You've been writing award-winning, ground-breaking books for over 30 years. Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or was it a path you stumbled onto by accident?
When I was a young child, my mother used to read to me for hours on end, and she also used to tell me lots of real-life stories, especially about her own life as a child. It was thanks to this that I always loved books and stories more than anything else in the world. By the time I was four years old, I was saying that I wanted to be a writer when I grew up, and I never changed my mind! By the time I was eight, I knew that I wanted to write history as well as fiction.
What do you love about writing for children?
The audience! Children are the most enthusiastic readers, and they are also the most important readers. Children also make very interesting characters. Adults don’t go through many transformations or changes; or if they do, their transformations tend to happen slowly, over time, or in response to enormous life-and-death challenges. When children are growing up, they are quite literally growing upwards. As they grow, they change and transform themselves at an amazing rate, just about every single day. They are like magicians, or super-heroes. As well, their insights are fresh and original, because they are experiencing everything for the first time.
If you had to choose 10 words to describe your new book, Australians All, what would they be?
I guess seven of those ten words would be in the book’s title and subtitle:
The two words of 'Australians All' are saying that we are all Australian, no matter where our ancestors come from, how long our family has been living here, what language we speak at home, and whether or not we have a grandfather who marches on Anzac Day.
The book’s subtitle, 'Growing Up from the Ice Age to the Apology' has another five important words.
Growing Up: the book is not just a history of Australia. It puts children and adolescents at the foreground of that history, and shows how history felt when they were growing up.
Ice Age: This history begins about fifty thousand years ago, in the geological era known as the Pleistocene or Ice Age. That was an exciting era, when Aboriginal people were already living right across the continent.
Apology: The book ends on 13 February 2008, when the Prime Minister made the Apology to the Stolen Generations on behalf of all Australians. Whatever people may think about the Apology, it provides a clear line in the sand between the history that began in 1788, and the history that may be possible in the future.
If I have to think of one more word for the book, I might say 'finished'! This book has taken me many years of hard work, with endless hours of research and many drafts of writing. And I am really pleased that it can now go out into the world and meet its readers.
Your book consists of 80 mini-biographies of children who, in their own way, helped to shape Australia's history. Some, like Donald Bradman and Mary MacKillop, are well known. Others aren't. How did you go about choosing whom to include?
Choosing the subjects of the mini-biographies was one of my hardest tasks. For every one story that went in, I researched and discarded another ten. I didn’t choose people because they grew up to be famous, but because their story of growing up exemplified or explained something that was going on in the ‘big picture’ of national political events.
For example, as a young boy, Henry Lawson grew up on the goldfields. Then his father became a selector (a small-scale farmer) and his mother was both a poet and a postmistress. Henry was first educated at home, and then went to a little bush school, and later to a Catholic college in a nearby town. As well, Henry was profoundly deaf, and he was teased and bullied by his fellow students. All in all, his story raises a number of interesting personal and political issues.
Of course, even if one of the subjects later became famous (like Don Bradman and Mary MacKillop), when they were children they were not famous at all. They experienced many of the same things that all children experience when they are growing up.
What's the key message you would like readers to take home from the book?
I guess the best way for me to answer this is to quote the final words in the book:
'For all of us, wherever our ancestors come from, history holds stories that help us understand who we are. It also shows us who we might be. I love history because it is story. But the best thing about this story is that it is never finished. All of us are making history every moment of our lives.'
Recently, you were announced as Australia's author-nominee for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. What exactly is this award, and what does this nomination mean to you?
The Hans Christian Andersen Award is the highest international recognition given to a living author whose complete works have made a lasting contribution to children’s literature. Given every second year by IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People), it is sometimes called 'the little Nobel Prize'.
Being nominated for this award means more to me than any other accolade I have ever received, not least because I am a great supporter of the work that IBBY does to promote international peace and social justice through children’s literature.
Another reason I feel privileged to be nominated is because this year’s illustrator-nominee is Ron Brooks. I think Ron is one of Australia’s greatest illustrators, and his book Fox (written by Margaret Wild) is one of my favourite picture books.
For the past decade you have collaborated with illustrator Ken Searle to produce your books. How does this process work?
Our process has been not so much a collaboration with each other as a collaboration with other people — both children and adults — and in particular with Aboriginal people. Our primary aim has not been to produce books, but to spread the word about Indigenous principles of education.
This journey began during the period 1998 to 2001, when Ken and I were invited to work as consultants at the school at Papunya (an Aboriginal community in the Western Desert, Northern Territory). The school had recently developed its own curriculum — the Papunya Model of Education.This is a way of learning that puts the land at the centre of knowledge, and encourages students to work in a holistic and collaborative way. Our job was to help the Anangu (Aboriginal) staff and students to produce resources for this new curriculum.
One of the curriculum resources that we helped the school to produce was the multi-award-winning Papunya School Book of Country and History — a collaborative account of the history of this internationally famous Western Desert community, told from an Indigenous perspective.
In 2005 Ken and I decided to try out this Papunya Model with a bunch of non-Indigenous children who lived in the city. The resulting picture book, Going Bush, showcases the poetry and art of the students in the project alongside my text and Ken’s artwork.
With Playground — Stories from Country and from Inside the Heart (published in 2011) our work was a way for more than a hundred Aboriginal Elders and young people to talk about their experiences of childhood and learning, both traditional and contemporary.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I had so many favourite books as a child that it is impossible to answer that. However, I’d like to mention the enormous influence of The Australia Book, written by Eve Pownall and illustrated by Margaret Senior.
When I was growing up in the 1950s, there were not many Australian books for children. Having been brought up on books that were mostly set in England or Europe, the palette of Margaret Senior’s illustrations showed me the colours of my own land for the first time. As well, Eve Pownall’s text gave me my first introduction to the history of Australia.
Which children's book authors inspire you?
While of course I enjoy and admire the work of many contemporary children’s authors, if I am talking about 'inspiration' I need to talk about those authors who inspired me when I was a child. Not long after I read The Australia Book, I encountered the work of a small group of female Australian children’s authors who had just begun publishing books for children. Nan Chauncy, Patricia Wrightson, Eleanor Spence and Joan Phipson: together, these writers showed me that it was possible to be female and Australian and to write wonderful stories about the adventures of Australian girls and boys. With all the hubris of an eight-year-old, I thought: if they can do it, I can too!
Australians All is published by Allen & Unwin and is available now.
ISBN 9781741146370; $49.99 RRP.