Ursula will be delivering the Children’s Laureate Address at PETAA’s 2020 Leading with Literacy Conference: Reading to Write, which will run in Sydney from November 6–7. You can explore the program and book your place here
We asked Ursula a few questions about how she views the relationship between reading and writing, her advice for struggling writers, and the magic of reading.
Reading and writing have a strong relationship to each other. How do they feel connected to you, as both a big reader and an accomplished writer?
My instinctive answer to this question is to go back to when I first learned to read, when I was six. I remember how utterly thrilling it was to know that I could open up a book and start to read the words on the page of a story. But equally amazing to me at the same time was the earth-shattering (in a good way!) realisation that now I could also WRITE down all the stories that I made up in my head. I could put those thoughts on a blank piece of paper and make a story of my own that other people could read. So for me the two activities were inextricably connected from the very beginning. That’s when I decided to be a writer, when I learned to read.
I loved to read all through school, and English was my favourite subject. At university I did four years of English literature, four intense years of reading, reading, reading. I was never particularly outstanding at writing essays, or the analysis and criticism of what I read, but the wonder, discipline and revelation of all that reading has been a gift for my whole life. Not a moment goes by for me as a writer, sincerely, where I am not aware of the influence on my writing of everything that I have read.
What excites you the most about writing for children and young people?
It’s that excitement of the blank page, that I was talking about just now. In front of you is nothing, and then you start to write and minutes later there is SOMETHING. That’s the great drama of creation, that you first feel as a child and really never stop feeling. I’ve only ever wanted to write for the young, so for me all the excitement I have about writing is naturally associated writing for them.
When you’re finding it tough to write, what keeps you going? How would you encourage others to keep writing?
I remember YEARS ago hearing Libby Gleeson say that if you get writer’s block, you should consider that you are very possibly just tired and you should have a rest! What very sensible (and indeed insightful) advice. The brain does get tired, and a few weeks rest from writing can sometimes be the best thing. That said, writing is a cumulative achievement and even a sentence or two, if that’s all you feel up to, on a daily basis slowly adds up to an anthill of words that you can then play around with. I guess the thing to keep in mind is that the excitement I was describing above is not something you feel every day, and it’s also not necessarily a burst of excitement (although it sometimes is). It is more often a kind of slow wonder, like melting ice …
If you could offer one piece of advice to teachers who are looking to engage all students with writing, what would it be?
Look, the piece of advice I always give children (and adults) when they ask me about writing is – to FINISH whatever it is you are working on, whether you feel it is good or bad. I feel as if I learnt the most about writing by forcing myself to finish things, even if I really didn’t want to and I knew it wasn’t working. That act of finishing something, well or badly, does give you a sense of mastery over what you are doing, and next time you can bring all the things you learned about what to do and what not to do to your next piece of writing.
What was your favourite childhood book?
Ah well that depends on what age! Usually I say “Biquette the White Goat” by Francoise, which I was given as a birthday present, because it’s the first one I remembering reading over and over again. But the same goes for Dr Seuss’ I Had Trouble In Getting To Solla Sollew, which I also know off by heart (ask me any time to recite it!) I really loved May Gibb’s Snugglepot and Cuddlepie as well, which my dad bought me at a fete. I still have all these books! When I was older probably the novel that had the deepest effect on me was Rumer Godden’s An Episode of Sparrows, which is a realist novel set in London after the Blitz about a group of children trying to make a garden in the wreck of the city.