture?
- What about the desire to take risks and prove oneself?
As part of this discussion, students should consider the weight of expectation around proving your worth and how this relates to identity and sense of self. Can students see themselves downplaying the severity of a situation, as Australians are prone to doing, in order to save face?
Humour is another important aspect of Australian culture and identity. There are times in the novel when it is used to soften the impact of some of the more serious topics of conversation. Have students locate some examples of this and evaluate the impact on the responder when humour is used to mask sensitivity. They can contrast this approach with some more earnest examples, noting any differences in emotional/intellectual engagement.
Discuss what readers can learn about perceptions and new perspectives, the nature of friendships, and teen experiences from Brontide. Using the ‘See, Think, Wonder’ framework, ask students to reflect on the teen experience and identify five elements that they think typify this (in a broad sense). These could be presented on a poster.
What aspects of the teen experience might be unique to Australia? Identify appropriate excerpts from Black Inc.’s Growing Up series that might speak to or illustrate this uniqueness. Students can also reflect on some of the issues presented around identity and the Australian image of masculinity, and deconstruct these symbols to consider whether they remain relevant today.
Between Rob, Pen, Benny Boy and Jack, is there a character (or multiple characters) that students felt more of a connection with? They can reflect on why this might be the case.
All four boys tell their stories using colloquial and casual language. Students can identify and list the Australian slang and vernacular in the text and draw up a glossary of key terms.
- What role does this language play in enabling McPherson to communicate authentically with her audience?
- How might language and meaning change if McPherson interviewed a different group of people (of varying background, age, gender, etc).
Language and stylistic techniques
Students should consider the rich, varied and clever ways that McPherson captures authentic voices in Brontide. Consider aspects of realism and verisimilitude, and how both Sue and the boys demonstrate depth of character throughout their conversations. Students could engage in some oracy and drama exercises around presenting and portraying ‘voice’. There are no clear actions or directions for any of the characters in Brontide; only clues in the language they use to respond to one another.
Consider McPherson’s target audience and the way she uses language to directly engage with her readers (who themselves may be reflective of the characters in the book). Students can identify and discuss any symbolism or imagery in the text and how it emerges throughout the interviews.
Not everything goes according to plan! Working in pairs, students are to brainstorm and research examples of ‘interview fails’, reflecting on what can go wrong when you ask someone to share their story. You can then ask students if they have seen any particularly successful interviews, and reflect on what went right in those cases.
- Divide the class in two and have them debate the pros and cons of semi-structured versus structured interviews: what the different purposes might be, in what cases one might be more effective than the other, etc.
- Watch some Australian interviews and consider whether there are any cultural nuances to be aware of. You might look to the work of Andrew Denton (Enough Rope), Anh Do (Anh’s Brush with Fame), Ray Martin or, more recently, The Project.
- Have students compose a listicle that explores the art of the interview. They can compare McPherson’s interview style with that of other interviewers whose work is available online (e.g. in podcast or video format). What are some of the common language and stylistic techniques (e.g. a conversational tone, rhetorical or open-ended questions, anecdotes, repetition, humour)?
Rich assessment task (productive mode)
Brontide is a useful text for helping young people navigate challenging conversations. Students are to plan and undertake some reflective writing about their own values, motivations and concerns at this stage of their lives. As part of their response, they might like to reflect on how they express their feelings when their values are dismissed or downplayed. This task will allow students to explore and engage in discourse that supports and validates their own experiences, while also reinforcing the power of language.
Have students review their initial notes and thoughts about Brontide (Initial Response > Personal Response on Reading the Text), then reflect on how their understanding has deepened over the course of the unit. Allow time for them to consider the text’s impact on them personally, both as individuals and as a class. This is especially important in light of Brontide’s sombre ending.
Invite students to list some texts that explore similar themes and ideas to Brontide. You could model the process of making connections using the SBS drama Robbie Hood or Lech Blaine’s memoir Car Crash (a good mentor text for exploring road accidents in regional towns). Once students have made their own lists of related texts, they can share them with their peers.
Have students revisit the meaning of the word ‘brontide’. Drawing on the imagery and connotations evoked by this word, they are to compose a discursive piece of writing that outlines their own perspectives on its meaning. The content of this piece may relate to a ‘brontide’ moment in their life and may be inspired by McPherson’s text. Students may need to research the appropriate conventions and format of discursive writing, including relevant examples and mentor texts.
Brontide is a significantly underrated text.
Use this quote as a stimulus for some persuasive writing about Brontide’s impact on readers, particularly young readers.
Reflecting on interview techniques
Students are to reflect on how their understanding of interviews and conversations has evolved through their study of Brontide. They should first review the types of questions Sue asks over the course of the narrative, then respond to the following prompt:
How would you describe Sue’s style of questioning?
Students could develop their own list of techniques and evocative language that an interviewer could use to elicit rich responses from their interviewee.
Rich assessment tasks (responding and creating)
Depending on your class context, you may assign or invite students to select one or more of the following tasks to demonstrate their understanding and appreciation of Brontide.
Students are to curate their own Spotify playlists containing six to eight songs that relate to the themes, ideas, characters and experiences in Brontide. Once the playlists have been created and shared, each student should choose one song to present to a group of peers or the whole class. Their playlist should be accompanied by a poster that justifies their choices and highlights the shared relationships between the songs and the text.
Examine @magabalabooks and @crazybooklady_’s Instagram posts about Brontide. Students are to imagine that they have been commissioned to create similar tiles for social media. How can they use imagery to communicate the big ideas of the text? Students should consider how book reviewers craft informed responses to their current reads using visual messaging. They could experiment with photography or use Canva to create their own social media posts.
Applying what they have learned about interviews and the art of conversation, students are to compose a list of questions they would want to ask McPherson. As an extension activity, they could draft some responses based on how they think McPherson might respond. Another option would be to collate the top five questions from across the class and send these to McPherson via her publisher, Magabala Books.
Students can research ‘toxic masculinity’, ‘male adolescent identity’ or a similar concept. They should investigate the origin of the statement ‘boys will be boys’ and discuss the message it conveys. How effective or relevant is it in a modern context? What aspects of Brontide do we see playing out in our local communities, broader society, and Australia’s national identity and culture? In answering these questions, students should refer to a text (e.g. poem, play, novella, short story, article, artwork, etc.) that presents a contrasting perspective to Brontide.