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Author Jackie French on Grandmotherhood, Overcoming Barriers and Adventure

We can guarantee that reading Jackie French’s thoughts on kids, adventure and overcoming obstacles will leave you feeling inspired.

To different people, Jackie French means different things. To six children, she is a grandmother, and to three bigger kids, a mother. She is a gardener, a cook, an Australian, a wife and a friend. To me, she is the author of my favourite childhood books and the person who first introduced me to the historical fiction genre. To others, she is the creator of beloved stories such as Diary of a Wombat. She’s written books for children, young adults and adults on topics both serious and silly, from missing persons and chooks to Queen Victoria’s underpants.

When asked how it feels to be a part of so many people’s lives through her books, she said, “It’s still an extraordinary shock to speak to someone who says, ‘My life was changed because of your books’.”

She shares some thoughts with CHILD Mags.

On Grandmotherhood

Being a grandmother is more profound than I ever imagined. When my son rang me at 5:20 in the morning to tell me that my grandson had been born, there was silence. He said, “Mum, I thought you’d be pleased.” And I said, “I can’t talk. I’m sorry, it’s just too much.” The joy… It was so overwhelming. Even though I hadn’t seen this baby, it was this immediate knowledge that I would fight tigers to defend him.

Being a grandmother is totally different from being a parent.

Both are protective but there’s possibly even an element of being prepared to do more. As a parent, you’re basically happy to get another five minutes sleep and the food on the table. As a grandparent, you’re aware of all this wisdom of humanity and this planet that you want this small person to have. And finding out they’re so hungry for it.

Being a mother is wonderful, but being a grandmother truly is the culmination of my life. In fact, I think if I was going to describe who I was, it would be grandmother first. Grandmother, also second.

On What Her Grandchildren Have Taught Her

Every time you’re with a young child, and see them discovering the world, you discover it with them. My grandson is learning to walk. He didn’t learn to walk with hesitant steps; everything was a dance. His hands were up in the air, and he’d put one foot down and the other foot down and it was this wonderful trance and dance, “We are walking!”

We forget that humans are an adventurous species and for a child, walking across the living room is as much as an adventure as Freydis [a Viking character in French’s book They Came on Viking Ships] heading off across the ocean. To actually see my grandson starting to embark on this incredible voyage across the living room was wonderful.

On Kids and Books

We used to think that intelligent children read books. Now we know it’s the other way around. Reading is good bodybuilding for the brain. If you want intelligent children, give them books. If you want more intelligent children, give them more books. If you want children to grow up as compassionate adults, if you want them to understand themselves and understand different people, give them books. Because every time you read, you are every character in that book.

The richest thing you can give a child is a book.

The worst thing you can ever do for a child in education or in books is underestimate them. One of the great temptations for kids who are not readers is to give them simple, funny books. But kids who are not good readers often have very sophisticated taste in what they want to read. You need to find what I call the magic book. The magic book is the book that is so exciting that the child cannot stop reading it and no matter how difficult it is, they will force themselves to read sentence after sentence, page after page.

By the time they finish that magic book, they are a reader.

On Adventure for Kids

For a child, every single second should be a challenge and adventure – because it is. As I said, it’s the voyage across the living room. It’s discovering this new food called beetroot. It’s working out you can spit out a cherry stone. It’s discovering a sheep is not a carnivorous animal, while a large dog might possibly be dangerous.

It’s actually discovering, as my grandson did this Christmas, that a very large bull is not something to be scared of. He launched himself out of his mother’s arms and there he was, clinging to its back, hugging and kissing its neck. The bull actually rather liked having someone kiss its neck.

So my books are full of adventure because a child’s life should be full of adventure.

We should make sure that all education keeps that sense of wonder, joy, excitement and learning new things and understanding more of the wonderful complexity of the world.

On Adventure for Adults

A lot of people get stuck in the equivalent of kindergarten where they’re having people tell them what to do and you have people saying, “Here, colour in between the margins”. We’re eating food that has been pre-prepared for us; the job decisions, the way we go home in our car, the entertainment on TV… All of those decisions have been made for you and it’s a life without challenges.

We live on a miraculous blue planet spinning in the darkness, and yet what most people see is only the edges of the freeway, the walls of their office and what’s on TV.

I think we need to learn to be human again.

To go out and actually see the world and be part of the world. Don’t accept a pre-packaged life. Live your own life. That is probably the best gift we can give our kids as well. Give them the knowledge that we can choose what our lives are going to be.

On Overcoming Barriers

I didn’t ever overcome dyslexia. I just never let it stop me. I still can’t find my way out of car parks, no one can read my writing including myself, and I still cannot spell. I was trying to write a recipe last week and the step was sauté the potatoes. Spell check kept on saying poets. Now I’ve got a recipe saying ‘sauté your poets til they’re brown’.

Luckily someone picked that up or I’d probably be arrested for cruelty to poets.

I’ve got a friend who has no eyes and she is furious when people refer to it as a disability. It certainly creates situations with great problems, although those problems are actually created by other people, like the doctors that say “this may cause blurred vision” and she says “if only”. But she says she’s not disabled. She has achieved far more than anyone in her family. She has achieved extraordinary things. She is one of the most abled people I know.

The best advice I can give is just keep going. I mean I do have problems other than dyslexia. But they’re not going to stop me living. The one thing we can do is live every single day of our lives, and whatever it is, do not let it stop you from living and do not let it stop you seeing the joy.


Jackie is a grandmother, an Australian author, ecologist, historian and honourary wombat. She lives in the bushland in NSW with her husband. You can keep up with her recipes, gardening tips, general updates and more on her website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Interview by Daisy Chein / Image by Jess Chen

Daisy Chein
Daisy Chein
daisy.chein@sydneyschild.com.au