Jackie French, Australian Children's Laureate, in her Araluen Valley garden. Photo: Janie Barrett
Jackie French, one of the nation's best-loved story-tellers, has been named the new Australian Children's Laureate.
French, the best-selling author of more than 140 books for both adults and children, was presented with her award in Canberra by actor Rhys Muldoon.
For kids like me who are dyslexic, and whose work always looks like a wombat has sat on it, never feel that you are dumb
“This is a chance to give back,” she said of the high-profile appointment. “When I was a very, very scared teenager my wonderful teacher gave me books and also offered me a bed to sleep in. And if it hadn't been for her, and her courage, I would not be a writer and I might not even be here today.
“In a little way over the next two years I want to give back what I have been given.”
French said when she was told by Australian Children's Literature Alliance she had been selected, her first reaction was to ask whether there had been a mistake and her second was to start penning a manifesto of what she hoped to achieve.
“Every child in Australia needs a book to go to bed with, and a bed to read that book in,” she said. “Every child in Australia can learn to read and for kids like me who are dyslexic, with spelling that you might call 'original', and whose work always looks like a wombat has sat on it, never feel that you are dumb, never feel that you have failed. You haven't failed it's the adults who have failed to give you access to the heritage of humanity.”
French has been a full-time writer for more than 20 years, often exploring her passion for history, the environment and wombats in her work.
Her Diary of a Wombat, with Bruce Whatley, remains a consistent bestseller and she says one of the reasons for her prolific output is to pay for carrots to appease the rampaging wombats at her Southern Highlands home.
“There are many reasons a kid might not learn to read but there are no excuses,” she says. “If we have money for submarines, for Olympic medals and for expensive brands of ice cream, then we have money for every child to read.”
One of the key themes of her laureateship, she says, will be encouraging people to share books and stories.
“If you are a parent, read to your child. If you are a kid, read to your parents as they put dinner out,” she said. “Read to your grandparents over Skype, read to the dog - especially if the dog is going to the vet and you are both scared. The dog won't criticise if you get a word wrong!”
French will take up her new position in January from the inaugural Laureate, a position shared between Alison Lester and Boori Monty Pryor.