Jackie french

Australian Author, Ecologist, Historian,
Dyslexic, Honourary Wombat.


“Books are confirmation that life could be good”- Jackie French

Through many a season, Jackie French has pitter pattered along her own path. With the help of rain and good soil she has had a hand in creating a magical garden in the Australian landscape, far removed from the clamour of city life. Over 200 varieties of fruit and vegetables sprout and grow throughout the yearly cycle of heat, frost, wind, downpours and just-right sunny days. French has many accolades but none more tied to the richness of her storytelling. She fondly remembers walks with her Father, sharing tales and wonders. French has been a tremendous advocate for reading, honouring the basic human right that all children have, which is the right to learn to read.

While Jackie French has been named Senior Australian of the Year and Australian Children’s Laureate, her quaint stories about wombats still prevail as the most memorable. The iconic collection of children’s story books make French one of our most loved authors. As luck would have it, she has even more great stories of wisdom, history, bribery, dyslexia, climbing trees and learning to share!

Everybody learns in different ways. As a young girl, what interested you and taught a lot?

Stories. Very much stories but stories that were actually based on history. I was lucky to come from a family of storytellers. As a little girl, the favourites were stories from my Mother and Grand Mother, but of course they had been their favourite stories too so my Grandmother’s stories were also my Mother’s and Great Grandmothers- it was actually from my Grandmother and Great Great Aunt Nin. I had stories from colonial Australia and even pre-colonial Australia. We are only one voice removed from when they actually happened so I can never remember a time when I did not have the richness of history, the richness of different cultures, the richness of the ways that things actually change.

There is a rich bonding that occurs when reading books, especially to children at storytime. I know that when I was growing up that was such a special time for my Dad and I. Why do you think sharing stories is so important?

I do not think it should just be in the form of a hard copy book. I know that I am a writer and that I put stories down in books but a lot of that is to replace the stories and the conversations which aren’t happening. I grew up in a world without television and people had conversations. There were conversations with children which would go on for hours. Going for walks with my Father at night, which was one of my most treasured memories, and we just talked.

“We talked about the meaning of life and the world and why trees were green and lots of other things. A lot of kids today; a lot of families today; make one or two comments back and forth but they often don’t have those really good sustained conversations that are so important to a child’s emotional and social mind and intellectual development and certainly for playgroups I think this is something that should be encouraged.”  

Long conversations where an idea develops. We are not born with the idea of conversation, it is a skill that we develop and it is something that often kids today do not have and it really means that their attention span is a lot shorter.

A book is wonderful but it is particularly wonderful these days because it is filling the gap with what families no longer do.

Kids no longer have lots of aunts and great grandparents around, people who have time to tell stories- most parents are working or are back out doing a whole range of things, even doing the weekly shopping now takes about 30 times as long as it did when I was a child- grocers, butchers etcetera delivered so you did not have to spend a lot of time on finding a parking place driving around the supermarket. There was time and that is something that our kids lack. Time and time with parents but a book when you are really just too pushed after a days work or a day trying to do the shopping-  too tired to actually have that long conversation that is where a book can come in.

A book means that a child’s conversation is focused on it for all of the time of that book and it really is a conversation that involves three of you: the child, the reader and the book but just as with any good story told in person or by a book every character in that book- the reader is every character in that book and the reader takes part in every adventure in that book.

It means that by the time the child is five years old they have lived 10,000 different lives and in 10,000 different cultures and mindsets and bodies- it means, literally, that their brains have physically developed, it is muscle building for the brain.

"Every time a child reads a book or is read a book, literally it creates new neurons in the brain and new connections of neurons. It literally makes a child more intelligent, literally does increase empathy, understanding, compassion and self-knowledge as well- and all of that, just between the covers of a book.”

In recent times technology has changed lots of the ways that we communicate and families are drawn towards different types of screens. What observations have you made of technology in early years learning?

I think it actually gives extraordinary opportunities. Society was fractured before we got the screen technology. We no longer live with extended family. The extent of connectivity has actually allowed us to start making social groups and family contacts again. We can Skype. Grandma can actually tell you a story down the phone or on Skype of Facetime or a whole range of things like that. I did not realise how much that mattered in fact until it was actually the night I won Senior Australian of the Year and my son rang up half an hour later to say, ‘oh we just had the news on’ and my Grandson was only 12 months old and the first they knew of it was my Grandson screaming ‘Grandma Grandma!’ and doing a dance around the living room, not because he understood the significance of it but because he actually saw me talking on TV. For him, that was Grandma and Grandma was in his living room and he had not seen Grandma for a couple of months and it matters. Technology can fragment us even more- it is desperately sad when you see people out to dinner where every single person is occupied with their Facebook or their emails on their mobile phones rather than talking to one another- but on the other hand it means that, if we choose technology it can be used to bring us close together again, no matter how far across the world we are.

Back to the great outdoors and your beautiful garden. Do you think animals and nature are fine educators for children?

I think there is no way to underestimate this. You can do it even on the simple basis of health. We now know that kids exposed to dirt and animals have more robust immune systems. They are far less likely to get ill or have complications from illness or to get cancer or have heart disease or to commit suicide in later life. This is what we evolved to be. We are creatures of the world outside not the indoors. Our feet and our ankles were designed to walk on soft ground rather than concrete and our legs were designed for actually working rather than sitting around watching a screen and our hips certainly were as well. This is actually who we are. You only have to look at a child’s face when they pick a piece of fruit to realise just for their mental wellbeing it is the concept of this generous world.

We grow about 600 types of different fruits here. Often parents will say oh they only eat white bread with peanut butter etcetera, they won’t eat this.

“I have never had a single child visit here who doesn’t immediately reach for a piece of fruit with a look of joy and start to eat it and when they discover that they are allowed to climb a tree it is absolute and complete magic. The kids here don’t need toys, they don’t want toys, they are going up the creek, they are climbing over boulders, they are throwing rocks to see them splash, they are climbing up trees.”

One little girl had never climbed a tree in her life and the next three days was climbing higher and higher and higher up trees and throwing down avocados that don’t ripen until they are picked so there was much useful harvesting from this child about 20 metres above the ground and, in fact, there was no way we could stop her as she was only three years old and no one else could climb up as high but we realised that she was in fact remarkably safe instinctively. She knew how to climb and how to be safe, holding on like a small monkey.

We do occasionally have children who quite literally hide so that they don’t have to leave and I am not talking about kids who are unhappy with their families or what have you. Very young kids are told, ‘look it is time to go now’ and then they burst into tears when they find that their parents expect them to come too. We had one lovely little school that came every year and I still remember two little girls holding onto a tree together just demanding that they be left behind. They were very happy at home but did simply not want to go.

That is because I think one of the few remnants of generous land in this country where kids can just walk and eat and walk and eat, they can swim in the pool, they can climb the trees, this is really what life it meant to be; when you want food- look at the ground, look at the trees, there it is.

In the city you have to censor what you can smell, what you can see and what you can hear and just focus on those things as necessary – when you are in the bush you can use all of your senses, you need to use all of your senses- your sense of smell, your sense of hearing so this does mean that in the city you really only a hundredth of yourself, but when you are in the bush or in your garden in the bush you can use all of your senses entirely, there is no need to censor yourself, you can actually be yourself and I think that is what I see in kids who visit here. They realise they can run as long as they want to and they and climb as long as they want to, the only reason they stop is because they are tired. Yes there are limits out here in terms of distance but none that kids are going to reach. There is all the space that they could ever want.

At playgroup we schedule some things during our sessions, but it is really about free play. How important do you think that is for young children, to let them go and let them be and explore?

Enormously, but I think there is also guided free play. If you just put kids together in a bare room they are going to gain an enormous amount from each other, finding out things about one another, inventing games etcetera but I think guided free play is even better where you start them off on an idea and let them go from that, show them how they can paint with dirt, show them how they can pick fruit, show them how to start climbing a tree.

Guided free play I think it probably better because we always do need to remember that we do need to teach kids. There actually isn’t a lot that is innate, they have innate tendencies to do things like to walk for example, but walking well does need some guidance, without putting strain on your knees and your hips and various other things. Yes we will innately climb a tree but showing how to get to their foot hole or a hand hole how to get high gripping your knees and things like that- these are things kids need to be taught so I think guided free play is good and also too creating spaces for free play, a creek that can be damned and things like that. The kids can always discover it for themselves. It is always fascinating here watching kids going up the creek and thinking ‘Oh do you think anyone has ever explored here before?’ that wonderful wonderful world Yes! Where we are heading into the unknown and this is exciting- but to do that you need to be prepared or they need to be taken to the place where that will happen.

You are dyslexic yourself, I wonder how important encouragement is to a child who is really struggling and feeling left behind?

I need to clarify here, dyslexia is often misused.

“Dyslexia is, literally, dys-lexia, an inability to read when there is not actually learning problems on the whole spectrum, for example difficulty to read but the child has no problem learning how to get dressed etcetera and there can be a thousand, or several thousand reasons why that is the case.”

Dyslexia is certainly not one thing and as I know from actually being a patron of various groups with children who have dyslexia- it is often with the kids who have actually just missed out on an important stage in learning.

One little girl I know went to eight schools by the time she was seven years old. Her parents moved around Australia for work and, in each case, she just really missed out. The teachers knew she would be moving on again so it is just easier to leave it and not give her the time and focus that she really needed but in terms of that- yes of course encouragement.

The worst possible thing is where kids become discouraged and that in fact is the time for intervention. The time for intervention with any child is when they are worried- if they are worried that they are falling behind then it is time to intervene. So this means that it’s not necessarily even when the teacher thinks they’re got a problem or if the child is failing. Kids are very good at choosing their own peer groups so if you have a kid who is getting say 60 per cent whereas their friends are getting 98 per cent then that child does have a problem and they are probably deeply worried and embarrassed about it even though conventionally they are still doing okay they are passing where is the problem- massive problem, because they are in no way reaching their potential, they getting discouraged, they are seeing kids they know they don’t have their level of intelligence doing better than they are- encouragement is essential, except the problem is, it doesn’t work very much.

When a child is having problems reading, no matter how much the parents say look you are bright and wonderful and it doesn’t matter what they teachers said, they still know that little Johnny is really not as bright as they are, they are far better at school. So yes encouragement is vital but realistically it is probably not going to have much of an effect. Certainly however it is better than if they don’t get encouragement, where they get yelled at for not doing better.

Kids who are hugged and loved and shown that yes that they are really really valued are going to be far more resilient than kids who don’t get that- but in terms of convincing a kid that cannot read that they are not stupid- I don’t think anyone has worked out a way how to do that. The only way of doing that is very very quickly teaching them how to read.  

“I cannot emphaisise enough, every child can read, even a child who is completely paralysed and needs to use the side of their tongue with electrodes to actually learn to read brail.”

Every child can read and it is far better to focus on doing that- having said that, by the time a learning problem is picked up, the child probably has a fairly low self-image in terms of learning and they made need to be convinced before they do the work necessary and again, I don’t think encouragement is going to cut it. A child in a happy family knows their parents think they are wonderful and loves them, they know actually that if they turn out to be a mass murdered their parents will still think a part of them is wonderful so they are really not going to give much weight to a parent or a relative or a friend of the family who said oh look you are wonderful you are so bright of isn’t that brilliant- of course they think that, they know that, of course I am wonderful- but actually I am stupid and my parents are very bias because their family are bias. This is where bribery comes in and I know this probably should not be the case but it works.

Last year for example there was a 12 year old boy in a workshop I was in who refused to read, he refused to read a book. He had been given a lot of lessons with individual words etcetera etcetera, he progressed, according to his tutor, very well over the six months but he was so discouraged, he was so convinced that he could not read that he would not try to actually read a book with consecutive words so we did that extremely politically incorrect right there in the workshop and she’s saying, look, what can we bribe you with what do you want in exchange for reading a book, what do you want, anything, you name it, what would you read a book for and he thought for a while and he said dinner at Sizzlers and I looked at his Mother and she said Yes yes! Of course! We can go to Sizzlers tonight- so you are saying if your Mum takes you to dinner at Sizzlers tonight you will read her a book before you go and he nodded.

When I left he was there in the carpark reading a book to his Mum and she was crying and she held up her thumb to say it was working and yes he was reading. He could read, slowly, but he was reading that entire book, a chapter book, and it was going to take an hour and a half or two hours and then he was going to go out for a very very good meal at Sizzlers and by the time he had finished that of course he would know that he could read a book. Bribery works.

The number of kids who you say have to clean their room, who likes cleaning their room? No hands went up, who would love to clean their room if someone will read them their favourite story? Every hand goes up. If someone cooked you your favourite dinner tonight who would read their cooks choice of story? Every hand is waving wildly in the air. Bribery works. What problem do you have with your brother and sister? They always want the front seat- okay, if they read you your favourite can they sit in the front sea, yes! Bribery really works. If a child will not read a book, if they will not try, bribe them. Ask them what it will take for them to actually do it and in doing that you are actually changing the goal posts. By doing it you are in fact giving them a vote of confidence, saying actually we know you can do it, but what will it take for you to actually do it and it is terrifying for someone who has failed before to actually be vulnerable and actually start to try to read a book so the very fact you are bribing them is a vote of confidence.

I have not come across any kid who has asked for an outrageous bribe. Kids are never realistic they have never asked for a visit from Spiderman or something like that, they have actually asked for something that they actually know is possible that they can get- like a dinner at Sizzlers. I have never had a kids ask for an expensive present for example. Kids with bribes are actually extremely sensible, always in my experience they have asked for something that the family can afford and that actually is possible.

You write on your website that you are not sure what a soul is but it is an essential part of being a human. My question is, what kind of things enrich that part of us- the part of us that makes us kind and thoughtful and content, and what kind of things do you think we should give children to make them have a positive life?

Certainly love and unconditional love and also teach them unconditional love for other people and for this miraculous planet.

A child cannot love the world unless you show them the world so make sure you show them that this world is beautiful and generous and fun and challenging.”

Take them to all sorts of natural areas and let them experience them and be part of it. Let them feel the grass under their feet and feel the soil in their fingers and let them climb trees- let them actually know it.

I think one of the most important things, and that is something I strive for in my writing, is a feeling of transcendence. It is something that is actually transcends the every day. That is what you get when you suddenly look out in the light in a particular way and then you just realise it is so beautiful, it just transcends the everyday.

With Diary of the Wombat I was trying for every child that reads it to actually transcend the everyday. What for me was an everyday thing of having the wombats at the door but to actually make it transcend the everyday to give that sense of joy and wonder and awe.

It is a bit like cleaning the windows and you suddenly see when you clean the windows what it actually looks like outside and for me, that’s what transcendence is; it is like suddenly cleaning the windows so you can see that this is beautiful, this is extraordinary, this is a sense of wonder and love and being part of this community of humanity and part of this small miraculous planet spinning in the darkness- all of that is miraculous and you feel that you are actually part of that and that is a miracle, that is transcendence.

You have many accolades and you do appear to have a very fulfilling life- I know everyone has their hardships so I do not want to make out that everything has gone smoothly for you.           

[Laughs] No, and come to think of it every close friend I’ve got has had major surgery this year or in fact died.

“Life is not necessarily easy but there’s that old phrase, ‘I never promised you a rose garden’.”
Life has never ever, ever been easy. I don’t think there is ever a single mainstream religion that ever promises that life is going to be easy. It is probably easier now than it’s ever been- we don’t have an iceage, we don’t have bubonic plague, at least here in Australia- even my double knee replacement next month, this is a first world problem, I am going into incredibly good hospitals, with incredibly good surgeons, an incredibly good rehab afterwards and not only that but freezers full with food for when I come out.

“It is not an easy life but I don’t think I have been bored since 1967 and I think that’s what we need to teach out our kids.”

Like any parent I would like to promise kids a perfect world when they grow up but we can’t. Life is never life that and it is not going to be like that. But I can promise that if they have the courage to find what they think is fulfilling which may not be what they parents or teachers or friends think is fulfilling- if they have the courage to stand together hand in hand with other people of good will and say this is wrong and we are going to make the world better, if they have got the courage to do that then they will not be bored.

Humans are good as challenges- we are the descendants of survivors of the iceage and plagues and wars but we are not good at being bored so I can promise kids two things if they have got the courage then they will not be bored, and secondly, always ask for help, it was something, only two years ago, I was a very late learner, always ask for help.

I cannot guarantee a child with problems that the first person they ask will help them, I can’t guarantee that the first person that tries to help them will be able to help, they may need to try five or 10 or even 15 people before they get one who can adequately give them what they need but I can promise that there are always people who want to help and will help and they will finally find people who can help and also too that it is an act of kindness to ask people for help, you are not imposing on them.

“Asking for help is actually one of the most generous things you can do because it is really saying we are part of this social web and by asking you for help it really means I am implicitly saying I would help you in the same circumstances, will you help me now?”

Particularly for someone who has been through bad things, someone who may have very low self-esteem, saying please can you help me can be one of the most extraordinary things you can do.

I have two memories of this: two gangs in a supermarket of young men were obviously about to fight each other and I played the confused little old lady and actually went up to the two leaders who were circling each other about to attack and deliberately said in an old lady voice, ‘Look I’m so sorry I can’t find the carpark’ and they immediately showed me where the carpark was and the situation, the situation was fine. They preferred being protective and helping an old lady than the two gangs fighting each other.

With my Father, and this was actually how I learnt that, we were in Alice Springs, we took Dad there soon after he had had his hips replaced. He was old. Very, very, very shaky. We passed a gang of Indigenous people and Dad was shaky and he tripped over something, I don’t know what it was but before my husband and I could get to him, several members of this gang had already reached him, helped him up, found out where we were staying and were taking turns to actually help him, they weren’t going to let him walk by himself. They actually came quite a long way. They escorted us then they introduced us to their country, they told us all about this and that and what have you and what we needed to see and what we had done and they said you know where to find us if you need some help again. They immediately turned into protectors and often the more aggressive the young man, the more protective they are if they get a chance to do it.

One of the most generous things you can do to another human being is ask for help.         

Article by Sinead Halliday