The author, who writes for both children and adults, says kids are more deeply interested in moral issues – and get extremely upset if injustice rules
When I was nine, for the briefest of moments, Australian author Jackie French was my pen pal. I’d just finished Beyond the Boundaries and had only two goals: to tell her how much I’d liked it and, more importantly, to demonstrate that I could use the newly learned word “trilogy” in a sentence. The first letter was sent off with low expectations; at best I was hoping for a signed mass printout response. So when a few weeks later a small envelope containing a handwritten letter arrived at my house – complete with a drawing of a wombat – I was first surprised, then happy, then got out my notepad to write back.
It turned out that authors were real people, with real lives after all. A couple of weeks later another small envelope arrived in the mail.
When I tell French this story almost 20 years later, she explains that her responsibilities as an author for children are “completely different” to those as an author for adults.
“Partly because every book a child reads [takes up] a greater percentage of their life. The books that children read become part of them in the way that books they read as adults are very, very rarely going to do.”
Through reading, she says, children are able to test out ideas, work through problems and probe questions they might not otherwise think to ask. As a result, the values laid out in a book have the potential to be far-reaching. “Kids are more deeply interested in moral issues than adults. Adults more or less have got their morals made up – yes we can change, we do change, but kids are terra nullius and they are creating their moral view of the world. So they get incredibly angry – in fact upset, deeply, deeply upset if in the end injustice rules.”
It’s important then to carefully balance being honest about the world, without being unnecessarily bleak. “We owe [it] to kids basically not to depress them,” says French matter-of-factly. “They can cope with unhappy things, and we do have to show that good does not necessarily triumph – but at least that good sneaks around the edges, and is still there when you look for it.”
French’s conviction that reading is an essential part of childhood stretches beyond writing books; she is also the patron of multiple literacy programs. In addition to ensuring that children know how to read however, she also points to the other ways we lose children as readers. Just as we don’t expect that every adult will love every book written for adults, she says, “We need to give kids permission to say, ‘This book is boring.’ We can’t just say, ‘Look, this is a brilliant kids book, Emma is a kid, therefore Emma will love this book.’”
She is also a strong advocate of reading books aloud to children, both before a child can read for themselves and after – because children’s access to complex stories shouldn’t be limited by their reading level.
“By the time your child is 18 hopefully they will have lived 10,000 lives in the books that they have read. They will have met 100,000 people with all of those outlooks, all of those differing outlooks as well. They’ll all have gained empathy, they’ll have gained understanding, and they will have gained the ability to cope with complexity in a way that television and daily life can’t [facilitate].”
“The job of a child is to learn how the world works and why. So yes, we are giving kids the worlds that are going to shape their minds, just as those kids are going to shape the future – and that is deeply, desperately important.”
- Jackie French is speaking at Adelaide writers’ week, which is held from 3-8 March