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The School Magazine and Me

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I came to Australia as a French-speaking child, without a word of English, and started school in Sydney within only a few weeks of arriving. Today, I am an author of children’s books, and English has become the language of my imagination. How did this happen? In part, the answer lies in the influence of The School Magazine, one of the world’s great literary treasures for children, which (rather incongruously) emanates from the very heart of a bureaucratic behemoth, the New South Wales Department of Education.

The School Magazine, which turns 90 this year and is the oldest literary magazine in Australia and, I think, the oldest children’s literary magazine in the world, was first published on 1 February 1916, just in time for the new school year. Its full title then was The School Magazine of Literature for Our Boys and Girls, and its function was to provide every primary school child in New South Wales with good stories, poems, plays, extracts from novels, facts and fun – all for free. From the very first issue, the Magazine demonstrated its belief that ‘only the best is good enough for children’, as Walter de la Mare said. And that best included both Australian writers, such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, and those further afield, such as William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as nursery rhymes, fairy tales and animal stories, all illustrated with line drawings and reproductions of paintings.

Today The School Magazine is no longer a humble black-and-white single-part monthly journal, as it was at the beginning, but a glossy full-colour publication, produced in four monthly parts, each intended for different reading ages and called Countdown, Blast Off, Orbit and Touchdown. Economic rationalism has meant – very sadly, in my opinion – that the Magazine is no longer distributed to every pr

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I came to Australia as a French-speaking child, without a word of English, and started school in Sydney within only a few weeks of arriving. Today, I am an author of children’s books, and English has become the language of my imagination. How did this happen? In part, the answer lies in the influence of The School Magazine, one of the world’s great literary treasures for children, which (rather incongruously) emanates from the very heart of a bureaucratic behemoth, the New South Wales Department of Education.

The School Magazine, which turns 90 this year and is the oldest literary magazine in Australia and, I think, the oldest children’s literary magazine in the world, was first published on 1 February 1916, just in time for the new school year. Its full title then was The School Magazine of Literature for Our Boys and Girls, and its function was to provide every primary school child in New South Wales with good stories, poems, plays, extracts from novels, facts and fun – all for free. From the very first issue, the Magazine demonstrated its belief that ‘only the best is good enough for children’, as Walter de la Mare said. And that best included both Australian writers, such as Mary Gilmore, Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson, and those further afield, such as William Wordsworth, Alfred Tennyson and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as well as nursery rhymes, fairy tales and animal stories, all illustrated with line drawings and reproductions of paintings. Today The School Magazine is no longer a humble black-and-white single-part monthly journal, as it was at the beginning, but a glossy full-colour publication, produced in four monthly parts, each intended for different reading ages and called Countdown, Blast Off, Orbit and Touchdown. Economic rationalism has meant – very sadly, in my opinion – that the Magazine is no longer distributed to every primary school child in the state, as was the case until the 1980s, but it is available on subscription (many of New South Wales’s primary schools still purchase it every year) and it has a healthy 120,000 subscribers. But its commitment to literary quality, its sense of wonder and fun, and its accessibility have been maintained. In fact, the Magazine has not only nurtured generations of readers, it has also been one of the single most important factors in the rich flourishing of Australian children’s literature. Most Australian writers and illustrators have had work published – often for the first time – in it, and it has been staffed by an impressive roll-call of some of Australia’s most celebrated writers, among them Patricia Wrightson, Lilith Norman, Geoffrey McSkimming, Anna Fienberg, Ursula Dubosarsky, Duncan Ball and Tohby Riddle. Though the Magazine has periodically been eyed by education ideologues wanting to ‘bring it up to date’ (in other words, turn it into a boring teaching aid instead of a children’s literary magazine), so far it has withstood such attacks, preserving its traditional standards yet continuing to remain fresh and to include the best of modern writing, entertaining its readers but also challenging them. To my mind, it’s the single best thing the Department of Education has ever done. I don’t remember a single word of any of my primary school textbooks, but I do remember, vividly, many issues of The School Magazine. I remember how I raced to learn to read so I could borrow my older sister’s copies and devour them. I remember the excitement of the days when the Magazine would be distributed at school and I’d receive my very own copy. I would read it as I walked home along the busy Pacific Highway in suburban Sydney, so engrossed in its pages that occasionally I’d bump into telegraph poles. Through the Magazine I was introduced to a whole world of stories and pictures, and for the first time I also began to understand that Australia, the country I lived in but whose culture was unfamiliar to me, was a source of the most wonderful stories, every bit as exciting as those from Europe. An extract from Patricia Wrightson’s The Rocks of Honey (which sent me scurrying to the library to find the book) made me realize that Australia had not only an Aboriginal past but also an Aboriginal present. But Wrightson wasn’t the only writer whose work I was introduced to in the Magazine: others included Ruth Park, Philippa Pearce, Nicholas Stuart Gray and Leon Garfield. In fact, because the Magazine always published the best of children’s literature, not just from Australia but from elsewhere too, I came to love and feel at ease within an imaginative world that was both local and international. In this world to which we were so generously given access – all of us, wherever we came from, and whatever kind of school we went to – we had the freedom to roam, to lose ourselves in a world of the imagination that was intensely real at the same time. It was a true education, not one of rote learning and platitudes, but one that opened your mind and your heart, that gave you the freedom to dare, and to dream. It was the most perfect nurturing for a reader, and writer, that could be imagined. My confidence in my own writing grew enormously and in time I came to feel I could add to this imaginative world myself. Like so many others, I got my first real break in The School Magazine when a story of mine, ‘Platypus Daybreak’, was accepted. To be published in a magazine I’d loved as a child was amazing enough, but when you are a struggling writer, to have a story accepted in a magazine whose readers number not in the hundreds or the thousands but in the hundreds of thousands was truly wonderful. It’s not only as a reader and writer that I love the Magazine, though. As a mother of school-age children myself now, and as a visiting author to schools all over New South Wales, I have also seen how much fun the Magazine provides both children and teachers. Fun is all too often a neglected aspect of children’s intellectual and educational growth, but The School Magazine transforms reading from something you must do at school into something that will never stop enriching you, no matter what age you are.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 12 © Sophie Masson 2006


About the contributor

Sophie Masson’s novel, Thomas Trew and the Hidden People, is the first in a series of books about the adventures of 9-year-old London schoolboy in the magical Hidden World.

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