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Merrion Frances Fox (1946-) Biography - Personal, Addresses, Career, Member, Honors Awards, Writings, Adaptations, Sidelights

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(Mem Fox)

Personal

Born 1946, in Melbourne, Australia; Catienne. Education: Attended Rose Bruford Drama School, London, 1968; Finders University, South Australia, B.A., 1978; South Australian College of Advanced Education, B.Ed., 1979, graduate diploma, 1981. Politics: Labour. Religion: Christian.

Addresses

office—South Australian College of

Merrion Frances Fox

Advanced Education, Sturt Rd., Bedford Park, South Australia 5042, Australia. Agent—Jenny Darling, P.O. Box 413, Toorak, Victoria 3142, Australia.

Career

Writer, educator, and television host. Cabra Dominican School, Adelaide, South Australia, drama teacher, 1970-72; South Australian College of Advanced Education-Sturt (now Flinders University), Adelaide, South Australia, lecturer, 1973-86, senior lecturer, beginning 1987, associate professor of literacy studies until 1996. Speaker and lecturer at literary conferences and other events; educational consultant.

Member

South Australian Story Telling Guild (founder, 1978; president, 1981), Actors Equity, Australian Society of Authors, National Council for Teachers of English, Primary English Teachers Association (Australia), Children's Book Council (Australia), Association for Study of Australian Literature.

Honors Awards

Australian Children's Book Council Picture Book of the Year high commendation, and New South Wales Premier's Literary Award for Best Children's Book, both 1984, both for Possum Magic; short-listed for Picture Book of the Year, Australia, and chosen one of Child Study Association of America's Children's Books of the Year, both 1985, and selected one of New York Times Notable Books, 1986, all for Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge; Dromkeen Medal for distinguished services to children's literature, 1990; Advance Australia Award, 1991, for outstanding contribution to Australian literature; medal from Australia Day Honors awards, 1993; honorary doctorate of Letters, University of Wollongong, Australia, 1996; South Australia Great Award for literature, 2001, Prime Minister's Centenary Medal, 2003.

Writings

FOR CHILDREN

Possum Magic, illustrated by Julie Vivas, Omnibus (Norwood, South Australia), 1983, Harcourt (New York, NY), 1990, tenth anniversary commemorative edition, Omnibus, 1993.

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, illustrated by Julie Vivas, Omnibus (Norwood, South Australia), 1984, Kane Miller (New York, NY), 1985.

A Cat Called Kite, illustrated by Kevin Hawley, Ashton Scholastic (Auckland, New Zealand), 1985.

Hattie and the Fox, illustrated by Patricia Mullins, Ashton Scholastic (Sydney, Australia), 1986, Bradbury (New York, NY), 1987.

Sail Away: The Ballad of Skip and Nell, illustrated by Pamela Lofts, Ashton Scholastic (Sydney, Australia), 1986.

Arabella, the Smallest Girl in the World, illustrated by Vicky Kitanov, Ashton Scholastic (Sydney, Australia), 1986.

Just like That, illustrated by Kilmeny Niland, Hodder & Stoughton (Sydney, Australia), 1986.

Zoo-Looking, illustrated by Rodney McCrae, Martin Educational (Cammeray, New South Wales, Australia), 1986, illustrated by Candace Whitman, Mondo (Greenvale, NY), 1996.

Koala Lou, illustrated by Pamela Lofts, J. Dent (London, England), 1986, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1988.

A Bedtime Story, illustrated by Elivia Savadier, Martin Educational (Cammeray, New South Wales, Australia), 1987, Mondo (Greenvale, NY), 1996.

The Straight Line Wonder, illustrated by Mark Rosenthal, Martin Educational (Cammeray, New South Wales, Australia), 1987, Mondo (Greenvale, NY), 1996.

Goodnight Sleep Tight, illustrated by Helen Semmler, Century Hutchinson (Melbourne, Australia), 1988.

Shoes from Grandpa, illustrated by Patricia Mullins, Ashton Scholastic (Sydney, Australia), 1988, Orchard Books (New York, NY), 1990.

Night Noises, illustrated by Terry Denton, Omnibus (Norwood, South Australia), 1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1989.

Guess What?, illustrated by Vivienne Goodman, Omnibus (Norwood, South Australia), 1988, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1990.

Sophie, illustrated by Craig Smith, Drakeford Watts (Melbourne, Australia), 1989, illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Feathers and Fools, illustrated by Lorraine Ellis, Ashwood House (Melbourne, Australia), 1989, illustrated by Nicholas Wilton, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1996.

Hattie and the Fox in: Goodness, Gracious Me!, Macmillan (New York, NY), 1992.

With Love at Christmas, illustrated by Fay Palmka, Lutheran Press (Adelaide, Australia), 1992.

Time for Bed, illustrated by Jane Dyer, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1993.

Tough Boris, illustrated by Kathryn Brown, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1994.

Wombat Divine, illustrated by Kerry Argent, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1996.

Boo to a Goose, illustrated by David Miller, Hodder Children's Books (Rydalmere, New South Wales, Australia), 1996, Dial Books (New York, NY), 1999.

Whoever You Are, illustrated by Leslie Staub, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1997.

Because of the Bloomers, illustrated by Terry Denton, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1998.

Sleepy Bears, illustrated by Kerry Argent, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1999.

Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, illustrated by Marla Frazee, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 2000.

The Magic Hat, illustrated by Tricia Tusa, Harcourt (San Diego, CA), 2002.

Where Is the Green Sheep?, illustrated by Judy Horacek, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.

Hunwick's Egg, illustrated by Pamela Lofts, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2004.

Fairy, Fairy Quite Contrary, illustrated by Greg Swearingen, Harcourt (Orlando, FL), 2005.

OTHER

How to Teach Drama to Infants without Really Crying, Ashton Scholastic (Sydney, Australia), 1984, published as Teaching Drama to Young Children, Heinemann (London, England), 1986.

Mem's the Word, Penguin (Ringwood, Victoria, Australia), 1990, published as Dear Mem Fox, I Have Read All Your Books Even the Pathetic Ones: And Other Incidents in the Life of a Children's Book Author, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1992.

Memories: An Autobiography, McDougal, Littell (Evanston, IL), 1992.

Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning, and Living, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich (San Diego, CA), 1993.

Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, illustrated by Judy Horacek, Harcourt (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor to periodicals and education textbooks and teacher references.

Fox's books have been translated into other languages, including Hebrew, Portuguese, Swedish, Danish, and German.

Adaptations

Possum Magic was adapted as an animated short film, with teacher's guide, by Weston Woods/Scholastic, 2001.

Sidelights

Well known as a teacher and writer under the name Mem Fox, Australian author and educator Merrion Frances Fox is the author of Possum Magic, a picture book that became one of the most well-known children's books ever published by a native Australian. The story of a grandmother possum whose magic accidentally turns her grandchild invisible, Possum Magic has been followed by numerous other picture books—among them Wombat Divine, Koala Lou, and Time for Bed—that reveal Fox's sly humor and enthusiasm for Aussie culture and history. Featuring a "beguiling bunch" of Australian animals, Wombat Divine also found fans in the United States; its holiday theme—the book focuses on a young Wombat who wants desperately to be cast in his school's nativity play—and its "playful approach to Christmas" make it unique, according to a Publishers Weekly reviewer.

Like Wombat Divine, many of Fox's books have also found a large following with U.S. readers; Time for Bed spent twelve months on best-seller lists and has been ranked by some critics as a modern picture-book classic. Fox also writes for adults, although these writings take the form of nonfiction rather than fiction. Her book Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever is designed to help parents of very young children inspire an interest in reading, while Radical Reflections: Passionate Opinions on Teaching, Learning, and Living addresses the concerns of older parents and teachers.

Fox was born in Australia in 1946, but was living with her missionary parents in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) at age six months. As she once recalled to Something about the Author (SATA): "I grew up among black people, and until I was five or so, I believed I was black. I was the only white child at the mission school, blind to my own whiteness and absolutely astonished when the local authorities told my parents I would be required to attend a school for white children." Although she was a bit of a tomboy, Fox also loved to read, particularly nineteenth-century novels. "My parents had many, many books, mostly classics. I tore through them all. But the world of books—those books at any rate—was a fantasy world completely removed from my way of life."

After completing her education in an all-white school, Fox moved to England to attend drama school and become an actress. "I arrived in London in the heyday of Carnaby Street, the Beatles, miniskirts, pantyhose, and works like psychedelic," she once recalled to SATA. "Never exposed to television, I had no clue about what to expect on a daily basis on the street." In London, Fox's acting skills allowed her to be a bit of a reactionary with regard to the entrenched class prejudices she discovered within British society. "The whole [class] system, and the attitudes that went with it, disgusted me," Fox recalled. "I played with it as though it were a diabolical toy. Because I can do accents well, I experimented: I'd go into a posh store and talk posh or Cockney depending on what reaction I was trying to elicit—dark fun that."

While studying acting in London, Fox met Malcolm Fox, the man she would later marry, and they traveled to Australia as an adventure but have continued to make that continent their home. Fox eventually became a teacher, and introduced her students to books written by Australians as well as the classics of English literature such as books by Jane Austen and Thomas Hardy. She also started to write for children. Her first book, Possum Magic, was published in 1983 after being rewritten twenty-three times, and then rejected by nine publishers who dubbed it "too Australian." "The irony," Fox maintained, "… is that Possum Magic is the best-selling children's book in the history of Australia, has won a number of awards, and been published internationally."

Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, the first book by Fox to be published in the United States, focuses on a small boy with a very long name (the name is that of Fox's own father). Helping an elderly friend named Miss Nancy cope with her failing memory, the boy listens to her stories and the stories of her friends in a local nursing home. "I write 'up' to children, never 'down,'" explained Fox. "I write to move children. All of my ideas for books come from my life. I frequently tell my students, 'I've no imagination at all.' Possum Magic came about because I was enraged that my daughter had no books to help her identify herself as an Australian, to help her feel proud of her country and heritage. Wilfrid came out of my very close relationship with my grandfather who, like Miss Nancy in the book, lived to be ninety-six."

Sophie recalls Fox's early childhood and her African friends as it tells the story of an African-American girl who has a special bond with her grandfather. When the elderly man finally passes away, Sophie keeps him alive in her heart by sharing his stories with her own children, in a story that Booklist contributor Henrietta M. Smith described as "quietly moving." In contrast, Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild! introduces a mother and daughter who, although often at odds, ultimately have a loving relationship. Harriet always seems to be making a mess by spilling her food, accidentally breaking things, and generally causing her mother grief. Sometimes her mother's frustration reaches the boiling point, and yelling follows, but like Harriet and her accidents, she did not intend to make her daughter feel bad. While some critics found the book to be less-than-reassuring to young children who want to believe their parents are always in control, Booklist reviewer Hazel Rochman noted that Fox relates "a scenario that nearly every young preschooler … will recognize" and that the outbursts of pent-up anger result in an affectionate reconciliation and a situation in which both parent and child "can be open about their feelings." Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild! was welcomed by a Horn Book reviewer who praised "it's acceptance of both a child's penchant for trouble and a parent's occasional outburst—both happen, 'just like that,' and both will be forgiven."

Fox creates a book that Horn Book contributor Betty Carter praised as "perfectly attuned to a toddler's sense of playful discovery" in Where Is the Green Sheep? In an easy-to-read text, she introduces youngsters to a flock of rambunctious sheep pre-dyed-in-the-wool: red, blue, and yellow sheep flying kites, skateboarding, partying, jumping from diving boards, and even snorkeling. But the elusive green sheep is nowhere to be found, until readers reach the final page and find him fast asleep. Noting the book's value in teaching basic vocabulary through rhythmic "repetitive phrases," Blair Christolon commented in a review for School Library Journal that Where Is the Green Sheep? is "a welcome addition to the year's flock of easy-readers," while in Kirkus Reviews a critic described the book as "a perfectly simple text with a patterned language and rhythm just right for toddlers." Booklist contributor Ilene Cooper dubbed the book a "neat and satisfying wedding of text and art," with Judy Horacek's humorous line and watercolor artwork adding to the book's humor.

Fox deals with a more villainous subject in Tough Boris, as hideous pirate Boris von der Borch snatches center stage. Narrated by the pirates' cabin boy, the book extolls Boris's piratical virtues: he's "tough," "scruffy," "greedy," and the like, but this grim exterior hides a soft spot that appears when his beloved parrot dies and Tough Boris sheds a tear. Praising the book as a "celebration of a glorious villain," Booklist contributor Hazel Rochman also noted that Tough Boris "is full of surprises, both in the simple text and in the dramatic underlying story" told in the illustrations by Kathryn Brown.

Children in a local park are given a show in The Magic Hat, as a magical chapeau blows through the area, landing momentarily on the head of all the adults and transforming them into the animal each most represents. A woman with a young child becomes a kangaroo carrying the child in its pouch, while a grouchy old man is transformed into a frog. Finally a wizard appears to set things right. The energetic artwork by Tricia Tusa enhances what Cooper described as Fox's "bouncy rhyme" to create a book perfect for story hour. The "unbridled enjoyment" of the children in The Magic Hat "will almost certainly evoke the same response from readers," added an enthusiastic Publishers Weekly contributor.

"A novel is like an oak tree with all its branches," Fox once explained of her work as a writer. "A picture book, however, is more like a polished plank of wood. With it, you cannot exceed the bare minimum. Because you haven't many words to play with, rhythm is extremely important. In fact, I believe that rhythm is the most important element in the text of a picture book. There must be no evidence of strain, the story must fall into place apparently effortlessly." Her advice to aspiring writers: "Don't be easily discouraged. To write well is very difficult. Draft and redraft. And if publishers knock you back, just remember, it's all part of it."

Biographical and Critical Sources

PERIODICALS

Booklist, March 1, 1994, Hazel Rochman, review of Tough Boris, p. 1269; October 1, 1994, Janice Del Negro, review of Sophie, p. 332; June 1, 1996, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Zoo-Looking, p. 1731; October 15, 1996, Ilene Cooper, review of Wombat Divine, p. 434; October 1, 1997, Linda Perkins, review of Whoever You Are, p. 334; October 15, 1997, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Straight Line Wonder, p. 414; February 1, 1998, Hazel Rochman, review of Boo to a Goose, p. 922; October 1, 1998, Sue-Ellen Beauregard, review of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, p. 349; November 15, 1999, Susan Dove Lempke, review of Sleepy Bears, p. 634; March 1, 2000, Hazel Rochman, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 1250; February 15, 2001, Henrietta M. Smith, review of Sophie, p. 1160; August, 2001, Hazel Rochman, review of Reading Magic: Why Reading Aloud to Our Children Will Change Their Lives Forever, p. 2067; April 15, 2002, Ilene Cooper, review of The Magic Hat, p. 1408; March 1, 2004, Ilene Cooper, review of Where Is the Green Sheep?, p. 1193.

Horn Book, May-June, 1994, Elizabeth S. Watson, review of Tough Boris, p. 313; March, 2000, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 184; May-June, 2004, Betty Carter, review of Where Is the Green Sheep?, p. 312.

Kirkus Reviews, March 1, 2002, review of The Magic Hat, p. 334; March 15, 2004, review of Where Is the Green Sheep?, p. 269.

Library Journal, August 2001, Margaret Cardwell, review of Reading Magic, p. 148.

Publishers Weekly, August 9, 1993, review of Time for Bed, p. 475; October 10, 1994, review of Sophie, p. 70; June 17, 1996, review of Zoo-Looking, p. 64; August 19, 1996, review of A Bedtime Story, p. 67; September 30, 1996, review of Wombat Divine, p. 90; August 18, 1997, review of The Straight Line Wonder, p. 93; November 3, 1997, review of Whoever You Are, p. 84; March 2, 1998, review of Boo to a Goose, p. 67; July 19, 1999, review of Sleepy Bears, p. 193; September 27, 1999, review of Wombat Divine, p. 64; March 20, 2000, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 91; May 29, 2000, review of Feathers and Fools, p. 84; February 11, 2002, review of The Magic Hat, p. 184; June 9, 2003, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 54; March 8, 2004, review of Where Is the Green Sheep?, p. 72.

School Library Journal, April, 2000, Kate McClelland, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 104; September, 2001, Shauna Yusko, review of Reading Magic, p. 262; December, 2001, Erin Caskey, review of Possum Magic, p. 67; April, 2002, Wendy Lukehart, review of The Magic Hat, p. 110; February, 2003, Lee Bock, review of Wilfrid Gordon McDonald Partridge, p. 96; February, 2003, Lee Bock, review of Whoever You Are, p. 96; March, 2004, Andrew Medlar, review of Koala Lou, p. 67; April, 2004, Blair Christolon, review of Where Is the Green Sheep?, p. 110.

Teacher Librarian, June, 2000, Shirley Lewis, review of Harriet, You'll Drive Me Wild!, p. 49.

ONLINE

Pan Macmillan Australia Web site, http://www.panmacmillan.com.au/ (October 21, 2004), "Mem Fox."

Mem Fox Web site, http://www.memfox.net/ (October 21, 2004).*

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