A passionate believer in the power of literacy, Wendy Pye changes lives throughout the world with her prolific range of relevant children’s books. She shares her own story with Judy Bailey.
talks to publisher Wendy Pye about teaching the world to read
She is the barefoot girl from humble beginnings who now runs a multimillion-dollar publishing empire. Wendy Pye picked up a damehood along the way and is dedicated to teaching the world to read. I meet Dame Wendy at the modest headquarters of her company, Sunshine Books, a two-storey warehouse on Auckland’s busy
Great South Road. She bounds out to meet me with a big sunshiny smile and a warm handshake, her energy infectious. She works here with a small, fiercely loyal team, most of whom have been with her for more than 30 years.
You may not recognise her name, but the children in your life have almost certainly learnt to read using the books she publishes – Mrs Wishy-Washy, Dr Sprocket Makes a Rocket, My Granny Rides a Bicycle and so many more.
She has sold 300 million copies of her little readers around the world, from Britain to Botswana, Spain to Singapore, China to the USA. They’re all reading Wendy’s books and, what’s more, she’s made sure they’re relevant to those markets. Readers of a certain age will remember the turgid Run John Run and The Cat Sat on the Mat variety of early books. She tells me with great amusement that, in her school days, the giant British publisher of the day would simply ship the vast majority of its print run to the pink parts of the map (the pink parts being the “colonies”), with little thought given to the relevance of the stories. “They would talk about how it was snowing in November,” she remembers. “We’d never seen snow. It was 100 degrees outside for goodness sake! When I asked why it was snowing, I got whacked with a ruler.”
Wendy was born 73 years ago in the tiny Western Australia town of Cookernup, a couple of hours drive south of Perth. The youngest, by five years, of four sisters, she grew up on the family farm. “I lived in a world of imagination. I had a cat, a dog and a horse. I would ride for miles. I would line the chooks up and play schools with them. In the evenings I would lie on the floor and listen to the radio. One of my favourite series was about a private investigator in New York.”
She was fascinated by New York, so it’s not surprising she’s ended up buying an apartment there, just across from Central Park. She also has a home in London, not that she’s one to go for the flashy trappings of success. It’s more that the offshore apartments are practical for a woman who spends so much time travelling.
Dame Wendy is as down-to-earth as her Down Under roots. Born and bred an Aussie but now a New Zealand citizen, she lives in Auckland with Don, her husband of 50 years. They met at the trots, she tells me, with a twinkle in her sparkly blue eyes. She’d come to New Zealand seeking adventure and was flatting with a bunch of girls. The first weekend here, she asked them where the action was. The trots were their idea and she never looked back.
She and Don share a love of horses. They breed them to race. She’s only recently stopped riding. “I had to… I kept falling off,” she says, laughing. She is, however, a very active 73, up at 4.30am for a swim most days. She learnt to swim, she tells me, almost before she could walk, in the dam on the family farm. “I’d float on a sack filled with paper bark from the gum trees. I would lie across the top of it and dog paddle. By the time the sack sank, I could swim!”
Wendy comes from a line of strong women.
As a child, she was particularly close to her grandmother. “She loved music and ballet and literature. She always dressed beautifully, with gloves and a hat. And she was a fabulous cook.”
It was her grandmother who taught her to make the jams and pickles that are now Wendy’s trademark… not to mention her Australian Woman’s Weekly quiche, which is always the mainstay of family picnics.
“My mother taught me to be self-reliant. She worked alongside my father on the farm so I never saw the difference between men and women’s work. I was brought up to believe a woman could do anything. Mum would paint and read all night but she’d still be up first thing in the morning and off to work on the farm. If we
She has sold three hundred million copies of her little readers around the world.
were ever sick, Vicks and castor oil solved everything,” she says with a laugh.
“We never had much money; we had an old Ford truck, which we’d load with mattresses and head up to a camp ground in the Darling Range,” Wendy remembers fondly. “They were simple times. Simple things are the most important for children. At the end of the day, love and care is what they need – they don’t need all the material things.”
Although she has no children of her own, Wendy is very perceptive about the needs of the young and plays a big part in the lives of her nephews and nieces.
After leaving school, Wendy went straight to secretarial college, as girls did back then.
But it soon dawned on her that she didn’t want to work for a man. So when she saw an ad for a copywriter’s position at a Perth radio station she thought she’d give it a go. “I went to the interview wearing a huge white hat and white gloves,” she chuckles. “I had absolutely no experience, but I told them I could do it.” That can-do attitude has served her well throughout her career. That, and the courage to take risks.
She had a wonderful mentor in that first job – a woman who taught her everything she knew about copywriting. Wendy is convinced it’s important to spend time mentoring young people when they first start a job. “If they have a nice experience in their first job it gives them enthusiasm and self-belief.”
Wendy was 21 when she moved to New Zealand. She scored a job with the New Zealand News Group, eventually rising to manage its magazine and trade publications and sell its range of children’s books. It was while she was writing a story about education that she first came across teenagers who couldn’t read. The teens she met would stay in her mind for years to come.
It’s a testament to her resilience and strength of character that she founded Sunshine Books within 24 hours of being made redundant from New Zealand News. The rest, as they say, is history.
Wendy is on a mission to teach the world to read. She finds it highly amusing that she is now, after all these years, teaching the English to read… turning the tables on those colonial readers.
“I can teach anyone to read for $3. But even though the books are cheap, they can’t be cheap enough for the masses,” she tells me, so that’s why she’s turning to digital readers. She is piloting a project in Malaysia aimed at teaching girls to read with an app preloaded onto a tablet, and hopes to roll it out to Indonesia and the Philippines. “Part of my commitment to the world is never to imperialise… always to make the books relevant. In the US for example, the readers go to Hispanic and black American communities and they need to reflect their lives.”
Her books are being read in the Bronx. “These kids are going to school in a concrete jungle surrounded by high walls and barbed wire. The principal told me, ‘Because of what you’re doing, some of these kids will climb over that wire… and they won’t do drugs and become criminals.’ That gives me a huge sense of achievement,” she says proudly.
Her eyes fill with tears as she tells me about an African grandmother who lives in a little tin shack, who told her, “Because of your work, my granddaughter doesn’t have to scrub floors for a living; she’s a receptionist.”
“In the next decade of my life,” Wendy continues, “I want to take people out of poverty through literacy. While there’s still breath in me and while I can still make a difference, I want to empower young women from all cultures. So many of them don’t have the opportunity to learn to read. If you can read, you can get a job, your self-esteem improves, you can have a better life.”
Her focus is not just offshore. Wendy’s organisation is currently working in Northland, providing books for children. She tells me about one child who told her, “I love the pictures but I can’t read the book. No one in my house can read.” She sees that as incredibly sad and worries about the ever-increasing divide between rich and poor in this country.
It has sometimes been a lonely ride being a successful businesswoman. “Women don’t network in the same way men do,” she tells me. She has been vocal, too, about how she feels businessmen here find her success intimidating. She is mystified by why she is not sought out for board positions, and has concluded that maybe it’s because she’s too stroppy.
Certainly her go get ’em attitude has stood her in good stead internationally. “There are so many pretentious people in the world,” she says, rolling her eyes. But this little barefoot farm girl can cut it with people from the greatest learning institutions in the world. She is listed by the prestigious Forbes magazine among the 50 most powerful women in Asia and is enormously tickled by the fact she’s named, alongside three Nobel prizewinners, among the hundred most outstanding Australians to have left its shores.
Variously known as “Passionate Pye” or “The Sunshine Lady”, Wendy is a firm believer in karma. “What you put into life, you get out of it.”
She may be Australian by birth, but she’s a national treasure in New Zealand.
If you can read, you can get a job, your selfesteem improves, you can have a better life.
OPPOSITE PAGE: Dame Wendy Pye is a woman of energy and vision.
ABOVE: Learning to read is fun with these appealing little books.