‘Read for your life!’ An interview with Ursula Dubosarsky

Ursula Dubosarsky, Australian Children’s Laureate for 2020-2021, discusses trends in children’s reading habits, the role of school libraries in nurturing lifelong readers, and her vision as Laureate.

In February, Ursula Dubosarsky was announced as the new Australian Children’s Laureate for 2020-2021. In this role, she continues the work of Morris Gleitzman, Leigh Hobbs, Jackie French, Boori Monty Pryor and Alison Lester in promoting ‘the importance of reading, creativity and story in the lives of young Australians’ (Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation, 2019). Ursula generously shared her time with us to reflect on her aspirations for young readers during her laureateship.

YouTube video: ‘Ursula Dubosarsky’s Laureate mission’ by Story Box Library

The theme for your two-year term is ‘Read for your Life’. How do you view the urgency and transformational power of reading in the lives of young Australians in 2020?

I think we can all agree on the transformational power of reading. I can’t imagine there is a single person in Australia who does not want every child to be a good reader – by which I mean someone who loves to read, reads a lot and is comfortable reading a wide range of material and writing styles. What sometimes seems to be forgotten is that to be a good reader you actually have to read! Reading is the only way to improve your reading and become a happy and adventurous and empowered reader. And of course, with the advent of the scintillating digital age, it has become harder to sustain the kind of reading that makes that kind of good reader.

This theme also recognises that reading often drops off after primary school. Why do you think this happens?

Children are reading fewer books as they get older! It is the sustained, varied, sometimes challenging reading of books – fiction and non-fiction – that turns someone into the kind of able, versatile and therefore empowered reader that we all want our children to be. Obviously they are reading all the time on their devices. They are chatting, sending each other photos and videos, skimming through moments of interest – as we all do, all the time, every day. It’s part of being a modern person. But they are not reading books on their devices. Some do, of course, but sales of digital books remain low across all age groups – particularly the young. If we want children and young people to keep reading, we need to provide access to paper and cardboard books, which is often their preferred format. Children continue to want books, if they are given the opportunity. Sales of paper and cardboard books for children are not dwindling – if anything, they are growing.

It is the sustained, varied, sometimes challenging reading of books – fiction and non-fiction – that turns someone into [an] able, versatile and therefore empowered reader…

For schools, what’s the secret to developing reading as a lifelong habit?

I think the school library and teacher librarians can play such a crucial role in developing the reading habits of children. Reading is the foundation and cornerstone of education, obviously. It seems to me of vital importance that the school sets aside a dedicated, loved room or building that is called a library, that symbolises that pivotal role of reading. A library is not just a useful databank for various school projects; it is a source of continuously developing imaginative reading. So this library needs books! It can’t simply be a beautiful room with a row of computers. It is a space that needs to be curated by a professional librarian. Reading is about opportunity, and that is what the library can provide to every student in the school – a space to read and experiment with a wide range of fiction and non-fiction books. As all readers know, developing your own reading taste is sometimes a slow process of discovery and trial and error, and students need time and opportunity to do this. But once they find what they really love to read they will never stop reading.

Out of curiosity, your novels often include a historical setting. What role have libraries played in the research for your writing?

The very first novel I ever wrote, ‘Zizzy Zing’, over 30 years ago, was a time-slip novel, set during the 1938 sesquicentenary in the Blue Mountains of Sydney. When I got the idea, I went straight to the State Library of NSW, to look through microfiche copies of the newspapers of the period I was writing about. I’ve always turned first to newspapers and films when researching for books. I want to get a sense of what the people of the time were actually reading, to try and understand the impression they had of the world, rather than relying on a mediated version through history books. In other words, I am a primary sources writer! Ten years later, with ‘The Red Shoe’, set in 1954 during the Petrov Crisis, I did exactly the same thing. I spent so many fascinating hours in the State Library of NSW with the microfilm and the video resources – I never wanted to leave!

When I wrote ‘The Blue Cat’ 15 years after that, the wondrous digital world had arrived. Consequently, my newspaper reading and film discovery was performed online rather than within the physical library – although still using the library resources (in that instance, largely the amazing Trove at the National Library of Australia). I also found the collection at Stanton Library and the librarians and historians of North Sydney Council extremely helpful – well vital, really – for ‘The Blue Cat’. Especially for filling in those gaps of knowledge with photographs and ephemera. The access to this material gave me a great psychological boost, to more deeply immerse my mind and feelings into the period, to write about it (I hope) with more confidence and at least some authenticity.

Over the next two years, how do you plan to bring your love of books into the lives of Australian children and young people?

I’ve chosen to concentrate largely on one simple message to the children of Australia – get down to your local library and join up! Actually get a library card with your name on it, that you can use to borrow as many books as you like, as often as you like, for free.

This is not, in any sense, a position to undermine the fundamental importance of the school library and teacher librarians. It is a recognition, though, that not all children sadly have access to school libraries. And it is also a way of including the family in the reading life of a child – that as members of their local library, children and their families will develop the habit of going to the library regularly and borrowing books – a habit that will continue all their lives. ‘Read for your life!’ as my Laureate slogan says!

References and further reading

Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation. (2019). Australian Children’s Laureate.

Dubosarsky, U. (2020). Ursula Dubosarsky.

How to cite this article – Dubosarsky, U. (2020). ‘Read for your life!’ An interview with Ursula Dubosarsky. Scan, 39(3).

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