Dr Maurice Saxby AM: In Memoriam

Maurice Saxby, 26 December 1924—2 December 2014

I met Maurice Saxby the first time I attended a meeting of the NSW Branch of the Children’s Book Council. I was in my mid-20s, and I had not long since decided that I wanted to make children’s books my life’s work. I had met Ros Bastian, who was at the time the coordinator of the annual Children’s Book Fair, during my postgrad studies in Children’s Literature at Macquarie University, and she encouraged me to join the CBCA. And so I came along to the AGM, circa 1990, joined the committee and began my work in children’s literature.

And of course Maurie was there. He was the CBC’s first President in 1958, and remained an active member his whole life. I didn’t know anyone or anything much back then—I didn’t know who Maurie was, but I quickly learned. He was of course, as we all so affectionately called him, the Godfather of Australian Children’s Literature. In addition to his work with the CBC, he established studies in children’s literature at university level, and thousands upon thousands of primary education and teacher-librarian students trained under  his guidance. There is no doubting his influence in establishing Australian children’s literature as a core part of the curriculum in Australian schools, and in promoting its value and quality to the international children’s literature community.

And of course, he was its great chronicler. Soon after that first CBC AGM I found copies of Maurie’s History of Australian Children’s Literature in the library of the school where I worked at the time—from memory, they were being discarded (!) and I snaffled them. Of course, Maurice went on to revise that history, and its three volumes—Offered to Children: A History of Australian Children’s Literature 1841-1941, Images of Australia: a History of Australian Children’s Literature 1941-1970, and The Proof of the Puddin’: Australian Children’s Literature 1970–1990—published and expanded in the 1990s, remain core texts in my professional library. I refer to them all the time. They are my Bible, my most comprehensive and reliable (if also opinionated!) source, and will be in the pile of treasures to be saved come flood or zombie apocalypse. I believe Maurie was working on Volume 4—I hope it was finished before we lost him, this week, just shy of his much-anticipated 90th birthday.

Going back to that kid’s lit newbie back a quarter of a century ago—Maurie welcomed me into the fold as if I’d always been there. His generosity of spirit and his passionate commitment to his field rendered him, where it really mattered, ego-free. (He wasn’t ego-free about everything, including his own writing, but that’s not remotely a bad thing.) He wanted advocates, he wanted people to be as in love with children’s books as he was, and anyone who wanted to roll up (and roll their sleeves up) and be part of the community was in, as far as he was concerned. That’s certainly how he made me feel. He always treated me with the greatest professional courtesy, and the warmest personal affection. (Maurie was a kissy man. I think we’ve all received a smacking greeting from him.)

Maurie also had a slightly acerbic side; he knew too much and was too smart to suffer fools privately, but publicly I never knew him to be anything else but charming, warm, generous and completely enthusiastic. And he was a great friend to so many—widowed twice and with no children of his own, his friendships sustained him over many decades. I don’t claim that degree of friendship myself. I am just honoured to have known him, and to have been the inheritor of his great work and legacy in bringing children and books together—and for welcoming me so whole-heartedly into the world that has in turn sustained me and brought me enormous professional satisfaction and some of the most important friendships of my life.

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My dear friends Simon French and Donna Rawlins with Maurice Saxby at the Maurice Saxby Lecture, May, 2012

I guess it was a bit more than 10 years ago, I was browsing in a second-hand bookshop, and I came across a small stash of children’s books from the early-to-mid 20th century. Flipping through them, I was astonished and thrilled to see the neatly inscribed name of Maurice Saxby on the fly page of a book called Willie the Orphan, or, The Happy Land. At first, I thought, I must return this to Maurie! How did this end up here? But then I realised it must have been one of the books he sold when he moved from his home to a retirement apartment—and I was so pleased to have it. A book from Maurie’s library! How wonderful to have this on my own shelves.

Tonight, thinking about our beloved Maurie, I went to my shelves and took down the book, and rediscovered what I had forgotten about this treasured find—that it was a book given as a Sunday School prize to the five and a half year old Maurice Saxby.


Imagine that. Five year old Maurice.

It feels so fitting, to have a book that Maurie held and read and, maybe—I don’t know!—loved as such a young child. Perhaps one of the first books he could read alone. Because, thanks to Maurice Saxby, and all the people he influenced and befriended and converted, I was able to make a life in children’s books. In putting books into children’s hands.

I owe him so much.

And, as I said to Maurice’s great friend, Margaret Hamilton:

We will honour him with our work.

Remembering Nestlé Write Around Australia

I’ve had a lot of terrific jobs over the years, and one of the nicest was working on the Nestlé Write Around Australia creative writing program for kids. For those of you who don’t know it, it was a national program for kids in (equivalent of) Years 5 and 6, that involved sending authors to 50 regional centres across Australia, where they gave creative writing workshops to local schools, based at the public library, and a master class to the kids from that zone who were finalists in the competition component of the program.


I worked on the program from 1999 to 2001 (when I received my Churchill Fellowship from The Winston Churchill Memorial Trust of Australia and headed off overseas for 4 months). My job on NWAA was to develop teaching support materials for the delivery of the program in schools, and I also selected the books for the prizes. It was run by the State Library of NSW and I worked with the program coordinator Val Noake, who ran the program for nearly its entire life (except for the initial establishment phases, under the late and much missed Marion Robertson) and Virginia Mason. We were a good team, and it was a fun job—and I can tell you I learned more about Australian geography than I ever imagined possible!

I imagine the number of kids that went through the program must number in the tens of thousands. A lot of the stories are held in the collection of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of NSW, but, like many of these kinds of programs and jobs, you never really know what happened to those kids, even the ones who won.

So imagine my delight to see this photo posted today on the page of my Facebook friend, writer and poet Omar Musa. Turns out Omar—whose novel Here Come the Dogs is soon to be published with a blurb by none less than Irvine Welsh—was one of the first finalists in Nestlé Write Around Australia, way back in 1995.


Omar tells me that Allan Baillie took the workshop he attended, and that he was very encouraging—I’ll be sharing this with Allan, who I am sure will be thrilled. How wonderful, though, to have discovered that one of the Nestlé kids has gone on to be such a highly regarded writer. You so rarely see this kind of follow through in my line of work (even though I wasn’t actually working on the program when Omar was involved), and this has really made my day.

I have no doubt that Omar would have become a writer anyway, but I also believe that the knowledge and experience that Allan shared and the encouragement, support and guidance he gave was no small part of that journey.

And when I posted this on my Facebook page, author-illustrator Briony Stewart left a comment to say that she too had been a NWAA finalist, a year after Omar, in 1996.

briony stewart

Which makes me wonder—how many more of our finalists went on to become writers? Please leave me a comment here if you know of any!

It all serves to remind me—the work I (we) do is important, and it does change lives.