When an invitation from our local federal member, Mark Dreyfus QC appeared in a Facebook newsfeed, I didn’t hesitate and replied straight away.
It was no ordinary invite from a politician. Not a party political event or publicising an election campaign, but a delightful opportunity to meet and greet and have a Q&A with Australian writer and children’s author, Mem Fox.
Wow! (Said with the expression of a groupie.)
Convenient because it was happening at Doyles Hotel, Mordialloc – and exciting – there are few families in Australia who haven’t heard of Possum Magic, an iconic picture storybook, which still sells today!
When I congratulated Mark on the event he gave all credit to his electorate officer, Jacob Chacko who works in his Mordialloc office. Well done, Jacob who also did a great job as the emcee that evening.
Few Australian homes would not have one of Mem’s books on a shelf – she’s written over 40, and more than half are international bestsellers.
For those wishing to write children’s books, the advice on Mem’s website, an excellent resource, but perhaps her best advice delivered that evening was for would-be writers to envisage the target audience sitting on the floor in front of them.
If the children fidget with their shoelaces, stare out the window or start being naughty your story needs editing and revising!
Remember you are writing for children today, not writing a book you read as a child, nor writing a book to be read by adults because they think that’s what children should read!
My daughters are 31 and 28 years old now and treasure many of the books from childhood, especially Mem’s. Like so many in the audience (almost 300) I cheerfully queued to have my daughters’ books signed and have a chat.
Mem is a writer I admire for her books, but also her views on social justice, evident in her latest picture storybook, I’m Australian Too. A book she wrote to celebrate Australia’s incredible multicultural heritage and which sold out in its first three months (March-May 2017) and has been reprinted.
I love the recommended readership for the book – for readers aged 0-95.
Ambassador for Literacy
Mem is also ‘an educationalist specialising in literacy,’ and although retired, she was Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University, South Australia, where she taught teachers for 24 years.
She now spends most of her time writing presentations urging parents, teachers, and others to read aloud to children aged between 0-5, and she travels the world doing it. We were lucky to have in her Isaacs on her current tour travelling Australia promoting literacy and the importance of reading.
We should also thank Melinda Shelley of 123Read2Me who is currently collecting children’s books to give to those kids who don’t have them. I think she was the one who invited Mem to visit Victoria.
If you have quality children’s books in good condition please drop them off at The Lions Club Opportunity Shop in Mordialloc Main Street and Melinda will find them a good home.
In her talk and answers to questions from Mark and the audience, Mem was entertaining (she did study drama) along with giving good advice about writing and teaching literacy.
Although born in Melbourne, Mem grew up in Africa, attended drama school in England, and returned to Australia in 1970, aged 22. Along came marriage and motherhood and attending university as a mature age student in her early thirties.
She studied children’s literature at Flinders University and during that course, she wrote the first draft of her first book: Possum Magic, as an assignment. Mem said she was inspired to write a book about Australia for Australian children because at that time books were either from the USA or UK, or written like those books.
Possum Magic was rejected nine times over five years because it was ‘too Australian’!
It went on to become (and continues to be, to this day) the best-selling children’s book in Australia, with nearly 5 million copies sold. In 2004 its 21st birthday was celebrated with parties and events in thousands of schools and other places around Australia, and a new re-designed edition was launched. The colours of the original film of the illustrations were fading because it had been reprinted so many times. They now look gorgeous again.
Mem explained the inspiration for some of her other books. There was one she wrote in her head, sitting daily beside her grandson’s incubator when he was born prematurely and struggled to survive. She focused on his perfect fingers and toes and ears. She read to him too and recounting this story she urged mothers to read to children in their womb – it is never too early to read to children.
We laughed when she said she was thrilled her grandson had perfect ears because she had one ear bigger than the other and it juts out.
I loved this anecdote because I have the same affliction. When we chatted afterwards I whispered to her that I shared the imperfection regarding ears and her passion for writing and teaching, just wish I had her talent! We laughed together – and she has a raucous laugh!
Mem confessed she preferred teaching because the writing was a nightmare!
And that I could empathise with too! As do many writers.
Her latest book begged to be written because travelling around Australia, she realised the majority of people living here are welcoming and fair-minded yet it is the strident minority of people like Pauline Hanson who seem to dictate the heartless and cruel policies of successive governments against asylum seekers and refugees.
The loud, shrill voices encouraged politicians in our major political parties to act in shameful, illegal ways. Many people are shocked and say ‘not in our name’ yet because the major parties have similar policies, the human rights abuses continue.
She let Mark Dreyfus know that she was disappointed in the federal ALP policy and he diplomatically asked another question.
The Responsibility of Writers With a Social Conscience
I happen to have a loud voice myself—I’ve just woken up to the fact—and am now determined to use it, to drown out the others if I can, on behalf of the rest of us.
I’m Australian Too, takes Mem back to where she started: her passion for Australia. She hopes it will spark spirited discussions about ‘Australian-ness’, create an awareness of Australian immigration over the centuries, and begin to calm what she says is the appalling rising racism in this country.
There have been amazing positive responses, especially from schools and community centres:
We were so excited to read your book to our wonderfully diverse community of children at the service, who in turn were delighted to finally see and hear their culture represented so beautifully in the book, including the refugees and families seeking asylum, which are often forgotten…
Mem recounted how she had personal experience of feeling ‘the other’ when she lived in Africa (Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe) where the authorities pulled her out of a local school because she was white and forced her to attend a European school, where she was bullied and laughed at for ‘speaking like an African’.
Fast forward to February this year (2017) when she attended a conference in America a few weeks after Donald Trump was inaugurated as President and was challenged by Border Control Officers
I was interrogated as if I were some kind of prisoner, in a holding room, in full public view and hearing of everyone in the room—and was kept standing throughout, imagine because I was earning an honorarium from the conference. The Border Control patrol officer said I was ‘working’ and had come in on the wrong visa. He was wrong, as it turned out. I was right. I knew I was right. It was my 117th visit to the USA, after all.
I am ageing and white, innocent and educated, and I speak English fluently. Imagine what happened to the others in the room, including an old Iranian woman in a mauve cardigan, in her 80s, in a wheelchair. I heard and observed everything. We all did…
… the irony of my book being about welcoming immigrants …
… my story has snowballed to include the airing of stories of the many others who have suffered similarly disgraceful treatment by immigration officers makes me proud, even though my telling of the story was neither brave nor purposeful, simply an accident of timing. The focus is where it should be, but the question remains: if this can happen to me as an ageing, educated, articulate, white English speaker, what on earth happens to those who aren’t like me?
Writing For Children Involves Lots of Reading – Especially Other Writers!
Listening to Mem talk about her teaching, her understanding of children and the deep love and interaction she has with her daughter and grandson was delightful and insightful.
Write from the compost of your own life, feelings, experiences, hopes, joys, disappointments, and so on. If you do that, the reader will be able to connect with your story because it will be based on the authenticity of universal understandings.
She talked about her favourite writers and the importance of learning the craft of writing by appreciating the talent of other writers.
Currently, she was reading Elizabeth Harrower’s novels reprinted by Text Publishing. “Marvellous stories, wonderful writing … check her out…’
She reads a lot of books while travelling around Australia – real books, not digital. If going overseas for a length of time then she’ll have her Kindle because it is convenient and light, but always print books are the first preference.
As an educator, she begged young mums not to put a screen in front of young children or encourage reading on an iPad. The visceral experience of reading a print book with a young child can never be replicated by swiping a screen!
All evening Mem stayed on message: read, read, read – widely and carefully – but don’t forget to support Australian writers and tell modern Australia’s stories. Read to learn as many different ways of using language as possible. (She praised Indian writers who in her opinion, wrote the most grammatically correct English today!)
Write, write, write but know your audience, if writing for children make sure you have the rhythm right, not necessarily to rhyme, but the perfect placement of syllables in a sentence or in verse.
And remember you are telling a story that children can identify with – a little boy who was born in Lebanon shouted for joy when he heard Mem mention “his” birth country in I’m Australian Too.
The free evening was billed as 6.30pm (for 7.00pm start) – 8.30pm. It was closer to 10.00pm when I walked home. I met up with several people I knew from being a school mum (primary and secondary school) and made new acquaintances standing in line waiting to talk with a sociable and chatty Mem who was more than generous with her time.
She signed books yet did not sell one, or have any to sell – this was not a marketing exercise or sales pitch, yet I’m sure she could have sold a box of books to the adoring crowd!
The vibrant atmosphere abuzz with joy, the sharing of stories of when we first read Possum Magic, what other books are favourites, and how thrilling to meet the author in person and have books rather than sport lauded as an Aussie success story.
I left Doyles clutching my signed treasures, satisfied and smiling and laughed aloud because someone had added sunglasses to the horse statue out the front decorated for the up and coming Spring Carnival…
I wonder what stories he/she can tell.