I was remembering back to my own primary schooling in the 60s. I had a great rapport with my inspirational teacher-librarian, Janette McKenny (later Janette Mercer when she married my equally-inspirational Year 4 teacher, years after they left the school). One day, Mrs McKenny decided that we needed to revamp the “Ghost Stories” section of the library, and several of us were elected to create a papier-mache skull, that would act as a scary bookend for the section of old wooden shelves (which had been lined with black crepe paper and a sign made out of spooky letters). We spent several hours tearing up newspaper and soaking it in a garbage can of water, but none of us could remember what held wet papier-mache together as it started to dry.
Mrs McKenny remember that papier-mache needed starch, and bought a box of the stuff on her way to school. We scampered off to the storeroom and sprinkled in the powder. Again, the papier-mache refused to clump together. Imagine our horror when Mrs McKenny asked, “Are you ready for me to boil up the starch?”
Luckily, we found another box of starch in the art store room and a quantity was boiled up, the papier-mache was drained and we began to create our skull. The paper was so sodden, it was essentially impossible to get it to hold its shape, even with the addition of thick, warm, boiled starch. After school, Mrs McKenny drove me home with it, and one of the boys who’d been part of the team at school came over to help me have another go at moulding it. I forfeited a “Noddy” beachball from the toy box and we constructed the skull around it. My mother then dutifully took the board holding the model in and out of the sun every day – for about two weeks? – until the papier-mache had hardened. It never needed painting, the newspaper pulp having taken on a suitable, consistent, grey colour from its many hours soaking in the water.
The skull sat in pride of place in the library at Arncliffe Public School for many years after I departed for high school. Gosh – maybe it’s still there?
I was pondering this old anecdote the other day as I passed a local fancy dress shop and, when I saw the skull (pictured above), I realised how perfectly it would dress up our sometimes-popular “Goosebumps” shelf. $13 for a lightweight, lifelike, plastic skull seemed like a great investment – just so long as I didn’t have to endure the weeks of waiting for overly-sodden, overly-starched, papier-mache to harden!
And the effect? “Goosebumps” books are once again flavour of the month with our students, and have been flying off the shelf all month. Several of the students borrowing them are saying, “This is my first time borrowing this year!” and “My first ever chapter book!”. Maybe I should soon try moving them on to a few other spooky authors and titles now that they’re hooked by the reading bug? But at the moment, apparently, “‘Goosebumps’ rulez!”