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Australia's new Children’s Laureate comes to the Melbourne Writer’s Festival to reveal how magical reading can be

If you spot a ten-year-old sneaking out of your local library with a Game of Thrones book under their arm, then children’s author Jackie French might just be responsible.

“I tell a class of ten-year-olds that the show is based on a series of books, and they say, ‘Really? We can find out what happens next!’ Parents probably don’t know their kids are watching Game of Thrones; they’re most likely downloading it,” she says. The newly-appointed Australian Children’s Laureate is quick to qualify that she’s not advocating that kids read the sexed-up fantasy series – just that adults stop underestimating the complexity of books that kids should be reading. “We wonder why at least 40 per cent of kids don’t like reading,” she says. “But we expect kids to be happy with the equivalent of Run, Spot Run!”

True, the rascally yellow puppy is a loveable character; but it’s never Spot that ignites a lifelong love of reading. It’s got to be something richer, more complex. Or as French calls it, a magic book. “A story with a world that’s so vivid to them, and so important to them, that they can’t bear not to keep reading,” she says.

For many young Australians, their magic book could well have been written by Jackie French. Of her 140 fiction and non-fiction titles, her best-loved children’s tales include Diary of a Wombat (2002), Pete the Sheep (2004), To the Moon and Back (2004) and the multi-award winning piece of historical fiction, Hitler’s Daughter (1999).

Reading about history – even in fiction – helps children to understand the past. But, as French discovered at a young age, it can do something even more powerful. “Writing history for kids gives them a confidence that things can change,” she explains. At 15, Jackie was homeless, dyslexic, and clinging to books like a life jacket. “Even when things were at their worst, I never was hopeless,” she says. “I never once thought that a good life wasn’t possible. And that was because of books and the people who gave me books.”

French will focus on history in her three interactive sessions at the Melbourne Writer’s Festival: Tales from Another Time, ANZAC Lives and Shakespeare All Over. She joins a host of other well-loved children’s authors on the program, including Obernewtyn Chronicles creator Isobelle Carmody, illustrator-writer duo Terry Denton and Andy Griffiths, and previous Australian Children’s Laureate Alison Lester.

Tales from Another Time: Along with fellow young adult author Kirsty Murray, French will explore Australia's myths and legends and uncover what fiction can reveal about the past. ACMI, Cinema 2, Mon Aug 25, 10am. $7.

ANZAC Lives: Find out what life was like for young people during World War One. ACMI, Cinema 2, Mon Aug 25, 12.30pm. $7. Ages 5-6.

Shakespeare All Over: Discover a whole new side to the Bard. Deakin Edge, Tue Aug 26, 11.15am. $7. Ages 5-6.

Jackie French is appearing as part of the Melbourne Writer's Festival.

Jackie French's top three ways to get kids excited about reading:

  • “Give kids permission that if a book is boring, they can go find something else. Never finish a book that’s boring.”
  • “Read to kids. Don’t stop when they learn to read. Read magazines, newspapers, anything!”
  • “Read major books to your kids, and stop at a really exciting point. Leave the book there. Just about every time, the kid will then keep reading.”

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By Rose Johnstone   |   Photos by Kelly Sturgiss

Jackie French - Melbourne Writers Festival 2014 details

Australian Centre for the Moving Image; Federation Square
Around Melbourne, Melbourne 3000

Telephone 03 9999 1199

Price $7.00

Date 25 Aug 2014-26 Aug 2014

Open Mon 10am & 12.30pm; Tue 11.15am

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