One of the first books I remember reading as a child was Possum MagicSweet little Hush and her grandma Poss stayed in my little heart, as I grew up. It was one of the first books I bought for my daughter, contentiously building her ‘library’ from age zero.

Since then, we have collected other Mem Fox books – Where is the Green Sheep? (which my American nephew recently read to us over a video), Good Night, Sleep TightHattie and The Fox, Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. I bet at least one of her books is on just about every Australian kid’s bookshelf.

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview Mem Fox…The girl in me, reading Possum Magic on my bunk bed, feels a little awe-struck right about now. Mem shares her passion for reading aloud to children, and encouraging a love of books from a young age. 

Mem Fox

Your book, Reading Magic: How your child can learn to read before school – and other miracles, has been a bestseller. What is it about this book, do you think, which has captured the hearts of parents?

I think it might be all the love in the book!  I mention again and again the bonding and gorgeousness of reading to our children, which makes the job of reading aloud not a job at all but a treasurable, divine thing to do.  And of course any parent wants the best for their children and this book helps to ensure that children have the very best start to reading, long before they go to school. I think parents are their children’s most important teacher but the funny thing is that I never want parents to formally teach their children to read. That’s what this book is about: comforting parents and encouraging them to do their best.

Can you share with us one of the secrets behind reading magic – how can children learn to read before school?

The most important thing for parents to remember is to read aloud every night, if possible, to their child at bedtime. Picking the right book is also critical. Parents should choose short books with lots of pictures and lots of rhyme, rhythm or repetition; or a combination of all three. Children learn to love a book more easily through this kind of writing. And that’s the kind of book that leads them to early literacy.

How parents read is another determining factor in whether their child will be able to read before school. Parents should read in the same lively ‘tune’ every single time they read to their child. Hang loose!  Let go! Don’t be embarrassed to be ALIVE as you read. This will help the child to become familiar with, and remember the story in the same way that they remember adverts on television.

Parents also need to play games with the things that they and the child can see on the page, such as letting children finish rhymes, and finding the letters that start with the child’s name and theirs. It helps the child learn to focus on the things on the page.

What is so nourishing about reading aloud to children?

Reading aloud to children makes all the difference to a child’s success in life. When we read aloud to children their brains develop, their language develops and their social skills develop. We bond with them and form life-long, firm attachments, and children learn that reading is hilarious, fantastic and fun. It shocks me that some parents would send their child to school without the child ever picking up a book.

You are passionate about encouraging parents to read aloud to their children from a young age. Where did this passion spring from?

I became intensely passionate about reading aloud to children early in my career as a teacher. I suddenly realised how switched-on children can be after my own four year old learnt to read after two weeks at school. I don’t patronise children in my books; I respect them as if they were adult readers. I believe that if children know six nursery rhymes by heart by the age of four, they are more likely to be in the top reading group at school by eight. This is why my latest children’s book, Good Night, Sleep Tight, revives seven classic nursery rhymes for new generations.

Your first book, Possum Magic, was one of my favourites as a child, and is now adored by my daughter. What was your inspiration to write this story?

I was inspired to write Possum Magic, kind of indirectly, by daughter, Chloe. She was such an avid reader that I couldn’t keep up with her desire for books. I decided to take a course in children’s literature to discover more books to interest her, particularly those published since my own childhood.

I wrote Possum Magic, at university in 1978, studying children’s literature. It was actually written for an assignment. I was born here but had grown up in Africa, with a deep love for Australia and everything in it. I wanted to write the most Australian book possible, as there was very little good Australian literature for children at the time. My lecturer thought the book was brilliant, but it was rejected nine times over five years! During that time it was rewritten and then, of course, it was finally published and went on to become a bestselling Australian children’s picture book. It can still be bought in hard back after 30 years, which is amazing.

What is it about Possum Magic, do you think, that has captivated so many people from different generations across the world?

I think what makes it so special to readers is its ‘Australianness’. I am very proud of having written so many Australian books for Australian children. Many of my books are universal, but I think it is important to our national pride to offer kids books which have an Australian flavour.

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