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.
JackieFrench27

JackieFrench28

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.

  • Deb @ home life simplified

    Thanks for sharing insights into this amazing lady and her incredible home and property. What an incredible experience you had xx

  • LydiaCLee

    It’s lovely when your idol meets your expectations – so often they don’t

  • What an impressive individual and totally awesome that you got to meet a woman who once inspired you and who has done it once again. Gorgeous shots of her garden too x

  • Oh Zanni this is lovely! I’m so pleased I was there with you on the day! I have a post ready to go on the same topic…but now I don’t want to hit publish…your post is BEAUTIFUL and I only have iphone photos from the day!!!!! Oh my glory wasn’t it a lovely, lovely day??

    • It was such a lovely experience Megan! And it was so great getting to know you. Publish your post…I want to see your photos! xx

  • Wow! What an experience. Jackie is certainly a beautiful and inspiring individual.

  • My goodness what a life changing experience that must have been, to meet someone you have adored your entire life. Those photos are magnificent, I’m so happy for you lovely. x

  • Zanni. You have followed you heart from the beginning. I hope you continue to do so. I am totally inspired by Jackie. I love the story of her manuscript being messy etc. It makes you think I was meant to be. She is living as we all should be, at one with the environment. Why are we not doing this in 2014! Gorgeous photos. Such a wonderful experience to be inspired like that.

    • Jackie is/was dyslexic, which explains the messy manuscript! Yes, he life is enviable. I miss that connection to the land sometimes having grown up on a property. x

  • Emma Fahy Davis

    What an idyllic paradise – and what a great experience it must have been to meet one of your literary idols!

  • What a fantastic opportunity for you to meet her! So happy for you Zanni!
    Also have to add that I looooooove your jacket!

    • Thanks Jess! It was great to be able to wear that jacket. The Northern lifestyle doesn’t give me much of a chance to wear it 🙂 x

  • What an incredible post Zanni, I would have loved to meet her – she seems just as incredible in real life as she does through her writing. And she has wombats!!!! Oh my goodness!!! We are HUGE wombat fans in this house HUGE! I wholeheartedly agree with not asking children what they want to be when the grow up – I actually think it may be the worst question to ask a child… Beautiful post Zanni, thank you for sharing xx Josefa #teamIBOT

    • You’ll have to show your boys the photos of where the wombats live in real life 🙂 Thanks Josefa! xx

  • Renee at Mummy, Wife, Me

    Wow! What an amazing opportunity to meet someone you have been inspired by since you were a child. Your excitement and happiness shone through in this post x

  • TeganMC

    Jackie has such an amazing life story and what a great opportunity to meet someone who you looked up to so much when you were younger. The pictures are absolutely gorgeous too.

  • What a beautiful property Zanni and an incredible awesome woman. Such a privilege for you to meet her and enjoy her company and her hospitality you lucky gal xx

    • It was a complete privilege to go to this special place Sonia. x

  • The Plumbette

    What an inspiring woman! I just loved reading this post Zanni. I felt like I was there with you. Beautiful pictures and makes you want to live a simple life.

  • I sure do love wombats! Such beautiful photos of an equally beautiful property. It sounds like such a privilege and a wonderful opportunity that you were able to experience. (and to be completely trivial, I can’t believe your hair is all natural and hasn’t been “washed” – it looks amazing)!

    • Ha ha, yes, Hope…after a while of not using shampoo, your hair goes normal again…if anything, it just gets healthier! 🙂

  • Zsa Zsa

    We just read The Secret Life of Wombats which talked about that first manuscript and the wombat droppings on the typewriter each night. The wombat didn’t like the sound of the typewriter. It is inspiring how much she has experienced and shared with us all. Your visit sounded delightful and it has brought this book to life.

    • Such a terrific series of books Zsa Zsa! Great you introduced them to your daughter 🙂

  • How beautiful that someone you looked up to as a child, lived up to your image. I love Jackie’s story, and can imagine she would be a very gentle soul. How fabulous would it be to have wombats wandering in for a visit?!!
    I have to say Zanni, that is a gorgeous photo of you, I can see your happiness xx

  • Gillian O’Shea

    Loved the article Zanni. We have someone similar in South Africa called Margaret Roberts. It inspires one when you see others getting it right – living their life the way they want.

  • Pingback: Jackie French: Garden Tour and General Gush - Children's Books Daily...()

  • taniamccartney

    A beautiful post, Zanni, and gorgeous photos! So lovely to meet you at the conference. x

    • Thanks Tania! And you too. Was a buzz to meet the lady behind those beautiful books. x

  • Bec | Mumma Tells

    Wow, Zanni. Just wow. Blown away by this, and Jackie French to be honest. What a truly amazing experience. I know you would gave lapped up every single moment too, you lucky thing. X

  • Jodi Wilson

    What an honour to meet Jackie in her home and witness the inspiration for so many stories x

  • Erin aussiebookthreads

    Wow, what a story! You were appreciating her way back when! Didn’t know that about her family connection with the valley! Visiting from rewind

  • Oh Zanni – how wonderful! I bet you head is still spinning with inspiration from this visit!

    • It certainly is Kelly! Such a special experience! x

  • SUCH a massive treat for lucky Zanni. Jackie is a true inspiration. x

  • Alexa McAllister

    Love your post and congratulations on being able to see Jackie in real life at her own place. I would have loved to have been a visitor there with you. A truly impressive journey Jackie French has been on and what a beautiful countryside and property. Thank you for your post. It took me back to my childhood and living in the Adelaide Hills.
    Alexa from Sydney, Australia
    http://www.Alexa-asimplelife.com

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