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Celebrity Spotlight: Susanne Gervay
Get Ahead Kids - Vol. 3, No. 1 - January/February 2011

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How do you contribute to the education of kids?

Relating to stories and becoming emotionally engaged can facilitate learning, personal growth and development. Readers can become fellow travellers in the story journeys.

My stories draw teachers, young people, parents, bystanders and the community into unique experiences that can empower them to understand and work towards a positive future.

My books explore into important areas - school bullying in 'I Am Jack', blended families and aging grandparents in 'Super Jack', breast cancer in 'Always Jack', disability in 'Butterflies', youth male culture in 'The Cave', and father-daughter relationships in 'That's Why I Wrote This Song'.

These books feature relatable characters, strong narratives, search for identity and invite readers into new experiences that may empower them to make new choices.

My books are endorsed by organisations including Room to Read, bringing literacy to children of developing countries, the Children's Hospital Westmead Sydney, Life Education Australia, The Alannah and Madeline Foundation, and the Cancer Council Australia.

'I Am Jack' is widely used in anti-school bullying programmes throughout Australia and is beginning to be used internationally. My young adult novel 'Butterflies' is recognised as outstanding youth literature on disability. I was flown to New York to speak at the World Burn Congress 2009 about the power of 'Butterflies' to partner young people on that great challenge of growing up with severe burns.

Where did you go to school?

I attended Daceyville Public School in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney. In high school, I went to SCEGGS Darlinghurst Sydney.

Tell us about your family.

My parents were post war Hungarian refugees who found a home in Australia. My parents escaped from Hungary with my older brother when he was a baby. My younger sister and I were born in Australia. My parents worked very hard to rebuild their lives.

They wanted us to get a good education, because that is something no one can take from you and education allows you the best opportunity to be all that you can be. My brother became an engineer, my sister became a special education teacher and I became a teacher, educational consultant and eventually an author.

What are your hobbies?

My hobbies include reading, going to the theatre, walking, seeing friends and family, going out for massages or to the movies with my daughter.

What was your first job?

My parents had a clothing factory. My mother did the fashion designs and my father did the business. The hours they worked were really long and most weekends, so my sister and I were often in the factory.

My first job was working for my parents. There were thousands of dresses, skirts, tops hanging in racks in the factory. I was eight years old and paid for every label I looped onto the dresses.

What are your career highlights?

There are so many highlights and these are not always related with winning awards although I have been honoured with multiple awards.

My highlights are those powerful experiences of reaching readers through story and partnering them in their lives.

I was honoured by the New York - Presbyterian Hospital, Weill Cornell Medical College, the New York Firefighters Burn Foundation and The Phoenix Society for burn survivors who flew me to New York to speak at the World Burn Congress about the power of my young adult novel 'Butterflies'.

Speaking at the World Burn Congress was one of the great moments of my life. I am a confident speaker who has addressed major conferences and festivals throughout the world, but I was nervous. How could I address this audience? What if 'Butterflies' did not capture their journeys? After my one hour talk, a line of people wound around the room with 'Butterflies' to sign. They wanted to touch and connect with me. The moment when a girl with facial reconstruction spoke and told me 'I'm 15, nearly 16' with her softly spoken voice and we touched hands, nothing more had to be said. It was powerful - she wanted to know if there was a future for her, and there is.

The adaptation of 'I Am Jack' into a play by Monkey Baa Theatre for Young People as been an extended highlight with its first season touring NSW and the Outback in 2008 and its second season touring the Eastern States in 2009. It will do a national Australian tour in 2011.

Being involved in the back of theatre has been an insight into the wonderful world of creativity with talented set designers, technical designers, production managers and of course the brilliant creative team of Monkey Baa Theatre, Eva Di Cesare, Sandie Eldridge and Tim McGarry. The audience responses are a continual highlight from outback indigenous community shows to the theatre at the Seymour Centre Sydney.

My collaboration with my talented song writer daughter Tory Gervay to create an integrated experience of story through video clip, film, lyrics, music, performance and text resulted in our book 'That's Why I Wrote This Song'. Seeing her perform her songs at the launch of 'That's Why I Wrote This Song' at Bondi Pavilion overlooking the beach and ABC TV's RAGE playing the video clip of 'Psycho Dad' were special highlights for me as a mother and author.

Receiving the Lady Cutler Award for Services to Children's Literature was especially meaningful to me, as it was from my peers and a validation of my commitment to youth literature.

What do you value most in life?

My children, family and the legacy left by my parents are deeply valuable in my life.

However I also value being useful in whatever I do - creating an arts and literary life at The Hughenden Hotel, promoting youth literature as a board member at The NSW Writers Centre, nurturing new writers and illustrators, writing stories that empower and offer positive choices for young people and adults, being a good friend, being there for my family, taking care of my aging mother, engaging in the great debates of the world from climate change to racial equality and hoping to make a small difference.

What is your most unforgettable personal experience?

My beloved father was a guiding light in my life as a man of courage and integrity. When he died I did not know you could have that much pain and live. I remember being in the hospital and gasping for air as if my life force has been sucked out. However my father gave me his gift of courage. Today his memory has settled inside me now with love. I know that he is proud of my writing.

What is your favourite Australian destination and why?

I love every part of Australia from the open red desert of Western Australia, the Great Barrier Reef with its teeming sea life, Sydney's magnificent harbour, the small towns in inland Victoria on that drive from Sydney to the Great Ocean Road. As an author I have travelled Australia extensively speaking in remote outback towns to the Gold Coast for festivals with sun and sand to Byron Bay with its alternative lifestyle to the wild and rugged Blue Mountains. I love it all.

My favourite, if I have to be pushed would be home in Sydney overlooking Bondi Beach. I love the ocean, beach, the cultural diversity; the cliff walks on the edge of Australia, the community experiences from music at Bondi Pavilion to the Festival of the Winds with kites filling the sky.

What is your best overseas experience?

Speaking at the UBUD Readers and Writers Festival in Bali, was one of the best overseas experiences I have ever had. The Festival was under the auspices of the non-profit Saraswati Foundation for the Arts, a Bali-based organization devoted to literacy education and the cultivation of artistic and cultural collaboration between east and west.

This Festival brought together nations and organisations committed to literature in its role in the promotion of understanding and tolerance. With the second Bali bombings, the festival was even more important. Those supporting the festival included United Nations through its HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) programme, which has been actively supporting young Indonesian artists and writers; Australia-Indonesia Institute, Australia Council, Indonesian Government, Royal family of UBUD as well as others.

The closing ceremony held at Agung Rai Museum of Arts was a highlight where cultures, generations, organisations united in celebrating children as our future writers and readers. It was a special moment when Booker Prize winner Michael Ondaatje handed each child their award and a fitting finale to a celebration of literature.

What do your books offer readers?

I hope my books not only include but go beyond literacy, into personal growth and development from readers in their search for meaning.

Please tell us about your latest book 'Always Jack'.

'Always Jack' is the third book in my Jack book series. It is a warm, loving, funny and quirky story of a family with Nanna who loves buying bargains, Mum who does star jumps, the sister Samantha who loves dogs, family, friends and of course Jack. Jack's a photographer and loves experimenting. He's creating a new vegetable called a Ponto and he tells lots of jokes. His best mate is Christopher whose parents came from Vietnam. Jack is a regular kid, but life isn't regular. His Mum is marrying his soon-to-be step dad and there's his son Leo to contend with. Love is in the air between Jack and Anna.

But, everything comes to a standstill when Mum is diagnosed with breast cancer. It's a child's worst nightmare that something could happen to their parents and this becomes a reality for Jack.

'Always Jack' covers kids' fears and hopes, the ways they react with a parent being sick. It gives a voice to kids, understanding of what's happening and positive ways they can deal with it.

Breast cancer is viewed as an adult issue. It's more than that. It impacts on the whole family, especially kids. This book touches kids and parents.

Always Jack was launched during Breast Cancer Awareness Month in 2010.

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Susanne Gervay - Get Ahead Kids

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Get Ahead Kids® Jan/Feb 2011

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Always Jack - Susanne Gervay

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Always Jack Review

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