Inside the covers of the School Journal – World of imagination and ideas

Issue: Volume 100, Number 9

Posted: 21 July 2021
Reference #: 1HANSM

For more than 100 years, New Zealand’s School Journal has been an introduction, not only to literacy and reading, but also to a world of imagination and ideas. The Journal continues to foster a love of reading and to inspire, enlighten and inform the children of New Zealand.

John Bonallack, Margaret Nieuwland and Clare Bowes reminisce about the many School Journals they worked on as editor and art editors.

John Bonallack, Margaret Nieuwland and Clare Bowes reminisce about the many School Journals they worked on as editor and art editors.

First published in 1907, the early School Journals resembled a traditional English reader of the era. They had few illustrations and were largely rooted in distant shores, with writing by William Shakespeare, Jane Austen and Jonathan Swift.

It wasn’t until the 1940s and World War II that the Journals began to reflect what it meant to be a New Zealander and have an influence on shaping a sense of national identity.

Educationalist Dr Clarence Beeby played a key part in this with the establishment of the School Publications branch.

Roll call of artists and writers

New Zealand school children were blessed with a treasure trove of imaginative writing and artistic endeavour, which was later described as an ‘unauthorised history of New Zealand art’ and as Margaret Mahy described it: ‘One of New Zealand’s leading literary magazines’.

By the 1950s, writers and artists who were to become household names either contributed to, or worked for, School Publications.

The list of colourful and talented creatives who were given opportunities by School Publications is long and includes writers James K. Baxter, Frank Sargeson, Janet Frame, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Witi Ihimaera. Sir Edmund Hillary even contributed an account of his ascent of Mount Everest in 1955.

Artists of that era included Russell Clark, Juliet Peter and E. Mervyn Taylor. By the late 1950s, photographs became more prominent in the publication and work by Ans Westra, John Pascoe, Robin Morrison and Marti Friedlander was featured. In the 1970s, work by artists Dick Frizzell, Christine Ross, Robin White and Gordon Walters appeared in the Journals.

Look of the book

By the mid-1960s, specialist illustrators were emerging. These included Graham Percy(external link), who went on to have an illustrious career in the UK as an artist and illustrator.

Art graduate Clare Bowes was encouraged by Graham Percy to check out the opportunities at School Publications and there met and was mentored by artist, and art editor Jill McDonald, who she credits with changing the look of the Journals in the mid-1960s. Jill subsequently moved to England and influenced the visual style of Penguin’s children’s brand, Puffin.

In A Nest of Singing Birds, McDonald is quoted: “The only overall credo I’ve ever had regarding books for children, is that if they look entertaining, or exciting, or amusing enough to be worth the effort of reading them, children will make the effort.”

Māori and Pacific artists

The School Journal featured Māori material from the earliest days, but it tended towards mythological or historical tales. By the mid-1940s, key positions were held by Māori, including art editor Roy Cowan (Ngāpuhi) and editor Alistair Campbell (Cook Islands Māori). During the 1960s and 1970s, Māori writers such as Witi Ihimaera and Patricia Grace contributed first-hand accounts of Māori experiences in the contemporary world.

In the 1970s and 80s, Māori artists who contributed to the Journal included Para Matchitt, Ralph Hotere, Cliff Whiting and Robin Kahukiwa; and more recently Philip Paea, Mat Tait, Isobel Joy TeAho-White, Josh Morgan and Reweti Arapere.

As the 20th century progressed, the Journal increasingly engaged with Pacific contributions to cultural life in New Zealand, with art editor Vaitoa Baker and artist Fraser Williamson contributing to this body of work.


The School Publications branch of the Ministry of Education became a Crown company, Learning Media, in 1993, and subsequently a state-owned enterprise in 2005. It published all Ministry of Education school curriculum resources until 2013. Lift Education now provides publishing services to the Ministry for the Junior Journal, School Journal, and School Journal Story Library.

This article was researched using A nest of singing birds: 100 years of the New Zealand School Journal by Gregory O’Brien, published by Learning Media for the centenary of the School Journal in 2007.

 school journal

Making the magic happen

Education Gazette sat down with former illustrators and art editors Clare Bowes and Margaret Nieuwland, former editor John Bonallack and current editor Susan Paris to talk about what it’s like to work on the iconic School Journal.

They all agreed that ‘content is king’ and that the key purpose of the Journal is to spark a connection with children and create lifelong learners and readers.

Margaret, John and Clare reminisced about the ‘golden years’ when ‘School Pubs’ was a hotbed of creativity, as well as being a secure Government job.

School Publications handled print media: there was also an Audio Production Unit and Visual Production Unit, which produced school resources. Staff were located in an old wooden annex behind the Old Government Buildings in Lambton Quay for many years, before moving to new offices in Molesworth Street.

As a young student at Elam School of Art, Clare Bowes scored a holiday job at School Publications in the summer of 1964-65. She went on to work as a freelance illustrator and then full-time art editor on the School Journal, Ready to Read books and other school publications until 2003.

Margaret Nieuwland began working for the publication Education in the early 1980s and then got a foot in the door at School Publications at a time when art editors also had skills as illustrators.

John Bonallack, who had been a primary school teacher, thought being a School Journal editor was the best job in the world.

Student-focused and progressive

Susan Paris, who joined Learning Media in 1998 and continues to work for Lift Education, says that from the 1940s, the Journals became much more student focused.

“When they talked about changing the Journal in the 1940s, they wanted it to be responsive and progressive and I think that’s still part of the DNA of the Journal. After the War, there was an opportunity to have something that was singularly our own,” she says.

“It felt like a privilege to be working on something that was based in New Zealand, that we were creating content for New Zealand schools and children and that it should somehow reflect something of their lives,” says Margaret.

Putting it all together

Through the second half of the 20th century, School Publications was inundated with material for publication – most of which had to be rejected because of the sheer volume of submissions.

Little did Clare Bowes know, when she was photographed reading the Journal for Education magazine in the late 1940s, that she would end up working as an art editor there.

Little did Clare Bowes know, when she was photographed reading the Journal for Education magazine in the late 1940s, that she would end up working as an art editor there.

“Along with National Radio, the Journals were almost the only outlet for writers of stories for children at the time. I had written for the School Journal as a freelancer – I was a teacher at Rawene in the Hokianga and I knew what it was like putting your heart in that envelope and waiting, often weeks, for a reply,” remembers John.

John edited the Part 3 and 4 Journals, alongside editor Brent Southgate, who edited the Part 1 and 2 Journals at the time. He says there was a kind of productive tension between editors and art editors.

“The art editors would resist, and rightly, any attempts for the editors to railroad how the Journal was going to look,” he says.

The art editors’ job is to make the Journals as attractive and accessible as possible, with the illustrations closely relating to a story, while enhancing and adding excitement to it, explains Clare.

“We read through the story and got a feel for the total thing and as you read them, people came to mind who you thought would be good to commission for that story. Some had a particular humour, some had fine delicate lines, others had sweeping bold colours and lots of action,” she says.

Pre- and post-digital

Before computerisation, artwork was mailed in and there was a constant paper war in the cramped offices.

“Pre-digital, all the artwork would come in and you had to protect it and make sure it didn’t get damaged. We didn’t really have the capacity, room-wise, to store these big A3 illustrations,” says Margaret.

“When I first started at the Journals, you would get the text from the editor and then you would mark it up and you chose the font and all that sort of stuff and that would go away to get typeset. Then you would get it back from the typesetter in great big long sheets and you would have to physically cut it up and paste it down,” she says.

Clare remembers the 1990s as being a watershed decade, with the art editors sent to Whanganui for a crash course in PageMaker. She says that overall, computer design made the Journals more attractive and dynamic.

“So much more was possible but occasionally the type was subsumed by the wildness, and headings became hard to read. Designers had to be reminded that children were still learning to read and the type should be clear and not confusing,” explains Claire.

Social change

The School Journal was an opportunity to encourage students to think about social issues of the day, says John.

“I believed that particularly Part 4 readers, and to a lesser extent Part 3, were capable of understanding social and other issues, so I tried to include articles and stories that would stretch them, and would give teachers material they could expand on and use to extend their more capable students,” he says.

In the early 1980s, a new Ready to Read series was developed to replace the series created in the 1960s. A survey was undertaken to determine gender frequency so that the new series would better reflect the society of the day.

“They noted every male and every female character – whether they were dominant, sub-dominant characters and they discovered that the stories were very stereotypical. Men were out doing jobs and the women’s appearances were nearly all domestic. I hadn’t really perceived it until that came through,” remembers Clare.

By the 1980s, there was a strong Māori publishing department at Learning Media, producing Journal series such as ‘Te Wharekura’ in te reo Māori.

Changes and realignment

Susan became a Journal editor in 2006. She edits Levels 3 and 4 Journals and colleague David Chadwick edits Level 2 Journals. “When I started, we had an unsolicited manuscripts approach. It was the tail end of an era when the School Journal was seen as a proving ground for writers and artists. This didn’t give editors much agency to balance content and ensure it related to The New Zealand Curriculum.

Susan Paris.

Susan Paris.

“In around 2010, it was decided that the editors would commission everything. I was quite apprehensive about this at first. It meant finding a lot of material, which was a daunting prospect. But it really did work well, especially when it came to the non-fiction. There was suddenly a lot more scope to explore topical issues,” she says.

At that time, there was a realignment of the Journal levels to better fit the levels of the curriculum.

“The big point of difference with the School Journal is that it’s actually levelled instructional material that provides students with the right level of challenge and support so they are able to keep progressing,” explains Susan.


School Journal in the 21st century

Today the School Journal continues to feature authentic and diverse stories and voices from around New Zealand.

“We make sure that everything is relevant and of the moment, that the content really reflects the experiences of all ākonga, as well as being closely aligned to the curriculum. Student engagement is everything,” says editor Susan Paris.

Developing skills

There’s a strong emphasis on helping students develop the reading and writing skills they need to access curriculum content across all seven subject areas from Years 1-8.

“For example, if you have an article that had links to the science curriculum, you would be aware of certain vocabulary that they needed to be able to cope with to be able to then access the content. This vocabulary would be carefully considered at the editing and leveling stage,” explains Susan.

Reflecting authentic voices

The Ministry of Education actively seeks to reflect Te Ao Māori and include more te reo Māori within the School Journal series. The objective is to support learners to value, acquire and use te reo Māori, words, phrases and common terms, as well as other forms of language acquisition such as waiata and local stories.

Future issues of the Journal will include more student voice, so that ākonga can see themselves and their peers in the publication and feel supported as writers, as well as readers.

Susan says that it’s important to find appropriate people to write content, with subject matter experts and academics having input, if not writing an article.

“We recently published an article about the migration of Māori to our towns and cities in the 1950s and 60s, which was written by Aroha Harris, one of our leading historians. We’ve also just published an article about the history of Chinese New Zealanders, written by Helene Wong.


“Wellbeing is another area of interest at the moment. The latest Level 4 Journal has a memoir by Kyle Mewburn about gender identity and her experience of growing up in what she calls ‘the wrong body’,” says Susan.

Children today face some big challenges and Susan says that fiction is powerful for developing empathy and acknowledging some of the difficulties they face, such as anxiety or parents who aren’t getting on.

“For example, there’s a humorous story by James Brown about a boy going between his mum’s house and his dad’s house. In the background, there are some of the hassles, like having to co-ordinate your schedule with parents who are living separately. The story is a quiet acknowledgment of the reality of some kids.”

Becoming more accessible

The School Journal is becoming increasingly accessible. In addition to the print edition, it is provided as a PDF.

“We also have audio files – some stories are recorded to support readers with diverse learning needs,” explains Susan.

“There’s a lot of content at the front of the curriculum that talks about creating confident, lifelong learners who are connected and engaged. So it’s also about providing material that makes students feel informed and empowered to make a difference,” concludes Susan. school journal

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 11:20 am, 21 July 2021

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