Children’s Librarians—Igniting the Reading Spark

‘Long hours spent alone in her bedroom had encouraged in Sylvia the habit of reading … On Saturday mornings, while her father read the papers and her mother made a martyr of herself over the household chores, Sylvia got in the way of walking down to the library, unescorted.’

This portrayal of a young Sylvia Blackwell, from Salley Vickers’ 2018 novel The Librarian, could just as easily describe me (if not, quite, my parents). The ‘long hours spent alone’ in my bedroom not only included reading but also cataloguing my book collection. Like Sylvia, I was a librarian in the making. And ‘unescorted’ Saturday walks to the library were a regular feature of my life in late primary school years.

Children’s librarians – real and fictional

Cover image (trade pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In Vickers’ novel, set in 1958, the youthful Sylvia Blackwell is influenced by a thoughtful and energetic librarian. In her turn, Sylvia becomes that influential guide for her young charges in the fictional English town of East Mole.

The guiding librarian of my youth was Miss Euphemia (Pheme) Tanner, children’s librarian at the Bendigo Library, Victoria.

Euphemia Catherine Tanner was born in 1914, the year her parents, May Smith and Francis Tanner, married. In mid-1915, her father enlisted for service in World War I. He was killed in action in France the following year.

Training for life

Pheme Tanner grew up in Bendigo, living with her mother and her maternal grandparents. In his 1995 publication, Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo, Jeffrey Prentice writes that Pheme had a ‘closeted childhood’ and ‘turned to reading’ for companionship. She attended Gravel Hill State School and proceeded from there to the Bendigo School of Domestic Arts.

The Arts School, established in 1916, was welcomed with gusto by the Bendigonian. The paper’s columnist wrote that ‘just as boys were able to learn trades at State technical schools, their sisters will be able to learn … everything connected with the work of a house and will fit themselves for that grand female profession – the oldest and the best and women’s true vocation and life work – the care of a husband and a home … It is safe to say they will prove prizes in the matrimonial lottery for the happy men fortunate enough to secure them as wives.’

Whether or not Pheme wished to be ‘secured’, I do not know. She did not, however, enter the ‘matrimonial lottery’.

After a stint working as a domestic, she became the part-time librarian at the Legacy Junior Library in Bendigo. That library closed in 1944 and its 600 books and furnishings were donated to the Bendigo Children’s Library. Pheme was appointed librarian there in 1946.

A career in books

Pheme’s experience as a children’s librarian parallels that of the fictional Sylvia Blackwell. In Vickers’ novel, Sylvia’s initial survey of the children’s section of the East Mole Library ‘revealed an outdated collection, much of which would hardly pass for children’s reading in the twentieth century’. Likewise, when Pheme Tanner scanned Bendigo’s children’s collection in 1946 she saw it was ‘in a sorry state with some of the 8,000 books not suitable for borrowers and many in disrepair’ (Prentice, 24).

Another link between Pheme and Sylvia is their approach to drawing children into the library building. Both solicited the help of local schools, inviting classrooms of children to come to the library and sample its wares. Pheme Tanner went one step further. She invited interested school children to ‘work’ at the library on Saturday mornings.

RAECO book slips and pockets

So it was that, twenty years after Miss Tanner took up her position as children’s librarian, I began my ‘career in books’. On Saturday mornings, I took my unescorted walk to the Bendigo Library. Once there, I stamped ‘Date Due’ slips, slotted the borrower cards from returned books into their rightful back-of-book pockets, and gathered up higgledy-piggledy piles of books for re-shelving in their proper Dewey Decimal home.

Miss Tanner permitted her gaggle of volunteers a mid-morning break. We gathered in an airless, bookless room for a few minutes to slurp on free icy poles. (Although the job of purchasing the icy poles was a coveted one, it never appealed to me. Why would I want to leave the company of books?) At the library’s midday closing, I departed with my pay (10c) and a bundle of reading for the coming week.

Cover image from Jeffrey Prentice’s Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo

Pheme Tanner, one of the first full-time children’s librarians in Australia, continued in her role at the Bendigo Library until 1979. I have no knowledge of her personal feelings towards the thousands of children who passed through the doors of her domain. I suspect she might not have shared the gushing sentiment of Sylvia Blackwell who ‘at times, experienced surges of overwhelming love for her little customers’, but she would have shared Sylvia’s delight in observing those children ‘prospecting the shelves for new finds, or sitting spread-legged on the floor, absorbed in exploring the varied kingdoms to which the books she had chosen for them had opened doors.’

What Did Pheme Read?

Mt Alvernia Hospital, Bendigo, 1965. John Collins, photographer.
Copyright, State Library of Victoria.

But what of Pheme’s own reading life? Sadly, no clues about her non-professional reading remain. Apparently the retired librarian destroyed most of her personal papers shortly before her death, ‘in lonely circumstances’ at Bendigo’s Mt Alvernia Hospital (Prentice, 10). Her ‘personal library of reference books’ was purchased by children’s literature specialist Jeffrey Prentice who was intrigued to discover ‘a fine and informative’ collection on ‘children’s literature, library practice, bookselling and printing’ (Prentice, 5).

Living different lives

Salley Vickers, whose novel The Librarian was inspired by her own experience ‘as a young girl with a superb local library and a remarkable children’s librarian’, told a Perth Writer’s Festival audience: ‘I think all my characters are based on myself, but not my life. I write in order to live those different lives. I don’t regard those as less lived than the real life.’

My hope is that, within the physical confines of the Bendigo Library and among the pages of so many books, Euphemia Catherine Tanner lived ‘different lives’. Lives no less lived than her life as a children’s librarian, and certainly more expansive than her pre-ordained role as a prize in the matrimonial lottery.

Links and sources

Cover image (pbk) courtesy of Penguin Australia

In her author’s note for The Librarian, Vickers writes that the real-life Miss Blackwell of her youth ‘had a fierce dislike of Enid Blyton and I have given this prejudice to her namesake [Sylvia Blackwell]’. Pheme Tanner shared this disapproval (Prentice, 29). I suspect, too, that Pheme and the Miss Blackwells (both real and fictional) would have found common ground among the book orders for their respective children’s libraries. Vickers includes a list of ‘Recommended reading from East Mole Library’ at the end of The Librarian. It includes two Australian authors: P. L. Travers for her Mary Poppins books and Norman Lindsay for The Magic Pudding.


After Pheme Tanner’s death in 1993, La Trobe University (which has a campus in Bendigo) established the biennial Pheme Tanner Award ‘for outstanding personal contribution to children’s literature’.

Recipients include authors Craig Smith (2011), and Christobel Mattingley (1999), illustrator Noela Young (1995), and librarian and former president of the Children’s Book Council of Australia Bronwen Bennett (2008).

Pheme Tanner, c. 1938. Image from Miss Tanner: Pied Piper of Bendigo (1995) by Jeffrey Prentice

Bushfire Books for Children

The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season began early. Weeks turned to months and the fires expanded and intensified. Words like ‘catastrophic’ and ‘unprecedented’ peppered the media reports. The coverage was unremitting—television, radio, newspapers and social media. Constant updates; microscopic detail.

Some children were directly impacted by the fires. They lost relatives, homes, pets, treasured possessions, favourite places. Others were affected indirectly—disrupted holiday plans, cancelled activities, unrelenting smoke haze. Sometimes, the impact was felt internally, and manifested as anxiety, fear, lassitude, sadness.

Australian authors of children’s books have written about bushfires for many years, but particularly in the last decade following the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. These  books provide a way to open conversations with children who have been affected by the fires. There is comfort in knowing other children, even fictional ones, have experienced the same losses. And storybook children can offer new ways and words for exploring and comprehending the emotional and psychological impact of fires.

Here is a selection of some of those books about bushfires. The selection is separated into two categories—picture books and junior fiction—with the most recent publications listed first.


Image courtesy of the publisher.

The Bushfire Book: How To Be Aware and Prepare  / Polly Marsden (text); Chris Nixon (illus.) (2020)

Point of view: 1st and 2nd  person Ages: 5+

Author Polly Marsden tells Australian children ‘we are lucky to live here’, but acknowledges that the country experiences dangerous and extreme weather events. She offers facts to counteract fear. There is comfort in knowing that clever people, like meteorologists and firefighters and Indigenous rangers, keep a constant watch for fire. And children can play their part by learning ‘what to do if a bushfire is ever nearby’.

Marsden understands that, even with this blanket of adult protection and armed with practical tips for being pro-active, some children might still be scared. ‘That’s ok!’, she says – talk to someone about how you’re feeling.

Illustrator Chris Nixon’s colour palette uses calming Australian tones – sand and eucalyptus and coral – across a bold backdrop of black and ochre.

The Bushfire Book provides a practical and reassuring starting point for conversations about frightening fire events.

[* This title was published in late 2020 and added to my original post after publication.]

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

The House on the Mountain / Ella Holcombe (text); David Cox (illus.) (2019)

Point of view: 3rd person (girl)     Ages: 7+

Author Ella Holcombe’s parents died in the 2009 Black Saturday fires in Victoria. In her picture book, Holcombe seeks to capture ‘something about continuity, about movement, about regrowth’. Told from a child’s perspective, The House on the Mountain captures the fear and confusion of both adults and children. It describes the noise of a bushfire and the silence after it passes; the experience of staying in a community evacuation centre; the displacement of relocation when a house is lost; and the ongoing, sometimes inexpressible trauma.

Teaching resources available via the Allen & Unwin website.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Through the Smoke / Phil Cummings (text); Andrew McLean (illus.) (2019)

Point of view: 1st person (plural, 2 boys and one girl)     Ages: 4+

Through the Smoke tells the story of a fire through the lens of imaginative play. Three children play in the bush near farmland, creating a medieval world with mock swords at the ready. When a dragon (fire) appears, they take cover in their imagined kingdom of Everdell. Before long, knights (firefighters) arrive and quench the dragon’s fire with ‘sabres of silver water’ (hoses).

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Spark  / Adam Wallace (text); Andrew Plant (illus.) (2016)

Point of view: The fire     Ages: 6+

Fire is Spark’s narrator. ‘I began as a tiny spark all alone in the dry grass.’ The spark seems an innocuous thing until captured by the wind. ‘We tore through forests. We flew over rivers. We razed homes. The clouds cried.’

The book’s illustrations start small, grow in size, and subside again as the fire dies. The text is handwritten (by the illustrator, Andrew Plant) giving the words a lively presence on the page.

While suitable for lower and upper primary school children, this book could also be used with older age groups exploring concepts of design, visual language, point of view and anthropomorphising.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Ford St.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

The Bushfire Babies / Debra O’Halloran (text and illus.) (2016)

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 3–6

Four young animals—an echidna, an emu, a wallaby and a possum—are stranded by a bushfire. They team up to search for their mothers and to find food, water and shelter. The animals are rescued by a firefighter, cared for, and released into unburnt forest. In a reassuring ending, each animal finds its mother.

Three further picture books for very young children that feature the impact of bushfires on Australian fauna are Aleesah Darlison’s Mama and Hug (2016), Maryanne O’Flynn’s Polka Dot Float (2015), and Joanne Crawford and Grace Fielding’s Bilby and the Bushfire (2007). Bilby and the Bushfire is no longer in print, but it is available second hand and in some public libraries. It is worth seeking out for Fielding’s illustrations which combine traditional dot art with contemporary art styles.

One of Grace Fielding’s illustrations from Bilby and the Bushfire

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Fire / Jackie French (text); Bruce Whatley (illus.) (2013)

Point of view: 3rd person    Ages: 4+

Jackie French’s text in Fire takes the form of rhyming couplets. The writing is spare and lyrical, leaving room for readers to explore the emotional range of the story. Bruce Whatley’s illustrations, as always, immerse the reader in the heart of the story.

The narrative takes a ‘circle of life’ approach—as time passes after the fire, there is room for grief, friendship and regeneration.

Fire is part of French and Whatley’s Flood/Fire/Cyclone collaboration. Whatley notes on his website: ‘Fire is probably the hardest thing I have tried to paint as its shape constantly changes’.

One of Bruce Whatley’s illustrations from Fire.

Scholastic has teaching resources available for Fire. Enquire directly with the publisher, or key the following terms into a search engine to find a direct link: fire french whatley resources.


Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Bushfire: A Story of Bravery and Survival / Sally Murphy (2019)

Point of view: 1st person (girl)     Ages 9+

Sally Murphy’s Bushfire is part of Scholastic’s My Australian Story collection, a series of carefully researched novels, each depicting ‘a young person living during an important event or time period in Australian history’. Bushfire’s setting is 2009, during Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires.

Amy is staying with her grandmother in Marysville. Her older brother is in the UK on a gap year; her mother, a climate scientist, is travelling overseas for work; and her father is employed by Parks Victoria and volunteers as a firefighter. On the day of the bushfire, Amy and grandmother face the fire alone. Murphy includes detailed information on enacting a fire plan and preparing for evacuation. The book also includes historical notes, factual inserts, explanatory notes on climate change, and ‘Ten Ways to Fight Global Warming’.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

47 Degrees / Justin D’Ath (2019)

Point of view: 3rd person (girl)     Ages: 10+

Justin D’Ath’s  47 Degrees, like Sally Murphy’s Bushfire, is set during the 2009 Black Saturday fires. D’Ath’s own home was destroyed in those fires and much of his personal experience is channelled into his fictional narrative.

Zeelie is preparing to start Year 7 when the bushfire strikes. Zeelie’s mother and younger brother are in Melbourne and unable to return home. Zeelie and her father enact their fire plan and evacuate from Flowerdale to a community centre in Yea.

D’Ath effectively captures the challenges of caring for pets during a bushfire; the constant interactions with, and the kindness of, strangers; and Zeelie’s underlying sense of displacement and anxiety.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Where There’s Smoke / John Heffernan (2010, 2019)     

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 10+

Luke and his mother are escaping family violence and building a new life in a small, regional community. The fear of being discovered by Luke’s father (the perpetrator of the violence) is ever present, but then a new danger emerges—bushfire. Heffernan introduces a range of characters, from different age groups, ethnicities and socio-economic backgrounds, to build a sense of community and relationship.

Heffernan’s story is particularly effective in conveying the way the community comes together to care for vulnerable people. The shock of a sudden fire is well realised, as is the resultant trauma.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Now / Morris Gleitzman (2010)

Point of view: 1st person (girl)     Ages: 10+

In Now, Morris Gleitzman, picks up the story of Felix, the young Polish Jewish boy he introduced in the novels Once and Then. Now moves Felix’s story forward from his childhood in World War II Europe to his old age in the bush-covered ranges to Melbourne’s east.

Felix, now an octogenarian and retired surgeon, is sharing his home with his granddaughter Zelda. (Zelda’s parents are doctors working in Darfur.) Felix and Zelda share a close bond and their relationship is drawn with great detail and affection by Gleitzman.

When a bushfire strikes, Felix and Zelda fight off ember attacks and spot fires as best they can, but soon realise they can neither extinguish the flames nor escape to safety. They bunker down in a hole and survive the fire with the assistance of dampened blankets, the contents of Felix’s medical bag and a dose of good fortune.

Throughout the novel, memories of Felix’s wartime experiences are triggered by everyday occurrences and by the realities of living in extremis.

Now won a Speech Pathology Australia Book of the Year Award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Australian Book Industry Awards (Book of the Year for Older Children) and the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards (Children’s Fiction). In 2010, it was also shortlisted for the UK Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize.

Teaching resources are available from the publisher, Penguin Australia.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

Ash Road / Ivan Southall (1965, 2013)

Point of view: 3rd person     Ages: 12+

Ash Road was originally published when the grandparents of today’s children were children themselves. Its author, Ivan Southall, died over a decade ago. But, despite its sometimes dates language, Ash Road remains a classic for both children and older readers.

Three youths—all male, and itching to stretch their wings of independence—accidentally start a bushfire while camping. Southall explores the ramifications of the boys’ actions in their own lives and in the lives of those impacted by the fire. The character development is complex and sophisticated. Interior lives are fleshed out and emotional responses explored. Adult characters are realistically flawed. Across the generations, there is panic and meanness and desperation; but there is also courage and personal growth.

A compelling aspect of Ash Road for today’s readers is the scenario of being confronted by a bushfire without the communication back-up of mobile phones or social media or even ABC radio updates.

Ash Road won the Children’s Book of the Year Award from both the Children’s Book Council of Australia and the New York Times Book Review in 1966.

Teaching resources for Ash Road are available from Reading Australia.


There are many other Australian books with a bushfire theme. When searching Australian library catalogues for books about bushfires, use (separately) the subject terms Wildfires and Forest fires, in combination with Australia, and either Juvenile literature or Juvenile fiction.

Cover image courtesy of the publisher.

This blog post focuses on fictional works. A good starting point for those looking for non-fiction responses to bushfire is Neil Grant and David Williams’ From Kinglake to Kabul. First published in 2011, the book is an anthology of writing created by students from Kinglake, Victoria and Kabul, Afghanistan. Each of the student contributors has experienced tragedy, either in bushfire or war; each finds a way forward.

Published by Allen & Unwin, From Kinglake to Kabul is suitable for students in the early years of secondary school. Teaching resources are available via Allen & Unwin’s website.


  • All books referenced in this blog post were sighted at the National Library of Australia. One criterion for selection was that the books be easily accessible through public or school libraries, or available for purchase through bookstores or from the publisher. For this reason, some older and out-of-print books were excluded.
  • The Australian Psychological Society offers a range of information sheets to assist people recovering from bushfires. One sheet is specifically for ‘parents and carers looking after children who have been affected by bushfires’.

The final illustration in Jackie French and Bruce Whatley’s Fire. ‘And time itself defeats the pain As dry air thickens into rain.’