Reading for your life with Ursula Dubosarsky

From choosing our first chapter book, to being engulfed in tales of magic and adventure, our early memories of reading are filled with endless wonder and possibility. Here, Australian Children’s Laureate Ursula Dubosarsky joins MWF education advisor and author Ingrid Laguna to discuss how her love for reading has carried her through life.

Dubosarsky will appear at MWF Schools (6–9 September) during the 2021 Melbourne Writers Festival.

As the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2020 and 2021, your key message has been ‘Read for Your Life’. Could you elaborate on this theme?

The job of the Australian Children’s Laureate is to encourage, celebrate and support children’s reading. We all want the children of Australia to be good readers who love reading. But reading isn’t a skill you master in primary school and then it’s done. To love reading you need to read a lot and all your life (see question four!). But you will only read a lot and love reading if you find books you want to read. It can sometimes take quite a while to find those books because we’re all so different and we like different things. If children are lucky, they’ll have a great school library with thousands of books to choose from. But if they don’t, there’s a place where everyone can go, and find as many books as they want to read forever—for free—and that place is the local public library. All Australian children can join their local library, get their very own library card, and then go to the shelves and choose whatever books they like, take them home, then bring them back and borrow more. Again and again and again. That’s how you’ll find the books you love. And then you’ll never stop reading. You’ll ‘Read for Your life’.

In your recent children’s novel, Pierre’s Not There, the story shifts into the form of a play. Why did you choose to do this?

I had the idea for a novel that turned into a puppet play over 30 years ago! But when I finally started writing my book about a magic puppet theatre, Pierre’s Not There, I had forgotten my idea. It was only in the middle of writing the story, when I was stuck, that it suddenly came back to me. And wonderfully I was no longer stuck but the words flew out onto the page. I’ve always loved plays, reading them, watching them, acting in them, and also writing them and I’ve always loved puppets too, since I was a very small child. So it was a great pleasure to enter into that very different way of creating a story. I hope for the children reading the book that they enter into that other world too, as Lara and Pierre put on their puppet show and are transformed by the theatre.

You have written over sixty books for children and young adults. How has writing sustained you throughout your career so far?

I’ve been writing for so long now it’s hard, almost impossible, to think of my life without writing. It’s just something that’s always there, always in my head—or out of my head published in a book! I know when I was young, and even now, I didn’t think in terms of a career, I just wanted to be a writer and nothing else. Other things I did were simply to earn money so I could be a writer. Until I wrote the first book for children back in 1989 I didn’t even think in terms of being a children’s writer. I just wanted to write. It’s still the same feeling.

You have said, ‘Every single book you read makes you a better reader.’ What do you mean by this? ​

I always say to children that I’ve been reading since I was six years old but I never ever stop learning new things about reading with every book I read. Every book is an adventure and an opening. Every author writes in a different way. There are new authors born every minute and there are thousands, millions of authors from the past that we haven’t discovered yet, each with their own way of approaching language and stories. So reading is really a lifelong activity—‘Read for Your Life’. It’s not a simple skill you learn and then go onto something else. That’s why it’s so wonderful—it’s forever new!

You knew you wanted to be a writer from the age of six. What advice might you give to children who also want to be writers?

Haha! Yes, that’s when I learned to read, when I was six. The idea to be a person who writes the stories down and have them become books entered my head at just the same moment. What I always say when I’m asked for advice is, whatever you’re writing, whether it’s a story, a poem, a play, an article, a script, an essay—whatever it is—make yourself FINISH it. Even if you think it’s bad, make yourself get to the end. For me that was a breakthrough when I was in my early 20s. Like most of us, everything I tried to write I lost heart for, because it wasn’t turning out how I hoped. But when I made myself FINISH a book I was trying to write, even thought it was definitely NOT good, it was astonishing (and still is!) how much I learnt from bringing it, almost forcing it, to an end. And then I could take all I learned from that experience—good and bad—to the next thing I wrote. I do think writing is one of the things you learn most by DOING rather than thinking about it.

For many people, the pandemic has caused them to rethink their values in some way. Has there been a shift in your outlook that you would like to share?

I think that I’ll know more about how to answer that question in a few years’ time. I always find it’s hard to know what you think about something when you’re in the middle of it. Perhaps, directly or indirectly, I’ll write about it somehow. Writing helps me know how I think about things, even if I only realise it rereading something many years later! In any case, libraries, books, reading and writing all seem to me even more deeply valuable than ever.

Ursula Dubosarsky was born in Sydney and wanted to be a writer from the age of six. She is the author of over 60 books and has won many national prizes, and been nominated internationally for the Hans Andersen and Astrid Lindgren awards. She is the Australian Children’s Laureate for 2021–2022.

Preorder MWF Schools books for your class, including Ursula Dubosarsky’s Pierre’s Not There, now through Readings.

Image: Vicki Skarratt