Judy Bai­ley

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.

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

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.

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