24 April 1925 – 20 September 2015
The phrase ‘babies need books’ is something we all subscribe to now, but the idea only became common currency when New Zealand bookseller Dorothy Butler wrote her ground breaking book with that title. It seems so obvious once the ideas are explained, and much has been said and done to build on the topic since the book was first published in 1980. But it was ground breaking at the time.
Dorothy died in September, aged 90, after a lifetime of championing books and reading for children of all ages, creating a beacon of a specialist children’s bookshop in Auckland that continues to bear her name today. I think that I first met her in 1976, when she came to spend three months in the UK to look at bookselling and publishing in England. I remember her warmth and encouragement to me as a junior editor in publishing, keen to know more. We corresponded, and I was lucky to meet her several times after that, in London and in New Zealand, always coming away from our meetings re-inspired by her passion and absolute commitment to young children’s reading. She was herself a mother of eight, grandmother of 25, and she also had three great grandchildren.
From humble beginnings she graduated from Auckland University College in 1947, intending to be a secondary school teacher, but the first of her children came along and she found herself supervisor at the local play centre, which her children attended. She wanted to help parents find the best materials for their children and first built up a picture book library for them at the play centre. Then the parents wanted to own the books so she became the facilitator, getting hold of the books to sell on in her home, loving the knowledge exchange as adults saw the joy the books gave the children. She lectured on play and then children’s literature at the adult education college in Auckland. She turned her advisory service into a bookshop in her home, helped by her husband and children, continuing the dialogue about books by running workshops, lecturing at teacher training colleges and at teacher training inset days. At first they built on to the family home to house the piles of books but seven years after she started she had to move into a proper stand-alone shop, still servicing schools, running bookfairs and building the school supply side with the articulated caravan her husband built, known as the bookwagon.
Her family came to the fore again when she took a Diploma in Education at the University of Auckland where she wrote a thesis on a study of Cushla, her severely handicapped granddaughter, which she later published as a book, Cushla and her Books. She went on to write two volumes of autobiography, she published poetry anthologies, wrote a number of picture books and continued encouraging reading in the home before school in her work with Marie Clay.
Her work was known internationally and she was showered with awards in New Zealand and beyond, including, in 1980, the Children’s Book Circle’s Eleanor Farjeon Award and in 1993 an OBE.
Liz Attenborough was Publishing Director of Puffin and created the Talk to Your Baby campaign for the National Literacy Trust.