Jackie French on Inspiration

The Australian Children’s Laureate: enriching the lives of young Australians through the power of story.

Since 2011, highly respected Australian children’s authors or illustrators have been awarded this prestigious honour for an outstanding contribution to children’s literature. They act as national and international ambassadors for reading.

Find out what the second Children’s Laureate, Jackie French is doing during her two year term (2014-15), from the Australian Children’s Laureate Page

Today Jackie shares with us her once and only experience of true inspiration as a writer - and also a favourite recipe!

Only Once

Sometimes, just sometimes, a book comes to you with almost no conscious thought. And yet for years I’ve denied this happens.

Kids’ favourite question is, ‘Where do you get your inspiration’. I tell them there is no such animal. Each book is made up of millions of ideas, observations, themes, all drawn together and built up over years. A book never spears down from the ether into your brain.  Instead there are years of work and thought and planning and rewriting.

And mostly that is true. It’s wrong to encourage a child – or any writer – to expect to wait for a book to come to you, ready made whispering ‘here I am, your inspiration.’

Except this year it happened.

The book is To Love a Sunburnt Country, about 200,000 words written in three weeks, and then revised a little after the editor had seen it. There’ll be other small changes along the editorial process till it comes out on December 1. But mostly, that book just came to me. And reading it – crying for both the beauty and the tragedy of the human race and the many, many wastes of love – I can’t believe I wrote it.

Yet, in another way I have been writing this book since I was three years old. I screamed at the sight of a friend’s father, bent over and scarred from torture and starvation in the prisoner of war camps. I thought that poor hunched man with his twisted face was a spider, and only years later realised the anguish a three year old’s horror must have meant to him. The children of the street played at other houses after that.

To Love a Sunburnt Country is about Australia, in all its diversity, and the many and diverse ways one can be connected to country. It is also about a girl called Nancy of the Overflow, and Australia’s war, from the day Japan attacked in December 1941 to January 1946 – the years we had to fight to keep our country.

I fell in love with Clancy of the Overflow when I was twelve years old. But why is there no Nancy of the Overflow in those ballads and bush stories, no strong women of the bush, just the desperate wives and lonely sweethearts? They were there, pioneering women managing properties, teaching their children, droving mobs of cattle thousands of miles. But they didn’t fit the clichés of the day.

And so it’s written. And it is far better than anything else I have written, even if it still doesn’t feel as if I am the writer. Luckily I had time and emotional space space to write it in early January. Since then I’ve been ‘laureating’, talking, writing, talking, talking, talking, forgetting the banner twice and losing it once (hopefully it’ll turn up again, and there is a spare) and juggling events for the next two years and wishing there was a way to stretch each day to three times its length, or at least invent faster-than-light travel across Australia.

I’ve also been asking kids what they’d like to see at schools, and receiving gems as replies like ‘more time for inventions’ from Sam, five and three quarters, who is working on a machine to mine steroids but hasn’t quite got it right yet; and a fourteen-year old in Queensland who is developing an app that he hopes will make him a millionaire by the time he is eighteen, and would love a panel of teachers to call on for advice in the second half of every lunch hour.

Humanity’s capacity for invention is perhaps our greatest gift and mover of society. But where is it in the syllabus, except as small parts of courses in the last two years of school.  We accept the need for creativity in writing and in the arts. But- in the words of one of the respondents- when you  prefer ‘things and stuff’ to art and books, there’s little room for you to invent.

Other kids – most kids – long for classes held out of doors, and to be able to talk in class – not gossip, but about lessons, to explain a problem to their best friend or ask them for help or just to say, ‘Cool’. (A cheap microphone, ear sets and amplifier, total cost about $40 a year, would make this possible.)

A kid in the NT wants school to begin at 4 pm, because his brothers keep him up late and he gets into trouble if he can’t get to school till 10 am and, anyway, by 4 pm you have done all the fun stuff. He’d really like to sit down and learn stuff, he says, if it was in mid-afternoon and you got afternoon tea too.

Plus another project that I’ll write about next time, because this is already too long, and there are 36 kids waiting for a phone link, Q and A session, and two more laureate blogs to write after this one, and the pumpkin vine to haul out from among the winter veg and send on its proper course down the path before it smothers the silver beet, and clothes to choose for tomorrow’s visit to Sydney to the Jewish Museum – ‘work’ clothes, most respectable, unlike the too-big jeans and sloppy jumper with flour smudges I’m wearing as I write this…

Which reminds me. Must take biscuits out of the oven. And very good biscuits they are too. It’s good to create things. Biscuits, a garden, a book and, most of all, the slow and joyous guiding of children’s minds.

Flat Out Biscuits

Quickly made, quickly cooked, good to keep husbands happy when you are jaunting off to Sydney. Keep two weeks in a sealed container.

125 gm butter

2 tbsp golden syrup

1 cup brown sugar

1 cup rolled oats

1 cup plain flour

½ cup SR flour

1 cup white choc bits.

Melt sugar, butter and syrup. Mix in all but chocolate. Cool. Mix in chocolate.

Use your hands to make small balls then pat them flattish. Place on a baking tray covered in baking paper. Bake at 200º C for about 10 minutes till gold on top. Cool before removing from the tray as they crisp up as they cool. Keep in a sealed container.

They are very good indeed.