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.

Friday 13 September 2013

It's all about me...

In a week dominated (for children's writers and illustrators, anyway) by news about the uncertain future of the School Journal, it was a joy to go along to an event that celebrated children's writing, delivered by people who are passionate about it.

The Turnbull Library is currently running an exhibition called Logs to blogs: diaries from the Turnbull Library, with an accompanying programme of talks.

I've managed to hear two of them: Dr Kate Hunter talking about Measly scribbling and notes-to-self: First World War soldiers' and nurses' diaries, and It's all about me: fictional diaries in children's literature.

The event room, filled with listeners

Katrina Young-Drew and Linda Forbes are National Library school library advisersDylan Owen is a development specialist who also works for Services to Schools. I was expecting to hear a good talk, but I wasn't prepared for the amazing range of diaries that they came up with, starting with what Linda described as "The ultimate first diary" complete with an entry for each day of the week, a happy ending, lots of eating and a brief snapshot of a life - or in this case, a life-cycle - because it was, of course, The very hungry caterpillar

Amongst a number of other picture books, Katrina singled out Jackie French's Diary of a wombat for the clever way it presents opposing points of of view, often through the interplay between text and image. She suggested that children love the wombat in this book because they can relate to the persistent attention-seeking methods it uses to get its own way; while noisy and demanding, it remains loving and lovable.

Dylan gave a great overview of Graham Oakley's Church Mice picture books, first published in 1973 in "the golden age of children's illustration" (so this year celebrating their 40th anniversary.) The books show an astonishing level of detail, of a sort that Graham Oakley himself admits has fallen out of fashion today, but is still fascinating to look at. Dylan read some very funny excerpts, starting from January 1st when "absolutely nothing happened."

From picture books to junior fiction: Katrina mentioned several books I hadn't heard of before, including Sophie Scott goes south, with art work from the Kids Antarctic Art Project, by Alison Lester (one of Australia's first two Children's Laureates.)

Another book I hadn't heard of was The matchbox diary by Paul Fleischman - proving that diaries don't have to be written on paper.

By now, the three speakers were running out of time and we could see there were lots of enticing slides and titles that they didn't get around to, but they did have time to talk about Archie's war, The secret diary of Adrian Mole aged 13 3/4 and The absolutely true diary of a part-time Indian. I'm sure if they had time (because they had some of these books out on display) they would have mentioned the My New Zealand story series, fictional diaries published by Scholastic.

And they chose a lovely place to finish, with this quotation from Anne Frank: "I want to write, but more than that I want to bring out all kinds of things that lie buried deep in my heart."

Sunday 8 September 2013

More on the School Journal

The story of the closure of Learning Media and the uncertain future of the School Journal continues. You can read more about the issue here:

"Show him the money!" on Fifi Colston's blog.

"The unnecessary and shameful demise of Learning Media" on Mandy Hager's blog.

"Perhaps not the right reward for excellence" on Melinda Szymanik's blog.

"School Journal publisher winding up": the initial news item on the Stuff website.

An (extraordinarily uninformed) editorial in the NZ herald - read the comments to get a better view.

"Hekia, Bill and the very nervous taniwha": a very clever piece by Toby Manhire.

I'd encourage you again to write to your local MP or to the Minister of Education about this issue. If you've never written to an MP before, it's easy You don't even need a stamp. Just follow the instructions here.

And lastly, I'd like to show you just a few examples of the work I've done for Learning Media over the years. I am immensely proud of all of these. Learning Media gave me my start in writing, and I owe a great deal to their help and encouragement.

"Escape artist Clyde" in School Journal Part 2 No 2 (2000)
When I do school visits, I often take this Journal along because the covers - both front and back (by Nic Marshall) - are so clever and amusing, and children love to hear the story of Clyde the otter, who was smart enough to escape from his enclosure in Wellington Zoo and get all the way across Newtown before he was found.

Sunbears are special; a Ready to read title (2002).
Younger children just love this story as well. I'm not sure exactly why, but something in it seems to resonate for them. It's another Wellington Zoo story, about the twin sun bears cubs, Madu and Arataki, born there in 1999. It tells children about conservation, endangered species and animal families. And it doesn't have a completely happy ending. Madu had a hole in his heart and died when he was two years old. There is something in all those elements put together that children really respond to.

"Mmm, popcorn!" in Pop! pop! pop!, another Ready to read title, with illustrations by Philip Webb (1999).
This book contains a story by Dot Meharry, with my poem at the back. I'm including it because the new entrants teacher at our local school would always read it to her class at some stage each year. She read it beautifully, and every new entrant heard her enthusiastic cry of "Mmm - popcorn!"

Friday 6 September 2013

World War One: music, wills and numbers

Last week I did a talk for the Island Bay U3A. They are a great bunch and always have interesting things to say and comments to make.

We talked about anti-war protest songs (several of them had been to the recent Joan Baez concert) and one of them told me about a song called "William McBride" (also called "The green fields of France"), sung by Eric Bogle. I'd already come across Eric Bogle's haunting song "And the band played Waltzing Matilda", but I didn't know "William McBride". You can listen to it here or read the lyrics, and find out more about both Eric Bogle and the original William McBride, here.

And did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind 
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined? 
And, though you died back in 1916, 
To that loyal heart are you forever 19? 
Or are you a stranger without even a name, 
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane, 
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained, 
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame? 

Someone else asked if I knew about World War One wills. She had once had a job helping to sort them. Apparently all the soldiers who went off to war had to make a will before they went. Many were very young and had few belongings, and nearly all of them left everything "to my mother". Coincidentally, I then came across this article about 230,000 wills made by servicemen from England and Wales who later died in World War One, which have just been released into the public domain. after being stored away for a century. It makes for sad and poignant reading. 

This poignant historical repository of some 230,000 wills, maybe five per cent of which are accompanied by final farewells to mothers, wives and sweethearts, has been made available on the internet by the Courts and Tribunals Service.

And lastly we talked about how the number of New Zealand troops at Gallipoli might have been miscounted and underestimated for over 100 years. The usual figure given is 8556 New Zealand soldiers, but it seems as if the total might have been over 10,000, even as high as 14,000. It's a really interesting example of how research is still unearthing new information about events of World War One. 

Wednesday 4 September 2013

The School Journal: a national treasure

New Zealand children’s writers and illustrators have been concerned all year about proposed changes to the School Journal. Now they have reacted with horror and outrage to the announcement that Learning Media, the government-owned company that publishes the School Journal, is to be closed down, because it is not “financially viable”. They say that this iconic New Zealand enterprise has been made to tender for its own core business and set up to fail.

This forced closure means far more than the loss of over 100 jobs at Learning Media itself, many more jobs for contributing artists and writers, and the loss of expertise and in-depth knowledge of the curriculum. In the words of Greg O’Brien (author of A nest of singing birds, written in 2007 to celebrate the centenary of the Journal’s publication): “The contribution of the School Journal to the art and literature of New Zealand has been priceless, profound and ongoing... The School Journal is one of the great educational periodicals to emerge anywhere in the world, ever.”

New Zealand’s education system is admired internationally. Our School Journals are the envy of many countries. Learning Media has been producing excellent resources for schools for over a hundred years; yet here we are, being told that it will close. Newspaper articles have reported that “a contract ensured the School Journal's survival for now“, and “the School Journal will still be available to schools”. However, it is unclear how long that contract will last for, and how schools will still receive all publications and be able to access online resources if Learning Media is closed down.

The School Journal is a New Zealand institution, both culturally and educationally.  It provides a way for New Zealand children to see their own lives reflected in print. We live in a world where globalisation of information is increasing. There are real concerns that New Zealand written and illustrated content will be forfeited to overseas providers. Do we really want our children to be deprived of their own New Zealand, Maori and Pasifika stories? Our culture is unique and is one of the key reasons New Zealand punches above its weight in so many fields.

The Journal has also been the springboard for numerous writing and illustrating careers. It has been called “the place where Margaret Mahy began”. Other contributors over the years have included many of the country's top artists and writers, such as Rita Angus, Juliet Peter, Dick Frizzell, Russell Clark, Colin McCahon, Joy Cowley, Patricia Grace, Witi Ihimaera, James K. Baxter, David Hill and many others. The School Journal’s editors took the time to nurture new talent, and we have them to thank for the work of many of today’s top New Zealand children’s writers and illustrators.

School Journal 1964

Please don't let this get swamped by the next piece of news to hit the headlines. We would urge all parents, teachers, librarians and anyone who cares about the education , literacy and future of our children, to write to the Minister of Education and to their local MP and protest this decision.

For more details, see:
·         Learning Media website
·         More about the School Journal
·         Learning Media has traditionally had a contract with the Ministry of Education to supply materials to schools, in particular the School Journal, but also learning materials across the whole curriculum, including publications to support Te Reo Maori and Pasifika languages, highly respected science resources like Connected, and online and digital resources for TKI through their digital publishing arm. This contract expired last year and other publishers have been invited to submit bids for series previously published by LM.
·         Until recently, the School Journal was made up of four levels aimed at % year olds to 12 year olds. Four issues a level...16 journals a year sent to schools (free) in class sets of 30. Each journal would typically include 3 short stories, 3 articles, one play, one craft activity, and 1 or 2 poems, all graded at the reading ability of children in each level and cross indexed according to subject and reading level in a comprehensive index issued every year covering 5 years. Many schools would consider their journal room, holding up to 20 years’ worth of class sets, to be their prime reading resource for teaching reading literacy and keeping NZ in the top 5 for reading literacy in the world over many decades.