ACT News

Australia Day 2016: Author Jackie French receives award for promoting literacy

For Jackie French, the thrill of receiving a gong for Australia Day is inevitably tinged with guilt.

Jackie French has used the award to pay tribute to the unsung thousands who are working to improve children's literacy.
Jackie French has used the award to pay tribute to the unsung thousands who are working to improve children's literacy. Photo: Janie Barrett

The 2015 Senior Australian of the Year and national Children's Laureate may be one of the most vocal multi-published children's authors in the country when it comes to literacy, but she is adamant that she is no more deserving of an Order of Australia than the 50,000 or so others who are working just as hard.

"I think the awards are a wonderful system, but they do tend to reward the eloquent people," she said.

"I am good at being eloquent, but I'm always incredibly conscious that in all of the areas in which I work, there are thousands of people who work far harder, far longer hours, are far more tired and get far fewer thanks than I do, and who don't get recognised."

French will become a Member of the Order of Australia for "significant service to literature as an author of children's books, and as an advocate for improved youth literacy".


The author of more than 140 books, many for children, says she became an advocate by accident, having struggled her entire life with severe dyslexia.

"I've never made a secret of the fact that I am dyslexic. It would be pretty difficult to keep it a secret," she said.

"I get lost in car parks, and if I'm going anywhere I have to tell people I really can't tell left from right, I'm probably going to get lost."

About 20 years ago, when she was giving regular talks to schoolchildren about books and reading, she began to notice certain children sit up and take notice when she talked about her condition.

Letters from students, parents, schools and, eventually, government departments began to roll in, and before she knew it, she had become a major advocate for literacy in schools.

But she says it's only in the past two years that things have started to happen.

"It's very deeply on the agenda," she said.

"Two years ago, people were actually just muttering, 'Oh yes, people with dyslexia really need to be heard'. Now we have come kilometres since then – the realisation that [some] kids in fact have just missed out. They're not dyslexic, they don't have a major problem, they have simply missed out."

Although she said she would never feel that she has said or done enough, she is in awe of how much had been achieved in a short space of time.

"There's such a temptation to always look at what hasn't been done, but I think with this, we have reached a point where there is so much research, so much enthusiasm, so many programs that are going to be rolled out next year, that in the next two years, three years and five years, it's going to be very difficult for any government to keep its head in the sand and not join in."

Just don't describe her as a "tireless advocate".

"You hear so often about a 'tireless worker for children's literacy'. I have never, ever, ever, ever met one," she said.

"Anyone who works with kids is usually incredibly tired but they keep on going, and I think that is the one thing I really have been trying to say in the last two years as well, is just 'thank you, and please don't stop'."