An interview with 2020–2021 Australian Children's Laureate Ursula Dubosarsky
When you were starting out as Australian Children’s Laureate what did you hope you would achieve over the two years?
The whole adventure was something of a step into the unknown! and I approached it with a sense of wonder of the possibilities. The stated aim of the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation is “to promote the transformational power of reading, creativity and story in the lives of young Australians”. Reflecting on how I grew to love reading in childhood, my memories were dominated by my school and local libraries. And I thought to myself, well Ursula, apart from talking a lot (!) one practical thing I could do was to encourage every child in Australia to join their local municipal library. To get their own library card, with their name on it and have free access to as many books as they want for the rest of their lives.
The Coronavirus pandemic significantly changed your Laureate program, with a sharp turn into the digital world. What sort of changes did you make to your original goals as Laureate?
With the invaluable help of my trusty and invaluable program manager, Kristin Darell, (and my trusty magpie!) we largely transformed ourselves into electronic messengers across the country. This involved lots of pre-recorded videos but also live appearances through digital platforms to classrooms, libraries, homes, universities and other meeting places, talking to as many children and interested adults as we could. We made every effort possible to reach a real cross-section of Australian society through linking with State and Territory and municipal libraries and Children’s and Young People’s Commissioners across the country, as well as many, many private organisations that work with children in need for all sorts of reasons. Some of the campaigns I’m thrilled to have been involved with were Australia Reads, the MS Readathon, Life Without Barriers Hooks Into Books, The Pyjama Foundation, Dymocks Children’s Charities Books4Kids, and many more, reaching thousands of children directly.
When the coronavirus began to make an impact on Australia I was inspired to write a poem for children, addressing their anxiety with practical suggestions (wash your hands!) and offering them hope for the future of the world. This “Little Cat” poem, illustrated superbly by Andrew Joyner, travelled all around the world especially through social media, seen by many thousands of people.
As well as focussing your work within Australia, you were also able to send your Laureate message overseas. What was that experience like?"
That was brilliant and I think also an innovation of the various lockdowns! Via Zoom I met various Laureates and Children’s Ambassadors and their program managers from around the world and the conversations were fascinating and enlightening. Kristin came up with the brilliant idea of a joint international message to children from the combined Laureates, and the resulting video has crossed many borders and been watched and listened to thousands of times. I also took part in several public online conversations with other Laureates around the world through the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and the International Federation of Library Associations. It was an irreplaceable experience to learn more about how different countries approach the challenges of the role.
Your Laureate mission was “Read For Your Life!”. Why is that so important?
When talking to children I always emphasise that reading is something you do all your life – that every single book you read throughout your whole life makes you a better reader. And by “better” I mean a happy, confident, adventurous reader, who is comfortable with written language from the past, present and future. The digital world has meant that most of us, including the young, are probably reading more than ever with our heads bent forever over our devices. But we’re reading posts, messages, commentary – we’re not by and large reading books on our devices, children included. Reading a book is a very different experience to how we read on the internet, and a requires a different set of demands and level of concentration. The library, whether school, state or local, is a place set aside for reading, where children are surrounded by books that they can look at and read without the endless moving distractions of our electronic lives. It seems to me that children need the time and the space offered by the library with the same urgency as we know they need time and space to experience the wonder of natural world.
You released three books during both your Laureate term and a pandemic. What was that experience like?
I knew “Pierre’s Not There” was coming out! but “The March of the Ants” and “The Magnificent Hercules Quick” were delightful surprises that both arose directly out of being the Laureate. These past two years I’ve been living on something of an adrenalin rush to try to achieve whatever I could in the time, so the books were part of that I guess. In each case I was working with brilliant and generous illustrators, Chris Nielsen, Tohby Riddle and Andrew Joyner, and great publishers, Allen and Unwin and Book Trail Press, so nothing could make me happier.
Is there anything else you’d like to mention?
I’d like to specially thank our wonderful Laureate illustrators, Andrew Joyner and Tohby Riddle, whose beautiful, vital and evocative work has given so much added meaning to our various publications, both hard copy and online – calendars, bookmarks, bookplates, poems, puzzles, a chatterbox – and books!
We’re very proud of our expanded ACLF website, which is exploding (more or less!) with activities, readings, games, ideas and of course a rich supply of information about the Laureate and its aims and activities. I’ve been particularly glad to have been able to offer up monthly free downloadable illustrated writing activity sheets, giving children at school or home a regular way to focus on the fun and adventure of writing.
What would you like your Laureate legacy to be?
What a very daunting question! I hope that more children and adults think about the library as a place that is as much a vital part of a child’s life as the park or the local pool. All you can do is plant seeds with the best faith you can muster.