Sunday, 22 September 2013

What the School Journal means to me

I can tell you the very first piece I had accepted for the School Journal. It was a story called “The day Michael made the news”. The illustrations by Jennifer Lautusi are funny and quirky, and I still read the story when I go on school visits today.

At that stage I was at home with one small and delightful daughter (who didn’t sleep much), working part-time in a law library, and trying to find time to write. Encouraged by this success – and it was not the first piece I had submitted – I kept trying. I didn’t have anything else accepted for more than two years, by which time another small and delightful daughter had come along. But I can still remember the phone call from a Journal editor who said they wanted two of the pieces I had sent in, and my astonishment when he phoned back the next week to say they would take the third as well.

Now with three gorgeous small daughters at home, and still working part-time, I kept submitting stories, poems, articles and plays. I loved writing plays, because I knew how much children at school loved performing them. Performing in a play can be an affirming experience for a child. It gives them the chance to step outside themselves, stretch their imagination and investigate other points of view in a safe and familiar environment. My characters included superheroes, apprentice chefs, pirates, secret agents, monkeys and frogs. I wrote plays set in bus stops, school classrooms and playgrounds, swimming pools, restaurant kitchens, toy shops, doctor’s surgeries, cafes, royal palaces and outer space.

Junior Journal no 41 (2010)
Not everything I wrote was accepted. Competition was fierce and there were so many good writers sending in submissions. But even rejected items came back with a covering letter explaining why, and often it was simply because something similar had just been accepted. This nurturing and encouraging role was what Learning Media was so good at, but it was not, of course, a profit-making exercise. Sometimes the editors would hold on to a piece for months, until they could find the right place to slot it in. This is something that won’t be possible if future issues are contracted out separately. Learning Media also ran workshops which provided some of the first opportunities I had to meet other writers.  As well as the School Journal, they published many other valuable series such as Ready to Read, the Junior Journal, Connected and the School Journal Story Library.

As well as plays, I started to write more non-fiction articles, enjoying the challenge of finding topics to capture children’s attention and spark their interest in the outside world.  Animals were always a popular subject: Clyde the otter who escaped from Wellington zoo, the sun bear twins Madu and Arataki, the sniffer dogs at Wellington airport.                

Other articles focused on New Zealand history: Paddy the wanderer, the little dog who lived on the wharves in the 1930s and used to hop in and out of taxis to get around town; the first airmail service, using pigeon post from Great Barrier Island to Auckland; the lighthouse keepers living at Bean Rock in the Waitemata Harbour; the Coral Route flying across the Pacific in the early days of air travel; the Bulford Kiwi carved into an English hillside by New Zealand soldiers at the end of World War One. 

School Journal Part 4 No 1 (2005)
One of my most recent articles was about Violet Walrond, a name you may never have heard before – but she was our first female Olympian, competing at the 1920 Olympic Games in Antwerp when she was only fifteen years old. 

'New Zealand’s 1920 Olympic team at a Melbourne park en route to Antwerp.First official Olympic team', URL:, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012

In the course of researching for these articles I met some inspiring people. Some that I’ve never forgotten include the family whom I visited, in the company of a sign language interpreter, to meet them and their hearing ear dog, Turbo. I met up with zoo-keepers, cable car drivers and a chef from Scott Base. Talking on school visits about some of these topics, I could see the children thinking hard about the questions they raised: if you were deaf, how could you solve the problem of not being able to hear someone knocking at your door? How would you order groceries from Antarctica? Why were the 1916 Olympic Games cancelled, and why wasn’t Violet allowed to go out on her own, unchaperoned?

I was proud to be writing for a publication with such a long and illustrious publishing history, and thrilled to be in the company of famous writers who had written for it in the past, or continued to do so: Janet Frame, Elsie Locke, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, James K. Baxter, Jack Lasenby and David Hill, to name just a few. The National Library exhibition to celebrate the School Journal’s centenary in 2007 opened my eyes to the richness of its illustrations, by well-known artists and some who deserve to be better known: names such as Colin McCahon, Rita Angus, Juliet Peter, Dick Frizzell, Russell Clark, Mervyn Taylor, Jill McDonald, Bob Kerr, Gavin Bishop. Gregory O’Brien’s accompanying book A nest of singing birds is a glorious record of the writers and artists who have contributed to the Journal over its long history.   

At the time of its centenary, the Journal was described as the longest-lasting publication for children anywhere in the word. I don’t think something should be continued just on the basis of having a long and notable history. But the Journal’s future must be ensured because it is such a brilliant and valuable publication. When our children were at school in England for six months, I was taken aback by the outdated and uninteresting reading material they were presented with. The School Journal, on the other hand, has formed a prime reading resource for teachers and helped to keep New Zealand in the top 5 for reading literacy in the world over many decades.

People who haven’t seen a recent copy of the Journal might have warm and nostalgic memories of reading it as a child (and it is amazing how, even if you think you don’t remember any of those stories, looking at an issue of the Journal from that time period, especially the style of the illustrations, can instantly evoke the feel of reading it.) 

Colin McCahon School Journal illustration:
Archives NZ ref AAAD 781 W2708 10/C;
CC licence
But today’s Journals are different again. They are colourful, vibrant, topical. Their content is up to date and multi-cultural, reflecting us and our place in the Pacific.

When I pull some recent copies off my shelves at random, I can see a story by André Ngāpō about a class preparing a waiata for a pōwhiri when they go to visit the kura across town, a story by Katie Furze about the Rena oil spill and one by Charlene Mataio about collecting kūtai (mussels) with a description of how to make kūtai fritters and dos and don’ts of gathering kaimoana. There is an interview with a DoC scientist about the lesser short-tailed bat, a poem by Hinemoana Baker called The squash club and one by Wendy Clarke called Shearing shed.  David Hill has written a funny story called “A bit of a laugh”, with a twist in the ending that makes you think about what it means to be “different”. There are retellings of legends and photo-stories about science projects and activities that classes have carried out.  David Grant profiles Archibald Baxter (“His own war”), Maria Gill talks to a thirteen-year-old swimmer about her training programme, Iona McNaughton describes how students at Moriah School have collected thousands of buttons to turn into a Holocaust memorial and Ross Calman writes about saving the kererū on Banks Peninsula. 

This brief overview gives some idea of the quality of writers writing for the Journal (and I haven’t even touched on the illustrators here) and the variety of topics covered. If we don’t tell our children these stories, based on their own lives, who is going to? 

The School Journal has been important to me in so many ways. I read it as a child; as a parent, I watched my own children learning to read and find out about their world from it. The Journal springboarded my writing career, as it has done for so many other writers and artists.

I would hate to think that future generations of New Zealanders won’t have these same opportunities. 

Go here to read about the Save Our School Journal campaign. (You don’t need to be a Facebook member)
Read the stories.
Sign the attached petition.
Write toyour MP and ask him or her to ensure that we keep the School Journal.

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