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Being the first Australian Children's Laureate

Being the first Australian Children's Laureate

For 2012 and 2013, I was the first Australian Children’s Laureate, a position created to “promote the transformational power of reading, creativity and story in the lives of young Australians, while acting as a national and international ambassador for Australian children’s literature”.

I shared the position with my friend and fellow author, Boori Monty Prior, and we worked well together. It was a huge and exciting role and took us to China, Italy and Ireland, as well as most of Australia, running workshops and talking about books and reading. It was wonderful working with children all around Australia (and the world), but it really brought home to me just how many children are growing up socially and economically disadvantaged and never get the chances that most of us take for granted.


Below is my detailed account of my time as one of Australia's Childrens' Laureates, as read by me at the end of my two year journey.

It's been an honour and a joy to be one of Australia’s first Childrens’ Laureates for the last two years.

I have loved sharing the job with Boori.

Its been an enormous amount of travel, in fact, I think, with apologies to Geoff mack,

I’ve been everywhere man,

I’ve been to Antarctica, Yarra Junction, Melbourne, Shepparton, Mildura, Ballarat, Geelong, Cooroy, Hobart, Wilunga, Adelaide, Sydney, Moonah, Margate, Kingston, Buderim, Broome, Bali, Yakanarra, Kalgoorlie, Kkurrawang, Borroloola, Nar Nar Goon, Brisbane, Istanbul, Canberra, Inverloch, Tooradin, Newcastle, Perth, Chengdu, Beijing, Bologna, Dublin, Belfast, Londonderry, Fish Creek, Uluru, Kenmore park, Ernabella, Gununa, Pakenham, Leongatha, Gladstone, Yirrkala, Alice Springs, Hermansberg/Ntaria, Fiji, Turner, Ipswich, Launceston, Bruny Island, Sale, Liverpool, Taroonga, Beecroft and Wonthaggi.

I’ve been almost everywhere.

I travelled so much that I’d arrive at Melbourne Airport to fly somewhere and think, oh no, not you again.

But no matter how tired I was, or sick of travelling, the work with children was always fantastic.

It's pretty cool arriving at a school with little kids leaning over the fence screaming, "SHE’S HERE! SHE’S HERE!" Or sometimes looking at your doubtfully and asking, "ARE YOU ALISON LESTER?"

When you work in a school as a visitor, you bring a lot of energy with you; you are not bogged down in the day to day school stuff. You don’t know that Rhys has been a pain for four days in a row, and it can be a magical experience.

Last year I worked at St Therese's School in Moonah, Tasmania. Maria, the librarian, had emailed as soon as the laureate was announced, asking if we could visit. She was great. It was a freezing day and one group of boys were caught up in their own scene, guffowing and being smart. I had to use all my wiley ways to get them to work properly and they finally did. It was as though a golden light settled over the hall as everybody got into the watercolours, pushing themselves to make something good. It was a beautiful day. Maria emailed the next week saying how it had been the best day at school.

My laureate project is a book called THIS IS MY PLACE which will be about 50 children from all over Australian writing, illustrating and photographing their lives. I’ve collected most of this material over the last two years and now have the job of sorting and collating it.

I’d arrive at schools with bags of beautiful watercolour paints, paper and brushes and I was never disappointed with the results. Neither were the students. Most of them have never worked with decent art materials before and the pride and joy they get from their paintings is lovely to see. Often these paintings are the beginning of a story and sometimes we turn the story into a book.

Now I travel with (as well as the art supplies) an A3 printer, paper, ink, long arm stapler and laminator so we can make books on the spot. I’ve learned the hard way to be self sufficient. Last year at Yakanarra, south of Fitzroy Crossing, we drove three hours to borrow a long arm stapler and then it only worked if you stuck a pencil in its end. It's wonderful to see children showing their parents the book that THEY have made with their stories and their drawings.

On recent trips these books have been printed in language and English, sometimes on the same page, sometimes in different editions. Two of the books from Yakanarra were translated into the first language of the community, Walmajarri, this year and published by the Indigenous Literacy Foundation. It was very exciting to catch up with the Yakanarra students for the book launch at the National Library in Canberra in September. 

Family, place and culture are the central things in life that keep us strong, and to keep culture you need to keep language. For many indigenous children English is their second and sometimes third language.

I’ve worked in posh city schools where everybody who needs glasses or braces has them and poor schools where a lot of kids are hungry and dirty. While I was in Alice Springs in October, doing my week NT laureate week I couldn’t help noticing how terrific all the kids at one school looked. I was giving a presentation and my eyes kept drifting over the audience, about 200 kids. They were sharp, bright eyed and bushy tailed. Later the vice principal told me that every child gets visited if they are not school without an excuse. If they need a shower they can have one, if they are hungry they have breakfast and if they need a uniform they get one. Nobody is sitting in class feeling terrible about the way they smell or look. Such simple kindness can made such a difference to a child’s learning.

The one thing I’ve learned while being the laureate, and I guess I always knew this, is that kids don’t all get the same chances in Australia.

For every kid who goes to a private school with everything laid on, there’s one in a run down, crowded classroom, being taught by an under-trained, under-resourced, under-paid teacher.

We have to do better and its heartbreaking to see Christopher Pyne wilfully discarding Gonski for whatever he plans to replace it with.

There is really no excuse for a child to leave primary school unable to read but it happens all the time. My friend Cath is a remote area midwife and she recently dealt with a young father who couldn’t write his name.

Here’s a list of things that could change the lives of Australian children.

We need Better teachers. Make teaching a well paid job that has a high enter score. We need passionate, intelligent teachers that have been taught how to teach.

I see the most beautiful teachers as I travel around, wise, compassionate, fair, loving, capable, doing a fabulous job. they really care for the kids they are teaching.

I also see dopey teachers who are just going through the motions, especially in remote indigenous schools where it's easy to get a job and the money is good. I can still see one young man who interrupted my work constantly to hand out good behaviour tokens, that added up to a prize at the end of the year. So much for teaching kids how to behave, just for the sake of it.

There should be a teacher librarian in every school. This should be legislated, not up to the individual schools to decide. A trained teacher librarian really knows books, they can  help teachers set up mini libraries in each classroom and set up programs like choosing a just right book.

From 2008 to 2012 the primary school principals in victoria’s western region, its poorest region, supported their teachers in such a program and had the biggest growth in learning in the state.

We need much better childcare, with better trained and paid child care workers. These people have Australia's future in their hands. Free childcare for disadvantaged families would give those kids from very poor homes, that have no books, a chance to learn early; to not be behind the eight ball when they start school.

And while I’m on that topic, it’s a disgrace that our state government abolished the young readers' program as soon as it came into power. This program gave every child born in Victoria a book and for many families it was the first picture book they had ever had.

When I began my term as laureate, I said if I could change things I’d make sure every child in Australia had a book and a bed to read it in.

Sadly, that’s still a long way off, but we are chipping away.

Finally the thank yous.

I have felt rather queenly as the laureate, looked after by many people, driven here and there, fetched and carried. Apologies to anybody I miss, but first - 

Thank you Boori for being my fellow laureate. I’ve loved sharing with you.

Thank you to the ACLA board, past and present members, for choosing me in the first place then taking such good care of me. It's been a marvellous opportunity.

Thanks to the sponsors of the laureate program.

Big thanks to Micador Art Supplies for providing such beautiful a discounted art supplies.

Thanks to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation, the National Year of Reading, Penguin Australia, and Allen and Unwin.

But most of all thanks to my friends and family, especially my lovely husband Eddy, for feeding the dogs while I was away and making home such a lovely place to come back to.

Good luck Jacki. I hope you have a wonderful two years, I know you will do a great job, but I imagine a different job to Boori and I. I am very happy to be handing the baton on.