Paging through, Barbara Murison

All This and a Bookshop Too 
Dorothy Butler
Penguin Books, $40.00,
ISBN 9780143011651

For anyone involved with books for children and young people in this country, All This and a Bookshop Too is not just a book one would like to own, it is a book one needs to own. Here in 416 pages, besides a story of a remarkable and feisty woman, her husband Roy and her family of eight children, is a history of the growth of children’s book publishing in New Zealand from the 1940s – and Butler’s amazing part in it all.

The first volume of her memoir, There Was a Time (1999) – the story of her young life and her determination to be well read in spite of, for geographic reasons, being unable to belong to the public library – ended with her first year at university. This sequel begins with her marriage to Roy Butler, her time at Auckland Teachers’ Training College and the beginnings of the force that has driven her life – her passion for the idea that children need the very best books but that they also need to be shown and encouraged how to enjoy them.

Married life for Roy and Dorothy began in a 20-foot-square tent, sturdily erected on a half-acre of land on the outskirts of Birkenhead. There was room for a bed, some tables, a collection of large apple boxes used for a variety of purposes and, of course, a shelf for books. One of these titles, a set book from the Auckland Teachers’ College, was Dorothy Neal White’s newly published About Books for Children (1946).

White was one of two New Zealanders chosen to be trained as children’s librarians back in 1936 at the Carnegie Library School in Pittsburgh, USA. On her return to New Zealand, she was appointed children’s librarian (not a usual post in those days) at the Dunedin Public Library and, as Butler writes, “from then on her influence on children’s access to good books was immeasurable and lasting.”

Such was Butler’s pleasure in and even reliance on About Books for Children that when the time came to return it, she went into Queen Street to the then Whitcombe and Tombs to buy her own copy. It would be some years before her own influential books, Cushla and Her Books (1979), the basis of which was her thesis for her DipEd, and Babies Need Books (1980), became the new benchmarks for so many New Zealand parents and people concerned with building book collections in libraries and schools. It is interesting that so few of the titles mentioned in any of these books are by New Zealand writers – our golden age of children’s books was waiting in the wings.

Very early in her teaching career Butler found herself facing a rather laid-back third-form class at Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, all, she felt, expecting an hour-long, end-of-the-day, oh-so-boring English lesson. Someone had given her a copy of Paul Gallico’s The Snow Goose for a recent birthday and, taking a chance, she decided to read the story to the group – a class of non-readers. Several pages from the end the final bell for the day rang but no one moved and she kept reading. That night in the tent she told Roy about the experience and persuaded him to read the book himself. “I was wondering,” she writes, “how early in its life I could start reading to our impending child.”  

Plenty of opportunity followed over the years with the arrival of seven more children (“our eight little ducklings following us everywhere”) and Butler’s involvement in the play centre movement. Her bookshop developed almost by accident. As she was always recommending titles to parents, a publisher’s rep suggested she might like to sell what she was recommending. At first she sold from her home – she worried a little about what the children would feel about sharing their house with so many books but they and the staff that were soon on hand to help were totally enthusiastic.

Now 84, Butler is maybe not as quick on her feet as she once was but as agile and powerful in her mind as ever and still exerting influence on what children might like to read. This story of a marriage, the growth of a bookshop, the importance of friends and family, the years of travel overseas to attend conferences, speak at seminars, accept awards, meet writers and illustrators is told with eloquence, candour and modesty, sometimes with pathos and tragedy. But overriding it all is the warm sense of humour and incredible knowledge of the writer.

 

Barbara Murison is a Wellington children’s book consultant. 

 

 

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