Reading is magic says literacy leader Jackie French

BOTOX, facelift, fillers. Get out of here!

At the end of her life. Australian author, historian and ecologist Jackie French is aiming to look just plain old worn out.

"When I'm in my coffin, I don't want to have any smooth, unused bits,” she says with a smile in her voice.

"I want everything to be worn out.”

The author of 200 books and winner of more than 60 literary awards is willing to go far to accomplish her last wishes.

Foremost, amongst a plethora of activities, she champions literacy.

If anyone understands the challenges of literacy, it's Jackie French, the 2015 Senior Australian of the Year was born with dyslexia, overcame and indeed, conquered it.

The world of books has provided Jackie with an unending joy that she feels impelled to share with the rest of the world. She wants everyone to have entry into the rich, colourful and diverse world of literature.

French could have slipped through a wall of words and ended up in the silent room of illiteracy, instead she credits a patient, insightful infant school teacher with recognising her innate ability and having the patience to deal with a very young person who would never learn through traditional teaching methods.

According to Jackie, this teacher accepted her difference, demanded alternative learning, while at the same time recognising this student possessed the smarts in many other ways.

But Jackie is keen to dispel the myth that equates learning difficulties with genius.

"No, it does not,” she emphatically states.

"You need determination to learn to read and write. But you need determination and talent to make genius.”

Jackie is as clear on this point as she is about tackling literacy for young and old.

She calls reading magic.

ABUNDANCE: Jackie French - the natural patron of all those who wish to read.
ABUNDANCE: Jackie French - the natural patron of all those who wish to read.

In a letter to fellow dyslexics she wrote:

"Reading can change your life. Reading helps you understand your world, yourself and what you and the world one day may become.”

She was the 2014-2015 Australian Children's Laureate and is constantly promoting literacy, including in 2015 offering 60,000 children $5 each if they couldn't find the Magic Book that would be so fascinating they couldn't stop reading it.

With Harper Collins, she ran a 1000 books for 1000 kids, offering books to kids who needed one.

At the same time, she is aware of the many adults who have slipped through the system.

"Reading for the grandchildren is often a way adults can learn to read,” she said.

"Grandchildren won't fall for the excuses, like I left my glasses behind.

"They just want to get you on a couch with book with them. Because there are plenty of pictures and the kids don't know if you get it wrong, bit by bit, they learn to read.”

And Jackie's neighbour proved it's never too late to learn to read.

"My neighbour taught me many things about gardening and I taught her how to read,” she said.

But the reading lesson didn't occur until her neighbour, in her late 70s, had an accident and was confined to bed.

Jackie was a regular visitor and noted how this naturally active woman was insanely bored.

Under the circumstances, Jackie came to realise her neighbour couldn't read and was in the perfect place to learn.

In quick time, she was reading and discovering whole new worlds.

Surprisingly, this hard-working, straight- forward woman took to a rather unexpected genre - romance.

In a sense, reading gave Jackie's neighbour a second wind.

And this is another thing she is passionate about, because Jackie French does not believe in retirement.

She has seen too many people do the world trip or as she puts it - 'the cruise up the Danube' and then come back and wonder what to do.

STRAIGHT TALKER: Jackie French at the 2015 Australian of the Year Awards at Parliament House.
STRAIGHT TALKER: Jackie French at the 2015 Australian of the Year Awards at Parliament House. WAYNE KING

On the other hand, she has seen friends take up study and find lasting value.

For instance, one of her friends has taken up a long-held wish to study astronomy and achieved huge satisfaction.

"We are all living so much longer now, there is time for a second career,” she advised.

"It used to be that at 60 you were old, at 65 you retired and then you died.

"Now we can have another 30 years to go and it is a great chance to take on the career that you couldn't do when you were young because you were tied down with mortgages and family,” she said.

She's keen to acknowledge that another career has to be shaped around how you feel and your health during these years.

Jackie walks her talk. She is still writing and releasing her award- winning books and working. For more than 40 years she has lived at the top of the gorge in the Araluen Valley.

Her short biography reveals she has built a house and power system, planted thousands of trees and studied 400 wombats.

Some of Jackie's books have sold millions of copies and won more than 60 awards in Australia and internationally. Others, she writes, have been eaten by the wombats.


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