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Ink on her fingers: The incredible story of Dame Wendy Pye

‘All politicians should be in an infants classroom for a month.’ says Dame Wendy Pye, creator of early literacy resources Sunshine Books.

It might come as a surprise that the woman behind one of the world’s most successful educational export companies considered herself not smart enough for teacher’s college.

“I probably wasn’t good enough, to be honest, to get into the Teacher’s College in Perth,” confided Dame Wendy Pye, founder of Sunshine Books. Instead, she went to Stotts Business College, which wasn’t really her cup of tea either, but it gave her excellent typing skills, something for which she remains grateful decades on.

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“In those days, only certain people learned how to type, and now I can type really fast on the computers.” After leaving secretarial school, Wendy took a job as a copywriter in a radio station before moving to New Zealand at 21 and starting a position at New Zealand News.

“Over two decades, I rose in the corporate world, from being a general dogsbody in a small publishing house to running eight companies. I took over the Women’s Weekly, tried to resurrect that. Ita helped me with that,” she adds modestly.

But in 1985, at the age of 42, only days after signing an enormous contract that would put little books by the registers of every Australian supermarket, Wendy was unceremoniously made redundant.

“I never believed that someone would escort me off the place. And I didn’t have a contingency plan.”

As she writes in her newly launched memoir, Teaching the World to Read: My Multi-million dollar story: “after redundancy, there are two paths open to you: you can sit around feeling sorry for yourself… or you can wake up the next morning and look at the opportunities available.”

No guesses for which path Wendy headed down.

The idea of specialising in early literacy books had already been seeded, having met a group of boys on the cusp of their teens who couldn’t read. “I was appalled,” she said.

Dame Wendy Pye. Image: Supplied.

In a humble house in suburban Otahuhu, Wendy Pye Publishing and its most famous export, Sunshine Books was formed. With over 1,800 titles in its levelled reader series, the brightly illustrated books are synonymous with early literacy for three generations of Australians.

“Australia and New Zealand became world famous for giving a book to every child every day to take home,” Wendy says proudly. “Not all countries can afford to do this, and it’s something I think we sometimes take for granted.”

After selling the North American rights in the mid-1990s, and opening the export market from New Zealand and Australia to the rest of the world, it would have been understandable if Wendy had decided to take her millions and have a well-earned break. But indefatigable, and on a mission to help even more children learn to read, Wendy moved her attention to the cutting-edge computer technology that was taking the world into the digital age.

It’s unlikely anyone understood the sheer audacity and work involved in trying to make the early computer programs to teach children to read.

“It cost millions,” she admits. “But we were the pioneers. We did it in print, why not in digital?”

New Directions

More recently, moving Sunshine into decodable books was always going to be a major change in direction, but after investing a lot of time in the science of reading, Wendy became concerned about how phonics could be used effectively.

“I had sold balanced literacy to the world, but then I wanted to be able to produce decodable readers. I worked with a lot of professors – I needed to understand it.”

Yet children need stories to keep them interested, she said, they need structure, they need to know grammar. It was essential that the books still had stories that captivated children and could be trusted by teachers. “Why do people keep going back to the same author, like Agatha Christie?” she asked. “Because they become familiar and trusted.”

The new series of Sunshine decodable books, it was decided, was going to be written around the theme of family, something universal and familiar to children everywhere. But the Sunshine books Aussie kids grow up reading, are not the same as those being read in South Africa or China, just some of the many countries that Pye exports to around the globe. Many of the books are re-illustrated for different countries to make them inclusive and relevant. Similarly, Wendy explains how vital it is that her books are reflective and inclusive of all new Australians. “It is important that teachers have a range of books to share with kids who feel different.”

Further broadening Sunshine’s reach, the new Reading Road range has been developed, a series of decodable books for older primary kids. “It’s important we don’t lose them”, Wendy says of upper primary students who are still struggling to read.

Mental Health

It’s clean that the pain Wendy felt from her redundancy is still fresh. “I was bruised,” she admits. But that pain has served to motivate; not only to push forward with her business, but to be open about mental health and the effect of stress.

She explains how in the months after, she received phonecalls from men, sometimes strangers, who admitted they’d been made redundant and didn’t know what to do. “They told me they still put on their suits and pretended to go to work. I was the only one they told.”

Today, we are more open and forgiving. “We talk about mental health now, we discuss and embrace it. It’s a different world than it was in the mid-80s,” says Dame Wendy. “It was seen as a sign of weakness, but it’s not.”

Dame Wendy Pye is a model in resilience, an exemplary of pushing boundaries and trying new things, which don’t always work. Open with people about the mistakes she has made along the way, she hopes that by sharing them, others can learn.

“I love books,” says Wendy. “I love the ink on my fingers, but the next big adventure is AI. It will be a wonderful asset if we can harness it correctly. There are lots of things AI can do for our stressed and overworked teachers.”

Now eighty, it would again be reasonable if Dame Wendy decided it was time to retire, but with the energy of someone half her age, and the determination of someone who has more to prove, she admits her newest project is possibly her most ambitious yet.

“I am looking to marry a structured phonics program with the gaming industry to create an app. It will have a personal, AI tutor,” she explains. “No one has done it. No one has married the true educational with gaming.”

Why gaming? How else do you keep a child occupied for the two years it might take to learn the content?

“Can I do it?” she asks.

This author for one, hopes she does.

All proceeds from Dame Wendy Pye’s memoir, available at http://www.sunshinebooks.com.au/dame-wendy-pye will be donated to the Telethon Speech and Hearing.

This story was originally published on School News Australia. Read the original here.

Shannon Meyerkort

Shannon Meyerkort is a freelance writer and author of Brilliant Minds: 30 Dyslexic Heroes Who Changed our World, being released by Affirm Press in October 2022.
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