Mem Fox is one of the world’s most beloved picture book authors. Her masterful use of meter, rhyme, and rhythm endear her works to children and adults alike. She has been recognized with incredible honors from being named a Member of the Order of Australia to having a limited-edition collection of coins minted that depict characters from her first and most popular book, Possum Magic. Fox is a passionate literacy advocate, a champion for human rights, a highly sought-after speaker, and a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother. Here, she shares details about her life and work with Mackin’s Amy Meythaler.
The Partridge Years
You are known today as Mem Fox, yet your given name at birth was Merrion Partridge. Why do we know you as Mem instead of Merrion?
“Merrion” is such an unusual name (I have never met anyone else with that name) that I had to explain its pronunciation and spelling every time I was asked. It was tedious. At age 14, I grew tired of the constant explaining and called myself Mem for short. The reason for that choice is now lost in the mists of time.
You were born in Australia but grew up in Africa as the child of a missionary family. What was your family’s purpose at the mission and was it part of your faith group?
My mother was Methodist. She came from a long line of Methodist ministers. The mission, Hope Fountain, was run by the London Missionary Society, which is Congregational. My father was the director of the teaching training school on the mission.
What was it like to grow up on a mission?
I loved growing up there. It was like growing up on a farm. We were free to roam all day long, from dawn to dusk, without our parents having any idea where we were. There were lots of African children, as well as the children of other missionaries, to hang about with. The mission was only 11 miles from Bulawayo, a major modern city, so it wasn’t exactly “wildest” Africa.
Even though you were close to a major city, your first year of education sounds a bit rustic. With no paper and pencils, you had to write in the dirt?
I had to write in the dirt for the first term of my schooling. After that we graduated proudly to slates and slate pencils.
After your first year of school, government authorities required you to attend an all-white school. Did you have the usual classroom supplies at your new school?
My white school, back in 1952, looked like any ‘typical’ school. In the African schools, also, children had all the normal accoutrements associated with schooling. It was just a case of getting to that stage more slowly so as not to squander scarce resources.
The Magic of Reading
So when did you learn your letters, numbers, and sight words?
I think I knew how to read before I started school. My dad was a highly gifted teacher, and I think he’d have seen to it that I not only loved books, but could read them myself as soon as possible.
“I strongly believe that the first five years at home should be about loving each other (parent and child) and loving sharing books—not about teaching reading.”
As an advocate for reading aloud to children, your parents must have read to you.
Indeed, they did. I recall Bible stories being very exciting and dramatic, and I loved stories about Australian animals and their dangerous existence in a hostile environment. I also recall the soothing nature of the togetherness of my sisters and mother as she read to us. It was the social warmth as much as the literature itself that I adored.
What are your first memories of reading yourself?
I have no recollection of not being able to read. I can’t recall my first memories of reading; but as a teenager, in the afternoons, I would lie on my bed lost in literature as wild thunderstorms battered the roof. I LOVED that feeling of being lost in another world as my world crashed around me.
Did you have a plentiful supply of books to enjoy?
My parents left Australia in 1946 with a veritable library. I was never at a loss for something to read. On our bookshelves there were vast numbers of poetry books, all of Dickens’ novels, most of the famous classic novels, children’s stories, encyclopedias, atlases, and books about Australia.
Do you remember favorite books or authors?
There were two classic, lengthy books from Australia that captured my imagination most: Snugglepot and Cuddlepie (Angus & Robertson, 1918) and Blinky Bill (Angus & Robertson, 1933). They were probably favorites because of their Australian-ness, but I also recall they were terrifying and thrilling and spared no thought for the tender emotions or terrors of young children. It was no-holds-barred drama on every page.
Clearly, reading is a passion of yours. What about writing?
I have always loved reading. I fear and loathe writing now that I know how impossibly difficult it is, but I loved it as a child. I wrote my first “book” when I was 10. I knew by 14 that I had a talent for writing.
Did your teachers encourage you to develop your writing skills?
At high school, I had the same brilliant English teacher year after year. She had enormous faith in my ability as a writer and was a huge encouragement to me, even after she died!
Despite your passion for reading and your talent for writing, when it came time for you to attend college, you did not choose to major in English. Instead, you chose to study drama. Why?
I was crazy about drama and starred in many school plays.
The Discovery of Purpose
Following college, where did life take you?
After college, I was a volunteer in Zimbabwe and Rwanda teaching English. I married Malcolm Fox in 1969, and we migrated to Australia in 1970. There, I taught English to migrant children in the evenings and drama in schools in the daytime. I taught drama for many years, until 1996, in schools first and then at a teachers college and university.
You are known worldwide as a passionate advocate for literacy. How did your interest and knowledge in this field come about?
In 1980, I took a year out to study the teaching of literacy: the college asked me to do it, for staffing reasons, and I was eager to accept the challenge.
In your book, Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever (HMH, 2001), you discuss your ideas and insights about the power and importance of reading. How did you develop your theories?
I was a university academic for 26 years, so the work in Reading Magic was not situational. It was based on solid research from around the world.
In a nutshell, what is your philosophy as shared in Reading Magic?
I strongly believe, along with millions of other caring professionals, that the first five years at home should be about loving each other (parent and child) and loving sharing books—not about teaching reading. However, once a child hits school, then phonics should be taught, absolutely, but not to the exclusion of the sense and sensibility of great literature, otherwise the words and sounds children learn and have no hooks to make meaning from, let alone create the joy and happiness that we want children to have in relation to reading. I am all for intense teaching. I would be horrified if it weren’t occurring. It’s the difference between reading at home, and learning to read at school that I emphasize. The first should be entirely joyful. The latter should be entirely joyful also, with the added element of superb, closely focused teaching.
You are a proponent for delaying formal education for children. Yet, with efforts to be competitive in the global marketplace, more and more officials are calling for structured early education. What are your thoughts on formal education for children as young as three years old?
Ghastly. It should never happen.
What about the STEM focus in education currently? As a literacy consultant, how do you feel about education zeroing in on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics?
I am all for STEM. The future of the world depends upon it. But there is no STEM without literacy first.
In Reading Magic, you address the idea of reluctant readers, many of whom happen to be boys.
There are no reluctant readers who have found the right book! Most reluctant readers are reluctant because of the utter garbage they have had to suffer through their school readers, which are badly written, have no emotional content, and no other redeeming quality either.
So what can parents do to help their children connect with reading?
- Begin at birth.
- Never get tense around books or learning to read.
- Have a huge variety of reading material available for your child.
Do you have any advice for teachers?
Yes. Teachers shouldn’t forget that literature exists. They should read it with passion and regularity.
And what would be your advice for librarians?
Aha! Librarians need to recall that their main role used to be reading to children. It’s not about helping kids navigate the digital world. That’s so sterile, even though it’s necessary. It’s about introducing fabulous emotional experiences to children by reading them great books or suggesting great books if children are too old to be read to.
The Far Reach of Influence
Speaking of great books, your writing career began with Possum Magic (Harcourt, 1983), which actually was an assignment when you returned to university for literature studies. It is hard to believe that nine publishers turned it down before it was finally accepted—and now it has sold well over 3 million copies and has received several awards. Possum Magic even has its own limited-edition coin collection which was introduced in August 2017. That is incredible!
No one can imagine the level of my excitement at the real magic that’s happened, thanks to the Royal Australian Mint and Woolworths, and in particular to the brilliant illustrator of the book, Julie Vivas, whose feet I kiss, and without whom I would never have become the well-known writer I am today. Julie worked hard on the design of the coins to maintain the integrity of the original art. As you can imagine, nothing could be more magical than turning Possum Magic from a book into a collection of coins. I’m dizzy with amazement, and honestly, overcome with gratitude that our beloved book is being immortalized in this way.
Clearly, this book and your subsequent picture books have deeply touched readers across Australia and throughout the world. What is it about picture books that draws in readers and moves them so deeply?
High quality picture books are adored by all ages as there is always something in them for adults, too. Even my university students loved picture books: the drama, the universal themes, the pictures, the soothing rhythms, the wild repetitions, and so on.
Do you believe there is ever a time to put picture books aside and pick up chapter books instead?
There is no right time to move on. We move from picture books into reading longer books when we are able to, and when we want to. As I’ve said, adults love picture books, so clearly they are a delight to come back to, post-childhood, as teachers, parents and librarians.
You are a master at writing picture books such as Tell Me About Your Day Today (Beach Lane Books, 2012), Two Little Monkeys (Beach Lane Books, 2012), and Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes (HMH Books for Young Readers, 2008). The way you create rhythm and rhyme and weave them with heartwarming messages is unmatched like Hello Baby! (Beach Lane Books, 2009) and Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge (Kane/Miller Book Publishers, 1995). How did you develop this writing style? Does it take work or do the words just flow? I thank God for having grown up on a mission with the perfect cadences of the King James edition of the Bible dripping into my veins; then for having gone to drama school and learning Shakespeare and the great poets by heart; and then for having a daughter to whom I read the magical rhythms of Dr. Seuss over and over again. These three influences gave me a unique insight into and a feeling for rhythm, which is, I believe, the main reason for my apparent success. No one wants to read an un-rhythmic book to a child.
“Writing is so hard to do well and so easy to do badly.”
Your success would seem to be a bit more than “apparent” based on the list on your website of awards and honors you have received.
I am surprised and thrilled every time I receive an honor, no matter from whom. I still see myself as some sort of impostor in the world of writing, and find it hard to believe that anyone would give me an award for any reason, although I do feel secretly ecstatic when it happens. I am filled with great gratitude for each one.