This year's theme was UNICEF Day For Change, and encouraged school students around Australia to take action to help children in developing nations.
Presenter: Sen Lam
Speaker: Morris Gleitzman, UNICEF Universal Children's Day Ambassador
GLEITZMAN: It was the UNICEF people who've chosen schools in East Timor for this year's project. It's actually the first year of a three year project to help bring clean, fresh water to those schools that don't currently have it. But it seemed to me that while it's a very simple aspect of life, one that most Australian children are able to take for granted, though I think about it I can see what a difference it would make to a typical day in a school if you had to start it by lugging 8 or 10 litres of water with you as you walked an hour or so to school, so that you've got something to wash your hands in and even may be drink during the day.
LAM: And indeed, as we said Universal Children's Day was on Wednesday and there was an event that you attended where Aussie children did exactly that thing, that they carried pales of water. What was the response of the Aussie kids like?
GLEITZMAN: Well, I'm very used to working with young readers and exploring in their imagination their capacity to empathise imaginatively with people from very different backgrounds to themselves. It's often what happens in stories. And this was a very interesting, real life version of that where UNICEF had devised a kind of circuit training fun competition where teens competing against each other to transport water via various obstacles that represented the sort of obstacles that young people in East Timor might have in getting that clean fresh water to their schools.
LAM: So from your observation, quite how empathetic were the Australian kids to the problems faced by children in Timor Leste?
GLEITZMAN: I think they were very empathetic. I started the day at this particular primary school in the northern fringes of Melbourne by talking to them about the situation and I could see even through that conversation that they were starting to pause and think and empathise. But then to go through that physical experience connected them even more so. And at the end of that exercise, we had more conversations and I certainly hope that that was replicated in many of the other schools around the country that were participating, because I was really struck by how able those young Australians were to empathise imaginatively.
LAM: And Morris, in your conversations with the children. What would you say was their first preoccupation, what did they ask you about?
GLEITZMAN: Well, I think they were struck by how they'd never had reason to stop and think about something as simple and universally available as it is in Australia, water and what a difference it would have made to their typical day if they didn't have a drinking fountain or a flushing toilet available to them exactly when they needed it. And I guess that difference between what we take for granted and what isn't available to other people is something that young people seem to be able to connect with in quite a creative way.
LAM: And just briefly Morris, your books, of course, have been known to touch on subjects like refugees and Nazi Poland (ed note: should read 'Nazi-occupied Poland'). From your experience, do you think children deal well with these difficult issues?
GLETIZMAN: I think they have a great hunger to get a meaningful sense of how and why the world is full of so many big problems. But like most of us, they don't just want to be bombarded with the negative aspects of human experience, they also want to be reminded that we're capable of some very fine loving things between us via our friendships, for example. And so I try to strike that balance in each of my books and from the thousands of young people I get to speak to each year, I think that is an approach that works well.Editor's note (November 17): The interviewer incorrectly stated 'Nazi Poland' during the interview, instead of 'Nazi-occupied Poland'.