Posted by: Lisa Hill | July 5, 2020

Catching Teller Crow, by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina

I do love a bit of synchronicity!  The very day before I read Catching Teller Crow, by collaborative writing duo Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina, I stumbled on a Tweet from the Sydney Review of Books which was about stylistic innovation in Young Adult Literature a.k.a. YA.  Felicity Castagna, author of No More Boats, was reviewing Helena Fox’s How It Feels To Float (see here) but began by talking about the ways in which YA is judged.

… more than any other genre YA books are likely to be judged on their relevance and relatability. YA is valued for its ability to speak to, to dissect, to make present, to make clear, to smash over your head the issues that really matter in young people’s lives.

But, she argues, this means that YA books are valued as a social good, rather than a literary good, and whereas literary critics of adult books tend to look for complex and interesting textual practices… In YA we look for issues, themes, the ability to make young people want to turn pages and read on.  So YA criticism does not often explore the shape-shifting, genre-blending, fragmentary, wildly experimental, literary kind of books that she loves.

Well, I think Castagna would probably love Catching Teller Crow.  The judges of the 2019 Victorian Premier’s Award for YA did, and the novella also won the Aurealis Award for Best Young Adult Novel (2018), and was a nominee for the speculative fiction Norma K. Hemming Award (2019).  It’s detective fiction, but not as you know it: the theme is grief and how to reconcile living with an overwhelming loss; the dual narration is in poetry and story; and two of the characters are Indigenous ghosts.

Sixteen-year-old Beth Teller narrates the story, while Isobel Catching, a possible witness to a possible crime, reveals what she knows in poetry.  Dead narrators are not often successful IMO, but this one works.  Beth was killed in a car accident but she has not yet ‘crossed over to the other side’ because she needs to care for her devastated father.  He’s a detective but while he’s not coping, he’s been sent to deal with what looks like busy work: a death that just looks like an unfortunate consequence of an accidental fire.  But Beth, who is remarkably sanguine about her young life being cut short, is a canny young thing, and she soon realises that things are much more complex than they appear.

Her father can see her still, and she can still boss him around as teenage girls do.  Together they solve a mystery that is a good deal nastier than readers will predict, and through the testimony of Catching, a disturbing aspect of Australia’s Black History is revealed as well.

The Authors’ Note at the back of the book explains aspects of the text that are unique to Indigenous storytelling: stories that derive from their ancient inheritance, and stories which emerge from their experience of colonisation.  Tales set in an animate world where family connections extend beyond human life, and tales set in a non-linear world where all life is in constant motion.  A strand which runs all through this story is the enduring strength of Aboriginal women and girls.  

Catching Teller Crow is not just innovative and playful, it’s the kind of YA that can be read and appreciated beyond its intended audience.

Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina are a brother-sister team of writers from the Palyku people of the Pilbara in Western Australia.

Authors: Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina
Title: Catching Teller Crow
Cover design: Debra Billson; images by Chris Watson & Ambelin Kwaymullina
Publisher: Allen and Unwin, 2018
ISBN: 9781760631628, pbk., 197 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Readings.


  1. This sounds like a unique and worthy title and collaboration. And a wonderful review and synchronistic event.


    • Thank you Claire:)
      I’m guessing that with your recent loss, this might be a difficult book to read for you, yet possibly consoling.
      I know you are interesting in fiction from our part of the world, and I have a Maori book for later in the week, but it’s one that you’ve reviewed: Aue, by Becky Manawatu. I’m hoping to be able to include The Matriarch in this week too, but I haven’t started it yet.


  2. I have a copy here somewhere, and I want to read it soon. What a lovely review, and post.


    • I was so lucky that Felicity’s article popped up just when it did. This is where the Sydney Review of Books is so good: sometimes they are a bit too heavily academic for my taste, but that same academic expertise means I have a way of ‘keeping up’ and I can cherry pick the bits that suit my line of thinking. (Always properly attributed, of course!)


  3. We have this in the library at school (work), it’s been popular!


    • That’s interesting, I wondered how young readers would enjoy it, now I know:)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Our’s is a senior high school so only 15 to 18 year olds. I’m not sure if our junior high has it in their library.


        • I shouldn’t underestimate them, but I think that this is a book for experienced readers… so although there would certainly be enthusiastic readers in that younger age group … less able readers would benefit from being in the hands of a good teacher, who could help them discover a non-linear, non-chronological kind of writing, with characters who are not straightforward realism.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. I read an earlier work from Ambellin Kwaymullina and thoroughly enjoyed it. i will have to keep an eye out for this book.


    • She’s written some beautiful children’s books too. I used to buy them for my school library.


  5. […] Catching Teller Crow, see Lisa’s ANZ LitLovers review  […]


  6. Hello Lisa,
    I also came across rave reviews of Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekiel Kwaymullina’s hybrid novel in the United States. It’s interesting that the novel is renamed, The Things She’s Seen, by the American publisher. Kirkus Review considers the book to be a “fast-paced thriller with a supernatural bent”. The Horn Book credits Catching Teller Crow as an ” #OwnVoices addition to YA shelves”. What I appreciate about these reviews is that they both see the value in reading children’s and young adult literature by authors from under-represented groups and communities. In acknowledging the rich subject matter and stylistic practices of diverse authors of color, readers and book reviewers can set the trajectory for inclusion and equity in the publication and dissemination of ethnic children’s and YA books.


    • Hi Maxine:)
      A thriller? I wouldn’t have called it that…
      It’s a weird thing, but you know, when I was a student at teachers’ college, studying children’s literature as a core subject, not an elective, which shows you the importance it was given, our lecturers were insistent on including diverse voices and characters, and our lesson plans had to reflect that. That was back in the 1970s. Back in the days when every primary school had a library and a teacher-librarian taking weekly classes for all age groups. I doubt if things are as good as that now…


  7. I was listening to Stan Grant comment on something (on RN) yesterday and he said in passing that non-Indigenous have to accept that spirits are real to Indigenous people. I’m sure they are. But is seems to me that YA’s in general are more taken up with “spirits” than is good for them (or for society).


    • I think we have to accept the idea of ghosts and spirits if it’s part of someone’s religion, because that’s good manners, but I don’t think we have to pretend that we believe it too.


  8. […] Teller Crow by Ambelin Kwaymullina and Ezekial KwaymullinaReview by […]


  9. […] going to quote from my review of Catching Teller Crow to refresh our collective memories about how the worth of a YA novel tends to be judged differently […]


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