Photo credit: Julian Kingma

Sunday, and the teachers at Candlebark school are working. Regional Victorians have just learnt they’ll join Melbourne in the state’s sixth lockdown, and the teachers gathered in the school’s kitchen are wrappingbundles of exercise books in butcher’s paper, popping a chocolate frog in each before sealing it with sticky tape. From here they’ll distribute the parcels via a network of parent helpers to the 170 children that travel from towns in the Macedon Ranges to this school like no other.

The alternative school, which takes students from Prep to Year 7, was opened in 2006 by Australia’s biggest name in young adult ­fiction, John Marsden. It sits on a steep hillside near ­Romsey, 60km north of Melbourne. Heavy curtains of stringybark enclose the 485ha rural block; inside there are grassy playgrounds and lopsided sports fields, trampolines and tree houses, chessboard tables with railway bench seats, vegie planter boxes, an open-sided shed with a jumble of pogo sticks, hula hoops, hockey sticks and skateboards. The library could be a modern-day home for hobbits, cocooned into the hillside and doubling as a bushfire shelter. There’s no staff room, no noticeboards, no signs with rules or buildings named after letters of the alphabet. It’s a place of peace and freedom and imagination; the inside of a storybook, perhaps the inside of a great author’s mind.

Marsden emerges from the principal’s office in faded jeans, an oversized brown knit jumper and battered black sneakers. He speaks and moves softly, without a hint of hubris, his most audacious feature startling blue eyes, set among a pale, sun-weathered face. Be wary of charisma, ­Marsden writes early in his new book. It’s often a symptom of narcissism. Candlebark is his place of grounding, and he drifts like a leaf, showing me round the gardens and classrooms. “I’ll go and do these fancy book tours and stay in nice hotels and get red carpet treatment, then come back here and resume looking for the sunhat of the kid who lost it on Friday, and whose parents are agitated because it cost $15. Then I feed the rosellas.”

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