Visiting Jackie French

I wasn’t your usual teenager. While my peers were reading Dolly and the more adventurous, Cosmopolitan, I was reading The Australian Women’s Weekly. I loved learning about grown-up lives, and imagining the life I would have one day, when I transcended the gloomy adolescent years.

One of the most memorable stories I read was about a woman who moved to a property outside of Canberra in her early twenties, built her own house and developed a natural reserve that not only protected local wildlife, but grew an abundance of fruit and vegetables.

That was inspirational enough, but as I read on, I learned that this woman started sending away stories, and soon became a professional writer. She wrote children’s books, books for young adults, non-fiction historical books, gardening books, gardening columns and more. My teenage self imagined how this woman managed to fit everything in. How can you be a mother, gardening expert, an author, a farmer and nature conservationist?

Last week, the pieces of the puzzle began to fall together when I met Jackie French in real life.

Jackie French is literally a household name. I challenge any of you to think of an Australian who doesn’t know who she is. If you garden, you’ll know her. If you like wombats, you’ll know her. If you have children, you’ll certainly know her, or at least would have been read her books when you were a child.

Jackie is the 2014-2015 Australian Children’s Laureate. This means for two years, Jackie will tour nationally and internationally promoting and advocating children’s literature in schools and libraries. She’s the perfect choice, because Jackie is the best-selling author of over 140 books including Diary of A Wombat and Hitler’s Daughter. She is warm and passionate, and is an incredible speaker. Her address at this years Children’s Book Council of Australia National Conference made me laugh and literally moved me to tears.

Her career is impressive, but her personal story and lifestyle is truly inspirational.

Jackie bought a property in Araluen, south of Braidwood, NSW in her early 20s. She had studied agriculture in Brisbane, and headed south looking for property. She had a immediate affinity with Araluen, which was incredible because unaware to Jackie at the time, both sides of her family over a number of generations came from this tiny (yet impressive) valley.

JackieFrench_araluenvalley The property was overgrown with blackberry bush, and with a machete and few other tools, Jackie and her then husband began clearing to make room for a shed, which doubled as a dwelling. Jackie had a son, at which time her marriage ended. Child on back, Jackie continued to develop the land, removing weeds and introduced pests, and planting fruit trees.

Jackie French

Jackie French

Jackie French Jackie was a single mother with a property. She had no money to speak of, and a car to register. A friend suggested she send away her writing. Within three weeks, she had a book contract for what was described by the editor at HarperCollins as the messiest, worst spelt manuscript they’d ever received. She also secured a weekly column with the Canberra Times and in a farmer’s magazine.

Jackie French Last Monday, Jackie welcomed a bunch of CBCA conference delegates to her property. She showed us many of the hundreds of fruit species she grows. She talked about permaculture, and how specific plants had been planted for birds, so other fruit would be left for humans.

Jackie French She introduced us to Noam Chomsky, the herald of the garden, who observes the conversations and interactions of the local wildlife.

Noam Chompsky

Jackie French

JackieFrench07 She talked about her wombats, and other inspirations for her books.

JackieFrench08-wombats

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JackieFrench10 She showed us the wombat hole under her house, and told us about the resident wombats who regularly visit. Occasionally, they wander into the house and make themselves comfortable.

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JackieFrench12-pomegranate

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JackieFrench14 She invited us to pick fruit from the trees. (These tamarillos were incredible.)

JackieFrench15_tamarillo

dahlias

 

tree dahlias

tree dahlias

JackieFrench19 As she talked, Jackie’s knowledge of and respect for the land grew apparent. Her property is self-sufficient, yes, but it also encourages and invites wildlife to flourish. She has vast knowledge of the property’s indigenous history. She knows and respects the stories of the land. She knows its secrets.

fur

JackieFrench21_leaves

JackieFrench22 Behind almost all great women is a supportive and loving partner. We met Bryan, Jackie’s husband. Bryan is an engineer, who built this waterwheel, which pumps water and makes energy for the property. Between the waterwheel and the impressive solar-power heating system, the house is 100% carbon neutral. Jackie bought one of the first solar panels sold in Australia, and has expanded her collection over the years.

JackieFrench24_waterwheel

JackieFrench25 We wandered around her garden and her property, grateful for the opportunity to see this beautiful, peaceful and rich life. Every delegate I spoke to shone with admiration for Jackie and everything she had done here. We felt privileged.

Jackie’s warmth and generosity was exemplified by the lunch she made for the thirty or more guests.
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JackieFrench29 As we were walking back to the mini bus, Tom, our driver remarked that the visit had been “life-changing”. I thought about what he said, and Jackie’s own words rung in my mind.

Don’t ask children what they want to do when they grow up. Ask children how they would like to live their life. That’s the important question.

Although I don’t know how I could possibly fit more into my already busy life, I would like to live my life exactly like Jackie. She inspired me when I was thirteen, but I completely fell in love with her when I met her in person, and visited her home. I know who I’ll be nominating for Australian of the Year.

For more tales from the sunshine house, visit me over at Facebook. You can also sign up for my monthly newsletter, where I occasionally run giveaways for subscribers, and update you with the latest sunshine news.

Linking with Essentially Jess for IBOT.

Just one more fairy tale

This is the first post in the Nourishing Little Readers series, which will run on Fridays at Heart Mama. I want to use this space to review children’s books and talk about reading with children.

In our house, walls are lined with books, and we spend hours, some days, ensconced on the couch, reading book after book after book. Just one more. Just one more. We read picture books and classics, like Wind In The Willows, Pippi Longstocking and Alice in Wonderland. My husband reads books in Dutch.

Lately, my daughter and I have been sitting in bodies of water (the lake, the bath), facing each other, telling each other imaginary tales. We weave worlds from our imagination. She pulls an invisible book from the invisible shelf – Read this one. What’s it about? and she listens and asks questions and makes changes. Just one more, she asks, as the bath gets cold.

Her favourite tales are Little Red Riding Hood and Snow White. We read so many books, but she so often asks for the classics. They are more than classics; they are archetypes; stories told by peasants in the middle ages. Stories that carried messages, passed from mother to daughter to granddaughter, like wisdom. Children sitting in bodies of water – Just one more.

I think I read my favourite Edenland post last week. The Red Shoes. She wrote about her red shoes, and about lying in bed with her sons, telling them the original story of the red shoes. She reminded me that the fairy tales we know are watered down.

The real stories were full of dark themes, complex, dark humanness. When the story was still passed lip to lip, it was Snow White’s mother, not her step-mother, who wanted her dead. Snow White was only sixteen; a ripening, sexual being. Snow White’s mother felt threatened by her sexuality. The Queen demanded that a huntsman take Snow White into the woods, and bring back her liver and her lungs as proof of her death. The huntsman couldn’t bring himself to do it, and brought back the liver and lungs of a boar, which the Queen ate.

Snow White lived with the seven dwarves who made her clean their house and cook as payment for their protection. The Queen attempted to kill her daughter three times. When she eventually succeeded in killing Snow White, the handsome prince found her coffin. His kiss dislodged the poisoned apple, which had stuck in her throat, and Snow White awakened. They married, and the mother was punished for her evil deeds. She was made to dance for hours in heated iron shoes, until she burnt to death.

There are different versions. Mostly gruesome. Mostly heeding a warning. Be ware of your jealousy towards your daughter.

When Little Red Riding Hood was a peasant tale, the little girl wearing a red cape was seduced into her grandma’s bed by the wolf, who ate her. Grandma didn’t survive. Red Riding Hood didn’t either. In other versions, she led the wolf into believing she needed to go to the toilet, and escaped. Little Red Riding Hood was first written down by French author Charles Perrault. In his version, Riding Hood was tricked and killed by the wolf. The story became a moral tale; a warning not to talk to strangers, and to warn villagers of the dangers of the forest.

These stories are tepid when they make it into our children’s books, though there is horror enough. Grandmas are still eaten by wolves. Girls are still led into the forest to be killed by hunters. My just-three-year-old lays against me on the couch. Just one more. Why isn’t she horrified?

These stories carry darkness. Maybe children aren’t afraid of death. Maybe it is something we learn to be afraid of as we age.

My daughter recites fairy tales. Her gaze fixes as her mind draws from the Three Little Pigs, Snow White, Red Riding Hood, Goldilocks. The characters and events merge. Her versions are sweet and kind. Her little pigs build houses for the wolf after he tries to blow theirs down. Her Goldilocks leaves porridge for the three bears. I wonder about the morals to her stories.

Just one more, she says.

Do you read fairy tales to your children? Do you read the Disney version? Or glide over the horror, hoping your little one won’t notice? What is it about fairy tales that grip little imaginations?

{Linking with Grace for FYBF on With Some Grace}

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