Bestselling children’s author Jackie French is also an historian, ecologist, dyslexic, and a passionate advocate for literacy, the right of all children to be able to read, and the power of books. Her writing career spans 25 years – Hitler’s Daughter spent a decade on most of Australia’s kid’s choice award shortlists; Diary of a Wombat is one of Australia’s best-loved picture books, and an international bestseller.
We spoke to her about about why reading is so important for kids and her own childhood favourites.
You seem to always have a lot of projects on the go, but 2015 appears even busier: you’re the Senior Australian of the Year, and you’re also the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2014-15. Tell us about your Laureate work.
Where to begin? Have spoken to about 120,000 young people, betting them $5 that we can find a book they love so much they can’t stop reading. Not a single one has taken the money, not the book.
Kids from all over Australia have written in with ideas on how to make schools fabulous – and two out of three want LONGER school hours, but a choice of what to do in that extra time, especially inventions and other creative work. And they don’t like being trapped behind desks either, so I’ve been working with teachers to find new ways of learning where kids can make noise, help the kids next to them, and the teachers not get laryngitis. (Hint: begin with a cheap lapel mike and earbuds for each kid so lessons can be held under trees or walking in the bush).
I’m part of a committee for a new school in remote NT which we hope may become a template for remote indigenous learning where kids can learn country as well as what they need to become doctors teachers or lawyers.
In about a fortnight we’ll announce the 1,000 Books for 1,000 Kids project. Then there is the Laureate Calendar with new ways to read each month, about 200 emails a day, keynotes to conferences on teaching, history, and reading difficulties – which should be called teaching challenges, workshops with older Australians explaining why their stories and their voices need to be recorded, representing Australian children literature overseas…
And I suspect that is only half of it, as there is so much that I am too busy doing it all to count the projects. Some time next year I will begin to evaluate how much of the past two years has led to lasting change. But none of us who work with kids ever do know what candle may be lit that shines through a child’s life and may just change the world.
Earlier this year the first book in your Secret Histories fiction series was released, and we notice you have a book called Ophelia Queen of Denmark coming out soon, too. What do you think kids get out of historical fiction?
Our past is more exciting than any fantasy. Pirates, mummies, plagues, heroism and tragedy. History has the best stories.
But the past also shows kids how we became the people and the nation we are. It shows kids that yes, we CAN change the world, because we have. A hundred and twenty years ago kids as young as eight worked in factories here in Australia, sleeping on dirt floors, dying before they were 20. But people of good heart worked and campaigned- and with Federation laws were changed.
Our history also teaches kids not to be afraid of the future. We’d all like to promise our kids a perfect world when they grow up. We cant. Every generation faces its own challenges. We are descended from the survivors of ice ages, wars, plagues- either heroes or people who were fast runners or good at making friends. But human are not good at being bored. History kids kids the experience and confidence to face the world’s challenges, and to create extraordinary futures.
Every book a child reads increases the neurons in their brain and the number of neural connections. You want intelligent kids? Give them books. You want a more intelligent kid? Give them more books . Books are weight lifting for the brain. Books teach kids empathy..
But of course that isn’t why you and I read books. Books are comfort, anti boredom pills, challenges and friends.
You’re dyslexic yourself, which some people might consider a barrier to a life in books. Please tell us a little about your experience with that.
I can’t find my way out of car parks and yesterday sent Senator Bishop’s office an email asking for Bill Shorten’s favourite book. (They were very nice about it when they stopped laughing). I can’t proof read, fill out forms easily, and read by scanning a page though I’m not sure how. I can’t spell, though I am slowly learning how to, nor can anyone read my handwriting, including me.
I suspect I have been gifted far more than I have lost with my dyslexia. But how can I tell?
Please tell us about some of the books that influenced you at an early age.
I read everything, including the phone books. At seven, my favourite books were The famous Five, Jane Eyre, Brave New World and The Great Dialogues of Socrates. I had a crush on Socrates. And the Bible, as that was the only book I was allowed to read in the boring bits at Church. And it was all so much fascinating that life in Gallipoli Rd Brisbane. Until, of course, those books taught me different ways to look at Gallipoli Road, and to write about it…
Your book I Spy a Great Reader is a wonderful resource, looking at some of the ways kids can struggle with reading and literacy. What can parents expect from the book?
How to see if your kid may have a reading difficulty and how to help and find more help; how to teach kids to read, or help them on the road to reading; how to help kids find the books they’ll love so much they’ll face any challenge to read more…
Basically, lots. Which is basically what my laureateship and year as Senior Australian have been full of. Lots. And I hope, in the years to come, lots more.