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Letter from England: Dorothy Butler

By Aidan Chambers

Every year our children’s book editors give the Eleanor Farjeon Award to someone they consider has performed outstanding services to children’s books. This year the recipient is Dorothy Butler. Two of her books will shortly reach you and will richly demonstrate why our editors felt they wanted to recognize this remarkable woman. Cushla and Her Books was published in May 1980 by The Horn Book, Inc., and Babies Need Books will be published by Atheneum in September 1980.

Dorothy Butler lives in Auckland, New Zealand. She is the mother of two sons and six daughters (who to date have given her the pleasure of four granddaughters and five grandsons); she owns the most important children’s bookshop in her country, a business created from small beginnings in her back bedroom; and she runs a remedial reading service of an imaginative and hugely successful kind. She is an encourager of local talent among artists and writers and is consulted by publishers, librarians, teachers, and, most of all, by parents anxious about their children’s reading. She lectures (she’d hate the word), writes, broadcasts, and, increasingly, finds herself traveling the exhausting distances to England and other points round the globe.

To all this activity — ranging from reading aloud to her children in her kitchen to giving a rapid two-minute interview on TV or radio, as she steps onto some foreign shore — she brings the same apparently endless quantities of energy. When I first met her, she had just arrived in England and was suffering from one of our famous deadening head colds; she seemed to be enjoying even that experience.

The source of all her energy, apart from her constitution, is obvious as soon as you’ve talked with her for five minutes. Dorothy Butler loves people and is passionately convinced of the importance of literature. And she wants more than anything to bring the two together; especially she wants to bring children and books together.

In herself she refutes that vaunted nonsense about people having far less time today to read than they once did, because of television and the opportunities we all have to do so many things our forefathers could not. She proves by her own life what a recent inquiry into people-as-readers suggested — that people who do the most also read the most; that it isn’t a matter of “having enough time” but of wanting to. If you want to, then you make time and read; if you don’ t, then you can have all the time in the world, and you remain a nonreader.

To be honest, I cannot imagine when Dorothy Butler finds time to read; but she does. Babies Need Books, mainly intended for parents, is her discussion of the books to bring to children in the first six years of their lives and of how to get the child and the book together affectively; she shows just how intimate, detailed, and comprehensive is her professional reading. But she isn’t one of those who reads nothing but children’s books; she knows the danger of that trap. She manages also to be a venturesome reader in the flows of “adult” literature, the modern as well as the traditional.

Dorothy Butler is a reader who grew up during the Depression in a working-class household; all her experience of her own and other people’s development into literary readers has shown her that it happens best when a triumvirate of elements is present: a reading adult offering a well-chosen collection of books in an atmosphere of mutual trust, warmth, and purposeful pleasure. She knows that we learn to read by doing it together — by being read to — and by having time to read and being allowed to find our way through books and to talk about what we’ve read every day.

And Dorothy Butler has cause to know the extraordinary power of narrative and print in our lives. One of her granddaughters, Cushla, was born with severe handicaps stemming from a chromosome abnormality. She had trouble with her sight, breathing, and kidneys; she was jaundiced, used to jerk convulsively, had irritating skin rashes, could not control her arms — and much more, besides. There seemed little, if any, hope for her. Many parents, faced with such a prospect, would succumb and hand their child to an institution. Cushla’s parents would not. They were determined to nurse Cushla themselves; because she slept in fitful bursts and could not be put down while she was awake, they imposed on themselves a punishing routine of twenty-four-hour vigils. But together with relatives and friends, they did it.

Dorothy Butler’s story of what happened, told in Cushla and Her Books, is one of the most moving documents of human survival and compassion I’ve ever read. And its account of Cushla’s growth, by slow degrees, into a vital, aware child, who by the age of six could scramble about and talk and who, most astonishingly of all, had taught herself to read is one I wish every parent and particularly every professional involved with children would study.

The book was originally written as a thesis submitted to Auckland University, to which Dorothy Butler had returned in her middle years to obtain a diploma of education. Only after much persuasion did she agree to adapt her thesis for general publication. What this genesis means, however, is that the book is composed in an unsentimental, straightforward manner, which makes Cushla’s story all the more moving. For there in gentle, controlled, and fluent language we follow Cushla’s progress and witness her growth through book after book and her response to each one.

“Before Cushla was born,” Dorothy Butler writes at the end, “I would have laid claim to a deep faith in the power of books to enrich children’s lives. By comparison with my present conviction, this faith was a shallow thing.” What Cushla has shown us, what Dorothy Butler’s work demonstrates time and time again, is that printed language in the narrative form is more to us than a sort of healthy hobby — something we can attend to or not as we like. Rather it is the most expressive and valuable form of a basic unit of thought common to all humankind, by which we shape our selves and our lives. We all possess the seeds of it when we are born, and every one of us has the right to be given access to it.

People like Dorothy Butler not only remind us of this but stand as a bulwark against those who deny that truth and that right. Which is why we in England are applauding her recognition by the editors of our children’s books.

From the August 1980 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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