Gabrielle Wang’s mission to get our kids reading

The new Australian Children's Laureate talks with Shane Green about her plans to encourage children to read – and how a dream set her on the path to becoming a writer.

In the early chapters of her life, Gabrielle Wang, the new Australian Children’s Laureate, never imagined being a writer.

With a talent for drawing, she’d become a graphic designer. In fact, English had always been a struggle at school, to the point where she failed the subject the first-time round in Year 12. So it was in art where she had found what appeared to be her vocation.

Beyond her professional life, the daughter of Chinese immigrants had travelled to China in search of her roots. Then came a family.

When her son and daughter were about eight and 10, something happened that would change the course of her life.

The dream.

A sense of something big coming

Before that particular night that I had the dream, I felt that there was something big going to happen,’ Gabrielle recalls. ‘I had no idea what it was…It was like a great big freight train coming towards me. And it was getting closer and closer.’

In the dream, she was in the living quarters above the shop her parents ran, where they sold Chinese arts and crafts.  She was a child of eight. There was a narrow staircase that led from the shop dwelling to the floor of the shop.

‘There were these grownups on either side. And I didn’t know who they were but just lined each side of this narrow staircase,’ she recalls.

‘And as I was walking down, they’re all patting me on the back and saying. ‘Go out into the light. Go out into the light.

‘And down below there was a rectangle which was the doorway of the shop, and there was bright sunlight, so it was really brightly lit up.’

She joined a crowd of people walking by, remembering a feeling of ‘great joy and great ceremony and excitement’.

‘And as I was walking with this crowd of people, all of a sudden, in the front of the procession, this huge Chinese dragon raised its head. And I suddenly realised that I was, and all the people in the parade were part of the body of this huge Chinese dragon. And then I woke up.’

‘That dream was so significant because Chinese people call themselves the people of the dragon,’ says Gabrielle. ‘Chinese dragons, as opposed to Western dragons, are all good – they bring rain, and they bring good luck and in the olden days were the symbol of the Emperor.’

The symbolism of the dream had a profound meaning for Gabrielle. As a child, she completely rejected being Chinese.

She was surrounded by white faces. ‘I grew up in Melbourne, in a very white suburb. There were very few Chinese families in Melbourne at that stage when I was growing up in the 50s, and 60s, and I was the only Asian kid and not just Chinese, but Asian kid in my whole school,’ she explains.

‘And so, I felt as though I didn't belong in Australia. I've also felt like I didn't belong in China. And having this dream, I realised, ‘Okay, I'm in Australia, I can embrace both cultures.’

A mentor in Hazel Edwards

The next day, she started writing about the dream. It evolved into a story about what her parents sold in the shop, and a fictional character called Bonnie, who was given a box of magical pastels.

‘And with these pastels, she could draw this amazing garden outside the shop she lived in,’ says Gabrielle. ‘Because when I was young, when we lived in a shop, I used to use chalk and draw on the footpath outside…So it was sort of semi-autobiographical. And also this girl called Bonnie hated being Chinese, just like I used to.’

She was proud of herself given her struggles at school with writing but wasn’t sure what to do with it. The story stayed in a drawer until she took a course at Holmesglen TAFE run by the famed Australian children’s author Hazel Edwards, creator of the much-loved There’s a Hippopotamus on My Roof Eating Cake.

The first part of the course was about getting picture books published – Gabrielle had previously tried but had been unsuccessful.  She almost didn’t take the second part of the course, which was how to write a junior novel.

Gabrielle took a leap of faith and pulled her story from the bottom drawer. At the end of the year, after workshopping it in class, Hazel told her the story was good enough to be published. The rejections from publisher flowed, until Hazel put her in touch with the children’s publisher at Penguin. Her first book was published, The Garden of Empress Cassia.

Listen to Gabrielle on isPodcast

Imagine a story

Twenty years on, and more than 20 books later, Gabrielle Wang is Australia’s new Children’s Laureate, on a mission to encourage and inspire young readers.

Despite her success and awards, she says the role is her greatest honor, a recognition by her peers and industry professionals.

Being Children’s Laureate allows her to talk about what’s important to her – imagination. ‘Imagine a story’ is the theme of her two-year term.

‘I’m going to encourage children to use their imaginations and exercise them by reading stories, writing stories, and drawing stories, because these are all the things that I do.’

She’ll be encouraging children to read diverse books by diverse authors. ‘I mean, stories are incredible, because it’s the only form of art we can actually get inside the head of the character,’ says Gabrielle. ‘You can’t do it when you’re watching a movie, or when you’re watching a play, or when you’re looking at a work of art. And so it’s a wonderful vehicle for teaching empathy in children.’

She knows what it’s like when children find reading hard – and has a modern approach to help them.

‘I am still a really slow reader, I find reading difficult,’ says Gabrielle. ‘What’s been a game changer for me are audio books.

‘And so, as the Australian Children’s Laureate, that’s something that I thought was really important for children to have access to books who also find it difficult to read. And so, Bolinda, an audio book company, and through BorrowBox, which is the app that they have, children who belong to a library can download books for free.’

Gabrielle is a big advocate for parents and teachers reading aloud to children. It helps children who find reading difficult.

And it overcomes what can be a barrier for boys reading books where girls are the protagonists, such as Gabrielle’s stories.

Girls will pick up books with boys on the front cover, but the reverse often isn’t the case, she says. Gabrielle was told by one all boys school they overcame the problem by covering the books in brown paper.

‘It’s unfortunate, but you know, it’s the only way they can get their boys to pick it up. And you know, maybe the boy is ashamed of being seen with a book with a girl on the cover. This is just how it is,’ says Gabrielle.

‘And I know from the feedback I get by having the teacher read the book out in class, everybody is just dying for the next chapter…here you have boys who are getting into the head of a girl, which is wonderful, to see how they feel, and to see how they see the world.’

Banner image State Library of Victoria – James Braund

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Find out more

You can visit the Australian Children’s Laureate Foundation website to discover more about the role and the work work of the foundation.

There’s more information about Gabrielle on her website, including details of her new book Zadie Ma and the Dog Who Chased the Moon.