Jackie French
Jackie French (Credit: Kelly Sturgiss)
She is one of Australia’s most prolific and highly awarded children’s authors and yet Jackie French suffers from a learning disorder that made reading and writing an ordeal for her when she was growing up.

Yes, the much-loved Australian author Jackie French suffers from the learning disorder dyslexia. And yet she’s written more than 200 books, including best-sellers such as Diary of a Wombat and Hitler’s Daughter. Her books have won more than 60 awards in Australia and internationally and sold millions of copies worldwide. 

Jackie wrote her first children’s book, Rain Stones, at the age of 30, more than 30 years ago, while living in a shed with Fred the wallaby, Gladys the black snake and Smudge the wombat. It’s now part of Australian literary folklore that the manuscript for Rain Stones was described by editors at publisher HarperCollins as one the messiest and worst-spelled they’d ever received. Smudge, who left his droppings on the typewriter, was responsible for the mess. But the spelling was due to Jackie’s dyslexia. 

She recalls that her first memory of school was of sheer terror at having to read one word aloud at the request of her teacher. “To this day, I still find reading single words, and handwriting difficult, but I’ve learnt to adapt,” she says. Fortunately her grade one teacher, Miss Davies, recognised Jackie’s difficulties and, despite having 42 children in her class, taught every one, including Jackie, how to write…although Jackie acknowledges that her writing never became entirely legible. Miss Davies, Jackie recalls, recognised children’s strengths instead of their challenges. As a result, rather than holding her back, dyslexia and a passion for problem-solving have been key to Jackie’s success. 

“Talent is two a dollar,” she says. “Genius needs persistence. Dyslexics either become cowed by those who don’t understand the way they need to see or learn, or become determined and creative problem-solvers. I love the music of words. I love collecting the data, analysing, substantiating and correlating until the data becomes a theory, theme or a story.

“What we need to teach kids, at a young age, is do whatever helps you get to where to want to go.  Don’t follow your dream – grab it and pull it along with you. Be realistic, be stubborn, be flexible, have the courage to find what you love doing, and then do it.”

Jackie is now a patron for literacy programs across Australia and spends a lot of time with children who struggle with reading. “The first thing I tell them is: ‘of course you can do it’. I have never known anyone who cannot read – even if it takes far longer or even complex technology to make it possible. Show kids how to find ‘the magic book’– the one they love so much they will go to extraordinary lengths to find out what comes next.”

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