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Jamie Oliver: I’ve been able to use dyslexia as a positive

The famous cook tells Hannah Stephenson about the path to his first children’s book.

(James Manning/PA)

Jamie Oliver has lived with dyslexia all his life – unable to recognise words on the page, having trouble focusing and, most importantly, finding ways to get around the problem.

So it’s unsurprising the world-renowned TV cook and top-selling non-fiction author was nervous about how his debut children’s novel, Billy And The Giant Adventure, would be received at his first signing event in Manchester.

“I was really nervous no one would turn up, but I had the best day. It’s not my world (children’s fiction) and people don’t like you getting out of your lane normally. We had a lovely turnout,” he says after the event, on the way back home to Essex.

The novel follows the adventures of Billy and his three best friends who enter a magical world in Waterfall Woods, meeting friendly sprites and scary, feral creatures called ‘boonas’ along the way. They learn about the ‘Rhythm’, another word for the environment, and how important it is for everyone to work together to keep nature in sync – with an emphasis on what we eat and where it comes from.

There’s a lot of food mentioned and, spoiler alert, turkey bites made from disgusting chemical-filled pink slime.

But home life for the fictional Billy, who shows signs of dyslexia and has a bully to contend with at school, is a loving sanctuary and a cornucopia of delicious offerings – bacon baps with red and brown sauce, sausages cooked in runny honey, porridge with a caramel glaze.

Oliver, 47, never intended to write a children’s book, he says, but when his children Buddy and Petal became better than him at reading at around the age of 11, he would make stories up at bedtime and started to record himself, to remember where he was in his own imagined plot. From there it blossomed into a book.

The book covers “messages that I was trying to tell my own kids through the story and they were messages that they were worried about”, he says. “I had one struggling with reading and learning, so that was a character.”

Oliver himself wasn’t bullied at school, but acknowledges many children who struggle with traditional learning become targets.

“I speak to those kids all the time. We try and nip it in the bud and things have got better over the years, but certainly (being) extracted from classes and put in attics in the school – I was in special needs for all of my secondary school life – the question is, have we really addressed (the issue)?

“I think 20-30% of kids aren’t traditional learners. So how do you cater for that? Because ultimately the job of the school is to teach kids how to teach themselves and problem-solve and to teach them resilience, because life is tough. Have things moved on enough? Probably not.”

He recalls of his own childhood: “Cooking was my saviour when things weren’t working at school from a traditional learning point of view. I’d go from bad results, bad reports, bad parents’ evenings, and then I’d go to work at the weekend (at his parents’ pub) and I would thrive.

“So I was very lucky, because I knew that it wasn’t hopeless, because I knew I could cook from the age of 11, 12, 13, and if I wanted to make a career in cooking, it’s just an assembly of lots of little learnings.”

Oliver at his local bookshop, Hart’s in Saffron Walden (James Manning/PA)

Those learnings over the years – plus a huge dollop of hard graft – have made Oliver a household name and a national (and international) treasure. Today, he lives in an Elizabethan manor house near Braintree, Essex, bought in 2019 for a reported £6 million, with his wife Jools and three of his five children (the older two are at university). It’s where he filmed his latest series Jamie’s £1 Wonders.

“Cooking saved my confidence. I knew I wasn’t a loser and I knew I wouldn’t be unemployed, but there are a lot of kids that struggle as I did who haven’t got that weekend job.

“They haven’t found their thing yet. You’ll find if you scratched around that there’s quite a lot of mental health issues with kids that don’t traditionally learn who haven’t got the hobby or haven’t got the work or the thing that gives them the confidence to know they’re not useless.”

Oliver likes to keep things in the family. His wife, Jools – with whom he has just renewed his wedding vows – and children Buddy and River, all have parts in the audiobook.

The whole family went to the Maldives when the couple renewed their vows.

“It felt like such an achievement to get 23 years in, we still love each other to bits, and with two kids leaving the nest and three still in the camp, I thought it was nice to see that their parents are still tight.

“The vows second time around are amazing, because you’ve earned it. The first time around you are just blagging it, no one’s earned anything.”

He suggests they are stronger now than ever.

“I hope so. Every little grey hair and every wrinkle and every experience does make you stronger, but you have to work at it. It doesn’t just happen – that’s a fantasy.”

He has long campaigned for better food in schools and, although he hopes his new book will inspire children who are struggling with traditional learning, he’s not ready to jump on the dyslexia campaign trail, he says.

“Hopefully I can serve to start conversations. It’s not just the kids, it’s the parents who really worry about their kids, if they think they’re not fitting in or they’re not doing things conventionally. And I know that because I’m one of them.

“You want parents to feel hope, and you want kids to feel hope, and you don’t want one size fits all. Every year when it’s GCSE time I always try and put stuff out on social (media) saying, ‘This doesn’t define you, it’s just a moment and there’s so much you’ve got to offer’. I think that’s really important.”

He agrees that having dyslexia has made him more resilient.

“I have to constantly problem-solve. Even with my first three books, The Naked Chef, I never put a pen to paper once. It was all on Dictaphones. It was quantities and numbers on the back of order checks and beer mats.”

Once he earned enough money to employ an editor, he has dictated every book since.

His resilience came from his home life, he reflects.

With wife Jools Oliver (Alamy/PA)

“I had the confidence of an amazing family and having a job as a young kid, grafting by 12 and always had a couple of quid in my pocket.

“The only reason I’ve been able to use dyslexia as a positive is I had the confidence of knowing that it’s in the approach and problem-solving and looking at things in a different way.

“For sure it can be a strength. You’ll see many businesses and even departments of the government and the police force that will specifically want those kids, because they look at things differently.

“But I still think there are too many kids at school that don’t feel like they’ve got enough to offer.”

He calls schools and teachers “our superpowers” and intimates they are undervalued.

“Could they be loved more and led more and trusted more and allowed to be the best versions of themselves? Of course they could. I’ve been through 13 education secretaries since the first time I started School Dinners (campaign) all those years ago. The head(s) of education, they’re like ships that pass in the night.”

He’s already three-quarters of the way through his second book in the children’s series, dictating in one-hour blocks – the sum of his concentration span.

“The first one took four years – the second will be done in six months. For me, it’s like meditation. It’s a little mad, weird and wonderful world that I get to create and then go back to the real world and get on with my normal job.”

Billy And The Giant Adventure by Jamie Oliver, illustrated by Monica Armino, is published by Puffin, priced £14.99. Available now.



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