Sharon Kernot’s verse novel The Art of Taxidermy was shortlisted for the 2017 Text Prize and published by Text Publishing in July 2018. Since then, it has been shortlisted and longlisted for several awards, including the CBCA Book of the Year Awards, Inky Awards, NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, Australian Book Design Awards and Prime Minister’s Literary Awards.
Kernot’s other work includes Underground Road, a mixture of prose and poetry published by Wakefield Press in 2013 and shortlisted for the Adelaide Festival Awards in 2010. She has published various collections of poetry and (at the time of writing) is currently working on three other projects, including a new YA verse novel. See her website for more.
In a Q&A with Lectito’s Margot McGovern, Kernot revealed the inspiration for the unusual centrality of taxidermy in her novel:
The idea came from a conversation I had with a student when I was tutoring at Uni. It was on day one of the tutorials and we were all introducing ourselves when this young student mentioned that she was interested in taxidermy. It seemed an unusual activity for a young person to have an interest in. And I was surprised and also a little horrified when she revealed that she also caught small prey herself that she would later use in taxidermy. I found it macabre but fascinating, and decided to write a short story based on a young character who became interested in taxidermy; although, my protagonist, Lottie, would never kill an animal for her art.
Readers may also be interested to know that the text began as a short story, but as the narrative grew Kernot reshaped it into a verse novel. She told McGovern that the process of writing a verse novel, while natural for her, was a precarious balancing act:
Creating a verse novel can be challenging because it requires all the regular techniques of writing a novel in prose – character development, narrative drive, setting, plot, etc. and on top of that it has to have the compression and rhythm of poetry.
The Art of Taxidermy is a love letter to the natural world and its seasonal cycles, including the impact of weather and the life and death of plants, animals and birds. The narrator, Lottie, is an eleven-year-old girl living in the shadow of grief, which unwinds and reveals itself as she comes to terms with it (both her own and her family’s). Living with her father, and under the watchful eye of Aunt Hilda, Lottie begins to collect and preserve dead animals that she finds in her local area.
The narrative, set in post-World War II South Australia, is enriched with the parallel losses of Jeffrey, a member of the Stolen Generations; the experiences and memories of German immigrants, who were persecuted and interned during World War II; and the ravages of bushfire on a family farm.
The novel’s opening lines immediately establish death as a central concern and driving force:
At the age of eleven
I fell in love
with death. (p. 1)
Lottie’s obsession with collecting and preserving dead wildlife is unusual for an eleven-year-old. To help students understand the character and the novel’s events, explore the concept and purpose of taxidermy. This might include issues of animal rights; the desire to hold onto animals as trophies, specimens or beloved pets; and the role of taxidermy in museums and art.
These ideas may inspire discussion, debate and engagement before reading the text. They might also support students in their reading and make them more alert to the reasons for:
- Lottie’s preoccupation with preserving dead animals
- Hilda’s disgust and attempts to undermine Lottie
- Lottie’s father’s patience and understanding
Teachers should be aware of the following triggers and manage them for themselves and their students:
- death in childbirth
- Stolen Generations
- refugee internment
- mental health issues (e.g. depression, eating disorders)
The novel outline (PDF, 216KB) will help identify the poems dealing with such issues.
Pre-reading activity 1: taxidermy and animal preservation
Introduce students to the meaning and etymology of ‘taxidermy’ (noun):
- the art of preparing, stuffing and mounting the skins of animals with a lifelike effect
- in use since the early 19th century
- a person who performs taxidermy is called a taxidermist
Google Ngram Viewer provides insight into the term’s usage in digitised books. Interestingly, ‘taxidermy’ has been used so frequently in the past twenty years that it has become almost as common as it was in its heyday in the late 19th century. A challenge for students is to consider why this might be the case.
Either as a whole class or in groups, invite students to explore the following resources. This is an opportunity to highlight the different affordances of text types.
- Do you want to be a… Taxidermist (job guide)
- WTF?! People Are Decorating Their Homes With Severed Body Parts (blog)
- Freeze-Dried Pets | Second Life Freeze Dry // 60 Second Docs (video)
- Freeze-Dried Pets Are Forever (article)
- Taxidermy art (Instagram posts)
Next, ask the following questions in a quiz-like format to ensure a fast pace and maximum time for discussion:
- How does someone become a taxidermist?
- Explain why you would/would not like to be a taxidermist.
- What are the most significant differences between taxidermy and freeze-drying animals?
- Why might some people take comfort in taxidermy or freeze-drying animals?
- Argue for your case: under what conditions, if any, is it (un)ethical to use taxidermy to preserve animals?
Students could then complete a low-stakes writing activity to express their views and practise providing evidence or supporting arguments. They should write within a short time frame, honing their understanding and skills for their own benefit rather than for assessment or correction by the teacher.
The craft and skill of taxidermy provides background to the novel and links well with the next activity on other historical backgrounds: namely, the Stolen Generations and World War II internment camps in Australia. These events influence the characters and narrative of The Art of Taxidermy.
Pre-reading activity 2: the ‘enemy’ at home
Background knowledge is a clear predictor of a student’s capacity to understand and engage with a text. In this activity, the focus moves from taxidermy to two historical contexts that shape the novel.
It is important that students understand how two government policies significantly shaped the lives of many people in mid-20th century Australia: the removal of Aboriginal children from their families (the Stolen Generations) and the internment of German immigrants.
Students might also be alerted to the contemporaneous social attitudes of those times that may be very different today. One example is the way Aunt Hilda talks about expectations and aspirations for girls; another might be attitudes towards death and grief.
Play the following videos and, after each one, ask students to find parallels and differences to contemporary Australia. It is important to recognise that some students may have ancestors who were stolen as Aboriginal children, or interned as ‘aliens’ during World War II. Note that the second video relates to World War I, but addresses the same issues (imprisoning ‘aliens’ in Australia).
- Telling Our Stories – Our Stolen Generations (Jack Charles) (3:17)
- If time allows, you could also explore the incarceration of young First Nations people in Australia
- Lost photographs depict German internment camp detainees | 7.30 (6:02)
- If time allows, you could also explore/compare the incarceration of refugees like the Murugappan family from Biloela
Concluding questions for discussion or low-stakes writing
- What makes (or has made) Australia create or identify ‘enemies at home’, and what are the consequences for those ‘enemy’ groups?
- What evidence is there today of Australia incarcerating or disadvantaging particular groups? How might you react if you and your family were in one of those groups?
Pre-reading activity 3: vocabulary exercise
The table below identifies some vocabulary that will be appear in this unit and inform assessment tasks. Understanding and retention can be improved through group work and oral language that incorporates the following:
- morphology as a strategy for breaking words into prefixes, suffixes and root words
- etymology as a strategy for understanding the background of and connections across words (such as taxidermy and dermatologist)
- making associations through synonyms or antonyms
- creating visual prompts
- repeated contextual use of words in oral language to facilitate transfer to written language
Assign mixed ability groups to master as many of the following words as possible, focusing on recognition and definition along with pronunciation and spelling. Modify the list for your class and return to it frequently, quizzing or testing students to measure continuous progress.
Introducing these words before reading The Art of Taxidermy may help students feel more comfortable and prepared to encounter them within the text.
|verse novel||aquarium||internment camp||(extended) metaphor||onomatopoeia|
|flora||superstition||imaginary||World War II||literal|
The process of reading the novel
Verse novels are generally faster to read than conventional novels, but even so, it would take too much time to read the entire text aloud. The teacher – having the requisite fluency and knowledge of the text – should read a representative selection of poems to the class, allowing students to take them in as a whole before focusing on specific sections.
Refer back to the novel outline for an annotated table of poems.
Personal response on reading the text
The opening pages
Read pp. 1–10, encouraging questions and brief group discussions between each poem. Have students take note of the titles to better navigate and understand the text. Before moving on, check their understanding by asking:
- Where and when the novel is taking place
- Which characters the students have met
- What interests, tensions and impressions they have already picked up on
- What they might expect to happen next
Working in groups that have each been assigned a different character, students are to use the opening pages to analyse the construction of characters through:
- actions or verb groups that ‘show’ us what they do
- associated noun groups (objects, places, events, people)
- associated imagery (similes, metaphors)
They do not have to identify every instance, but should record a representative sample. See the table below as a guide.
|Character||Noun groups||Verb groups||Imagery|
|Annie||My best friend (p. 5)
Everything (p. 5)
A ghostly angel (p. 5)
Bone-white skin (p. 5)
A dark heart (p. 5)
|Never tanned (p. 5)
peered through the crack (p. 7)
|Skin and hair as innocent and pure (p. 5)
Colours: wheat, blue, pink, bone-white (p. 5)
|Uncle Graham||Aunt Hilda (p. 9)
Photographs (p. 9)
The war (p. 9)
Cheerfulness (p. 9)
their bodies (p. 9)
arms or hands and fingers (p. 9)
|died in the war (p. 9)
radiated (p. 9)
turned slightly towards each other (p. 9)
Entwined (p.9 )
Following analysis and discussion of their findings, students will take one character and add some new information that would dramatically alter them (e.g. their behaviour; their interests; what they say; what we might expect of them). Kernot has breathed life into these characters using words alone; this is the power of written language, which students can also tap into. This will be extended in the Close Study section when they create an original character.
Complete a short piece of low-stakes writing so that students can formulate their initial impressions, thoughts and understanding of the text. This will assist with the Synthesising Task below. Students may choose to respond to one or both of the following prompts:
- What are your initial impressions of the characters, setting or action? What do you think will happen, and what other ideas might be explored?
- Describe your response to whichever element of the novel has most influenced your impression (e.g. form, characters, story, cover).
Using the completed activities, the vocabulary list and the first ten pages of The Art of Taxidermy, work on understanding how to identify literal details from the text, and explore how a reader’s background knowledge influences their understanding and appreciation of the text.
Work in groups to list 15 literal details in pp. 1–10 that you believe may become important as the novel progresses. These details should be simple to identify. Report back to the class.
Then list 10 inferences that you have drawn from the text. These are assumptions about characters, settings, events, relationships, the natural world, etc. that you have made using your background knowledge. You must provide a quote for every inference you make. For example, on p. 1 you may infer that the narrator is an observant person who appreciates dead wildlife more than most. This is clear when she remarks that the gecko she found had a ‘lively expression’, where others might simply see (or be repulsed by) a dead gecko. Report back to the class.
Consider that readers may infer different things from the same sentence or poem, and that providing evidence from the text is necessary to support those inferences.
NOTE: Prior to their final assessment task (Informed Reaction), students will revisit their discussions, resources and notes about the background to, and their impressions of, The Art of Taxidermy.
The writer’s craft
For this unit, Green’s 3D model of literacy (Durrant & Green, 2000; Durrant in Green & Beavis, 2012) has been modified to frame questions and activities to support student learning (since literary analysis becomes increasingly frequent and complex throughout high school).
The 3D model allows students to identify separately, and then to integrate, language features, contextual and cultural information, and critical readings or perspectives. The model is provided here for teachers preparing to lead or prompt close textual analysis. However, it might be possible to introduce the model directly to senior or middling students so that they can approach analysis through the lens of the three dimensions:
|Operational||How are language, literary devices and textual structures used to create the text?|
|Cultural||What cultural, social and political contexts influence, enrich or hinder an understanding and analysis of the novel?|
|Critical||What values and worldviews are inherent in the text? What alternative views are possible, and for whom? How might they be constructed?|
While the dimensions are conceptualised separately here for ease of understanding, they overlap during analysis. For example, a reader’s understanding of how language is used (operational) interacts with their knowledge of how the world works within the novel (cultural), enabling them to understand that the text represents one way of interpreting and expressing a view of the world (critical). For this reason, they are represented as rotating blades on a fan.
This sheet (PDF, 139KB) provides an overview of how the three dimensions interact. One graphic lists the features you might look for in poetry, while the other records responses to The Art of Taxidermy.
Green’s 3D model as a tool for analysis
This activity allows you to try out Green’s 3D model to help teach the skills of literary analysis. Students can begin to pull the text apart before putting it back together, responding to the novel with a deeper analytical voice. Depending on their capacity, you might decide to share Green’s 3D model or simply lead them in that direction without any explicit references.
Select any sequence of poems that fits with your schedule as you progress through the novel (according to what students read in class and at home). Pp. 28–49 will be analysed here as an example – you can check the characters, setting and focus of each poem by referring back to the novel outline (PDF, 216KB).
Before reading your chosen sequence, ask students to highlight or make note of the following (for upcoming group work):
- Poetic techniques or how the text is put together (operational dimension)
- Knowledge you have or lack about how the characters live in that world (cultural dimension)
- Where Lottie or any other character’s perspective or worldview is at odds with your own, or with those of other groups in society (critical dimension)
Once students have read the poems, they can work in groups to record quotes (with page numbers) that correlate to each dimension. You might stipulate that they identify three different examples for each. Allow time to discuss and report back on the various dimensions in turn.
Examples from pp. 28–49:
|Operational||Alliteration: ‘Annie and I dabbed/paintbrushes at pictures/in a paint by numbers book’ (p. 34) … ‘the drone/of a didgeridoo’ (p. 42)
Onomatopoeia: ‘Wy-la, Wy-la, Wyyy-laaa’ (p. 39)
Similes: ‘Her face as wrinkled/as the corpse of an apple’ (p. 34) … ‘Its coolness,/its hushed tones,/were like a church,/where everyone whispered/as they do at a funeral’ (p. 44)
|Cultural||German culture and life in Australia at the time: ‘Holz fur das Feuer’ (p. 34)
Activities in historical context, no longer common or acceptable: ‘I ran to the lounge. Father!/He was in his favourite chair,/reading the paper,/smoking a cigar,/his calm legs crossed’ (p. 28)
Stolen Generations: ‘Jeffrey stood stiffly in the doorway/like a dark ornament’ (p. 41)
|Critical||Superstition vs botanical or scientific knowledge: ‘Funeral birds./Bad./Bad omens.’ (p. 36)
Race: ‘The narrator explained/Aboriginal culture/with rounded vowels/like the Queen’ (p. 42)
Wartime treatment of German citizens: ‘it is because of the war’, ‘like an ominous cloud’, ‘he died unexpectedly in the war’ (p. 37)
Once students have completed their analysis, they should pick one or two quotes and write approx. 100 words on their role in the novel and its larger meaning. Refer to this sample annotation (PDF, 99KB) for guidance.
Students should review their own writing to check that they have included all three dimensions. This makes it more analytical and cohesive, and often more accomplished for higher grades.
Story structure and tipping points in the text
Like conventional prose novels, verse novels only work if there is a strong narrative to draw in the reader. One way of teaching students to understand and trace plot points in their analysis (and even in their own writing) is to consider Kurt Vonnegut’s ‘shapes of stories’ (this archival footage provides an amusing introduction to the concept).
According to Vonnegut, there are eight basic ‘shapes’ of stories: ‘Man in Hole’, ‘From Bad to Worse’, ‘Cinderella’ and so on. Students will use this theory to map the shape of The Art of Taxidermy. This could be done as a whole class activity, developing a master shape based on consensus, or as individuals or groups.
- Begin with a Y-axis, marking the midpoint between the highest and lowest points (this will be clearer if you watch the video and consider the infographics linked above).
- Now create the X-axis, marking page numbers in multiples of 10.
- As students progress through the novel, allow time for them to consider and chart the highs and lows, with brief annotations to explain the curves and turning points.
This is a simple but effective way of making the plot visible to students, while also stimulating discussion about their reading.
Characterisation spun with words
This activity leads into Rich Assessment Task 1 and demonstrates how meaning is built through the selection of words and images. It is also designed to make students more aware of the ‘constructedness’ of The Art of Taxidermy – and of how much fun writing can be. While their writing will not be assessed, students are encouraged to be playful and free.
Ask students to imagine a character waiting for them on a blank page. Here they will quickly jot down some ideas by coming up with responses to the prompts below. This will enable students who feel like they have no ideas to simply pick an option, like a ‘choose your own adventure’ story. Those with more confidence can launch off with their own ideas, as long as they address all seven prompts.
These prompts will allow students to create an original character even if they think they have no ideas. They should focus on writing for the time being, but will hopefully be keen to share after recording their initial responses. This exercise will show that it is possible to create a unique character using few words. You can use the prompts below as is or modify them to suit your class, as long as they contain suitable content to develop a story.
|Prompt||Option 1||Option 2||Option 3|
|1||You character is sitting at the bus stop (give them a name).||You character is rushing through an airport (give them a name).||You character is somewhere else (give them a name).|
|2||What kind of shoes are they wearing?||What kind of haircut do they have?||What might you notice about their appearance?|
|3||What do they have in their bag?||What do they have in their back pocket?||What object of significance are they carrying with them?|
|4||What is making them anxious?||What is making them happy, or sad?||What other emotion are they experiencing, and why?|
|5||What kind of animal do they remind you of?||What kind of machine do they remind you of?||What other image can you conjure to describe how they behave or look?|
|6||Your character has an effect on someone else. Who are they and what is the effect?|
|7||Only three words are spoken in this scene. What are they?|
Students should write ONE sentence per prompt, each on a new line. This an example of what they may produce:
- Roxy was rushing and late for her flight.
- She had a short haircut.
- In her back pocket, she had a key to her father’s house.
- She’s anxious because she hasn’t seen her dad in years.
- She’s like a transformer because she’s all arms and legs.
- An elderly man is frightened of her as she rushes towards him.
- ‘Take it easy!’
Supported by their drafts (and perhaps some breakout sessions for sharing), students will refine their ideas until they resemble a short free verse poem.
- Focus on making the verbs and nouns more precise and visible.
- Try to include at least one simile or metaphor, and perhaps onomatopoeia or alliteration.
- Like The Art of Taxidermy, this is free verse: no rhyming.
- How might students make the character or action livelier/more unique? The reader wants to believe that this character exists, so the scene needs to be visual and feel real.
Refer students to the example in the table below if they are struggling. More ideas will come as they continue to write. Encourage students to ‘show’ their characters rather than ‘tell’ the reader about them; it may be useful to return to The Art of Taxidermy to see how Kernot does this.
Guide students to format their work according to the following table. Once they have revised their language choices, they should aim to cut or reduce unnecessary words, perhaps even reorganising or making other modifications. They will need some freedom to reshape their earlier attempts into a poem.
Responses to prompts 1–7
Focusing on language choices
Removing unnecessary words
|Roxy was rushing and late for her flight.||Roxy was belting across the departure hall at Tullamarine Airport.||Roxy belting across
departures at Tullamarine
|She had a short haircut.||She had a super-short pixie cut, almost a number 2, and wondered if she looked more like a boy now.||An almost-number-2 pixie cut
More like a boy now
|In her back pocket, she had a key to her father’s house.||She hoped the stolen key to her father’s apartment was still secure in her back pocket.||And in her back pocket
the stolen key
to her ghosting father
|She’s anxious because she hasn’t seen her dad in years.||She was anxious because her father had ghosted her for years.|
|She’s like a transformer because she’s all arms and legs.||She was like a transformer as her arms bent and twisted to juggle her carry-on luggage, coffee and phone.||Roxy the Transformer
as arms, legs, neck
bend and twist
|An elderly man is frightened of her as she rushes towards him.||She frightened an elderly man as she propelled herself towards him at the end of the queue to board.||Then
at end of the queue
an elderly man:
|‘Take it easy!’||‘Watch it, Missy!’||‘Watch it, Missy!’|
Finally, students can compare their responses and consider how they combined their background knowledge and imagination to create something unique. Looking at the example above, they might infer that the writer:
- has been to Tullamarine Airport in Melbourne
- has rushed through that airport to catch a flight when their taxi has been delayed
- believes we need to be more aware, educated and empathetic about LGBTQIA+ issues
- understands what ghosting is and feels for family members who have lost touch
- has noticed that some older men use outdated and sexist words like ‘missy’
The following reflection may help students to better understand their own writing process.
|Final poem||Writer’s reflection|
|Roxy belting across
departures at TullamarineAn almost-number-2
More like a boy now
perhapsAnd in her back pocket
the stolen key
to her ghosting fatherRoxy the Transformer
as arms, legs, neck
bend and twistJuggling
at end of the queue
an elderly man:‘Watch it, Missy!’
|As I was writing, the idea of the transformer took on more meaning – not just Roxy juggling everything to get to her flight, but also the question of gender. And so her haircut took on new meaning. We are becoming more informed, supportive and aware of gender fluidity and LGBTQIA+ issues all around us. I thought maybe the haircut and then the idea of the transformer would fit. Then I thought that having the elderly man call her ‘Missy’ would make her realise that her transformation was not complete, and may have been half-hearted anyway? Who knows – that might be the motivation to read on.
Just playing around with it, it was funny how some ideas just fell into place. It’s not always like that but if you don’t muck about with the words, you never know what’s possible. I like the poem I ended up with and think it would work as the opening scene of a verse novel. I’ve got an interesting protagonist who seems to be dealing with a couple of challenges: her history with her dad and her gender identity or fluidity.
This activity will make students more aware of the language and verse structure that Kernot uses throughout the novel. It is also formative work that will support their success when they write more poems for Rich Assessment Task 1 (in the Significance section).
Text and meaning
Themes and understanding of the text
Students have already explored some of the novel’s themes in pre-reading activities or analysis using Green’s 3D model. What makes the reading of extended texts both rewarding and challenging for adolescents, however, is considering how themes develop and become interconnected across the course of a narrative.
In The Art of Taxidermy, some dominant themes are:
- love of nature and the cycles of life
- the preservation of life
- grief and mental health
- incarceration during WWII
- the Stolen Generations
- childhood and puberty
- aspirations and life purpose
- societal norms and change (including gender norms)
In this next activity, students will consider the above list and add other themes they believe should be included, or remove those that they deem less significant.
Create small mixed ability groups and allocate each a theme to explore. That group will become the in-class experts on the assigned theme, including:
- knowing which characters are instrumental in its development
- knowing how this theme connects with others
- considering the perspective that Kernot presents compared to the views within the group
- identifying 10 significant quotes to display electronically or around the classroom
Each group will give an informal presentation aimed not at assessment, but rather at sharing knowledge. After the presentations, students may be able to rank the themes and compare their choices. For example:
- highest to lowest importance to me as a reader
- highest to lowest importance to Kernot as the author
- highest to lowest importance to Lottie as the protagonist
Historical and geographical setting
Throughout The Art of Taxidermy, Lottie travels by car to various South Australian sites. For the final activity in this section, students are to work in groups to learn more about the settings that influenced the novel’s action and meaning.
- Use Google Maps to locate the South Australian Museum, and find a picture online of its Ancient Egypt gallery and mummies.
- Use Google Maps to check how long it might take to drive from Adelaide to Loveday. Also locate Barmera and Lake Bonney.
- Kernot does not tell us where Lottie’s home is located, but – using the novel and the novel outline – try to create a map that shows a floor plan of the home and outlines any nearby buildings and significant locations. Be prepared to explain how you arrived at your final map.
- Oma’s farm provides another significant setting, though its location is also undisclosed. We do, however, learn about its importance to Lottie and her family throughout the novel. Use the novel outline to read closely for any details about the farm. Record some of the most significant inferences you can draw about its relevance to the key characters.
Ways of reading the text
Ways of reading the text, including close analysis of cultural and critical dimensions, have been covered in the Initial Response and Close Study sections of this unit.
In addition, the upcoming Rich Assessment Tasks encourage students to read the text from various perspectives and construct their own texts (building on the Characterisation Spun With Words exercise) in response.
Comparison with other texts
Grief and loss are persistent themes across young adult literature. The comparative texts below include an illustrated novel (US); a film set in Italy (UK); and a non-fiction literary diary written by an Irish teenager.
A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness (2012)
Also a critically-acclaimed film (2016). This illustrated novel explores the grief of a young boy facing his mother’s terminal cancer diagnosis. The situation is further complicated by his relationships with other family members and school peers. The Monster is the materialisation of his turmoil, which the reader may not necessarily expect.
Genova/A Summer in Genoa (2008)
In this film, an American family relocates to Italy after the mother dies in a car crash. One of the children is grieving deeply and this is complicated by her secret and her guilt. Connections can be made to short sequences or scenes, rather than the entire film.
Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty (2020)
Nature and preservation are dominant themes in this memoir, which has garnered much attention and acclaim for its 15-year-old neurodivergent author (an activist speaking out about climate change and threats to the planet). This could be an excellent extension novel for strong readers.
Working in groups and using extracts provided by the teacher (from the above texts or from others with connecting themes), students are to choose a character and imagine a scenario where they meet up with Lottie. Each group will write and present a two-minute scripted dialogue in which Lottie and this character discover what they most have in common. All group members must contribute to the script, though only two will present. The group must be prepared to justify their dialogue and connect it to their understanding of The Art of Taxidermy.
Australia and the natural world
The Art of Taxidermy is part of a long tradition of Australian writing in which the landscape and environment are central to the action and meaning.
A text that offers useful connections here is By the River by Steven Herrick (Reading Australia resource and essay available). Like The Art of Taxidermy, it is a verse novel with a uniquely Australian setting. The opening poem, ‘The colour of my town’, is not only relevant but an excellent prompt and model for student poetry. If not this poem, focus on those that feature:
- Australian flora and fauna
- historical events such as World War II or the Stolen Generations
- natural disasters such as bushfires
The Australian Children’s Poetry Website features many prominent Australian poets and is a great place to search for themes and keywords (e.g. ‘bushfire’). Your school library may also have some anthologies available to browse or borrow. For example:
- This Is Home: Essential Australian Poems for Children selected by Jackie French, illustrated by Tania McCartney (National Library of Australia, 2019)
- The ABC of Book of Australian Poetry compiled by Libby Hathorn, illustrated by Cassandra Allen (HarperCollins Publishers, 2010) (Reading Australia resource available)
Working in pairs and using the resources provided, students are to identify two poems that resonate in some way with their reading of The Art of Taxidermy. They should use quotes from the different texts to illustrate their connections, and consider how these poems are alike or different in their use of language, tone or literary techniques.
Following some discussion, direct students to complete a low-stakes writing activity about the different poets’ perspectives of Australia, and how (and why) these are similar or different to their own experiences and perceptions.
This activity lays the groundwork for Rich Assessment Task 1.
Rich assessment task 1 (responding and creating)
Poetry and perspectives
In this task, you will choose a selection of poems from The Art of Taxidermy that portray one aspect of the narrative. These poems will form the basis for developing your own poems. Rather than write in Lottie’s voice, however, you will write in the voice of ONE other character featured in the novel.
Locate and reference four to six poems that you believe most effectively address ONE of these topics:
- Lottie’s grief and confusion
- family supporting each other
- Lottie’s love for her mother
- societal expectations for Lottie
- Lottie’s appreciation of nature
- Jeffrey’s experience of living away from his home and family, and his friendship with Lottie
- Australia’s treatment of German ‘aliens’ during World War II
- Lottie’s learning and experience of the art of taxidermy
- Give your original poems the same titles as those you picked from the book.
- You must adopt and develop the voice of a single character throughout your sequence of poems (e.g. Aunt Hilda, Jeffrey, Mr Morris, Lottie’s mother as a ghostly presence)
- Each poem should refer to the same incidents or issues as the source poem and be of similar length. Use no more than about 20% of the source text – it is simply inspiration for writing about the same thing from another perspective, sharing another character’s insights.
- Use literary techniques and language that is similar to Kernot’s style, but still original to you. This might include metaphors, dialogue, alliteration and other techniques.
- Aim for approx. 300–400 words in total, and carefully draft and proofread your work.
An assessment rubric (PDF, 147KB) is available; the task readability is at Year 8 level.
Synthesising core ideas
Students have extensively analysed The Art of Taxidermy over the course of this unit. Now it may be useful to return to their initial perceptions based on their introduction to the novel. In particular, refer back to the discussions, notes and low-stakes writing tasks from the Initial Response section:
- Pre-Reading Activity 1: Taxidermy and Animal Preservation
- Pre-Reading Activity 2: The ‘Enemy’ at Home
- Pre-Reading Activity 3: Vocabulary Exercise
- The Opening Pages and construction of characters
- Synthesising Task
Before considering Rich Assessment Task 2, remind students of their initial understanding of historical events during World War II; the Stolen Generations; taxidermy; and the opening poems.
To illustrate how we not only follow a plot but also learn about the world, guide students to identify the new knowledge they have gleaned (particularly about Australia) through their study of this novel.
Further to this, discuss the societal changes that students have observed or experienced in relation to:
- family life and roles
- gender roles
- attitudes to death and dying
- attitudes to nature and the landscape
- the treatment of ‘aliens’ and Aboriginal families
Finally, draw connections between this discussion and Rich Assessment Task 2 below.
Rich assessment task 2 (responding and creating)
Teenagers then and now
This assessment task consists of two parts: A and B.
Write a response to a letter from Maureen (not featured in the novel), who is seeking advice from Lottie’s father on raising a teenager in post-WWII Australia.
I hope that you are well and that your family is in good health – especially young Lottie, who has endured such loss at such a young age. As you might expect, Melbourne is cool at this time of year.
I’m afraid I write with a worry George and I are having with young Gertie. Knowing how you have instilled such beautiful manners and good conduct in Lottie over the years, and knowing how loving you are towards her, I was hoping you might be able to furnish us with advice.
George and I are at our wits’ end with Gertie’s behaviour and attitudes. You will only remember her as a charming child, but right now her behaviour and attitudes are so poor. We do not deserve this and seek to repair it as quickly as possible. She is now a young woman of fourteen and we are concerned about her reputation. Will she ever make a suitable wife and mother?
Our main problem is that she is refusing to attend church, and has been seen spending time (and holding hands) with a young boy in town. The boy has arrived here from central Australia, so we know nothing of him or his family. Since discovering this from my sister-in-law, who saw it with her own eyes, we have grounded Gertie for a month.
She is now so moody that sometimes she does not even speak to us. She seems to be delighting in any hobbies or interests she knows we will detest. She is planning to leave school mid-year and we cannot talk any sense into her. We so want her to stay and improve her chances for a good life.
Please, dear friend, George and I would much appreciate your sage advice before it is too late.
With love and prayers,
Your friend Maureen
You will write your letter in the voice of Lottie’s father, Wolfgang. Ensure that you:
- respond to Maureen using language appropriate to the time
- refer to events in the novel (keep in mind that you are answering from that historical era)
- insert some lines of poetry or dialogue to show that you understand the character and their place in the novel
- make reference to Lottie as a teenager and how this informs your advice
Keep your letter between 225–325 words (Maureen’s letter is 307 words).
Discuss whether Lottie’s challenges have any relevance to teenagers in present-day Australia. You must use three to five references from the text to support your view (225–325 words).
An assessment rubric (PDF, 129KB) is available; the task readability is at Year 7 level.