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Successful children’s book author Susannah McFarlane discusses why she is conducting a book-writing workshop for children in disadvantaged communities.
Every Tuesday over the last month, a unique experiment has been taking place at Seaford Park Primary School in Melbourne. The best-selling children’s book author and publisher Susannah McFarlane has been getting together with Grade 3 and 4 students at the school to explore their inner authors. They have been discussing story ideas, getting them down on paper, working on illustrations, and learning to edit and then market their own writing. On September 6, each child will celebrate their books being “published” with a celebratory book launch at the school.
The setting wouldn’t seem unusual were Seaford Park a school in one of Melbourne’s more affluent neighbourhoods. However, nearly half the children at Seaford Park belong to the lowest quarter of socio-educational advantage. Many children start school behind their peers around Australia, and continue to lag behind in their literacy skills. Improving the students’ reading and writing skills is one of the school’s top priorities, which is why it partnered with Ardoch Youth Foundation, an education charity that supports children and young people in disadvantaged communities.
Ardoch brought the school and Susannah together. Susannah is one of the charity’s ambassadors and a long time supporter, and her book series such as the EJ12 Girl Hero and EJ Spy School series (for girls) and Boy Vs Beasts (for boys) are staple with primary school children across Australia. For the school, to have Susannah – also a former publisher and Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne, as well as an author of over 50 children’s books – meet its students and work with them was a coup.
For Literacy and Numeracy Week, we caught up with Susannah to find out why she cares about the literacy skills of Australia’s vulnerable children.
What spurred you to become a children’s book author?
I started my publishing career as a book editor, and went on, over 13 different jobs in marketing and publishing, to become the Managing Director of Egmont Books in London and then co-found Hardie Grant Egmont in Melbourne. The thought of turning to the author side and writing my own books was inspired by my own children. The first series I published back in Australia was Zac Power, a spy series for reluctant-reading boys, inspired by my own reluctant-reading son, Edvard. Similarly the first series I wrote, EJ12 Girl Hero, was inspired by wanting to boost the self-confidence of my daughter Emma, then 10.
What inspired you to support children in disadvantaged communities?
A few years ago, I was looking for volunteering opportunities. Someone told me about Ardoch, and I Googled it. Its education volunteering program, through which it trains and recruits volunteers at schools in areas of high need, caught my eye.
When I started volunteering at one such school, I was surprised at the gaps in children’s reading and writing skills. I learnt that the reasons were much more complex than mere laziness or parental neglect. Sometimes, they simply didn’t have enough books at home; at other times their parents were working too many shifts to find the time to read to their children. Sometimes, the parents didn’t speak English themselves. Meeting and spending time with such children made me wonder about what more I could do. The idea of a book-making workshop, that drew on my skills as both author and publisher, and that would help develop kids’ literacy and enthusiasm for stories, began to evolve.
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How do you think a book-writing workshop will help the children’s literacy skills?
I am enough of a realist to know that one workshop will not transform the school’s NAPLAN results – if only! But what I hope is to turbo-charge the kids’ enthusiasm for reading and writing. What I would really love is for the workshops to help the children start putting their thoughts on to the paper more fearlessly. Most of all, I hope that the very act of turning their stories into books will show them that their words, their ideas, matter. After all, that is what publishing is – affirmation of the value of someone’s words. All children need it but children in disadvantaged communities often don’t get it – or not nearly often enough.
If even a few children find the self-motivation and confidence to pursue writing on their own after the workshop, I will feel the experiment was a success.
Have you learnt anything from the children?
I learn all the time from kids. As a writer and a publisher, I want to create books they want to read and that means you have to spend time with them and listen to them, understand what interests them. Workshops like these give me a good platform to test my own story ideas, to see what ignites the kids’ interest.
In fact, it was a little boy at a school I was visiting who first got me thinking that we need to write books specifically for boys and their feelings. I was talking at a school one day about our series Go Girl! (which told stories about the real life things that happen to girls) and a little boy came up and said “Why did you make them only for girls?”. That was the beginning of the Stuff Happens series published by Penguin.
Why do you think we need greater community engagement in supporting the education of children and young people in disadvantaged communities?
I think it is a shame that in an advanced economy such as Australia, there are still children who are struggling to read and write because of the circumstances they were born in. All the objective tests – PISA and NAPLAN – show that children in disadvantaged communities are lagging behind their peers in Australia. I think the schools and teachers do a brilliant job of trying to prepare them for the world outside, but imagine what they could do with more resources.
At the workshop I didn’t find the children any different from children in other schools that I have met. They are just as enthusiastic, intelligent and questioning. What they need is to believe in themselves and find ways to motivate themselves. If we could just expand their horizons – expose them to ideas, lives, aspirations and experiences beyond their schools and home life – I think we could make a breakthrough in their educational and life achievements. The workshops are my small contribution to that – I am sure we can all find ways to help!