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.