A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal.
Article Type: Book review
Subject: Books (Book reviews)
Author: Munro, Doug
Pub Date: 09/22/2009
Publication: Name: Journal of Social History Publisher: Journal of Social History Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: History; Sociology and social work Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2009 Journal of Social History ISSN: 0022-4529
Issue: Date: Fall, 2009 Source Volume: 43 Source Issue: 1
Topic: NamedWork: A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal (Nonfiction work)
Persons: Reviewee: O'Brien, Gregory
Accession Number: 209577979
Full Text: A Nest of Singing Birds: 100 Years of the New Zealand School Journal. By Gregory O'Brien (Wellington: Learning Media Limited, 2007. 160 pp. NZ $59.95 HB, NZ $39.95 PB.).

Started in 1907, and surviving the educational cuts of the 1950s, the New Zealand School Journal has remained part of New Zealand's educational scene. Produced quarterly by the Schools Publication Branch of the Department of Education, the School Journal was pitched at primary school children, who then went on to read the Post-Primary School Bulletin. The Schools Publication Branch has since become Learning Media, and this restructured organization has now sponsored a centennial publication dedicated to its prized publication. At least some things do not change: whatever the alterations to its style and content, the School Journal remains the School Journal. Rather than change, it has constantly adapted, in recent years to "accommodate more of the young person's world and world view"--skateboarding is depicted but the skaters are wearing helmets and safety gear. Adaptations have also been made for the School Journal to withstand the challenges that television and computer games pose to a culture of reading among children.

"A Nest of Singing Birds" is how the School Journal's office was described to the poet Alistair Campbell, who himself contributed to, and at one point edited the Journal. A particular strength of the book under review is its lavish illustration with images from the Journals themselves. These commissions for the School Journal meant that the country's artists and wood engravers got much needed work and income. Writers and poets also found an outlet in the School Journal, and in many cases their work for the Journal was the foundation of a career. I know from growing up in New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s how difficult an environment it was for the arts generally (my parents were musicians), and one wonders what the country's cultural heritage would now be but for impetus provided by the School Journal. Some of this heritage is there to behold in this tastefully-designed, beautifully-presented and amply-proportioned book.

Gregory O'Brien's lively text traces the development of the School Journal and does not shirk at recounting "conflict and occasional controversy" as the Journal adapted to changing circumstances or when restrained from time to time by societal disapproval. The interplay of personalities and the dynamics of decisionmaking are particularly well handled, and his discussion of the illustrations is nothing if not well-informed. All the same, and while accepting that O'Brien has avowedly emphasized the contributing artists and writers, certain themes warrant further attention. There is attenuated discussion on how the School Journal may have influenced its readers--that is to say, how it might have imparted a broader vision of New Zealand and the world, and inculcated "acceptable" attitudes toward country and Empire [pp. 148-52]--and no references to the secondary literature in the field. (1) Second, there is scope for discussion on relating the School Journal's content to existing school syllabi. Crucially, the School Journal was far more concerned with local than overseas content. Contrast this, say, with what the British educational authorities were doing in the 1950s for primary school children in Britain's remaining colonies. School text books in Fiji during the 1950s and 1960s exclusively focused on overseas subjects and experiences. (2) There is nothing wrong with gaining, through books, a little of the wisdom that Ulysses attained through knowing many places and other people's manners, but not to the exclusion of one's own country or locality. Whatever one might say about the ethnocentricity of some of the School Journal's content, or the stylized and romantic depiction of the Maori people, it cannot be said that it screened out the local. In this regard it might have been useful had O'Brien interviewed people for their memories of the School Journal and how it might have influenced them.

These caveats apart, A Nest of Singing Birds is a remarkable publication that successfully integrates text and image and which deserves a readership well beyond New Zealand.

Doug Munro

Victoria University of Wellington


(1.) E.g., E. P. Malone, "The New Zealand School and the Imperial Ideology," New Zealand Journal of History 7:1 (1973): 12-27.

(2.) Brij V. Lal, Mr Tulsi's Store: A Fijian Journey (Canberra, 2001), 59-80; Brij V. Lal, "Primary Texts," in Brij V. Lal (ed.), Bittersweet: An Indo-Fijian Experience (Canberra, 2004), 239-49.
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