entertainment

Meet the women at Mamamia's dinner party: Children's author, Mem Fox.

Mem Fox.

The latest incredible woman to join us at our dinner table is Mem Fox. Mem is the author of Possum Magic, which is the bestselling children’s book in Australia.

Before she became one of Australia’s best known and most loved children’s authors, Mem taught at universities, teaching teachers how to teach reading and writing.

MM:  You’ve written over 40 books for children. We would love to know where does all the inspiration come from?

MF: Inspiration for me comes from real life. If it didn’t come from my own experience, it might not be real to other people. If something is real to me, there is a greater chance it will be real to other people.

MM: Have you always had an active imagination?

MF: I guess so! Too active, on occasions.

MM: Has having children of your own helped you to access your imagination and come up with your stories?

MF: Yes, in fact Possum Magic was written for my daughter. I essentially wrote it to fill a gap in her reading, as I felt there were no truly Australian children’s books available at that time.
Having a child made all the difference in the world, I suddenly realised how switched- on five year olds can be. You need to respect your audience in your writing. I don’t patronise children in my books. I treat them as if they were adults.
The best thing that could have happened to my writing was becoming a grandmother 3 years ago; it recharged my writing career.

MM: What was the most disappointing moment or biggest setback in your career? How did you recover?

MF: The most disappointing moment in my career was when Possum Magic did not win Book of the Year at the Book Week Awards in 1994. I was beside myself and never recovered as it meant a lot to me to win. I came second and I really should have been satisfied with that as Possum Magic went on to become the bestselling children’s book ever in this country.

MM: Your stories have played a role in the childhood of so many Australians. How does it feel to know you’ve been able to touch so many people on a personal level, and at such a young age?

MF: It makes me feel lovely, I have to say! I’m so privileged to have been given a talent and to have been able to use this talent wisely for the betterment of little kids’ lives; to soothe them and to excite them, to comfort them and inform them. It feels fantastic.

Possum Magic. The most popular children’s book of all time in Australia.

MM: How would you define your kind of feminism?

MF: Pretty fierce. I’m not a particularly active feminist in that I don’t talk about it, but I think it is pretty clear through my writing.
The two main characters in Possum Magic, much to the surprise of most readers, are female and it’s interesting to think that people also believe that the two main characters in my book, Koala Lou are male; there are actually no male characters in that book.
I don’t like to write my female lead characters as weak, dependent or stupid. Too much children’s literature fails to provide role models for girls. Many girls are not respected in children’s picture books.
But I’m not a rebelling feminist, I want to respect all children in my work, I write for all young boys and girls. I write very tender books for boys because of course I love and respect them too.

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MM: They say that “You cannot be what you cannot see.” Who do you admire? Who did you look to when growing up?MF: My parents. They were fantastic and great role models for me growing up.
They were both politically-active missionaries in Zimbabwe, formerly known as Rhodesia. Mum was a strong feminist and Dad was a fierce advocate for social justice and fairness to all human beings. I hope I have grown up to be like them.

MM: What’s the biggest difference between men and women, besides the, ah, obvious?

MF: Fridge blindness. Men can never find anything in a fridge. They don’t notice dead flowers in the house or dirty windows. It’s hilarious.

MM: You’ve travelled all over the world as a literary consultant, urging parents to read aloud to their young children. Why is this issue so important to you?

MF: If kids are not read to between the ages of 0 to 5, they will not be able to learn to read quickly and happily. It’s criminal that people can let their kids arrive at school having never read a book. Why would we do that to our kids? It is awful for kids to fail at school. It make parents feel awful as well. Why wouldn’t we want to prevent that? 
I found some great research that shows if children have learnt six nursery rhymes by the age of four, they will be in the top reading group by age eight.

This is part of the reason I decided to write my latest children’s book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, which revives seven classic nursery rhymes for new generations.
Reading is fantastic for bonding, brain development, social development, and language development; and for and bringing joy, giggles and delight to our children.
No parent should consider reading as a duty: it’s a total joy and hilarious fun. Every parent ought to show their children how much they love them by spending spending at least 10 minutes a day reading to them—which is three picture books, or the same book three times.

Mem Fox reading to children

MM: The growing popularity of reading devices like Kindles and iPads has irrevocably changed the way we read. Do you think children’s books have been, or will be, effected to the same extent? Does it concern you that reading is becoming a digital rather than physical experience?

MF: Although it is much easier for a child to use an iPad than it is to read a real book at an early age, but the very nature and size of iPads and Kindles makes them not suitable for picture books. Picture books which do appear in this kind of technology make it possible to drive a wedge between a parents and child by removing the child from its parent’s love and attention—parents can park the child somewhere, turn on the device and leave the child to entertain itself.

This enrages me and saddens me. It’s so dismaying for a child to be humanly ignored.
I know that the people in Silicon Valley who actually make this technology are still reading real picture books with their children because of the bonding that occurs and the size of picture books
I think in the future, anyone under 40 will begin to find physical books really strange, which is a shame. Holding an actual book in your hands will never go out of fashion for me.
This is something I feel very strongly about.

MM: On your website you say that teaching is your first love. What do you think is the greatest issue currently facing Australian educators?

MF: Testing of kids is a waste of time. We need to remove every national test we have in schools.
It’s like weighing a pig again and again; weighing the pig will not put more fat on the pig’s stomach.
I think testing is driving real education to a bad place and it will come crashing down at some point.
We should be looking to Finland for guidance with education: no one in Finland is tested and they have one of the best education systems in the world. Australia’s education system looks to the US for inspiration, yet they have a much lower standard of literacy than our own, so copying the US is foolish and ultimately dangerous.

MM: What’s the biggest challenge facing Australia? Who should fix it?

MF: The biggest challenge facing Australia is how our notion of a fair go, which is something we are famous for, has completely fallen apart when it comes to refugees.

‘Where is the Green Sheep?’ cowritten by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek

It’s as if people entirely forget that these asylum seekers are tragic human beings who have suffered terribly and are already traumatized before they come to our beautiful country only to be traumatized once again, by us.

Neither Labor nor the Liberals have anything to be proud of when it comes to this issue. Both disgust me. They are a disgrace to the nation. To fix it would require a grassroots-level protest movement and a change of attitude and a level of empathy and caring that seem to be lacking at the moment.

 

MM: What do you want Australia to look like in 25 years? What do you think Australia will look like?

MF: No one in 2012 could have clue of what Australia will be like in three years, let alone in 25 years! Even five years ago I was still using a fax machine and the iPhone wasn’t even invented. Amazing! You can only guess or hope what Australia will be like, as technology will have changed us so much.

MM: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received? What’s the worst?

MF: The best piece of advice I have ever received was from my dad who was a brilliant educator. He used to say, ‘Stop teaching and let the children learn.’

The worst advice I received was from my mother who said not to over-stimulate my child. But I have learnt that it is in fact very important to stimulate your child, especially through reading which stimulates a baby’s brain development.

My own personal advice would be to never put things off. It doesn’t matter if it is a huge or small task, whatever the task, do it now. That’s my motto. If you don’t do it now, you will have to do it later and it will probably be even more of a burden later.