'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Sunday 15 December 2013

KBR Exclusive: Our New Children's Laureate--Jackie French

KBR favourite and dedicated author and speaker, Jackie French, has become our second Australian Children's Laureate, following in the formidable footsteps of co-first Laureates Boori Monty Pryor and Alison Lester. Jackie spoke with us about her new role in this fabulous, exclusive interview.

Jackie, congratulations on your new role! How did it feel to be asked to become our next Australian Children’s Laureate?
Terrified. What if I trip—literally or metaphorically? Can I learn to spell 'laureate' correctly without my spell checker? What if there are things that could be done in the next two years that aren't?

But also utter joy—the chance to celebrate ALL of Australian children's literature in the next two years.  

Our literature, like no other country’s, is: deep, fresh and original, punching far above its weight in awards and world sales. We are talking about the world’s great literary figures like Academy Award-winner Shaun Tan who, like fellow Australian author, Sonia Hartnett, has also won an Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (often referred to as the Nobel Prize for children’s literature); of world best-sellers, like Andy Griffiths, Mem Fox and John Marsden.

It is an extraordinary privilege to be given two years to celebrate Australia's stories; to be able to dream of projects that will help bring kids to the power and wonder of books, in all their many forms.

How did you celebrate?
I started work.
What does it mean to you to take on this role?
I don't know yet. Learning to walk in high heels for the launch. The wombats will probably receive fewer carrots, as their slave may be absent more often.

The personal isn't important. This is a chance to give back a small part of what I owe to the world of books and authors, readers and teachers and librarians who have given me a life and a career I love; who in my childhood gave me the hope and dreams to survive.

Why is it important for Australia to have a Laureate?
Why do we need Parliament House or a National Library? Partly as a focal point, but also as a centre where important things can begin to happen. I hope that the two years of my Laureateship will become a focal point for others' projects as well as my own: children as well as adults—using the laureate's position to launch them.

What are you expecting from the next two years?
730 days of hard work, interspersed with grabs at my own writing, and possibly, somewhere, time for lunch. And ever-widening horizons.

We at KBR believe in fostering a love of books from a very early age. Do you have any personal tips on encouraging a love of books in children?
A book's chief sin is to be boring. Kids should not read books because they are good for them. Books are not like broccoli—you don't need to eat every bit on your plate. Give kids the freedom to put a book down if it bores them, and get another one.

Give kids LOTS of books: let them mooch around the library or book shop, and if they pick up a book on bees don't say 'you wouldn't like that'. Let them taste books, to find out that they love themselves.

Don't assume your kid will love the same books you do. But at the same time, help your kids to find LOTS of books. It isn't easy to find a book you love, ever as an adult. It's even harder if you are a kid.

Campaign for more libraries; more children's librarians to act as a guide and an enticer; more teacher librarians. A teacher librarian is often the heart of a school, but only those touched by their work understand how vital they are, not just to our young people, but the future those young people will create.

If we want a decent future, we need to give our kids dreams and empathy and hope. The best way of giving them all of these is books. And the best guide to books is a teacher librarian. And Mum and dad. And Auntie Wilhelmina, And Pa and Granny and your best friend and the couple next door.

The theme of my laureateship is 'share a story.' Lend your best friend a book you’ve loved. Give a book to a kid who needs one, as I will be doing every day of my laureateship. Read a story to your dog—dogs won’t criticise if you don’t know a word—especially if he’s going to the vet and you both need reassurance.

Don't just read a story to your kids at bedtime but tell them one over dinner. Tell them how their parents met. (That can be hilarious.)

Share books with everyone you can, and encourage you kids to do the same.

Christmas will soon be upon us. Can you tell us the title of a favourite children’s Christmas book or two, and why you love it/them?
There are many glorious Australian children's books with a Christmas theme, like Mem Fox's gorgeous Wombat Divine, Yvonne Morrison' and Kileny Niland's An Aussie Night Before Christmas, Bruce Whatley's Tin Toys and The ABC Book of Christmas retold by Mark MacLeod illustrated by Australian artists like Stephen Michael King, Sally Rippin, Greg Rogers.

But even though I've created three Christmas picture books with Bruce Whatley (and still giggle my way through Christmas Wombat every year) this year I'll be giving books that are 'not just for Christmas'. And they won't be given just to kids, either. For example:

  • Journey of the Sea Turtle, written and illustrated by Mark Wilson, published by Lothian Children’s Books, 2009. This book is magic, following the journey of an endangered loggerhead turtle from a Queensland beach to the open ocean.
  • Also, Jandamarra, written by Mark Greenwood,
illustrated by Terry Denton, published by
Allen & Unwin Children’s Books, 2013. This book is breathtaking, the true story of indigenous warrior, Jandamarra, outlaw and hero.
  • The Pros and Cons of Being a Frog, written and illustrated by Sue de Gennaro, published by Scholastic Australia, 2012. I love this book more than any I have seen this year. It is a joyous, funny, deeply insightful look at friendship. Does our friend have to be like you?
  • Eric, written and illustrated by Shaun Tan, published by Allen & Unwin Children’s Books, 2010. Eric the house guest is … different … but also represents the strangeness and wonder of us all.

Can you reveal what you will be working on next/what’s coming up for you?
I'm writing this a week before the Laureateship is announced, and even now every day is bringing unexpected requests and new glimpses. It is a little like following the creek through the gorge. You don't know what is around the next corner. But you know there will be wonder.

What is the most thrilling thing about being a Children’s Laureate?
It's like opening a new book, smelling that fresh page scent, seeing the first words and being captivated ... Ask me again when I have turned the first page.

Read more about Jackie and her stunning body of work at www.jackiefrench.com