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First Nations writers on a mission to improve Indigenous literacy

Emma Ruben -

A regional town, a group of missing Year 12 students and the murder of a local man, Carl Merrison and Hakea Hustler return with their First Nations Young Adult thriller, Tracks of the Missing.

Following Merrison and Hustler's debut novella Black Cockatoo, Tracks of the Missing highlights First Nations culture and social issues through a Goosebumps-style read.

Hustler said Tracks of the Missing sunk itself into deeper issues than Black Cockatoo did that a young adult audience would be drawn to.

"Black Cockatoo was designed for low literacy kids so it still tackled some tough topics but was easily accessible for everyone," she said.

"This book talks about death in custody, which our first wouldn't dare."

The main character Deklan, was inspired by students Merrison and Hustler encountered during their time in the education system.

"We designed Deklan to be kind of bad but also show all these strengths and that his bad came from somewhere," Hustler said.

"The Deklan character was shaped by all the young people in the Kimberley that we know and we wanted to show the diversity of the character and that we can't just label kids good or bad.

"And we can't just label them as no hope or say that there's nothing for them.

"It'll investigate this idea about stereotypes in communities and seeing juvenile justice young kids as bad without understanding deeper issues behind it, that intergenerational trauma feeds into this."

From their time spent living rurally, Merrison and Hustler want their book to be a tool in improving literacy in remote communities.

"We've both seen 15 year old kids who weren't able to read," Hustler said.

"We wanted to create books that will hook these young people in so they are like yes this is a story with my face, with my story, with my experience."

Merrison, a Jaru and Kija man, said improving literacy at adolescence will prevent Indigenous teenagers going into adulthood without the ability to read and write.

"We've both seen older people that can't read or write," he said.

"And they have to give other people their PIN numbers, mail, or important information.

"If they're able to relate to the book, they're going to want to learn to read and write and all of that."

Merrison and Hustler are currently in the process of creating teaching resources to go alongside the novel.

"We know that the gatekeepers for our books for young people with low literacy are our librarians and teachers," Hustler said.

"So we're trying to make it as easy as possible to get it into the hands of young people through schools and school libraries."

Merrison said that their books can also be educational in terms of what it's like to live remotely.

"It gives people that broader horizon of living remote," he said.

"We've spoke to people who've never been to the Kimberly let alone out of a city but they love reading the book because it gives them that broader vision of what it would be like.

"And they can have that experience with kids in their class or at home with their own kids. It's like an educational process."

Hustler said that the setting of the novel adds another little touch of diversity.

"I think the landscape throughout the story shows the diversity of Kimberley-like landscapes," she said.

"There are parts where there's a water hole, there are parts where there are gliders at the climbing mountain.

"There's this diversity even in the landscapes."

Tracks of the Missing is available for purchase from from Magabala Books.

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