Obituary – Barbara Murison

Dancing between order and chaos

Novelist and children’s writer Barbara Else remembers Barbara Murison
(b Wellington Nov 26, 1931, d Waikanae, May 7, 2017)

Barbara Murison, librarian and life-long advocate of children’s reading, exemplified Margaret Mahy’s definition of the librarian who dances and pivots between order and chaos. Barbara lived in a perpetual striding whirl along the ridges of local literary life, seeking where her energies could best be used next. She was exactly the advocate New Zealand literature needs and too rarely has: non-elitist, deeply appreciative of all genres for all age groups, from pre-school to adult.

Her energy, linked with impatience for what she saw as unnecessary authority, showed early, as on the occasion she shut her bossy grandmother in the pantry and ran away. This event became a particularly appealing chapter in her book Buster Bee Stories, based on her childhood (Price Milburn, 1977).

Post-school, Barbara’s first job was as a cub reporter on The Dominion. She moved to the School Library Service, where her inborn understanding of what appeals to children flourished and developed. Her experience in the Wellington Public Children’s Library, where she next worked, fine-tuned that understanding. Her knowledge of what had been published for children became encyclopaedic.

For a time, Barbara owned Mercury Books in Karori, but she returned to librarianship when she worked at Raroa Intermediate. There, she had another brush with authority. On the only occasion the principal asked her if she’d make the tea, Barbara replied, in her most definite and matter-of-fact manner: “I was not hired to make the tea. I am not a tea lady. I am a Librarian.” (The capital letter was apparently audible.)

Her subversion was not always as successful. Another principal, having to rush out for a moment to deal with school sports, warned Barbara: “Do not on any account touch the axolotl in the tank beside you.” The instant he’d gone, she disobeyed. At once the creature clamped her finger in its sharp bony jaws. She managed to scrape the axolotl off on the edge of the tank before the principal returned, and kept the tell-tale wound wrapped in a hanky while they discussed the school’s reading needs.

Somewhere in all of this, she became a celebrated Girl Guide leader, in particular of a troop of handicapped girls. When she left the National Library of New Zealand at last, she found time to be an active member of Forest and Bird, organising walks and always taking charge of the newsletter.

But her main occupation was still books. Barbara set up her publications Around the Bookshops (a quarterly review journal for schools to keep them up-to-date with international and national publications) and Too Good to Miss (the recent best books). They were lively, well-organised booklets. Later, Around the Bookshops become a blog that Barbara continued till her last weeks.

During 2001, she began providing assessments on manuscripts. Early that year, a group of editors and manuscript assessors, concerned about standards in the profession, felt that setting up a New Zealand Association of Manuscript Assessors would demonstrate the need for fair dealing with authors and honest appraisal of a work-in-progress. There obviously had to be a specialist in children’s writing among the founder members. Barbara was astonished at being asked. It was the only time I saw her stumped. But she couldn’t deny she was an expert.

Her assessments and mentoring benefited many authors, new and experienced, several going on to win awards. She worked on picture-book texts, junior fiction, young-adult novels and non-fiction, with an insight that certainly came from her long experience with children’s books and deep understanding of the readership. But it also came from something extra, something particularly valuable, and unique. Her own eager and hungry inner young reader never left her.

She participated in the activities of the New Zealand Society of Authors, the Wellington Writers’ Walk Committee and the Wellington Children’s Book Association. The city seemed to have Barbara forever striding into a gathering, sharing her buzzing ideas, then striding off again to another group of friends and fellow advocates.

Barbara’s services to literature were recognised by an MNZM (2007), the Betty Gilderdale Award (2002) and a School Library Association of New Zealand Aotearoa Honorary Life Membership for contribution to school libraries throughout the country (2015).

It must be noted that she was companion to a series of singular and aristocratic felines who utterly returned her devotion.

Barbara called herself “a Wellingtonian through and through”. The city is less vivid without her. Nationally, too, she is a sadly missed force: a joyful, intelligent, warm, generous, mischievous, considerate and ferocious advocate of books.

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