Video transcript
2017 NSW PRC author interview - Mem Fox

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- Hi everyone and welcome to this exciting, exciting part of the Premier's Reading Challenge Bookfest. Very excited here today. I'm Yvette Poshoglian and with me here is Mem Fox, legendary Mem Fox. Mem, I'm excited. I know the teachers and librarians are excited. I know the kids are too. It's a real thrill to have you here talking to us for the Premier's reading.

- Thank you, I'm excited. Lots of kids out there. Hello children. Nice to be with you.

- And Mem you just told me something that's made me feel a bit competitive. I believe you are involved with the South Australian Premier's Reading Challenge.

- Children, South Australia started the Premier's Reading Challenge and I was the first ambassador for the Premier's Reading Challenge in South Australia . So I encourage kids to read all the time in South Australia. I wonder if you like it as well. Just let me say something. This is what I would say to the kids in South Australia. If you don't like a book, don't finish it. Because if you don't like it. It will make you not like reading. If you don't like reading, there's one thing I can say to you. You are reading the wrong book.

You're reading the wrong book. Get the right book and you will love it. Kids, there are times when I read the wrong book and I think I hate reading. And I drop the book in bins in airports. Think I don't want anybody to read this book. It's rubbish. So don't read the wrong book, read the right book and you'll like reading. 12 books a year? You can do that.

- That's it. Well some of the students in our challenge are going for 20 books and even 30 books a year.

- Fantastic.

- Really going hard.

- Beautiful.

- There's probably a few thousand students watching at this point in time and they're teachers too who absolutely love the challenge and support the students with what they're reading. So some advice that I'm wondering about with what you're reading. Do you read lots of different kinds of books?

- No.

- And what's your favourite thing to read?

- My favourite thing to read is novels with a good story, great characters. And I don't read nonfiction, I don't read crime, I don't read biography. I think that we get to know what we like to read and we tend to stick to that, and there's no problem with that. You know my grandson, who is seven, he's crazy about Aaron Blabey and the sort of writers that you would expect him to be crazy about. But really he's a nonfiction boy and he will go for nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction, nonfiction. That's fine. It's completely and utterly fine.

My husband is a crime person. He loves reading crime. He loves reading biography. He loves reading history. We don't have to read a certain thing. We read what we want to read.

- When you were younger, was there something that you fell in love with and that took you down a path of that sort of say fiction for instance. Did you have a favourite author when you were growing up?

- You know I did have a favourite author. But you have to remember that I'm 71. OK? And you have to remember that my mother was I think 31 when she had me. She read these books as a child. So she read them in the 1920s. They were called the Billabong books. And the author was Mary Grant Bruce. And they were the most famous Australian novels for children of the time. They are still very well-known. Anybody who studies about children's books knows about the Billabong books. They were fat. Kids, they were this fat. They would keep you occupied for hours. And I grew up in Africa and every afternoon between November and February, it was a bit like Darwin, these storms would happen and the rain would come rushing down and there would be thunder and lightning.

And I'd be lying on my bed after school just buried in a Billabong book and I wouldn't be in Africa at all. I would be in Australia. It was so fantastic.

- Oh my gosh. So you've got Australian stories while you were in Africa. How did that happen?

- Look, I was born in Melbourne, and my parents were Australian, and they went to live in Africa. My dad was a teacher and my mum was a teacher. And they were teacher trainers. They trained Africans how to become teachers. And my dad especially became very well known for his job. He loved his job but he missed home. And he grew a grew a grove of gum trees as soon as he got to Africa because he thought he would miss them so much. My mum used to sing songs from Australia, she used to make Anzac biscuits, she used to make us Flemingtons. And she used to tell us that the Holden was the best car in the world because it was an Australian car, et cetera, et cetera.

I think that because I lived outside Australia for all of my childhood, because I didn't come back here until I was 22, I have a particular feeling about this country. I love this country because I wasn't always here. I could see it from afar. And I thought to myself, man, that must be a beautiful place. That must be a wonderful country. And then I came here and found that it was. It was. And I have never left. Well I have actually, I've left many times but I've come back every time. And I've always been so happy to come home. I love this place.

Nobody-- you think you love Australia? Please. Nobody loves it like I do. Nobody.

- Well you have a brand new book, which I'm hoping you can tell us a little bit about. It's got an awesome title, I'm Australian Too. Tell me a little bit about new book.

- Yes, this book, I'm Australian Too, does come from my heart. It also comes from my brain. It also comes from my mind. It also comes from a place where I was cross. Can you imagine children? You know a nice loving author like Mem Fox was furious, I was furious, I cannot tell you, I was so furious. I woke up one morning and I heard something on the radio about how awful we are to refugees, not just refugees, but anybody who is different. You know people with a different colour, people with a different religion, you know Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, people who were so-called Christian people, people who weren't white. You know all these almost dead white people you know were just saying the most awful things it made me just furious.

And I thought, hang on people, you know this country is made up of people of many religions, many cultures, many lands, many cultures, and we all live together happily. We're was famous for it kids. Did you know that? Did you know that Australia is one of the happiest places to live in the world? It is a multicultural country that is what we call cohesive. And cohesive, for the primary school children who are watching this, cohesive means we all kind of stick together, you know, like sticky tape all stuck together. We are cohesive. We live together very happily. We're warm and we're friendly. And some people were not being warm and friendly. And it made me mad, oh, made me so mad. I was so angry. I was so furious.

But I knew I couldn't write a furious book because you wouldn't want to read it. So I wrote a nice book. I wrote a warm and friendly book, which I'm very, very pleased with. I'm going to hold the book up for a special reason. OK. Now, a picture book, and you have to know this, you must know this, and you absolutely have to remember it. The author, that's me, the author of that picture book is only half the book. They're only half the book. The other half of the book is the Illustrator. So get a load of this OK, can you see this? I think you can.

That's me. And the illustrator has been very funny. He kind of put a little arrow because that's me as a kid. And then he's got an arrow next to him. And his name is Ronojoy Ghosh.

So Ronojoy Ghosh is an Indian-Australian. And he wasn't chosen because he's an Indian-Australian, you know. He wasn't chosen for that reason although that's brilliant. He was chosen because he's a superb illustrator. When I saw his pictures, I nearly fainted. I was so happy. I go, oh, my goodness. That guy's going to do my book. I can't believe it. I can't believe it.

And what he's done is absolutely divine. It is divine. Let me show you what he's done. OK, I'll read the first verse. And then I might show you some of the pictures. Hang on a minute. So it goes like this.

It says, 'I'm Australian. How about you?' Kids, this first verse, it's true. It's about me. OK? The first verse is true. It goes like this. And it's sort of like a rap. So when you read it, don't read it slowly. You've got to read it like, you know, it's hip.

It goes like this. 'I'm Australian too. My mum was born in Sydney, my dad in Ballarat. But I was born in Melbourne. How Australian is that? How about you? My dad grew up in Darwin, my mum in Humpty Doo. Our mob's been here forever. Now we share the place with you. How about you?

My family came from Ireland back in 1849. A million hungry people died, but now we're doing fine. How about you?' Can you see how the book's going? We'll come to a sad bit in a minute. But I have to talk to Yvette in between.

- Oh, that's nice. How does it work with being the writer, being the author, and the illustrator? I'm thinking, and I know that everyone will be thinking, of 'Possum Magic' because we have Julie Vivas's beautiful illustrations in our mind with the words together.

How does that work with an author? Do you write the story? How long does it take you to come up with a story? Or is it different for every book? And then how does it work with the illustrations?

- With the illustrator-- you know, sometimes it takes a very long time to write a book. I don't know whether you know a book called 'Koala Lou.' But that book was written in 49 draughts. I had 49 draughts of 'Koala Lou.' And it's only something like 490 words. 49 draughts, can you imagine? Two years it took me to write that book. This book, I was so mad I wrote it in a weekend. This book took me two or three days.

So every book is different. Every book is different. But one thing that never changes, one thing that never changes, I do not tell the illustrator what to do. And most of the time, I don't even choose the Illustrator. The people who make the book, who are called the publishers, choose the Illustrator.

I didn't choose Ronojoy Ghosh with this book. I'm ecstatic that he said he would do it. But I didn't choose him. And I did not tell him a thing. Why would I, kids? I can't draw for nuts. I can barely draw a tree or a man. You know, I can't draw a house. I mean, I tried to draw a sheep copying 'Where is the Green Sheep?' I couldn't even do that. And I had the book right beside me. I couldn't draw a sheep.

I'm such a pathetic drawer. So I never, never tell people what to draw because they are artists, because that's their talent. And I'm the writer because that's my talent. And why would I tell them what to do? My ideas would be pathetic. So I don't tell them what to do, ever. And I think they love me for it.

- One of the things that I've noticed with you on the Premier's Reading Challenge is a lot of our readers are also writers. And you mentioned the amount of draughts you did with 'Koala Lou.' Tell us a little bit more about 'Koala Lou' and what happens when you have to write a draft after a draft.

- You know, one of the things that happened in 'Koala Lou' was something that I could really smack myself about now. It started off as a he.

- Right.

- OK?

- OK.

- And 'Koala Lou' is a girl.

- Yes.

- OK?

- Who would she be?

- So, I've wrote this 'Koala Lou' book. And, actually, it was called Koala Blue after-- there was a shop owned by Olivia Newton-John, Koala Blue. And she asked me to write a book that she could sell in the shop. OK. But that's actually not what happened in the end because neither she nor I understood you can't do that. You just can't do that. So I couldn't call it Koala Blue.

So Koala Blue was a boy. So when I started to write 'Koala Lou,' he was still a boy. And then I thought, hang on. I'm a girl. I'm extremely brave. I can pick myself up when things go wrong, and I can work hard. I can succeed. I am out there. I have a personality. I have strength. I have determination. That doesn't belong to boys only.

- No, it doesn't.

- Boys have it. But, amazingly, so do girls. They can be fabulous. We are. So that was one of the big moments in 'Koala Lou,' when she became a girl.

I still have letters from children. Children, listen to me. Look at me being cross. Err. Ah. Ooh. Err. I still have letters from kids saying, I love it when his mama says, 'Koala Lou, I do love you.' I love it when his mum says-- excuse me, kids. Where's the word 'he' in that book? Where the word' 'his? You go through those pages, and you won't find either of them. OK?

I mean, when you're reading a book called 'Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,' which, by the way, is my second book and my dad's real name, there's a 'he' all the way through it because it's about a little boy. Of course, there's a 'he' all the way through it. And his and him, you know, those words are there.

But you've got to be balanced. 50% of us are girls. 50% of us are boys. So we have to have 50% of genders. I mean, it's just ridiculous to have the main character be a boy all the time. That's just crazy. It's nonsense. It's as if girls can't do anything. We can. Ooh.

OK, moving onto the drafting of that, at first in 'Koala Lou,' my first line used to be something like, 'There was once a baby koala so small and cute.' It was the first lines were awful. They had words with too many syllables. They had kuh-kuh-kuh sounds in them.

The lines now in 'Koala Lou,' the first lines, they're round-sounding words. They're round sounding, which is really a strange thing to say. But they sound round. And, of course, a koala is round. So the first lines-- now, and this took me-- a lot of the draughts of 'Koala Lou,' a lot of the draughts of 'Possum Magic' were the first paragraph. You have to get that first few lines right.

So it now says in 'Koala Lou,' there was-- and if you don't know it, you'll have to finish the book by finding it to read it for the Premier's Reading Challenge because this is how it starts. 'There was once a baby koala so soft and round that all who saw her loved her. Her name was Koala Lou. The emu loved her. The platypus loved her. And even tough little Koala Klaws next door loved her. But it was her mother who loved her most of all.' And then see what happens.

- Mm. You know, Mem, it's a real privilege for me to hear you recite your stories. And I still remember, like lots of students watching today, hearing 'Possum Magic' read aloud to me in maybe year one or two. And I still remember the story line and the shivers running down your spine when you fall in love with a story. Do you read your stories out loud as you go to make sure they absolutely flow?

- Absolutely. Oh, absolutely. And I do sort of strange actions. Kids, if you saw me writing a book, you would think, what's wrong with her? Because somewhere in the room, I think, is the right word-- somewhere in the room, somewhere in the air. And I can go, um, ah, ah, um, oh, and my hands are sort of waving around as if the word must be somewhere-- and if I could just catch it, if I could just catch that word.

Sometimes it's a word that will only have one syllable instead of two syllables. So it will have what people, I think, call one clap and two claps. So it might be soft. No, I can't I can't think of-- I'm just-- just let me go back to saying that if you read 'Where is the Green Sheep?' which this is interesting, 'Where is the Green Sheep?' is 190 words. OK. 188, that's every word except two, is one syllable.

And watch this. 'Here is the blue sheep, and here is the red sheep. Here is the bath sheep, and here is the bed sheep.' One syllable is one clap. You get to the end of the book, and it says, 'Turn the page quietly.' That's three syllables-- quietly. 'Let's take a peek. Here's a green sheep fast asleep--' two beats.

That takes work. You think it's easy to write that book? It took 11 months, kids-- 11 months to write 190 words. Boy, if you tried that with your teachers, they'd get mad with you. They'd say, come on. Come on. Spit it out. Come on. This is [inaudible]. It's very late. Get with it, Mem. I haven't got all year. Well, actually, I did have because I'm a grown-up, and I'm lucky.

- You are lucky. Some of our readers have been doing the challenge for a number of years. Some of them even this year are doing their ninth year of the challenge. So they've read a lot of books, not just in the challenge time but out of it as well.

- Yes.

- Can you tell us what reading means to you and how important reading is, not just for now but for your whole life.

- Yeah. Look, kids, it's not important. I want to say that straight away. Reading is not important. Reading is a joy. If you think it's important, you might think, I've got to do this. Oh, it's a duty. I've got to do that. Reading isn't important.

Reading is fabulous. Reading is terrific. It takes you to different places. Look, I've just read a book called 'Ruins.' It's a grown-up book. And you're not going to read it, not for years, I hope, because there were some sad scenes in it.

So this book is by a guy called Rajith Savanadasa. What a name to deal with. OK? He's an Australian from Sri Lanka. And this book was really, really sad. But for a whole week, I was like, in this book. I was so in it that when I came out of my house, I thought, oh, I'm in Australia.

What I love about reading, why reading is so great, is that you can go to the past. You can go, if you're reading science fiction, you can go to the future. You can meet this person whom you absolutely love. You can be in a different country. You can be in a different place. You can meet different people you would never meet in your normal life.

God, kids, honestly, when I'm on a plane and I haven't got a book, I almost start to shake. Blah. And people will say, well, why haven't you got it on your iPad? Kids, you can't always have an iPad. People say, turn it off, turn that machine off. You can't always have an iPad with you. You can always have a book.

- I wondered whether you read iPad books on your iPad or real-life hard copies as well. Do you have hard copies of books everywhere in your house? Or do you have a special room or a library for them? Or do they just--

- My house looks like a library. In fact, my house looks so like a library now that when we buy new books, we often have to give them to the library because we literally have no more room. We don't have any more room for books. We have no space for books.

It's very sad giving away books that you have loved. I only give away a book that I've loved if I had lent it to at least five friends. And then I'd say, well, enough people that I know have read this book, so now the library can have it. But when you give away a book, you're giving away a friend.

When you're reading longer books, the most fabulous thing is you think, oh, my god, I've got that book going, how fantastic. And you just can't wait to just shut off the rest of your world. You might be having a horrible life at that time. A whole lot of things may be going badly. But you get into that book, and you're in another place. You're in a totally different place. And you just lose yourself. You lose your present world, and you're in another world.

It's so fantastic. I can't tell you how good it is. Gosh, it's fantastic. I wish I was sort of like 16 and 17 again. It's a brilliant time for reading. Oh, so much stuff to read, it's so good.

- Oh, I know. There's so much to read out there. But your life just sounds so exciting. I mean, you travel a lot. You're talking to lots of groups of people. What's been one of the highlights or the most memorable or enjoyable parts about being an author for young people?

- Well, there are so many that I can't really-- I mean, there are so many.

- So surprise us.

- I have to tell you-- I have to tell you what happened last Sunday. OK, so I'm reading this book. And I want to show you a particular page. I was at a thing, my darlings, at a really big musical festival called WOMADelaide. And I was reading to kids.

But, of course, because I read to little kids, they can't come by themselves. So they've got grownups with them. They've got their parents with them, obviously. You know, a four-year-old is not going to come to a concert without its mum and dad, or some carer or the other, some grandparent or auntie or something.

So I am reading this book. Obviously, you know it was a concert. They wanted to hear it. So I'm reading this book, which is very cheerful. It's got lots of verses in it. Let me just do a couple more.

- Well, Mem, why don't you read the book to us now?

- Read the whole book? OK.

- Let's go for it.

- I'll read the whole book. Go, go, go. All right. Remember, kids, half the book is Ronojoy's.

'I'm Australian. How about you? I'm Australian too. My mum was born in Sydney, my dad in Ballarat. But I was born in Melbourne. How Australian is that? How about you?

My dad grew up in Darwin, my mum in Humpty Doo. Our mob's been here forever. Now we share the place with you. How about you? My family came from Ireland back in 1849. A million hungry people died, but now we're doing fine. How about you?

My nonno came from Italy. His family followed after. At first their lives were very hard, but now they're full of laughter. How about you? My auntie came from Athens with her brother and her niece. And now we live in Adelaide because it's so like Greece. How about you?

My granny came from England and was homesick every day. Then she fell in love with Perth, and now we're here to stay. How about you? I speak just like an Aussie, which is really who I am. My family lives in Melbourne, but we hail from Vietnam. How about you?

My parents come from China. They think Australia's great. So now we live in Canberra and call out, 'G'day, mate.' How about you? Somalia was once our home, but it was torn by strife. We're happy now in Hobart where we have a better life. How about you?

My country was Afghanistan. We fled when I was small. Our boat capsized, but we were saved. Now we're Australians all. How about you? Syria was where I lived, but then we had to flee. Our family's now in Brisbane, and we're safe as safe can be. How about you?

Sadly, I'm a refugee. I'm not Australian yet. But if your country let's me in, I'd love to be a vet. We open doors to strangers. Yes, everyone's a friend. Australia fair is ours to share where broken hearts can mend. What journeys we have travelled from countries near and far. Together now we live in peace beneath the Southern Star.'

- There's so many stories to tell that fit in with that book. And I think even the students listening now, and their teachers, might have their own verses that they want to write. I can think of my own verse that I would write about my story.

- Yes.

- Everybody has a different story. But we're all part of the same, aren't we?

- And we all came from somewhere else. Even 40,000 years ago, even the Aboriginal people came from somewhere else. But they were here first. They were here first.

- Well, Mem, it's just been an absolute pleasure to talk to you.

- Thank you.

- I know that the kids will be going crazy, and giving you a huge round of applause, and doing lots of exciting Mem Fox activities back in the classroom.

- Thank you.

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