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NSW Premier's Reading Challenge 2021 - Author talks (primary) - 02. Kirli Saunders

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ELLA-ROSE: [non-english speech] I'm Ella-Rose, and I'm from Lidcombe Public School. And today we're here at Parramatta Riverside Theatre on [? darkland ?] for the Sydney Writers' Festival Primary Schools' Day. I'm joined by Kirli Saunders and author of amazing books like 'Bindi' and 'The Incredible Freedom Machines.' As a child, what books did you enjoy reading?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: [non-english speech] And thank you. It's so lovely to meet you. The books that I loved as a kid were mostly picture books. And, yeah, I think I devoured stories as a child. I really loved the merging of story and image, so picture books were always something that I went into.

But I really love oral stories, hearing people speak stories. And actually our family are a bunch of really lovely storytellers, so I would go to sleep each night with Dad telling us a ghost story from when he was working in a prison, and it was haunted. Or Mum would tell us stories from her childhood on [inaudible]. So I feel very lucky that some of my stories went on pages, and they were beautiful moments shared with people I love.

ELLA-ROSE: That actually links to our next question, which is how stories passed to you as a child.

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Yeah, I think definitely by having conversations and hearing stories being spoken aloud. But also we had a bit of a ritual of going to the [inaudible] bookshop, which is still a bookshop in town. And it's where I found 'Bindi' for the first time, actually, when it came out in the wild.

Finding a book in the wild is so exciting, especially when it's the one that you would visit as a kid. And I would take all of my pocket money and, you know, rack up and tear apart all of these stories. And, yeah, I distinctly remember buying 'Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge' and the 'Lemony Snicket Series of Unfortunate Events'. They were two series, which I absolutely devoured.

ELLA-ROSE: When did you become interested in writing? Did you know as a child that you wanted to be a writer?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Actually, I had an incredible-- I went to public schools. I had an incredible high school teacher who shared poetry collections with me and would say, oh, Kirli, here's a bunch of poetry. You should read these. Let me know what you think.

I feel like that was the start of poetry for me. I would have been in my senior years in school and then continued to write after that. So maybe always a writer but poetry particularly as a young adult.

ELLA-ROSE: And what were your parents' reaction when you told them that you wanted to be a writer?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, I'm so lucky. Mum and dad were-- they're thrilled. No matter what I want to do, they've always been very supportive. It's always been any dream, they're there with bells on and waving their pompoms, super supportive.

I originally wanted to be a hockey player. And so I was playing all this state hockey and trying to get into all these teams and things. And then, as I started to reach my senior years in school, they said, you know you should really think about if you want to go to uni and be a teacher, or if you want to go and play hockey. What's it going to be?

And I chose uni, and I'm so glad. Being a teacher was one of the greatest things I've ever done and working with children in public schools, just absolute soul food. And it was there that the 'Incredible Freedom Machines' was born, so while I was a teacher. And I would write stories and share them with my students. And they would support them so, yeah, it's a special thing to have chased down that dream.

ELLA-ROSE: And where did the idea for 'Bindi' come from?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, well 'Bindi', I was raised in Gundungurra country, so in the Southern Highlands. And Mittagong Public School would be tuning in. It's always lovely to come and visit you back home. And 'Bindi', I guess, is based around that area around Gundungurra country. And during the bushfires of 2019 and 2020, my Mum's birthplace, so Yuin country; my grandmother's birthplace, Gunai country; my grandfather's birthplace, Biripi country; and my birthplace, Gundungurra country, we're all on fire.

And I got the call from dad to say, ash is falling from the sky. And I had that overwhelming sense of fear that I felt as a child growing up in these communities. And I also felt this deep sense of wanting to make a difference and supporting children to feel like they had agency because when you're in that, you really want to change things.

And planting trees for the black cockatoo whose area had all been fire affected. Their entire colonies and nesting areas were wiped out by fire. I wanted to write for them. I wanted to create something that responded to that experience, so 'Bindi', an 11-year-old girl who plays hockey, loves art, hates maths, and who plants trees. She looks particularly for the glossy black cockatoo, which is endangered. That's where this story came from.

ELLA-ROSE: And what was the hardest part about writing 'Bindi'?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, I'd written the entire thing, the whole book, and then the fires broke out. And so I parked my manuscript and put it in the box under the bed and then started again. I wanted to make sure that I was creating something that was responsive to what we were experiencing collectively. I think stories play a big role in holding people in hard times and providing solace and care for the readers who pick them up.

ELLA-ROSE: I was actually quite touched about the character 'Bindi'. What do you want readers to feel at the end of this book?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, I think hopeful. I want I want our kids to feel hopeful. Throughout the story, Bindi goes on to-- she plays hockey in a team that gets flogged every week. And I've been that kid who plays entertainments repeatedly losing and just being like, [sighs] this is really frustrating.

So I think I wanted Bindi to be this, hey, you can get beaten every week and still have heaps of fun. That's what sport's about. And if you keep trying, maybe you'll score that goal.

I also wanted it to be something actionable and tangible for children who are existing in this time of climate change and who are existing in communities that are fire and flood affected so that they know that there's things that can be done and that the traditional care for country, connecting with elders and custodians, understanding the ways that [inaudible] have always cared for country is one way that we can continually care for the Earth together and that we can do it together. And, yeah, that kind of hope, I think, is something I really wanted our readers to take away from 'Bindi'.

ELLA-ROSE: Yeah. What do you enjoy most about [inaudible]?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, I think it's actually meeting kids like you, truly. And this book came out during COVID, so I wasn't actually able to meet any of the students that were picking up 'Bindi' or reading it. And today, being here for the Sydney Writers' Festival and for the last week having engagement with children who are reading stories has been a really special experience and one that will keep me going to be lonely, writing behind a desk somewhere in between until I meet some more great kids again.

ELLA-ROSE: How do you know when you finished writing a book?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: I think it's kind of like an artwork, right? Like, you never really know. You could always probably do something else. But there's a certain sense of closure and this big swell in your heart and your belly that makes you feel like this is a whole thing. It feels like every element of this is wrapped up somewhere. And there aren't any loose bits, any loose story ends that need to be kind of tucked in anywhere, of everything has been cared for. So maybe that. But actually, I'm working on the sequel for Bindi at the moment. So even though it's a story that is finished, there's still a next part.

ELLA-ROSE: And I'm now part of the writing club at school.

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Which is the coolest thing ever. It's so cool that you have a writing club at your school. Sorry. Keep going.

ELLA-ROSE: Do you have any tips that I can share with the kids in this club?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Yeah. I think the tips that I share with students when I meet them is always stay wild. That if you want to write books about country or books that are inspired and dynamic, then you need to spend time outside and time adventuring and catching up with your friends. And it's those experiences that have fueled all of my stories, living a wild life with wonderful people around me. So I would say that.

Also collaborating. It can be quite lonely work sitting there and typing away on a computer. But when I take my book to Dub Leffler, and he illustrates it, or Matt Ottley, or any of the other creators that I collaborate with, my editor Lucas Pennington, or Magabala, my publishers, I have lots of people that I'm working with in the background.

So collaborate, stay wild, and I think that you have to listen and read and watch and play. You have to be curious if you want to be creative. And you have to be continuously learning.

I did not go to university to study writing. And I like to tell people that because then I can say, you don't have to be qualified to be a writer. You just have to have a story and want to share it somehow. And I'm continuously learning, catching up with friends all the time, learning new tips. So I'd say, keep learning.

ELLA-ROSE: And then our last question today is, can you tell us about any books that you're working on at the moment?

KIRLI SAUNDERS: Oh, I can. I mentioned before, I'm working on the sequel for 'Bindi', which is really exciting. I'm also working on two plays with Playwriting Australia and with the Crimson Rosella Theatre and South East Arts and Merrigong Theatre. So there's some plays in the background.

I'm creating my very first visual arts exhibition, so art and poetry merging together because I never really know where each of those sit, and when they come together, it's a really beautiful-- again, that kind of holistic feeling for me. So I wanted to bring those two together in the same place.

And 'Afloat' will come out with Hardie Grant in the next few years. 'Our Dreaming' will come out with Scholastic, and there's a few early childhood books with Magabala, too. So keep your eyes peeled. They'll be on a shelf in front of you soon.

ELLA-ROSE: Yes. Thank you so much today for coming along.

KIRLI SAUNDERS: [non-english speech] Thank you so much for [non-english speech] with me. Thank you for walking and working with me. It's always a joy to be where kids are and always a joy to meet future writers. Thank you.

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