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Icon of the West – Dorothy Butler


Dorothy Butler“If anyone, back to the wall, was trying to defend the function of books in the life of the smallest human being, here is the defence.”

Such was the generous praise BBC literary critic Edward Blishen paid to the first book by internationally renowned author, children’s literature expert and bookseller, Dorothy Butler, OBE.

Blishen was referring to the groundbreaking “Cushla and her books” one of 40 books written or edited by Dorothy Butler and in many ways the hinge on which Mrs Butler’s remarkable success has swung.

Dorothy Butler was born in 1925, obtained a BA and trained as a teacher subsequently becoming a mother of eight who transformed herself into a world expert in children’s development.

She was always fascinated by books and as a separate subject, the role of books and reading in child development. She realised that while reading was central, there was a vital process that included the roles of pictures and colour, the quality of the story and the imagination that it stimulated, the sound of parents’/adults’ voices reading to children, the fact that time and attention was being devoted to the child and the physical closeness between the reader and listener.

“I had come to believe that a child’s life is immeasurably enriched in all ways, emotionally, intellectually, spiritually and physically,” she says in her autobiography, “All this and a bookshop too!” She added later that reading, like sport, needed to be practised: the child who had to laboriously work at each sentence was hardly likely to believe reading could be a pleasure. It sounds obvious now.

In the early 1960′s Dorothy the mother discovered the fledgling Play Centre movement with its appealing philosophies. She and husband Roy had built their home (starting in a tent) in Birkenhead and now she joined a committee to establish the Birkenhead Play Centre. Then, in an inspiration that was to lead to a bookshop, she began to source books (of which there was a woefully inadequate supply) for the Play Centre.

Soon she was giving talks to parents and teachers, and then buying books and selling them on at a modest profit to “customers” who clustered to her. In 1964 she and Roy established a small bookstore in their home. The nascent Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop was the first of its kind in Auckland and she knew of one other, in Wellington.

Soon books were being ordered from overseas and the bookshop grew, taking over more and more of the house. “A large playroom/bedroom was partitioned with rails and curtains to make two sleeping nooks and a non-fiction department.” Meanwhile, Dorothy occupied the daylight hours driving a books-laden van around schools and libraries that had become her customers.

In 1964 also, Dorothy and Roy began a love-affair with Karekare that was to lead in time, to them acquiring and rescuing the “crumbling ruin” of the once gracious historic house called Winchelsea.

By now Dorothy was well known to Britain’s major publishers and a friend to many of their top executives and in some cases owners such as Andre Deutsche and later, Sir William Collins.

In 1969 she became a founder member of the Children’s Literature Association that was later to honour her for Distinguished Services to children’s literature.

Having been formed in the previous two decades, dramatic proof of Dorothy’s theories about the importance of the processes of reading, was to arrive in 1971 with granddaughter, Cushla. Cushla had a variety of disabilities and in early childhood, was unable to sit up or use her hands. She also had limited sight. Nevertheless, Cushla’s parents soon discovered that pictures in picture books stimulated her like nothing else. Auckland Hospital noted that while there was a clear lag in “gross motor scores, book behaviour trained by adults was very advanced, scanning pictures with her eyes, making appropriate sounds and turning pages, all fine motor co-ordination tasks.”

A detailed record of which circumstances, books and illustrations promoted Cushla’s development led to the pivotal “Cushla and her books”, a book that was translated to many Dorothy Butler 6 “If anyone, back to the wall, was trying to defend the function of books in the life of the smallest human being, here is the defence.” languages and even filmed. Thus was born Dorothy Butler the accidental, but prolific, author. “Cushla and her books” was followed by “Babies need books”, another book welcomed avidly around the world and then, with Professor Marie Clay, of the University of Auckland, “Reading Begins at Home.”

In the ensuing years Dorothy developed a catalogue of 40 titles including five non-fiction books on the subject of child development, four anthologies and 29 fiction titles. In those years, “wearing different hats” Dorothy also discovered or helped to discover many writers who are now household names: Tessa Duder was one such and Lynley Dodd (with Hairy Maclary) another.

Around this time, she and Roy discovered Forbes Barnes who was teaching children to read by projecting text onto a large screen and then reading the stories to his pupils, following the words with a cursor on the screen. Children were transfixed. The Butlers promptly set up a remedial reading centre using the system and it was to become so successful they had to turn eager children away.

In the mid 1980′s, Dorothy Butler launched yet another worldleading innovation, Dorothy Butler Video Books Ltd. Video books involved books selected by Dorothy being read to groups of children by professional narrators and filmed.

These were the first films in the world, made specifically to be sold as videos. The first edition was so good that the company obtained for the second edition, the first-ever copyright to film Beatrix Potter books. A bevy of British A-list actors also signed up to be narrators. Unfortunately, the venture didn’t succeed commercially and the second edition was never made.

The bookshop, in the meantime, had moved to Sunnybrae Road in Glenfield then to Ponsonby (where it still operates although Dorothy and Roy sold it in 1990). Dorothy had earned a slew of awards, among them the OBE, the Eleanor Farjean Award in Britain, in the US the Mary Hall Arbuthnott Honour Lecture Award and the American Library Citation and in New Zealand, the first Margaret Mahy Award and was made a Distinguished Alumna of the University of Auckland.

As the years had passed Dorothy and Roy had become enmeshed in rescuing Winchelsea at Karekare and its secondary house, nicknamed ‘The Barracks.’ The latter was used as the family holiday home while Winchelsea was being painstakingly brought back from the edge of ruin.

The Dorothy Butler story almost certainly would not have been possible without engineer husband Roy. Roy built their first house and extended it to accommodate first family then a bookstore. He helped with establishing the Play Centre premises. He refurbished old cars, vans and trucks for the family and businesses, including converting a hearse into a people mover for a family of 10 and built a travelling library. Finally, he undertook project management of Winchelsea, which when restored, was opened to public use. Dorothy and Roy lived permanently in the adjacent “Barracks”.

By the 1990s Roy was an increasingly sick man with arthritis and complications to which he succumbed in 2003. Dorothy continues to live at Karekare.