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June Factor celebrates play
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June Factor celebrates play
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“Play is how you learn to live, to get on with other people, where friendships are made and lost, this is where the imagination triumphs.”
27 January 2018

June Factor celebrates play

Interview by Myke Bartlett
Photography by Simone Stabb

Myke Bartlett on June Factor

I know first-hand the impact June Factor’s work has had on the lives of children. As a seven-year-old, I was one of millions of Australian kids transfixed by her book Far Out, Brussel Sprout—a very funny and rather naughty compilation of playground rhymes. Growing up in Western Australia, I always had this sense that life was happening elsewhere. Books, films and telly were awash with images and accents from places I’d never been. These books were different. This was my language, my folklore, made canon. Reading this book was like being told that I truly did exist, that my way of life was just as real and valid as the lives which typically dominate our culture.

Far Out and its sequels are still in print, more than 30 years later, but these days June is using books to change the lives of children in a very different way. Like many Australians, the academic was horrified by government policy that saw asylum seeker children indefinitely imprisoned in places such as Nauru. Unlike most Australians, June decided to do something about it. With the help of a few friends, she established the Befriend a Child in Detention project. This group sends books (initially donated by bookshops and publishers and then from people around Australia) to children kept in detention at home and offshore. Schools across the country have been keen to participate, with local kids writing letters to their imprisoned peers.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. June has had to work hard, negotiating with tangled layers of bureaucracy to ensure the books reach their young targets. Recently, she discovered that the letters of support, which were placed inside the books, were being confiscated by those responsible for running the detention centres. These difficulties don’t seem to have discouraged June. This is a battle she intends to win. She tells me of her plans to visit Nauru and, despite recent changes to the visa situation, I don’t doubt that she’ll find a way to get there.

As might be expected of someone who has spent her working life at the University of Melbourne, June is foremost an intellectual. Her first loves are history, language and theories of childhood play. But during the hours we spend together, I come to see her as a woman of fierce and stubborn passion, guided by an unshakeable sense of what is right. And when it comes to the needs of children, there are few people so well equipped to know exactly what is right for them.

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

MYKE BARTLETT: Why has childhood been so important to you in your work?

JUNE FACTOR: I have a vague memory of me as a six-year old, tramping up the street we lived on in North Carlton, because somebody up there had had a baby. I had to see the baby. I was an only child for a long time, but I don’t think I was yearning for siblings. I was yearning for babies!

The local kids used to come and play on my street because the Catholic school across from us had an excellent brick wall for bouncing ball games, which were very popular then. I remember one of the girls who must have been the eldest of a very large, very poor family and she had the responsibility of looking after the youngest, this very dirty little baby. To come and play, she had to push the pram all the way down to our bit of the street. I very quickly made an arrangement with her that I would look after the baby so she could then play. She went off like a light, but the baby took one look at me and started to howl. I had to put the pram hood over the baby so it couldn’t see me, which meant I couldn’t see him! I think I remember this experience because it was so disappointing. I wheeled him up and down to stop him crying, but I couldn’t look at him. So I had a very early interest in children.

And that early interest sowed the seeds of a lifetime’s study.

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

This story originally ran in issue #48 of Dumbo Feather

To understand something about childhood is to understand something about the development of the human species, because we all pass through this period.

We’re not born grown up, although I’ve had to persuade the occasional child of that truth. I’m very interested in human development, in the ways people acquire culture. All of that you can see much more clearly in the ways children behave, because they don’t try to hide it. They are naturally cultural creatures. I was with some friends not long ago who had a small boy of four who was, in that moment, not a happy chappie. I just started telling him a simple story: “Once upon a time,” and that child stood stock-still. I had to keep on going, making it up as I went along. While I was telling that story, you would have said this was the most angelic little boy
you’ve ever seen. Because there’s something about a story, there’s something about a song that is enormously powerful in the best sense. It enchants.

The storytime trance. Although we talk about how much we prize our children, looking after them and educating them is an area of work that is often undervalued. Did that discourage you from working in that field?

No, it didn’t even put me off working with my own children! [Laughs] I don’t romanticise childhood. I think the romantic notion of children being little flowers opening to the sun is not my thing really. They are very complex creatures. The wonder with which they take in the world and respond to it I find endlessly encouraging. This is the human being writ small, but not small in all that matters. Physically, largely powerless, truly ignorant of the world. And yet eager and extraordinarily able to engage with it. You put a baby on a changing table and you start, “This Little Piggy Went to Market,” they’ll make a noise that means, “Do it again!”

It’s true. I think the one of the first words both my daughters learned was “more!”

Yes! And was it a song or a story?

Well, it was often food, it must be said. But equally often being tickled or a song.

Music, absolutely. I remember when my second child was born, my mother came to look after my first born, who was then about 20 months. My husband mentioned to my mother that Naomi, my daughter, liked a particular Beethoven symphony, but not another. My mother thought we were pulling her leg. Anyway, she put on the wrong Beethoven symphony. My daughter wasn’t talking, but made it very clear she didn’t like this one. So my mother put on the other one and Naomi danced. She already, at less than two, had preferences. She had things she liked and disliked. I think all kids do. We know it about food, because we suffer with it, but we forget that they have it in all sorts of cultural ways too. The story that has to be told over and over. The page that you must turn over quickly, because they don’t like the picture. They are cultural beings from the beginning.

You have three children. Did raising them affect your ideas of what childhood was like?

I probably think it enriched it.

Having children means you’re a hostage to fortune.

I can still remember each of my children’s one really serious illness. I can remember the Latin name for one of them because that gets burned into you. On one level, it’s work, of course, but I must say I was delighted. Before I married, I always said I was going to have 13 children. I’ve just knocked off the one. As I’ve said, my interest in children started very early in my life and having children didn’t destroy it, if that’s what you’re getting at!

I guess I was curious about your experiences of play with your own children, given your interest in the subject.

I was the sort of mother who wanted to provide a range of resources, but I didn’t want to put myself in the play, except when they’re very small—singing them a song, bouncing them on your knee or whizzing them around. Once they were independently getting themselves around or picking things up or turning the pages in books, I didn’t play with them in the sense of “let’s do this.” I rather let them do what they were interested in.

Were you loathe to interfere because you were so respectful of that culture children have, the need for their own space?

I don’t know that I would have been as conscious of it as that. At that stage, I hadn’t become focused on the play lore of children. That came later. I think it was partly practical, I had things I had to do, all the domestic stuff. But I think, in some ways, I didn’t want to dominate. Because we do dominate children’s lives. The adult decides what the child eats, when they go to bed, where they go. There was an instinct in me that, if they’re happy, you let them be happy. You don’t have to do something.

Which goes against the modern trend for helicopter parenting, or micro-managing our children’s lives.

Yes, I think there’s probably a natural law that says the fewer the children the more fuss there is. If you think of the old days, when there were eight children or something like that, there’s not an ice cream’s chance in hell that you’ll be able to fuss. I was always pleased if one of my children came home and said they’d got 10 out of 10 in a test, but I never felt it was my job to get them 10 out of 10. What I did do, as they got bigger, was feel it was my job to open the world up for them—music, going to the theatre, the beach in the summer.

You were providing experiences and resources.

Yes, but not really monitoring them much. Not giving them a mark out of 10 on how they reacted. I can’t imagine doing that. I think it would be tiring and tiresome. If you think about children in the playground, they will play and they will argue, but would they ever go and ask an adult? Not in a thousand years! It’s something they decide among themselves. Adults are not in this circle, it’s a child’s circle.

I wanted to speak a bit more about your ideas of childhood, because they’re quite different to the romanticised ideas of childhood as being a time of innocence. Where do you think your particular conception of childhood came from?

Well, I was an avid reader from a very young age. If you think about all the books people of my generation read, like Anne of Green Gables and Little Women. These books are full of very complex, rich and often painful lives. They contrasted with my own life, which was a very secure, loving family, but one shadowed by the Second World War and all that it had done. You do not escape that as a child, even if it doesn’t directly affect you. Sooner or later, you realise that your parents have lost almost everybody they ever knew and loved. You never have grandparents. I think I had two aunts and a couple of cousins, so it was a very small family. So I never had a very romantic view of childhood, even though mine was happy.

I think we underestimate what children may understand. That often comes through in that old word “feeling,” what they understand through feeling.

Certainly, I’ve been astonished by the philosophical nature of some of the questions my three-year-old asks at bedtime. We’ve recently had “Are we real?” and “Why do we die?” The instinct there was to tell a fairytale.

It’s difficult, because you don’t want to be too truthful. You don’t want a child who’s fearful that her parents at any moment will disappear on her. A quite selfish but reasonable fear. It’s not the role of adults to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth to children. That was one of the terrible puritan things of telling children horrible stories.

I think the only thing that scared me about death, growing up in a Christian family, was the idea of hell.

Ah, yes. I was lucky because I grew up in an atheist household, so that never entered into it. But I remember lying in my cot as a very small child in this dark, damp horrible little cottage we lived in in North Carlton. It’s amazing to think I was thinking this, but I was thinking, How would I deal with torture? And I very quickly decided I wouldn’t deal with it at all, I would capitulate. Now that must have come from the times.

Or books, perhaps. Torture is a complex thing to be thinking about.

I’ll say it is! [Laughs]. And that I was so crestfallen that I was going to be a total coward. Now you mention books, I think perhaps I had read something about bravery. I was very confident that I was not brave. It’s funny you mentioned being afraid of hell, because you would have been one of millions of children who suffered because so much of the Christian religion seems to be about torture and death. That’s stuff I would run a mile from for kids.

I was surprised looking over the Brussel Sprout books to see how rude some of the rhymes are. Which of course is exactly what I liked about them as a kid. These were books, more than any other, that really belonged to me—that spoke my language. Was it important for kids to see their vernacular canonised?

Absolutely. Yes, to see it turned into a status object, a book. Of course, it’s not a proper cross-section collection, because there are far more vulgar and obscene rhymes and there are also lots of riddles and jokes that are racist. I think it’s really important to collect them but I knew if I put in the obscene stuff it wouldn’t get to kids, and I didn’t want to be part of the transmission of the racist stuff, although I think it’s ridiculous to pretend it doesn’t exist. The content is very mild in those books. There was a book published in the mid-1980s about censorship in schools, and in the back there’s a list of the most queried writers and I come second, after Judy Blume! [Laughs].

Did you have any reservations putting these playground chants into a book?

One of them was, by putting this endlessly changing oral literature into a book, which is like concrete, that in some way I would stifle or restrict the tradition. That children would just stick by the book. But the book just became part of their repertoire. The other concern I had was that teachers, I guess the sort of fierce teachers I remembered from my primary school days, would be standing there with my book saying, “Sit up straight, fold your hands on the desk and now we will say ‘Mary Had A Little Lamb.’” I had this terrible idea that the book would be used against children in some way. I was absolutely mistaken about that.

There is still in adults a motivation that is nearly always wonderfully honourable about what you can give to children. You are the giver, you are the provider. You lay out this wonderful smorgasbord of good things about reading and writing and mathematics and history and all this wonderful stuff. You are the purveyor of culture.

What gets forgotten is that children have a culture. It’s a very powerful and enduring culture passed on almost entirely from children to children.

An oral culture.

It’s an oral culture, encompassing verbal lore, kinetic lore, physical lore, games. If the kids are playing cricket, they’re not playing it by the normal rules. There was a wonderful study done years ago, comparing the games played in Phys Ed class to the games children play on their own. It proved that the games children invent for themselves are much richer in physical activity—heart things, muscle things, whatever Phys Ed is designed for. There’s an example of a group of children playing cricket with a baseball bat and a rubbish bin, but what’s really interesting is the rules. They have rules based on the length of the kids’ legs. In other words, they alter the length of the pitch depending on whether you’ve got short legs or long legs, so the short-legged person doesn’t have to run as far. It’s a much fairer system!

It is!

On another occasion, I was talking to a group of children in Clifton Hill and they were explaining how they play marbles. I said, “What happens if somebody wins everybody else’s marbles?” “Oh,” they said, “We have a rule for that. He has to put six more back into the ring.” I had kids at home, so I thought about this for a minute. “And what if he won’t?” “Oh, we have a rule for that,” they said. “We take them out of his pockets.” They weren’t joking. The point of the game was the game. They wanted to keep it going. Marbles is a game where there is winning and losing, but even beyond winning was the desire to keep the game going.

So the process was more important to them than the ultimate outcome.

It was.

That’s something else that we forget in adulthood. Anything that isn’t focused on the outcome seems to be a waste of time—or is dismissed as childish.

If you’re in a piece of theatre, you ultimately want it to be performed, of course. But a lot of the interest and what you learn is in the rehearsal. Children’s play is a form of art. They are practitioners of the arts, in the forms that are accessible to them.

Play is a hard thing to define. What sort of definition would you offer?

I’ve managed to avoid ever giving a definition. There isn’t a definition. You can say what it isn’t. It’s such a complex activity that sometimes has rules, sometimes has none. I once read a wonderful piece of research observing children in England, four or five of them playing schools. If you’re playing schools, you want to be the teacher. So one girl was out the front, with a ruler, but the other kids kept talking and laughing. Finally, the girl banged down the ruler and said: “If you don’t stop playing, we won’t play!” I thought that’s fantastic. Exactly the right use in each case. If you don’t stop playing around, we won’t play the game. But I’m not good at definitions. When you define it with rules, it always means games and that’s only one part of play.

It’s reassuring to hear you talk about this, because there’s a sense that childhood is rapidly changing, that kids are forgetting how to be kids. But you seem to be suggesting the opposite.

It’s like every other part of life, there’s continuity and there’s change. And those are the two pillars of folklore. Continuity and change. A song changes because somebody forgets a line and sticks another one in. That’s exactly what kids do.

I retain a great fascination with the enormous ingenuity children display, their capacity to play with almost nothing, and the social bonds that are made and unmade with sometimes amazing rapidity. Play is often the grounds for friendship, it’s also the grounds for unmaking a friendship. It’s an extraordinarily powerful element of human growth and development.

I wondered if the fact that you came to Australia as a child from Poland gave you a particular interest in documenting the Australian vernacular, as you did in Brussel Sprout.

I don’t think it was that. I was just two. I spoke Polish and we spoke Yiddish at home. Very early I was a reader and loved books, which meant I loved language. Growing up in North Carlton, there was no library. I don’t think our school had a library. There was a bookshop in the city called the International Bookshop, a left-wing bookshop, and the Soviet Union was publishing in English wonderful books for a miniscule amount of money. Bless their socks. It meant that people like my parents, who didn’t have much money at all, were able to access books. By the time I was in my adolescence, I’d read my way through the Russians, the French. When I was younger, I discovered the Myer store had a lending library. I’d get on the tram at Lygon Street at nine or 10 years old, which was perfectly okay back then, and go into Myer. I think my interest in language started very early and so did my interest in children. As I said before, I would go looking for babies. I’ve never thought of this in quite the way I’m telling you now, but those two things came together for me, very early.

You said the language was important, but what else was it about books that got you on that tram, as a nine-year-old?

Stories. You entered another world. I started writing very early. I was writing stories when I was still a child. Stories were the best thing. I loved anything that was written. I was very unselective. The more you read, the more discriminating you become. When I was an academic, I used to say to my students, “There’s one thing you can do for these kids you’ll be touching which will be better than anything else you do: sign them up to a library.” I meant it. That’s a lifetime’s gift.

The other thing that’s important is you don’t tell the children what to borrow. It’s a smorgasbord. It doesn’t matter why some child picks up a book he can’t possibly read. The only way you develop taste and discretion is through experience.

The sooner you have that experience, the greater the freedom you have to roam through that forest of books.

I wonder if, growing up as an immigrant in North Carlton, you needed that escape in books? Do you remember the attitude of Australians then towards new arrivals?

Well, I was Jewish. There was quite a big Jewish community there. On Sunday morning and one afternoon during the week, I went to a Yiddish school. It was a cultural centre, it had a library, it had a theatre—plays were performed. We spoke Yiddish at home, but that’s where I learned to read and write Yiddish. A lot of kids got sent there when they were young and then dropped off, but I stayed because of the literature, because it’s fabulous.

So it was the books that kept you connected to this school.

It was mainly the literature, yes.

There’s no shortage of entertainment sources for children nowadays, aside from books. Do you think books give children something that other sources of entertainment don’t?

There’s a lovely story about Einstein being approached by an eager mother with a boy of seven. She wanted him to grow up to be a great scientist. What should she do? Einstein paused and said, “Tell him fairytales.” The woman was very surprised, and said, “What else?” “Tell him some more fairytales.” And he’s absolutely right. It’s about the imagination. Stories must, in some ways, open possibilities. And there’s something about the physicality. I pointed out to my students one day that, if you sat in an armchair reading, you could probably have up to eight children within physical touch. Kids like to be in physical touch. The experience of reading is deepened by the presence of the loved one. You can get stories on eBooks, on television. But the thing about TV or films is your imagination is being replaced. It’s not necessarily bad, but I’d like children to have both. Kids are omnivorous, and each child will have something they like better than something else.

Given the predominance of screen entertainment and the rise of things like helicopter parenting, it does feel like the space for play is shrinking.

Yes and it worries me. The school playground ought to be a refuge for play. In some places it is. In almost all building of schools, the playground is an afterthought. Some schools have cut their recesses, there are schools in the United States that have abolished free time entirely. They have to let the kids out, but they’re supervised and instructed at all times. This is meant to improve their academic performance. It’s bizarre, it’s cruel and it’s also ineffectual. Totally ineffectual. It is really important for kids to be free to play. A school has an educational responsibility because what is learned in play is immense. It’s not just the obvious things like learning how to take turns.

Play is how you learn to live, to get on with other people, where friendships are made and lost. It’s where the imagination triumphs, where collaborative activity is of the essence. It’s got everything going for it. Adults’ role is not to interfere.

The more structured play is, the more specific a toy is, the less there is for a child to do with it.

Give a child a wooden spoon and a saucepan and they’ll bang away for hours. It’s not an either/or thing. Children really are smorgasbord eaters. They want to try things. When they play with each other, it’s quite a different sort of play. The play that goes on among friends is inventive, open to constant change and there’s an amazing amount of tradition. What kids don’t realise is they’re playing games that were played in Ancient Rome. They are great holders of tradition, but they adapt all the time. This is an immensely rich period of a child’s life.

When I was writing my book Captain Cook Chased A Chook, I made this argument that we know of no human society past or present where there isn’t play. I thought I should test this. So I thought, OK, can I find a situation so desperate, so dire, so painful, dangerous, threatening, that play was unlikely? As it happened, there are quite a number of memoirs about the lives of children in the ghettos in the Second World War. And in that you will find references to play and arguments as to whether it was appropriate. If I’m giving a lecture about play, I often include an image of two little boys playing Germans and Jews in a Nazi ghetto, having a lovely time.

These are children who end up mostly dead. They are starving, they may well have lost most or all of their family already, the circumstances are horrendous, but they went on playing. They played as long as there was breath in body and strength in limb. They would play with whatever was around. Play for children was not just an escape, which I’m sure it was, but it was an assertion of life.

That does seem a good segue into your work with Befriend a Child in a Detention project. One of the most horrifying aspects of our current attitude to asylum seekers is that we’re effectively robbing these children of their childhood, of the necessary freedom to play. Is that what lay behind you establishing this project?

It was a part of it. I was just—“appalled” is too weak a word—by our treatment of asylum seekers. And it’s not just because that’s what I once was. You don’t have to have had a personal experience as a refugee to feel for others. I’m particularly appalled about the children, because they are the most vulnerable. They will now be marked for life. You recover, but it doesn’t come off. But also I had a very pragmatic idea, which was that children are the government’s weakest link. Even people who don’t think people should get on boats don’t really like the idea of children being in detention.

I’ll put money on the fact that 40 years from now, a PM will stand up in parliament and make a solemn apology to asylum seekers. Unquestionably. It’s just one of the most shameful things a government here has ever done. I got a few friends around my kitchen table to talk about this and we realised these children need friends. You can’t get through life without friends. I wanted an organisation that was respectable and reasonably well resourced. I ended up talking to an Anglican bishop who thought it was a great idea and was based at the Brotherhood of St Lawrence. We weren’t part of the Brotherhood, we’re an independent group, but they thought we’re worth helping. The Brotherhood is moving, and now we have a new home at the Church of All Nations in Carlton. We have a number of volunteers, fabulous young people. Anyone who speaks ill of the young better not come near me!

So very early on, we realised we want to get to these children. What was the best way of doing this? Someone in the group came up with the idea of books. Children’s books. We’ll send them books. And in every book would be a letter from someone. I tell you what, we’ve had thousands. We’ve actually put up a sign saying, “Please no more books and letters.” We sent the first back in November 2014. We sent four boxes of books to Nauru, because Nauru is the worst. It’s out of sight, out of mind and there were a lot of children there then, well over 100. And some of the kids wrote back. A school in Preston called Bell Primary got in touch to say 20 children in grades five and six had received letters back. They were so excited.

It must have been a relief to hear people were getting letters back, to know the books had got through.

Absolutely. But the last lot we sent to Nauru, the books were distributed but the letters were withheld. To do that, you had to open every book. We didn’t send the letters as a bundle. You think, This is madness. Children are not permitted to receive letters—where is this written? What good comes from this cruelty?

We spoke earlier about how robust childhood play can be, even in the ghettos of Nazi Germany. Do you think it’s not too late to let these children have some form of childhood?

I hope not. But as I say, the children who are there have been forced to become adults in many ways. They observe tremendously horrible things, like people cutting themselves or hanging themselves, they have parents (if they have parents) who are no longer in control. That must be very difficult. The parents are no longer able to protect their children. That is just the most terrible thing. I’m sure some of those children will be trying to play, but that doesn’t mean they’re not affected by what is happening. We are committing abuse of children.

What’s it going to take to change this?

My long experience with community organisations tells me you just have to persist. You look at the long struggle to end capital punishment. That took decades. There were people like Barry Jones who just did not stop talking about it. Increasingly, there are more and more people who are going beyond just feeling uncomfortable. There are groups everywhere. It can’t continue like this indefinitely and the government knows it. This is a story that has to end and they hope they can end it by sending them off to totally disastrous places. But only four people have ever agreed to go to Cambodia and that cost $40 million, together with another $15 million to resettle them. I’ve got this quote here from an American rabbi called Joachim Prinz, who went with Martin Luther King to that great march, he had been a rabbi in Nazi Germany: “The most important thing that I learned in my life is that bigotry and hatred are not the most urgent problem. The most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.” I think he’s spot on.

You can see that the government is trying to engineer that silence, by keeping asylum seekers out of sight.

Exactly. That’s what we were trying to break through. They want them anonymous. They should not have names, they should not have faces. I don’t know if you remember, but they would only ever photograph them from a distance, just figures. Usually women wearing scarves, so they were strange figures as well. Nothing was to be known about them. One of the purposes of Befriend a Child in Detention was for one child to know another.

If people would like to support this project, what’s the best thing they can do?

At the moment, we’ve put a hold on books and letters because we have so many and the circumstances of the children are changing. But we are also urging people to think of ways they can get letters to the children through means other than us. For example, they might try their local Member of Parliament, who is there to be a help to them in all of their needs. They can approach their local MP and say: “Five of us have written letters and we would like them to go to children in detention. We don’t know how to do that, but you can.” Or write to the Prime Minister, write to the leader of the opposition and explain that they have mistaken the views of the Australian people. Tell them you know from your family and your friends that this is a subject of great importance to you all. And that you feel whatever it is you feel—ashamed, pained. The words we most often see in emails to us are “thank you.” Thank you because you have given us something we can do. We’ve wanted to do something, but don’t know what to do.

We often feel hopeless in situations like this.

People do. And impotent. Most people don’t go to rallies, most people don’t even see petitions to sign. They’re not going to write to the paper. They’re people who live quiet, private lives. But they care about this.

We also encourage people to use their own initiative and imagination. We don’t have all the answers. You know there are children in detention. You know what we want is to be able to communicate with them. You think of things that are good to do, tell us about them and we’ll put them on our webpage.

Again, it’s about appealing to that sense of creativity, that play.


What’s been the hardest part of this process for you?

One of the hardest things for me is the time it takes, because it really does occupy a very large part of my waking and probably sleeping life. Which means that the other things that I do have taken a back seat. I’ve been promising to finish this book about immigrants who served in the Australian armed forces during World War Two for a very long time. It’s interesting though, working on that book and working on this project, because it’s like living in parallel worlds. Because some of the refugees in the book do get interned because they’re from Austria or Germany. What happens is a tribunal is set up and not only do these people get released, some of them end up fighting in the Australian Army!

So, I think, why could they do it then, when people’s minds were much, much less open to foreigners? Why could they do this when we are paralysed? We’re paralysed by a fear of what? That people who come in leaky boats can do us harm? Would you get on a leaky boat, just to do harm? No, you’d be flying first class on a plane. I don’t know what it is about these politicians. I think, primarily, they think they’ve got the majority on their side. And maybe it’s true that they still have. But is that the only basis on which they do something? It isn’t it! They’ll pass all sorts of laws that they know they have to persuade people about.

The death penalty is a good example when you think a majority of Australians still support the death penalty. Outlawing it was a great example of moral leadership.

The acceptance of thousands of refugees was an example of leadership in the 30s and 40s. Populate or Perish after World War Two was an example of leadership. Australians didn’t want to be populated. Malcolm Fraser persuaded a reluctant Whitlam to let the Vietnamese come out in the 1970s. And they definitely weren’t wanted. So it is about leadership. I was involved with a civil liberties group in the 1980s, battling the Australia Card, which is an ID card Australians would have been obliged to carry with them. I remember we had a meeting to protest the card and the hall was packed. I looked out into the crowd and I could only see three people I knew. I thought then, We’ve won. This is not the usual suspects. Now I don’t see all the letters or emails we receive. But it occurred to me recently that I haven’t seen a letter or an email from anyone I know. Not one. And I was so pleased. I even opened a letter from an Australian in Spain the other day and they tell me there’s one from New York. That’s the thing about social media. It does spread the word.

What’s been the best of the process?

We got a lovely email after that first tranche of books reached Nauru. We were told that the books caused immense delight, but when the children saw there were letters, there were tears all round. I think they mean the adults as well. Because people said, “They don’t all hate us! They care about us.” That’s very powerful. I won’t forget about it.

But it’s also seeing the children here. The kids are so committed and joyous in what they do. I went to speak to the kids at Bell Primary a bit before Christmas, because I had bad news. I had to tell them that the letters they had written back—responding to the letters from Nauru—were being held back. “Why? Who did it?” One boy put up his hand. “If I knew who it was who did it, I’d punch him in the nose.” I said, “I’m not great on violence, but I do understand the feelings behind what you have said.”

The letters we get from children are magical. They’ll do drawings, they’ll write about their dogs. They open their lives and say things like “I hope you can write back, I hope things will be better for you.”

We read every letter, but we’ve hardly ever had to withhold one. There was a school whose letters said, “Welcome to Australia.” We couldn’t send those to Nauru. It has been remarkably rewarding in that, to some degree, we’ve achieved what we hoped. There has been some befriending. There are kids here who care. The letters have been so important. For the writer as well as the participant. The writer and artist Gaby Wang said to me, “It’s about empathy.” These kids are developing empathy, which is a tremendously important thing for children to develop.


Visit Befriend a Child in Detention to learn more and get involved.

Myke Bartlett

Myke Bartlett was born in Perth, and spent his first twenty years trying to escape. A trained journalist, Bartlett writes on politics, movies, pop culture and rock music for Australia’s best known cultural publications. His debut young adult novel Fire in the Sea won the 2011 Text Prize. Read more at mykebartlett.com

Photography by Simone Stabb

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