Mem Fox

It’s partly thanks to Miss Smith, high school teacher, and Felicity Hughes, university lecturer, that the world enjoys the children’s books written by Mem Fox, Journalist Sue Osborne writes.

Fox credits these two teachers with influencing and inspiring her – and in Ms Hughes’ case, forcing her – to write children’s literature.

Fox was born in Australia but grew up in Africa, the daughter of missionary parents, and was educated at Townsend Girls High School in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe.

She met Miss Smith in the equivalent of Year 8 and enjoyed her inspirational English teaching for the next five years.

“I would not be who I am today – I would not be talking to you right now, if it weren’t for Miss Smith,” Fox said.

“Writing for very young children is as much about the rhythm as it is about plot, character and theme. The rhythm is what brings the child back and back to a book.

“Miss Smith loved language itself, not just literature. She would read us poetry and let the words roll around in her mouth. She would tell us how beautiful it was. She took away the fear of poetry. We adored Shakespeare thanks to her.”

Listening to the King James version of the Bible at church also instilled a love of language in Fox.

“The modern version is totally denuded of the rhythm and beauty of the language. If anything other than the King James Bible is read at my funeral I’m going to resurrect, throw off the lid of the coffin and demand it.”

Listening to Sir John Gielgud reciting T.S. Eliot on her father’s radiogram was another of Fox’s formative experiences.

After leaving school she went to London to drama school, where she met her husband Malcolm.

“I was besotted with drama. It did not occur to me to be a writer. My three years of studying drama was absolutely key to me becoming a writer though, because we had to learn all that language and the rhythm of the poets and playwrights. We were strictly taught how to make language come alive.

“When I’m writing I must look very odd, because I have my neck stretched back, and I’m talking to the ceiling, and I’m grasping the air with my hands, looking for that perfect word. The thesaurus is in tatters.”

In 1970 Malcolm and Fox went to Australia as ‘10 pound Poms’, even though Fox was born here.

“I thought with my drama training and voice the ABC would love me. Of course, they didn’t want me, I was a nobody. But someone in the radio station had a wife who was unwell and couldn’t teach her drama class at a Catholic school anymore, so he asked me to step in.

“The last thing I wanted to be was a teacher, so I started at Cabra College Adelaide most unwillingly, wearing very short skirts when the nuns were in long habits. I adored it from the very first moment. I absolutely love teaching.”

Fox’s only child Chloe was born in 1971 and she continued to teach in Catholic schools while Chloe was small.

It’s awe-inspiring, spine-tingling, when you have a class enthralled by a story.

“I was in tiny parish schools with names like Our Lady of Fatima and Star of the Sea. They were very good to me. Then a job came up in a teachers’ college to teach drama to student teachers. That was an unbelievably happy time in my life.

“I was about 28 teaching 18-21 year olds about drama.”

A restructure at Sturt College of Advanced Education led Fox to combine drama teaching with literacy studies.

“Chloe had started reading very young. I didn’t know how to teach her to read, she just did it. It fascinated me, and I wanted to know more.

“The major passion of my life started.”

The college was eventually taken over by Flinders University and Fox was asked to increase her academic credentials. Part of her studies included a course in children’s literature.

Her lecturer Felicity Hughes knew most of her students took a patronising view of the writing of fiction for young children, so she devised a course forcing them to write a children’s book.

“I was furious about this assignment. I thought it was so beneath me. After about 10 minutes of trying to write a book I changed my mind.”

The work she produced was called Hush the Invisible Mouse, and it evolved into Possum Magic over a painful five year period in which it was rejected by publishers nine times.

“It was too long. But they also rejected it because it was too Australian. I had intentionally made it Australian because when I tried to buy books for Chloe reflecting our native culture and country there was nothing.

“It’s an irony I often reflect on now, as what eventually made Possum Magic so successful was its Australiana.”

Since then Fox has written more than 40 children’s books and five non-fiction. But she “can’t stand writing” and only actually writes for about three weeks a year.

At 50 Fox retired from her role as Associate Professor of Literacy Studies at Flinders University to concentrate on the passion of her life: encouraging parents to read with their children.

“Encouraging parents to read to children aged 0-5 is a message that has to be repeated because new parents are made all the time.”

Fox visits schools all over Australia and overseas with this message.

Although she is not against phonics education, she said reading a story and bringing it to life for children is crucial, as isolated sounds won’t encourage a love of reading.

“It’s awe-inspiring, spine-tingling, when you have a class enthralled by a story. Any class listening to a story is a good class.

“Teachers often thank the children for being so good when I’ve read to a class. It’s not that they’re being good – the words they heard put a spell on them. Any ratty group can be made good.”

Fox’s most recent book, I’m Australian Too, tackles the refugee story.

Fox was a recent speaker at the Edmund Rice Centre Justice through the Arts event, which is sponsored by the IEUA NSW/ACT Branch, and encourages students to explore social justice issues through creative means.

Selected works

Possum Magic
(1983) illustrated by Julie Vivas
A Bedtime Story (1987) illustrated by Sisca Verwoert
Goodnight, Sleep Tight (1988) illustrated by Helen Semmler
Time for Bed (1993) illustrated by Jane Dyer
Tough Boris (1994) illustrated by Kathryn Brown
Wombat Divine (1995) illustrated by Kerry Argent
Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! (2000) illustrated by Marla Frazee
The Magic Hat (2002) illustrated by Tricia Tusa
Where Is the Green Sheep? (2004) illustrated by Judy Horacek
Where the Giant Sleeps (2007) pictures by Vladimir Radunsky
Hello, Baby (2009) illustrated by Steve Jenkins
Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (2008) illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
Ducks Away! (2016) illustrated by Judy Horacek
I’m Australian Too (2017) illustrated by Ronojoy Ghosh