Obituary – John McIntyre

Literacy and literature

Julia Marshall, publisher at Gecko Press, raises a cheer for the cheerleader for children’s books, John McIntyre.

John McIntyre of The Children’s Bookshop in Kilbirnie was a champion and friend of many. His wife and partner in the business, Ruth McIntyre, says he would have been “chuffed” that Old St Paul’s Cathedral, Wellington, was filled to the gunnels for his funeral. He died on June 10, aged 65.

Booksellers, book reps, politicians, publishers, librarians, teachers, customers, children who grew up visiting the shop, friends from all over New Zealand – all joined Ruth, their son Sam and daughter Kate, and the large combined families of John and Ruth, to celebrate John’s life and legacy.

John, the eldest of five, was born in Wellington, but the family lived in schoolhouses around the country, including Marlborough. His mother was a nurse and brought the children up on her own, which partly accounted for John’s strong allegiance to the Labour Party.

He started his career as a teacher and didn’t like it. On his OE, when he got to the United Kingdom, he got given all the tough schools because of his strong physical presence. But it was there he met Ruth – “he said something provocative and I was the only one who laughed” – at a London flat dinner.

Back in New Zealand, he went on the road as a stationery sales rep, and noticed that bookshops looked good places to be and potentially good businesses to run. That was the start of The Children’s Bookshop, which opened its doors on August 31, 1992 – soon after John had received a transplanted kidney.

John was a businessman first and foremost. Even in his last days of chronic illness, he liked to go to the shop to listen to “the comforting hum of the eftpos machine”.

No-one thought the shop would survive when he started in Kilbirnie, with $20,000 of savings plus a bit extra on the mortgage. Seven years later, the shop was doing well enough for Ruth to give up her full-time job as a journalist.

In 2003, The Children’s Bookshop was named Independent Bookshop of the Year and, in 2011, John and Ruth received the Betty Gilderdale Award for services to literature. John served six years on the board of Booksellers New Zealand and was a judge of the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards in 1998 and convener of judges in 1999.

John spoke often of the slog and commitment necessary to run a business, and the pleasure of surviving and proving naysayers wrong.

He wasn’t a reading child – he liked rugby and soccer and cricket. He was 13 when he found the book that started him off – The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, about a homeless group of children surviving after WWII. He liked poetry – Roger McGough and Rupert Brooke – and reading about war.

As far as books went, story and humour and readaloudability probably had a higher place than a beautifully turned sentence, though he liked that, too. He found the same books funny that children found funny. He liked a good rhyme, but would tell new writers not to use it. On his 15-year bi-weekly Friday morning slot with Radio New Zealand, he championed the books he liked – he said he was a cheerleader, rather than reviewer.

The Children’s Bookshop mantra was “a book for every child, and a child for every book”. John thought that if a child of 10 or 11 was given a worthy sort of book they could be turned off for life. The time would come later, he thought, to schlepp a good book under that kid’s nose. He called it “literacy, then literature”. He liked to match books to children, particularly boys, who he felt were ill-served by an over-feminised book industry and education system. He was proud of his deal with the pizza shop across the road, offering parents two dollar coffees while their children were in the shop at storytime.

He loved reading to antenatal classes, and being able to tell fathers how important it is to read aloud to babies. He also went to Plunket groups where there were lots of women, but he preferred getting to the dads. Every year, he would go and read to the teenage mothers at He Huarahi Tamariki. He believed strongly in reading aloud as a family, especially for non-readers, who could still get to hear a good story.

On his visits to schools, he would ask: “Under what circumstances is it okay to throw a baby out of a moving train?” And then he would read Erika’s Story by Ruth Vander Zee, illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, a non-fiction story about a child who survived being thrown from the train window by her mother during the Holocaust.

He felt there was no excuse for a bookless home. “I’ll tell you how to get books for free,” he’d say, and tell his audience he’d just passed at least three libraries, which they should be sure to use or someone would find an excuse to take them away. “Take out 20 books, take out ten, and there’ll be one that you want – and that’s when you can come to me.” He used to try to get children to make their grandparents, aunties and uncles be part of the weekly library routine, and he liked the story of Gary Paulsen, who hunted to feed his family, and grew up to be a great writer because he had a library card.

John and Ruth went to every children’s book event, in every weather, all hours of the day, all days of the week. He and Ruth kept coming, even at his most unwell, as he refused to let his ill health define or limit him.

He was a dear, big-hearted, blunt-as-they-come man, with the driest sense of humour you ever met, a man of great character and fortitude.

Ruth and the staff at The Children’s Bookshop celebrated its 25th anniversary on August 31 with cake and authors and friends – to the comforting hum of the eftpos machine.

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