Episode 15 with Dame Wendy Pye

Episode 15 with Dame Wendy Pye

Episode 15 with Dame Wendy Pye


Fiona Bartholomaeus


You're listening to Between Our Pages, a Premier's Reading Challenge WA podcast.

My name is Fiona Bartholomeus and together we'll be diving into the wonderful world of books and reading right here in WA.

Today we're chatting with trailblazing publisher Dame Wendy Pye about her memoir, ‘Teaching the World to Read: my multi-million dollar story.’

Let's go.

‘Teaching the World to Read: my multi-million dollar story’ is a personal memoir by Dame Wendy Pye.

It shares the trials she faced and the triumphs she had while establishing her career and publishing company.

Since entering the field, she has been a leading figure in the New Zealand publishing community and internationally recognised as well.

Dame Wendy Pye, thank you so much for joining me.

Dame Wendy Pye


Fiona Bartholomaeus

So you've published magazines, books, education resources, videos, and even online learning packages back when the internet was still very small and very new. Has there been a medium that you haven't published?

Dame Wendy Pye

Well, there are several when you look at the media, but really the medium, it's really gone from print, but I still have the ink under my fingers because I still love print and I think children all over the world still love a book, and we hope that they love to touch and feel a book and come up to you and say, ‘I'm a reader now’, which I've had the wonderful experience in children learning to read.

And so print is very important still and books are important, but digital is also important because we are now competing in a world where children are born almost with a mobile phone in their hand. They understand and if you only have to go to a restaurant or anything, you'll see children playing those.

So we really need to use every media that we have from television. Originally, it was linear television, and then it was cable television, and now it's the internet. We have to use every single media to help children learn to read.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

So what drew you to the world of children's publishing and literature?

Dame Wendy Pye

I chose that because I found some children who couldn't read. I was amazed actually.

I grew up in a family where my mother read to me continually, and if every child had a book and people read to them every day, but often parents are very busy, they have two jobs, you know, very difficult time for children.

And so they, you know, I grew up in a world that really, I disbelieved everyone could read and then I met some children who couldn't read and then I found and really found that was terrible, absolutely tragic, the world they missed out on. And we know that if you go, and I work all across the world, not only with children, but I also work with prisoners, male prisoners in a program that we teach men to read because 70% of our prisons in some countries are because people can't read and they've been very frustrated. And the spiral starts at, by eight years of age, if you can't read, by nine, you're starting to look at other things, you're being disruptive in a classroom, and then it begins a spiral. And it often begins a spiral of crime, which is really sad, because it doesn't matter whatever you do in life, if you can read, you can feel good about yourself, you can feel positive, and the whole world is open to you.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Yeah, and it takes you to different worlds and teaches you important messages that can help you later in life as well.

Reading is such an important foundation that we need and what children need.

Dame Wendy Pye

That's right and with some of my new program, particularly with the Sunshine Books that have gone across the world, is that basically I work in all sorts of areas.

So we're teaching reading, writing, and also the skills of now and recently as a direction from, you know, Australian, Australian working with decodable text as well, which is important. And so not only can you teach phonics, but you're also teaching children to read as well.

For meaning is the most important thing. We're not just sort of barking at print and just using a whole funny words. We're making sure that the words make sense in a sentence as well, because we have to teach the grammar and the comprehension.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

So before you moved to New Zealand and started your publishing career, you grew up in the southwest town of Cookernup. How did your WA country upbringing impact your career?

Dame Wendy Pye

I think it taught survival, really. I think you have to learn to survive.

When you're a kid from the bush, you know you ride your bike to school in the pouring rain, I often see these parents who drive their children to school now, and you really, you learn survival.

You had to survive, you know. You really had to learn that there was a world out there, but you didn't know too much about the world because we only had radio in those days. We had radio and Randy Stone from New York, little did I know I'd have a beautiful apartment in Manhattan one day where we used to listen to some of the radio broadcasts and things.

And you learn actually survival. I think that really helped me when I moved into Africa and other countries, when I was working in the frontiers with Nelson Mandela and unravelling the terrible issues of apartheid and things, and it helped me understand the beauty of countries and outside.

I think if you're being brought up on a farm, you really also understand that women have a place as well, where there is an equal. There's a lot of equal living on a farm because women have to work on the farm the same as the men do, and we had to work milking cows and getting cows early in the morning and avoiding snakes and doing all those wonderful things that children in Australia do.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

And definitely being in quite a regional area, you're very separated from the biggest cities and it's very much more community focused. So I guess it helps when you have gone to other countries, like you said, with other countries in Africa and can speak very similar situations and understanding, I guess.

Dame Wendy Pye

That's right, and particularly even in Poland, for example. I was fortunate to be in Poland after the revolution there. We had a very rural, it was a very rural country, it was a country which had been controlled, obviously, and going into the old part of the city, which had been rebuilt after the war.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

So your autobiography tells your incredible journey in the publishing world. Can you tell us a little bit about what you share in your book?

Dame Wendy Pye

Well, I share the beginning. I think that it's important to know that you don't necessarily to be successful in the world, you have to go to the most private schools or you have to be rich. We didn't have much money, but we had a dream and we believed, and I had a mother who read to us and enjoyed the world of literature. And then I just went out, really, and just worked hard and built up the companies and I began in Perth of course, working in Perth and then then went to Sydney like everybody goes east to find what's happening over in the east, and then I worked for writing copy, writing for the newspaper, writing things like that. And then I went for a little holiday originally to New Zealand, it was only really a holiday you know the next ship going type of thing because I'd stayed with some girls in Sydney and one of them, their mother was in, their parents lived in Auckland so I went to Auckland.

That was a strange transition because I earned a lot of money in Sydney. I was a good writer and I worked for the big advertising agency. And I went to a place called Auckland, for example, which had 2 restaurants at the time. And that was it. It was sort of like going into the backwater. It didn't even have a private radio station, it had a government controlled old radio station and that was it.

And so it was a transition really of that and then I met my husband, and so I married there and decided that New Zealand would be my residence and then I built, I worked for a company of publishing, a small publishing company and in the end I took over 8 companies within a large corporation and became the top of the corporation and repackaged the Woman's Weekly and got to know Ita Buttrose in Australia and did a whole lot of things like this.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

So what was the moment that made you go, ‘I want to sit down and write an autobiography, a memoir of my career and my life’?

Dame Wendy Pye

The reason for that is I've mentored lots of people because I've been extremely successful across the world, and also people recently, for example just to give you an idea, I had my 80th party. I like country and westerns so we had it at the local town hall and a hootenanny type of thing, you know, with line dancing and things. But then we zoomed in across the world, 27 nations came in across the world to celebrate, to celebrate literacy, to celebrate how wonderful it was to work as a team across the world, empowering children to learn to read.

And that's a special moment that just shows you how a moment was. And that came from the Russian border to some of my wonderful friends in Estonia, to Denmark, to Sweden.

And so right this moment, while I'm giving this interview to you, there is a child. There are many, many children somewhere in the world learning to read on product we've developed because the sun never sets. The sun is always rising somewhere in the world and that's a wonderful thing, isn't it?

So what happened was that I thought, many, many young people, wonderful young people, are looking to go out to the world to do things, and they've invented a little widget that they think is going to be the most successful thing in the world, and they're going to become famous.

And I really have learnt a lot. So I put the warts and all down, I put all the mistakes I made, I made lots of mistakes because I didn't have a template to work to. I didn't have any mentors to work with. And I've mentored lots of people.

But really in my book, I really talk about now how to do things, you know, and how to learn from it. And also my YouTube channel. I do little videos on my YouTube channel, five-minute videos, sort of funny ones.

It's sort of funny, you know, about how you sort of do things on the seat of your pants and I didn't have much money and how you actually built a market. And that's no different from all the great success stories of Australia as well, Australia's had some wonderful success stories, people have gone out to conquer things in the world.

The difference I didn't do, I didn't go and live in America, for example, or I didn't have to go and live in England and places. Many people have had to go and live in those places.

And I just felt that, you know, it was sort of important. Really now I want to give back to people and, of course, the book is going to Telethon and the hearing people in Australia here, all the proceeds from the book are going to that too because I have a charity as well and I give a lot back to charity.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

I do really like in your book how you do have the pitfalls and the things that you say afterwards, ‘I learnt from that, I know not to do that next time’ and even in the back of the book, it's got business things that you had learnt as well. It's very much a, not so much a guide, but learn from what I've done.

Dame Wendy Pye

Well, it's really just giving you an idea, I wish I'd had a book like this it would have saved me many millions of dollars, believe me. And it is difficult being a woman, even though I have support back home, it's much more challenging as well because it's been a different world and through the transitions, remember when I started there wasn't even the internet. Remember when I started, there was only just an odd person had a fax machine, and one of the great publishers of Australia who's recently died, Kevin Weldon who's from Weldon Owen, actually sent me a fax machine.

Lots of people gave me things when I was made redundant, which no one ever really knows why I was made redundant, but I think I became too successful probably in the corporate world. But on the other hand, the world came to me, which is something. And what you put into life, you get out of it, believe me. And so my footprint, the book is really an example, most of it, apart from the first few chapters of my childhood. Most of it is really a guide of how you do things in different countries, and particularly in China, where I've been for 30 years working in China., and sort of people, these are the new frontiers, as we call, the fabulous frontiers, by the way, where you can expand to.

But there's still a lot to do in Australia, and there's a lot of children. There's a lot of children that need help, particularly with our previous now time with COVID. It's been a tough time for families, a tough time for children.

Three years of school, many of the children are still not going back to school. There's a lot of afraid, people are afraid still. So we have to build that confidence up, and we have to work at everywhere. It's the job of everybody to make sure that we have successful children learning.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Now, you mentioned before that you didn't have to go live in London or America like some other people trying to establish their careers. However, you did travel a lot to learn about what resources and information teachers needed and wanted, and how other companies are publishing across the world.

How much of that traveling do you contribute to your success with your company and all the books that you've released?

Dame Wendy Pye

You have to go and meet people. You have to actually relate to people. You have to go and learn about the community.

Take, for example, you know when I first sold into South Africa, which is one of my favourite countries, very similar to Australia, South Africa. It has lots more problems than Australia has, but it's still a very similar country, and geographically, I mean. But one of the things that I had there was, you know I really realised, of course, that the product we were selling was not suitable. It had to mirror, because I worked in the townships and the villages where the black and coloured people mainly were after apartheid and we were unravelling something and looking at how we would achieve results there.

And so, you know, I re-illustrated the books. I looked at those. And that probably comes back from a hang-up, you know, being at Cookernup Primary School. It's wonderful to say Cookernup Primary School, isn't it? With its 20 children.

But, you know, we had those books from England then. In the 50s, we had books that said ‘it is snowing in November’ and I used to ask the teacher, ‘why is it snowing when it's not snowing? It's 110 degrees’.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Looking out the window, ‘I don't see anything’.

Dame Wendy Pye

I could cook an egg on a piece of tin, you know. You would get the cane for that because you weren't allowed, in those days, education was much more controlled in a sense. Now we encourage children to talk. We encourage children to tell their stories. We encourage children to be much more creative. But in those days, it was much more you sat in a row and I was left-handed so I got the cane every time I hit with the ruler, every time I lifted my pencil up because you couldn't, you're not supposed to write with your left hand, that was forbidden in those days.

And the other thing really was forbidden, we had these dreadful readers that were exported to us on the pink parts of the Collins map. So anyone who's elderly listening will understand the pink parts of the Collins map, Collins publishers. And in those pink parts were the Commonwealth countries. And many years later, of course, I met some of those publishers and we were talking. I said, ‘that was ridiculous’. And they said, yes, we used to print and 70% of our print run used to just get onto a ship and go everywhere.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Now, you once said that the only way to break the cycle of poverty is to create children who can read, and during your career, you helped set up reading programs in isolated schools such as in Botswana.

What was that like for you being able to be so hands-on with establishing those reading programs in schools and working towards ending that cycle of poverty?

Dame Wendy Pye

It was wonderful. Well the ones, for example on the Botswana border, which are our Sunshine Schools, those ones were very special.

Of course, there wasn't a lot of money made available to the other ethnic groups in South Africa so we had to get recycled paper and we encouraged children to write their own books because they couldn't take the books home.

So it was important to take a book home, you see, as a story. So we allowed from the copyright to actually, to really write their own story around the same theme. So for example, it was a giant hamburger, I'm using that as an example a giant hamburger, they actually made their own story up of what they would put on to the hamburger, that sort of thing. And then we went to companies to get the paper from the printouts from the computers and to make their own books.

We ran workshops teaching teachers how to make books and things. And now in Africa, in our new project in Africa that we work on at the moment, we use just the blackboard. We don't use fancy things. We just use the blackboard because we taught children under the trees, on the farm schools. We talk to them everywhere.

And you don't need a lot of fancy things.

People, part of the world does have fancy things. We have overhead projectors and we have fancy things.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

And whiteboards that are also computers.

Dame Wendy Pye

Interactive whiteboards and all of that thing, but you've got to remember in South Africa at the moment, you only have about 4 hours a day of electricity. So you don't actually have any sort of things like that.

So basically you have to adapt to suit what the country does and I pride myself to develop. We're working for the moment in a fabulous project with the Asian Development Bank in the Pacific, we're working on a project there. And that involves, for the first time, translating into five dialect languages for Micronesia, which is interesting.

Yak is one of the languages, which is incredible, isn't it? Y-A-K. I thought that was sort of like an animal.

Yeah, but it wasn't. It's one of the languages.

So, you know, you can reach out working on this fabulous project that means little children in little islands that are so isolated will have for the first time their own Indigenous language. I think that's very important. And, of course, it's a challenge in Australia because from an Aboriginal point of view, you have many, many dialects. It's quite a challenge, really, because it's very difficult to publish for that. I mean, I'm saying that, but in other countries so we have this project I'm working on. In fact, I checked my email this morning to make sure they agreed on certain what we were doing.

And again, the books have to reflect. You can't just have books that look good. You have to have books that reflect the culture too, and you have to be able to see.

So we do different editions to match the cultures. That's probably a hang-up I've had from Cookernup School, you see because I really didn't believe that people would say the ‘mist rises over the moors’. Well, how you would ever understand that as a child because you had no television. You only had movies in the town hall in Harvey, which you'd go to and the movie would break down 5 times and you'd have movie tone to begin the movie, which was only a propaganda movie about how the troops had arrived somewhere or doing something, which was from 6 months ago anyway.

And it used to be like the movie tone and then the projector would break down and you'd have Esther Williams swimming up and down or John Wayne running around the same mountain, and so, you know, it was a sort of a different time really.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

I very much like that. You're taking books to other countries, to other communities, but you're so community-driven and making sure it works within their culture. You're very much focused on what is best for the kids and what they would be able to understand.

Dame Wendy Pye

Well, it's pretty important because most of the major authors have written for me. The reason they have given me their stories as opposed to a beautiful picture book, which they could have published with the New York Publisher or other publishers, is that remember, I reach children in a classroom and many of those children don't have any books at home. And it's important, particularly now in the gaming industry, I have nothing against the gaming industry, but the gaming industry is really quite a dominant factor in many children's lives.

It's important that they love and touch a book and go to bed with a book sometimes too. That's wonderful, isn't it? To take a book home, to be able to read it and go to bed with it. And I think it's like a teddy bear, isn't it? It's the same sort of thing as a teddy bear. It's something very special because it becomes alive and you're successful at reading it.

And children love to see, we just did the photography section for the teacher professional development, because we do a lot of professional development for the African project, for example. And we have re-illustrated a whole series of books with African children, black and coloured children in the books.

And my photographer, I sent a photographer over to do the actual shots for the, particularly for the teacher training using the blackboard and how we would work with the blackboard because in many countries they don't have blackboards anymore now. They just have those interactive whiteboards, fancy things. And they said, which is really special, he went into the classroom, we put the books down in front of the children and one little boy of 6 said to the other little boy, ‘this is us, look at me, I'm in this book’.

You understand?

Fiona Bartholomaeus


Dame Wendy Pye

Now, you can't put a price on that. You can't put a price on the joy that a child has, that they can see themselves in the book.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

It's so important.

Dame Wendy Pye

And they can see that that is me. And he said to the other one, ‘This is us, this is me. Look at me. Look at me. Here I am.’ And to me, that is very special.

My new series I've developed, the Sunshine series that I've developed, is that it's basically based around the same formula as The Famous Five and all the wonderful things that we knew. And even though those books are banned and we know that they had certain prejudice against certain things, but there was a thing we all love. And when we read novels, for example, if any of us like reading crime novels or we like reading wonderful, any books about anything and read the same author, we expect a certain expectation when we read that author. We don't expect something the opposite, right?

So I think it's important that we have, and in my new series for example, I also highlight families. I feel families are important. I feel mum and dads important. In many cases, if you just have a mum or you just have a dad, it's important as well. For very young children, we have to have grandma and grandpop and all of those people. I think that's really fabulous.

I mean, yesterday I had a family reunion here. All of my family came together at Kings Park. We sat up in Kings Park and took over Kings Park, actually.

Almost took over Kings Park because most of my family are all West Australian and they live in West Australia. But the families are important and regardless of what anyone says, is the family unit is important and I'm very important supporting that too.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Now, just over a decade ago, you were appointed a Dame Companion of the New Zealand Order for your services to business and education. How did you feel when you received the news of being made a Dame Companion for all your works and achievements in publishing?

Dame Wendy Pye

Well, that was special. I think the first honour that I got, I got an MBE before that, and that was from the Queen, actually. But the one before that was very important.

I was made the first woman, the first living woman to be admitted to the Business Hall of Fame, and the Business Hall of Fame is made up of all those famous people, you know, who developed the breweries and who coaled up the coal mines.

You understand what I mean? All of these famous old men and their old families, right?

And they came to me and said they would like to honour me as the first, and the only other woman who has been admitted was obviously she's deceased, but she was a wonderful Maori woman who actually developed housing for the first Maori people in New Zealand. And so that was a great honour for the Governor-General to give me that award. And then, of course, the Dame Hood was really special.

And then the latest one, of course is the Honorary Doctorate, which was really special. As a kid who never went to university, that's quite good, isn't it? Now I can sit up there with all the other people and don my cap occasionally.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

So your journey has spanned well over 40 years. Are there any moments in your publishing career that stand out and make you go, ‘wow, look what I achieved’?

Dame Wendy Pye

I think they come in different levels.

I think the first was, actually the success of selling, not only in Australia of course, I worked with Australians, but selling to England was quite significant because of my childhood, of that was significant.

Breaking into the American market was very challenging and seeing the American and pioneering that for all the publishing companies of Australia and New Zealand, I pioneered the market there. And, you know, I'm always famous, the LA Times said, ‘this is the most dangerous woman ever to come to America’. I mean, I thought well obviously you've made it if someone says that, I mean, that's ridiculous. And they always say she shoots from the lip and the hip at the same time.

And then entering areas like Estonia and entering some of what we call the, you know, which were coming the new world to a degree, which is sort of understanding Eastern Europe and understanding. And then my really success in Africa became important too, because that was very important.

I think there are many, many highlights and it's very difficult for me to highlight one but I think one, when I look at my African experience was one, you know standing in a dusty, in the playground standing and a thousand children singing in Zulu to thank us for what I had done. And then also you know, sitting in a little village in one of the townships and with a little tea towel on the table and an earth floor and a tin shack and it's not really a shack, it's a tin house else in other words, and a grandmother giving me a hug and saying, ‘because of sunshine, my granddaughter will not have to scrub floors for a living. She'll become a receptionist’.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Memories to last a lifetime.

Dame Wendy Pye

It's special. It's special, isn't it? You can't take that away.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Absolutely not.

Dame Wendy Pye

I've had many, many special moments and if you know, if even one person from my book can enjoy and be successful in their business in an ethical way, and I stress ethical, because you know you can make a lot of money in life, you can go out in life and you can make a lot of money in business. But if you put something back into it, you get much more reward from it, and you get much reward. And so I'm lucky.

I'm working on a fabulous project at the moment. Will I pull it off? I'm not sure because this is, I'm really distressed at the amount of dyslexic children, the amount of children out there who are still failing. We need to do something for them. We need to make a difference and we need to make it. So I've come up with a plan. Will I pull it off? I don't know. But at the end of the day, I'm going to have a damn good try.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

After reading your book, you've done amazing things, and I'm sure if you don't pull it off, you will achieve in some way, shape or form.

Dame Wendy Pye

We hope so. We hope so. Because I'm just distressed at the amount of children who are still slipping through the system and we've got to do something for them. And while I've got the energy, you know, I've still got energy, which is quite good. I mean, I race a few horses as well on the side. I'm trying to beat Australian horses at the moment at the track, but that's okay. I'm sure they will stand aside one day.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Now, before we let you go, one thing that I always like to do with my guests, I like to ask them a couple of rapid-fire questions, something fun just to end it off.

Just want the first answer to come into your head.

The first one is what is your favourite book?

Dame Wendy Pye

Jane Fonda, autobiography.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

Do you prefer non-fiction or fiction?

Dame Wendy Pye

I don't like fiction. I mainly, I mean, non-fiction. I'm a sort of, I like to explore, but autobiographies and biographies are really my favourite. I would read every autobiography and biography I could get my hands on in the world.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

And now the Premier's Reading Challenge has returned for 2024. How many books do you hope to read this year?

Dame Wendy Pye

Probably about 24 because I read a lot to do with my work as well, and I read manuscripts and I'm choosing manuscripts.

I think the hardest thing, this was the boot on the other foot. You know, I've sat there, worked with authors, worked with very famous writers and worked with people. And this book was quite difficult because it was doing the opposite really and it was very difficult to get an editor because most editors were afraid to edit my material. And so I got someone who didn't know me at all who had worked for a large French publishing house and also absolutely had never met me and knew nothing about educational publishing. And so I wanted someone who was completely the opposite, completely the opposite. She's very much, with her caftan and her Roman sandals, very much the opposite.

But she found it fascinating. She said, ‘no one will believe this book. No one will believe what you have created. No one will believe the world, you've sold 300 million copies across the world’.

Well you know, that's my legacy and that's my footprint. I'm not bowing out yet. I've still got this other project to do.

Fiona Bartholomaeus

You've been listening to Between Our Pages, a Premier's Reading Challenge WA podcast.

Thanks to our guest, Dame Wendy Pye, for joining me on this episode.

This episode was recorded on Wadjak Noongar land. We acknowledge the traditional custodians and pay respects to their elders past, present and emerging.

Stay tuned to your favourite podcast player for future episodes.

Thank you for listening. Happy reading. We'll see you next time.

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