It takes two to write and laugh

Sisters Lisa Gibbs and Bernadette Hellard have combined an expertise in child wellbeing and a love of netball to become successful children’s authors

Andrew Trounson, University of Melbourne

Published 20 December 2016

Writers aren’t known for laughing hysterically and falling to the ground as they work. But for University for Melbourne child health and wellbeing researcher Associate Professor Lisa Gibbs, and her sister Bernadette Hellard, an English and physical education school teacher, it’s a crucial part of the process.

Together they have written two successful series of children’s books in which their love of netball is the glue for their child characters to meet and help each other overcome the problems of being a kid and growing up. And between the two of them there isn’t much they don’t know about children and fostering wellbeing.

Lisa – We essentially generate the story ideas together. We generally meet at Bern’s house down at the beach and we walk and talk. We learnt to take a notebook and pencil with us because we’d forget half of what we came up with, but we now literally stop, sit down wherever we are and write everything down and then walk and stop again and make more notes.

Bernadette – Lisa has a very organised brain, whereas my brain goes all over the place, so Lisa writes it down and organises it all.

Lisa – When we get back to the house we decide who is going to write what bit and if a bit was Bern’s idea she’ll write that and if a bit was my idea I’ll write that, and then we swap and edit each other.

Sisters Lisa Gibbs and Bernadette Hellard say humour plays a big part when they sit down to write a book. Picture: Brendan Hellard.

Bernadette – We sometimes write side by side or in different rooms, or write separately when Lisa’s gone back to Melbourne.

Lisa – By the end of it we often can’t remember who has written what.

Bernadette – We aren’t precious about our own writing so we can easily criticise each other without it being a problem.

Lisa – I think that is because we both know we couldn’t write the books on our own.

Bernadette – Well that wouldn’t be any fun. We associate writing with fun. There are times when both of us end up literally rolling around on the floor laughing.

Lisa – That is so true. We piggyback ideas off each other and sometimes it leads to crazy ideas that are just plain ridiculous.

Lisa – I’d written an academic book and academic chapters before and wanted to try writing some fiction. And they always say write about what you know. I thought the only thing I’m fanatical about is netball, and that made me think of Bern who is also fanatical about netball, and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be great to write a book together?’

Bernadette – I’d always wanted to try writing a book. As an English teacher I’d always read all the young teenage books that the curriculum sets the kids to read, and I always thought they were grim and full of gloom and doom. So when Lisa suggested writing a book I thought ‘let’s try writing about kids like us who just played sport and got on fine with each other and with their families.’

Lisa – We had both always loved sport as kids and been big readers at the same time, so we wanted our books to encourage sporty kids to read and encourage readers to like sport. The books are about children recognising their own capacity to come up with solutions. Each book focuses on a different member of the team.

Bernadette – We tend to have a common theme where the characters have a goal to achieve and how they persist despite setbacks. We really wanted the characters, the kids, to feel that they are resilient enough to face challenges and to rely on a network of friends for help. After all, kids don’t want to read about adults, they want to read about other kids.

Lisa – Bern and I were always very close in a family of six kids. There were a few times when we had to share a bedroom, even as older teenagers, and we’d laugh ourselves silly in bed.

Bernadette – Lisa as a little girl was always super smart and a dedicated student, so it was no surprise she went into research and academia. And her work rate is incredible. I just can’t sit still that long. When she isn’t sleeping she is using every second.

Lisa – After graduating I started out working at the Deaf Blind Care Association and Arthritis Victoria. I really loved helping to support families going though crises and making a difference on that individual level. But when I went back to do my PhD in public health I realised you could make a difference on a population level. And that is what guided me into research. It is a fabulous opportunity to make a widespread difference.

Lisa – Bern is full of energy and I think that is why she is such a good teacher, the kids love her energy. But she is also very respectful of children. She doesn’t talk down to them and she doesn’t dumb things down. She is genuinely interested in them as individuals and I think kids respond to that.

Lisa and Bernadette’s books are for kids, about kids who like to play sport. Picture: Brendan Hellard.

Bernadette – I get asked a lot about what the best way to bring up kids is and it is fairly simple: just enjoy having them around and make sure they know you like them. Kids don’t care what you give them or where you take them, they just want to hang around with you. I have four grown kids including twins and I always thought that it was important for them to know that we genuinely liked them and wanted them around. And I used to spend a lot of time worrying about them until I realised that I didn’t really need to because they bring themselves up in a way. And kids like to have parameters. They like knowing where the lines are and they feel safer when it is clear.

Lisa – How to bring up kids is always a tough question. I have a grown son and two step children and I don’t have all the answers. But I think that it’s important that kids have a sense of their own agency. So we need to ask them what they think and allow them degrees of independence in age-appropriate steps. While it is hard to pin down, there is emerging evidence that encouraging agency in children increases their self-esteem and gives them a sense of their own capability. By exposing children to handling situations that are manageable for them we can them help them to feel more secure about handling new or unexpected situations.

Bernadette – The one thing I really want to change in the way we bring up kids is helicopter parenting. Too many children now are never allowed to do anything without adult supervision. When Lisa and I were kids we were playing outside the house until it was time for tea. We had to solve our own problems. If we had fights we had to resolve them on our own. We had freedom to make mistakes. But too many kids I see at school now are never allowed to do whatever they like and learn from their mistakes. They seem to have an activity to attend every day after school. They never get a chance to just play in the park or the backyard and just ‘be’. I think the over-supervision is partly a consequence of society’s fears about the safety of kids, and I appreciate that, but it’s a shame.

Lisa – It’s really interesting to hear Bern say that because when I speak to teachers as part of my research they are really onto that problem. A key part of their role is to try to encourage parents to recognise when their child is ready for the next step towards more independence. But in terms of what we as a society need to change, I think we need to work much harder on making our suburbs and cities more child-friendly so that kids can be more independent. So we need to look at how we set out our streets, how we funnel traffic away from where kids are playing, how we better ensure safety for kids when they are out just with their friends, whether it is walking, bicycling or playing in parks. We need to start giving kids a voice on local council issues and that means asking kids what they think.

Bernadette – As adults we think we are terribly vital to children, but to children we are really peripheral compared to their interest in other kids.

Banner Image: Shutterstock

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