Tuesday 10 September 2013

Mem Fox at Mudgee Readers Festival

I've seen Mem Fox speak in person before. She's so funny, passionate, and such a dynamo, I was keen to see her speak again at the recent Mudgee Readers Festival.

Mem Fox is an impassioned advocate for children's literacy, she wrote a book called Reading Magic detailing why she wants us all to read aloud to children every day. She is a proud grandmother and a retired Associate Professor of Education at Flinders University in Adelaide. Mem is also an extraordinary author who wrote what is possibly one of Australia's most famous and most beloved picture books, Possum Magic- it was her first book, back in 1983! Possum Magic has just celebrated it's 30th Anniversary. You can hear a great interview with her celebrating the 30th anniversary on Radio National here.

I saw Mem Fox three times over the two days of the festival. The first time was her solo session, titled In Conversation with Mem Fox, but she gave a prepared speech, as she said she knew what she wanted to say and in what order. Her talks are always peppered with delightful readings of a selection of her books, new and old. It was a particularly captivating talk, delivered with trademark Mem Fox humour and candour. Mem told us about her passion for engaging children in reading and how that impacts on her writing process.

When Mem recently heard that if children know 6 nursery rhymes by heart by age 4 then they'll be in the top reading group at age 8 she wrote a book, Good Night Sleep Tight, which included 7 nursery rhymes,  the six required nursery rhymes and a bonus one- just to make sure.

Mem told us how children are deeply attracted to great writing- they want to read it over and over again, and are enchanted. Ordinary writing bores them, they roll their eyes to the ceiling- the kind of writing all too often in school readers, and the kind of writing that comes too easily off the pen.

Mem is greatly excited by every first draft she writes. She loves it. She then puts it aside in a draw for a few months to read it again with a fresh eye- and is all too often shocked and embarrassed.

"I couldn't have written this, I'm Mem Fox!"

First drafts reveal she is without genius! She will tell children "Kids, I'm not a writer, I'm a rewriter." Mem rather modestly credits nonwriting as the secret to her success, allowing the subconscious to get to work without the conscious mind getting in the way. Yet she consciously frets over word placement, reading aloud her work time and time again, perhaps replacing a two syllable word with a three syllable word because it sounds better.

Mem read us Koala Lou and the room (largely full of adults) was held spellbound. She told us the background story to this moving book. 577 words, all of which were agonised over. 49 drafts. 2 years of work. Koala Lou was written after Possum Magic hadn't won Picture Book of the Year in the 1984 CBCA Awards, although it was highly commended. It is fascinating to see this runner up status as the background to Koala Lou. Mem Fox is also the oldest of three girls.

Mind you Mem is quite emphatically against moralizing to children in books as it turns them off very quickly. "Leave it to the parents to bring up the kids, let writers entertain them." She feels strongly that writers shouldn't be writing to assuage adult guilt about what we've done to the world or to work out their own problems. Writers should be writing to allow children to love books and reading.

Mem has quite an extensive section on her website with tips and advice on writing picture books. She told us that the placement of pageturns are phenomenally important for picture books. In books for older children, if there's no problem, there's no story. The calamity is revealed on what she calls a blue page, and the blue page is essential. The level of intensity of the blue page will lead to how much the book is loved, and how well it is remembered. Early rhythmic books for the very young don't need a problem.

I hadn't heard of The Magic Hat before Mem read it to us.
A wonderful story of a magic hat that settles onto peoples heads
 and turns them into the animal they most look like!

In Mudgee Mem was very excited because one of her books, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes had just been selected to be part of the official Australian gift to the new heir to the English throne, Prince George of Cambridge.

Mem reading Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes
to a packed Auditorium for the Sunday morning session
she read many books during the half hour session

Mem has an extraordinary stamina for book signing, she was at it for (literally) hours after every session!


Deb Nance at Readerbuzz said...

Oh! How extraordinary to get to see and hear Mem Fox not one, not two, but three times! Does she ever come to the US? I would love to meet her. I think she is my new hero.

Louise said...

I know that she certainly has travelled to the US in the past (there's videos on youtube), not sure if she has any upcoming plans for more visits. I hope you do get to meet her sometime.