Best-selling author Jackie French on fostering literacy skills in children

Passionate literacy laureate, conservationist and wombat warrior Jackie French sits down for a chat with WYZA®.

Once upon a time on an Australian farm, a wallaby called Fred, a black snake by the name of Gladys, and a wombat who answered to Smudge, invited Jackie French to move into their tiny shed. Short on cash, Jackie graciously accepted and wasted little time penning her first book as a means to an end, or, more precisely, as a means to register her car.

Despite her editor at HarperCollins dubbing her manuscript the messiest she’d ever seen (Jackie put this down to her dyslexia and Smudge the wombat’s tendency to leave droppings on her work), the brilliance of Jackie’s storytelling was clear, and Rain Stones hit the shelves in 1991.

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Jackie's two passions are books and wombats  (Photo: jackiefrench.com

Two decades and 140+ books later, Jackie sits as a director of The Wombat Foundation, and her affinity with the stout marsupial has blossomed onto the pages of books for readers’ young and old.

"If she became a politician Jackie French says she’d be behind education reform and free watermelon on Fridays!"

With a Federal Election on the cards later this year, author, Jackie French says if she was ever to be in politics she would have a new approach. “I think I'd rather be the Minister For Getting Rid of Silly Ideas!” she says, while going on to state her hypothetical policies, which include education reform and free watermelon on Fridays.

“I’d make it compulsory to have teacher librarians in every school. More libraries with more books, and better public transport to reach them, stronger copyright laws and safe territory for wombats and enforced environmental conditions.”

Much like science, maths and sport, Jackie believes trainee teachers need to be taught literacy as a specialist subject. Trained teachers also need professional development days to learn the latest techniques. Most importantly, Jackie wants to see old literacy schemes thrown out and replaced with peer-based schemes governed by evidence.

"Trainee teachers should be taught literacy as a specialist subject"

Senior Australian of the Year Honouring Australians aged 65+, the Senior Australian of the Year award recognises exceptional community service and achievement.

In 2015, Jackie was named the award’s main recipient. During her tenure, she advocated for children’s literacy and lent her voice at conferences and town hall gatherings across the country while lobbying the government to introduce evidence-based training in literacy teaching.

“I will never know how much I contributed to the extraordinary programmes for kids and literacy that are being rolled out this year and next. It doesn't matter. We rarely do know which seeds we plant take root, and how much fruit they give, long after we are gone. We just keep planting, as long as we have days to live.”


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Jackie (right) with the 2015 Australian of the Year recipient Rosie Batty (left of Jackie) (Photo: Jackie French/Facebook)

Literary laureate

Praise and awards have never inspired Jackie’s work, though they have been permanent fixtures throughout her career (much like the wombats!). In 2014 she was named Australian Children’s Laureate for her contribution to literature and advocacy for children with learning difficulties.

The theme of Jackie’s two-year term as Laureate was ‘Share a Story’, and she stresses the importance of storytelling. “A story is the most powerful tool humanity has,” she explains. “Stories are the way we pass on wisdom and history. They can add joy, laughter, or help us understand the world, each other and ourselves.”

Jackie’s passion for children’s literature developed through first hand experience with her young readers. She became confident that all children could be taught to read, even those children who, like her, had dyslexia or other learning difficulties. Finding books that children love is one way to ensure this.

"One of Jackie’s passions is fostering literacy skills in children"

“Each of us needs The Magic Book to turn us into a reader, and each of us probably has a different magic book. Most books are boring. I don't want to read about cricketer’s sex lives or back room political fights, but others love them, which is why they become best sellers.”

When she launched the Magic Book campaign last year she offered over a hundred thousand kids $5 each if they couldn't find their own magic book. Offering money to children? It was a mad idea, surely? “Mobs of small wicked boys scribbled down my email address plotting to pretend to be ten kids and get fifty dollars,” she admits. “But not one child has asked for the money while thousands have written with joy and excitement to tell me about the books they have discovered.”

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Jackie loves getting kids into reading (Photo: Kids' Book Review

Advice for grandparents

Jackie urges grandparents to encourage open and honest communication around reading. If they think a particular book is boring, that’s fine, just put it back on the shelf and prompt them to move on to the next.

“Books aren’t like broccoli. . . you don't have to eat every bit on your plate because it's good for you. Books are good for you but you need the right book. Every book a kid reads literally increases their intelligence. If we want intelligent kids, give them books. If we want creative kids who will invent machines to mine the asteroids, give them books. If we want compassionate adults, give our kids books.”

While independent reading is important, Jackie also reminds us to remain involved in the reading process, even after our grandkids have learned to read simple picture books.

“Kids need long complex books that they can get lost in, and they need adults to read to them,” she says. “Keep reading to your kids till they ask you to stop. Though they may never say those words. My dad still phoned me to read Thomas Keneally’s latest when he was 82. And we both still loved it.”

And she lived happily ever after. . .  

‘Slowing down’ isn’t a phrase you’ll hear Jackie utter, and her plans for the future are varied. “I want to do more. Write more books and find more magic books for more kids. More lobbying for literacy programmes that work. More planting seeds, literal and metaphorical. More laughter, wombats, lunches with friends and playing with grandkids, both mine and there's. Just more.”

To see what Jackie and the wombats are up to, visit www.jackiefrench.com.

(Featured image: Mary MacKillop International/Facebook)

What are your favourite books to read to the children in your life? Join the conversation below.