Transcript from an interview with Mem Fox

Below is an edited transcript from Reading Rockets' interview with Mem Fox. The transcript is divided into the following clips:

Mem Fox

Meet Mem Fox

My name is Mem Fox and I'm an Australian author, but I have published many of my books in America and in fact, I meet American authors so often at various events and conferences that they think I live here. And in… Once an American said to me about my book Koala Loo and Miss Fox, "Did you research koalas to do this book?"

And I said, "No, I'm an Australian." I know everything there is to know about koalas." So I've been a writer for 25 years. My first book was Possum Magic which has become the iconic children's book in Australia. It is the best-selling children's book ever in that country and can you believe it!

And can you believe that this is its 25th year and it sold more this year than it sold last year, and it sold more last year than it sold the year before, and it sold more that year than the year before that. So it's just — it's colossal. It's so huge, Possum Magic, and it's such a beautiful book.

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A writer at ten

I think there were some early signs. When I was ten, I remember one Saturday night my father had killed a chicken for dinner the next day — this was the kind of life we led — and my mother was plucking it at the kitchen sink in a bucket of boiling water. I can remember the smell was dreadful, absolutely dreadful.

And the rain had pounded down outside for hours and soil, red soil, was being washed away down the hillside. And we'd been learning about erosion at school, about soil erosion. And I was passionate somehow. All of a sudden, I was passionate about soil erosion at the age of ten and I went into my room and wrote a book about soil erosion and the horrors of it and how sad and bad it was.

Stapled it, you know, put a little bit of sticky tape over the staples, put a front cover on it, went into the kitchen where my mother was plucking the hen and read it to her and she said, "That's lovely, darling." So I had delusions of grandeur really from the age of ten.

I've always enjoyed writing. I've really loved it. I lived in Africa and my cousins lived in Australia and I wrote a lot of letters backwards and forwards. I've always loved writing letters. Even in the age of e-mail, I write letters still because the joy of receiving a letter that's four or five pages long is so wonderful that I can't stop myself from doing that. I love writing them as well as receiving them.

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A childhood in Africa

I was born in Australia and when I was six months old, my parents, who were missionaries, went to what was then southern Rhodesia. It is now called Zimbabwe. And I grew up as a while child at first totally among black children. I spoke English with a very broad African accent.

I went barefoot, rode wild donkeys, went off for — you know, all day long with my parents having no idea where I was, but knowing that I was safe, and it was idyllic. I was I grew up in a very book-loving household. My parents had all of Dickens, Shakespeare, all the great poets, Madame Bovary, really you know, Crime and Punishment.

The major books of the world were…I lived in a library really and people think, oh, she grew up on a mission in Africa. Oh, that must have been so hard. That must have been, you know, so deprived. In fact, it was a fabulous, fabulous childhood both educationally, my family, interracially.

I knew that I knew that color had no that color was literally skin deep. I knew that it didn't make a person a better friend because they were black. It didn't make them a worse friend because they were black. I knew that some people were horrible and some people were funny and some people were kind. But it didn't matter what color they were.

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Common ground

I've always loved writing and I've always been passionately aware of race, and I think I've a subliminal desire to make the world realize how similar it is to itself instead of how different it is. You know, the… everything in my life sort of points to that.

I'm very concerned about that, and it's not just between black and white. It's between Christian and Muslim and between Suni and Shea, you know within Islam. I mean, it's all of us who scrape against each other and wind each other up and kill each other instead of saying, "Oh, you have a son? So do I. And do you love that son? I adore my son."

"Gosh. We both have a grandmother. Is yours causing you problems? Mine has lost her memory. Yours, too? Oh, my goodness, I'm so sorry." You know it's not — that's not the kind of conversation we have. We just keep looking at the differences and it's awful. It's awful.

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Three little kisses…

Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes arose because I was speaking at an event in Boston and I had two days prior to this event phoned my American editor and my Australian literacy agent and said, "I'm not writing anymore." In fact, I cried. I mean, I didn't say I was sobbing.

So that was, I think, on a — on a Wednesday and on the Friday I was in Boston talking to parents who had babies with them and little children. And at the end of the event when they were asking me to sign books, they were leaning over the table with the babies.

And sometimes, you know, little babies' fingers are so tiny you can't believe how tiny they are and you'd look at these minute digits and then their little fists like this and you have to put your finger in those little fists. You can't resist but put your little — finger in their little fist.

And some of the babies were black and some of them were brown and some of them you could tell were adopted because they were different colors from their parents, and some people were poor and some people were well off…and some people were young parents and some people were much older parents.

And yet all the babies, you know, had ten little fingers and ten little toes. It didn't matter who they belonged to or what color they were. Now I didn't notice that. I did not notice that objectively. But then I went home to Australia via a very long route. It took me forty hours to get home.

And I thought of these babies…and by then they were far away from me. And there was one little baby who was born far away. And then I just said to myself and another who was born on the very next day, "And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes."

So I thought, ew, that's the first verse of a story perhaps. This is a first verse. But I was still so drowsy that I couldn't wake up. I could not wake up. But I was drowsy enough to dream the story, so I thought of the next verse and the next verse and the next verse.

And when I finally sort of slapped myself awake or when the flight attendant, you know, woke us all up and gave us food, I quickly got out a notebook and I wrote very, very fast — the whole story.

I was terrified I would forget it. I wrote so fast that the woman — a total stranger — who was sitting next to me, said when I finished, she said, "I-I-I know it's none of my business. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't interfere, but you were writing so fast and it seemed so urgent and now it's over. What were you doing?"

And I said, "Well," I said, "Actually, I think I've just written a divine children's book." And I laughed because my mother would have hated me saying that, you know, because she would never liked us to boast or, you know, build ourselves up. But I felt my mother — dead already — on my shoulder saying, "That was a disgraceful thing to say."

So I laughed shamefacedly when I said, "I think I've written a divine children's story." And then I said to her, "Would you like a copy of it?" And she said, "Oh, yes. I'd love one. Then I'll know what you've written." So I wrote it again by hand. And I gave — and I signed it, you know, "With love from Mem Fox."

And she had didn't know who I was. And I gave it to her. I have no idea who she was, but she read it and she cried. And I thought, "Whoo hoo. We have got something here. We have got something here." And strangely, you know, often when I read the book, adults will come up to me afterwards and say surprised, "You know, I don't know what it was about that book, but I teared up at the end of it."

They're really puzzled and I think it's because the book is so tender, but not sentimental. It's not at all sentimental, but it's very, very tender. And it means a lot to me because our daughter lived for a long time in France and we only have one child. This was when she was an adult.

And her sign off to me on the phone or on an e-mail used to be "I kiss you on the nose." And she calls me Moppy because my hair looks like a mop. "I kiss you on the nose, Moppy," and in e-mail, "I kiss you on the nose, Moppy." So the last line, "But the next child born was truly divine. A sweet little child who is mine, all mine."

"And this little baby, as everyone knows, has ten little fingers and ten little toes and three little kisses on the tip of its nose."

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Working with Helen Oxenbury

Honestly, I admired her so much that I thought if I ever met her, I would be so star-struck I wouldn't be able to speak, quite literally. Because I had met Morris Sendak once. I think you call Maurice, Maurice Sendak.

And I just gabbled. I mean, you know, she's a sort of Maurice Sendak kind of person in my life. So yes, I did know of her, but it was never in my wildest dreams that she would illustrate a book of mine…never in my wildest dreams. And, of course, I had said I was never going to write again. My editor had sent some work to Helen before, not just manuscripts of mine, but manuscripts of other authors whom she edits, and Helen had turned them all down.

And then she sent this particular text and Helen said yes. And I was on vacation at the time in a very sedate hotel on an island far off the coast of Australia and I-I-I mean, I did windmills around the foyer and I just went mad…and my arms were out and I was going "Whooooo," like this. It was really embarrassing. I was beside myself, absolutely beside myself. And then and then the artwork, you know, began to come in and we were just swooning over the artwork.

I just — I can't believe this book. I cannot believe that she and I have done this book together. It means so much to me, the book itself, but the fact that she has lifted, you know, my text which I'm pleased with. Let me be honestly arrogant here. I'm very pleased with the text.

But that she has just lifted it into this, you know, stratosphere that is up there and has made something magical that I feel people are going to be saying to their babies in the car, even when the book isn't there, and that grandparents are going to be saying to their grandchildren in sixty and seventy years time. They're going to remember the book and reading it. It's that kind of book because I've been so lucky enough to have Helen illustrate it.

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A passion for reading aloud

I was a teacher of teachers in a university full time for 24 years teaching teachers how to teach reading and writing and also teaching teachers themselves how to write, which was wonderful and great fun.

So the passion of my life now as a retired university professor is…stalking parents all over the world I guess you could put it like that and begging them almost on bended knee to read to their children everyday for 10 minutes or so everyday between birth and five.

Because the children who've been read to who have learned to love books, who know how to turn pages, who've seen print, who've talked about pictures, who've had conversations with adults, endless conversations about what they're reading…those children bond with their parents. Their parents bond with them. They all bond with books. The children grow up happy because they know that they're loved because their parents actually take time to be with them every single day. Their brains develop in a most fantastic way.

So pediatricians are begging children to be read to, begging parents to read to children. Speech pathologists are begging parents to read to children. It's not just me. I'm not on some kind of mad high horse with some, you know, great hobby going. It is a hugely, hugely important thing to be doing.

But I know from having been an educator of teachers for 24 years that nothing is as important in learning how to read than being read to everyday from birth to five. So that's my passion and that is really who I am.

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Literary rhythm

I told you earlier that I loved writing, that I had written all the way through high school. And I had been praised for my writing by my English teacher who was a very great influence in my life. But my other love was acting and I was in every play that was going at high school and because I went to a girls' school and I've got a deep voice, I was often the main male character in the plays that I was in. And I was desperate to go to drama school, absolutely desperate.

And my father said, honestly, you know, "This is it's just not a career because, you know, most actresses and actors are out of work, you know. It's just not a career.

Anyway, my Dad was talking to somebody else, some other educator in another university in cause my father was in a teacher's college on the mission, and he was talking to somebody else who said, "Oh, my daughter was the same and she wanted to, you know, be an actress. And we found this drama school in London which has with it a teaching diploma."

"They have to do teaching. It's compulsory. So that when they come out, even if they don't want to teach, they have the teaching qualification." So my Dad said, "Okay, if you can get in there, you can do it." So off I went. Mid-sixties…in London…Beatles…Mary Quandt…miniskirts…the whole deal, and I'm at drama school at this time in English history.

Oh my God, it was so wonderful. It was incredibly exciting. But the drama school was very strict…very, very strict. The slightest misbehavior and you were expelled. You couldn't be late for a class, and there were classes from ten until five with no breaks every single day. And the semesters, or terms as we called them, were 13 weeks. So by the end of that time, we were exhausted. But it was the very best training for me to become a writer for children because I learned by heart the greatest language in English.

I learnt the great poets. I learnt by heart Shakespeare. I learnt many other playwrights' words, both modern and ancient, you know, Greek and so on. And I find now when I'm writing that my drama training is the best possible training that I could have had to be a writer of picture books.

Because although I cannot…externalize what I'm doing, I can't explain why this syllable this word has to be two syllables there or if we put it in this part of the sentence, it has to be three syllables, but the stress must come on the middle part the middle syllable. I can't explain any of that, but I know by reading aloud my work, when it's working and when it's not.

And I think that there are a lot of people who think they can write for children who don't have that sense of literary rhythm. And without it, you're not going to capture children's hearts. You can have the most fantastic characters. You can have the most wonderful plot. You can have trouble that would, you know, wring tears from a stone, but if you haven't got rhythm, you haven't got the kids.

They're not with you. And I've got rhythm basically…because I went to drama school.

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The first book

I was at drama school at the age of 19 to 22. When we went to Australia, I was employed by a teacher's college to teach drama to teachers and also to teach them how to teach drama.

And even though I was doing the job that I was employed to do, the college said, "You know, we really do need you to have a B.A."

And when I was doing the B.A., I decided to do children's literature because our own daughter was an avid reading and I thought, well there must be books that I don't know which I should find out about so that I can expand her literary horizons. And indeed there were.

And one of the…But one of the things that we had to do in children's literature was to write a children's book. Now I was thirty-one at this point and I truly thought that writing a children's book…because I was an overachieving, mature student, you know, who really tried hard and wanted high distinctions all the time and, you know, was just out there doing her best.

And I thought, write a children's book? You have to be joking. What kind of Mickey Mouse course is this that you have to write a children's book? You know, the semester before, I had written a major essay on Milton's Paradise Lost. I had read all of Milton's Paradise Lost, all twelve books of it.

And then next semester, I was writing a children's book. I thought, oh, my Lord. What have I gotten myself into? Well…the reason why our professor had asked us to do this was so that we would immediately at the beginning of the course, find out how difficult it was to write for children and to look up to the children's writers that we were going to study instead of looking down on them.

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From a mouse to a possum

It was incredibly difficult for us to write the children's book. I chose to write Possum Magic. In fact, it wasn't called Possum Magic; it was called Hush, the Invisible Mouse. And it was a story about a mouse whose grandmother was magic and had made the mouse invisible because — and this wasn't in the text, but it was in my head that the parents of this mouse had been killed by a cat.

So the grandmother had made this little mouse invisible so that it was safe from cats. And then one day, the mouse says, "I'd like to know what I look like." "Can you make me visible again, please?" And by this time, the grandma's so old she can't remember how to do it. And they're living in England…and this was all because my husband was English and we were living in Australia and I wanted him to settle and feel happy as an Australian.

So this little mouse and its grandmother…they knew it was food that would make them visible again — make the child visible — and they ate snails in France and spaghetti in Italy and so on.

And they traveled the world. Nothing worked until they got to Australia when they ate three iconic Australian foods and a vegemite sandwich, a Pavlova and lemingtons, or I just three foods that I won't explain. My professor said it was fantastic. She loved it.

It was four and a half pages. The final draft which was published was a page and a quarter. It was far too long for a picture book. It was rejected nine times over five years. And the final publisher who took it, the 10th publisher who took it said, "You know, there's a story here somewhere. And we can see that there's a story and we can see what the story is, but it needs to be cut by two-thirds and could you make it only an Australian story and could you not have mice because they're in plague proportions in children's literature?"

So I said, "Fine." And we had possums on our roof and they're prettier possums than your possums in America. They're absolutely adorable. Much softer fur and very, very cute. So I wrote the story over the weekend, rewrote it. They said, "Make it lyrical," you know, "and come back on Monday."

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Reading magic

I loved my teaching at the university. I absolutely adored it. And when I was watching my own students teach young children, I saw kids who had never seen a book in their lives. And my students were trying to teach these children how to read in a class of thirty kids.

They were trying to teach children sounds. They were trying to say to children, "What's coming out of my mouth is actually on the page. This is what it says." And kids who had been read to picked it up. Children who had not been read to didn't pick it up So I thought, okay, I have to leave the university because I haven't got time to teach properly and I'm not going to teach improperly. So let me leave.

And then I got just so frustrated because I could see that people weren't reading aloud to their children. I was listening to pediatricians talk. I was listening to speech pathologists. I was I was listening to sociologists, psychologists about the importance of reading aloud.

And I thought I have to write the book. I've got to write a book for parents cause it has to happen. We could change the world if people did this. So…I sat down and wrote an academic book of 66,000 words because I had not long been an academic. You know, I had been an academic.

And my editor who had a three-year-old child at the time said, "Mem, I'm actually a very bright person, you know. I went to a good school in America" — as you call them schools; we never called them schools. But she said, "I went to a good school and I did well. And I do not understand half the jargon in this book. And I'm a parent of a three-year-old."

And she said, "I want you to lie in a couch on lie on one of your couches and I want your reader to lie on the other couch and I want you to gossip to them about how important it is to read aloud to children."

And thank God she said that because really it's just full of gossip. It's full of little stories about what happened to this person, what happened to that, built around a theme of what reading is.

It's about bonding, attachment, fun, laughter, having a great time, smelling the back of a little neck after a bath at night, mmmm, and then reading a book and talking about a book and the kids driving you crazy on a particular page which they will not turn over cause they've got to talk about this bit and this bit and this bit. And you think I'm so tired.

But it's just a wonderful, wonderful thing to do. But out of that wonder is so much benefit in so many ways. So I wrote Reading Magic and that became a best seller as well. I'm so excited about it. Now, you know, books like that sort of come and go, but this is still with us. It's still here.

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Reading aloud to older kids

Well partly the reason why it's important to read to them constantly, whatever age they are, is because when we're reading to them, especially when they're older kids… And it is wonderful if they'll let us read to them, cause some kids say, "I can read by myself. I don't want you to read to me anymore."

And you have to let them go, which is really heartbreaking. But if your child will let you read at eight and nine, when they are already able to read, we are reading to them things that they could never read by themselves, which they can completely understand because they're listening.

They're not reading it; they're listening to it. And in the context of that-of the story, they understand every word, whereas if they were reading it, they wouldn't. But if we're reading always something that's more difficult than they can read themselves, when they come to that book later or books like that, they will be able to read them.

Which is why even a fifth grade teacher, you know, even a tenth grade teacher, even a, you know, end of high school teacher should still be reading to children aloud because there's always something that is too intractable for kids to read on their own. We're always pushing them ahead that little bit harder, that little bit harder. That's why we should keep reading forever.

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Teaching vocabulary with books

The moment I start to talk about vocabulary, the moment I start to talk about character, the moment I start to talk about tone to any child below the age of about fourteen is the moment I kill the reason the book was written for…and the kids are turned off. They… The writer's purpose is ruined because the book is being taken apart for a different reason other than entertainment, information, comfort and the real reasons that that book was written for.

You know, it drives me insane when people make vocabulary lists out of my books because it's totally unnecessary. It is totally unnecessary if the book is read over and over and over again. If it's a book for older kids and they stumble over a word that they may not — like a word that I used a while ago — "intractable"…

That, you know, you come to that in the book and it says "intractable" and you explain what "intractable" means. Very quickly you just explain it cause you don't want to spoil the story. So you quickly explain "intractable" and then you move on, but to make vocabulary out…

Well, just vocabulary lists drive me mad anyway. They just drive me absolutely crazy because they are not in a sentence of beauty that a child will remember. They are not in a sentence of anguish that a child will remember. They're not in a sentence of such shocking information that a child will remember it.

It's a vocabulary list. It has no emotion and it will not be remembered for any good reason. It will just kill literature. If we read more books, if we focused more on good literature in our classrooms, if our classrooms were flooded with books or flooded with read alouds, if we weren't ashamed of reading aloud, if we realized that reading aloud is the greatest teacher of literacy, we would do more of it in the classroom. This is my credo that the people who wrote the literature are the best teachers of literacy.

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Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes

This book is called Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes and it was written by me, Mem Fox, and illustrated by the wonderful Helen Oxenbury. And this is how it goes.

There was one little baby who was born far away and another who was born on the very next day. And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes. There was one little baby who was born in a town and another who was wrapped in an eider down.

And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes. There was one little baby who was born in the hills and another who suffered from sneezes and chills. And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes

There was one little baby who was born on the ice and another in a tent who was just as nice. And both of these babies, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes. But then the next baby born was truly divine. A sweet little child who was mine, all mine.

And this little baby, as everyone knows, had ten little fingers and ten little toes and three little kisses on the tip of its nose.

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"To learn to read is to light a fire; every syllable that is spelled out is a spark." — Victor Hugo, Les Miserables