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.

Footnote

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

My A–Z of Books and Reading

My reading life – in the shape of the alphabet.

A is for Austen

Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen
NPG 3630 © National Portrait Gallery, London
(CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

Jane-isms pepper my conversation. When miffed by extraneous impositions, I quote Miss Elizabeth Bennet and ‘act in that manner which will, in my own opinion, constitute my happiness, without reference to … any person so wholly unconnected with me’; when displeased, I cite Mr Knightley’s chiding of Emma (‘badly done, indeed’); and, when worn down by life, I echo Mary Musgrove (‘I am so ill I can hardly speak’).

Thank you, Jane Austen. My life and language would the poorer without you.

B is for beauty

St John’s Bible calligrapher

The most beautiful books in my house are the seven volumes of The Saint John’s Bible, each measuring a substantial 26cm x 39cm. The books’ calligraphy and illuminations illustrate, quite literally, the era evoked in Robyn Cadwallader’s Book of Colours. They are a testament to time, skill, patience and creativity.

Beautiful books cost money to produce. I am grateful to publishers who invest in beauty.

C is for comfort

Sometimes I want to settle down with a book that’s the equivalent of hot chocolate on a winter’s day. Something that will warm and relax me. Any novel by Kate Morton will do it. Her gift for storytelling carries me along on a tide of contentment.

D is for discomfort

Some books – fiction and non-fiction – open a door onto uncomfortable truths.  Edward Docx’s Let Go My Hand on euthanasia, Tara Westover’s Educated on the potent grip of faith and family, Maxine Beneba Clarke’s The Hate Race on racism in Australia.

It’s good to be unsettled from time to time.

E for editing

I’m an occasional editor and proofreader so my checking antenna is generally ‘up’. It’s an occupational hazard. I get cross when books seem to have bypassed the editorial phase. I am annoyed by misspellings, verb confusions, inaccurate references, missing punctuation and repeated words. I’ve been known to send publishers gratuitous lists of the textual errors and narrative glitches I’ve found in their books. The subsequent silence is deafening.

But, before I suffer altitude sickness on my high horse, I need to remind myself of the wisdom of an editor acquaintance: ‘There is no such thing as a perfect book.’

F is for fact-checking

One of my favourite thankyous from an author whose book I proofread was this: ‘You saved me from many egregious errors.’

Authors tend to slip up when they know their subject intimately and so don’t bother to check their facts. I’ve driven along that road umpteen times and I know there’s a pub at the top of the hill. Well, yes, there was a pub there in 1970 when you used to live in the area, but it hasn’t been there since 1995 and your novel is set in 2015.

Assume nothing.

G is for gifts

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Books make great presents. I’m always happy to receive books (even the Christmas when three of my children each gave me a copy of the same book). Best of all are unexpected gifts, offered when there’s no particular rhyme or reason.

One day, my daughter surprised me with a copy of Hervé Tullet’s Press Here. Its simplicity is sublime. I smile every time I ‘press here’. Partly it’s the joy of Tullet’s humour; partly it’s the memory of the gift and the giver.

H is for holidays

Holidays have a circular effect on my reading.

I once spent a day in Lyme Regis because Anne Elliot went there in Jane Austen’s Persuasion.

Sometimes, the effect is reversed: a holiday destination sets off a post-visit reading adventure. It wasn’t until I visited the Corinium Museum at Cirencester that I discovered the books of Rosemary Sutcliff. I was soon devouring The Eagle of the Ninth and the subsequent books in the series. (Those Romans certainly knew how to build roads and baths.)

I is for illustrators

Jeannie Baker’s collages, Graeme Base’s hidden clues. Anything by Oliver Jeffers or Shaun Tan. I am hard pressed to draw a recognisable stick figure so I honour those who create pictures.

If you want a taste of the talent displayed by Australia’s current crop of illustrators, visit the Australian Society of Authors’ Style File.

J is for jobs

I spent over 20 years working with AustLit, the ‘go to’ resource for all things Australian literature related. My husband used to tell people I got paid to read the newspaper. There’s some truth to that. Each Monday, I’d spread the weekend papers across my desk and search their pages for book reviews, poems, essays, and scraps of author information. I loved my AustLit job; Mondays were bliss.

K is for Kindle

When I tell my friends that I read most of my fiction on a Kindle, they generally flinch. I might as well have sold my soul to the devil. But my Kindle works for me. It was a gift from my husband and, I have to admit, I was initially sceptical. Eight years on, and 300 downloaded books later, I’m a convert.

L is for libraries

My love of libraries began at the children’s library in the regional city of Bendigo, Victoria. The five years I spent in Bendigo were largely miserable, but there were two saving graces – the public pool and the public library. I volunteered at the library, along with other primary school-aged children, under the supervision of the indefatigable librarian Miss Euphemia Tanner. My book-soaked Saturdays with her restored my spirits.

© National Library of Australia

When I arrived in Canberra to begin my undergraduate degree, I fell into the warm embrace of the National Library of Australia (and the iced buns that could then be purchased from the fourth-floor cafeteria). Our nation’s library has been my home-away-from-home ever since. I’ve used its resources for study, work, research and leisure for over 40 years. (I miss those iced buns though.)

M is for missing

There are books that ‘well-rounded’ readers are meant to have read: Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, J D Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. I’ve read none of them.

Sometimes friends gasp: ‘Oh, my goodness, you haven’t read xyz?’

No, I have not. And I probably never will.

N is for nature writing

Cover image courtesy of Trinity University Press

It was while working for AustLit that I came across Mark Tredinnick’s PhD thesis ‘Writing the Wild’ (partially published at a later date as The Land’s Wild Music).

Tredinnick’s thesis introduced me to people like Terry Tempest Williams and James Galvin and Barry Lopez. They gave me a new way of seeing.

O is for oral reads

This esoteric topic deserves a comprehensive explanation but, suffice to say, an oral read tracks the textual variations between different versions of books with messy publication histories. The aim is to prepare a definitive, scholarly edition.

To conduct an oral read, several people read the variant versions simultaneously. One person reads aloud while the others follow along in their different versions. When the silent readers spot a variation, they call out. Everyone stops and the variation is recorded.

It’s kind of like bingo for readers. It’s a lot of fun … if you’re that way inclined.

P is for place

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

There are some places I know only from the pages of books, either because I will never visit them or because they no longer exist. Arabella Edge (The Company: The Story of a Murderer) and Kathryn Heyman (The Accomplice) have shown me the Houtman Abrolhos Islands, off the coast of Western Australia, as they were at the time of the Batavia’s shipwreck in 1629. Madeline Miller (The Song of Achilles and Circe) and Pat Barker (The Silence of the Girls), among others, have conjured my vision of the ancient city of Troy.

Reading is a cheap ticket for vicarious travellers. It can be a surprisingly embodied experience.

Q is for quest

There’s a popular theory that there are only seven basic story lines; one of the seven is The Quest. (If you want to delve further into this idea, you can read Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots.)

Cover image courtesy of HarperCollins

Quests often govern the structure of fantasy novels and, for me, the granddaddy of them all is J R R Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I didn’t read Tolkien’s tale of Middle Earth until well into adulthood. It was the summer of 2002, just after the first instalment of Peter Jackson’s film adaptation was released. As soon as I’d seen The Fellowship of the Ring on the screen, I started reading Tolkien’s tale. I barely came up for air. Fortunately most of my family was away on a summer camp. I neglected my one remaining son and gave all my attention to Frodo. A week well spent.

R is for recommendations

Cover image courtesy of Penguin Australia

My best reading recommendations come from one of my sons who has a knack for walking into a bookstore and homing in on quirky titles. He’s often a bit ahead of the curve, or so far behind it that his choices have gone entirely out of fashion.

I have Nick to thank for an enjoyable chunk of my reading in recent years. Titles include John Ironmonger’s Not Forgetting the Whale, Susan Hill’s Howard’s End Is on the Landing, Sarah Hall’s The Wolf Border, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. Keep it up, Nick!

S is for series

I’m a sucker for a good crime series, especially if there’s a compelling lead character. Michael Robotham’s Joe O’Loughlin, Adrian McKinty’s Sean Duffy, C J Sansom’s Shardlake, Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike, Barry Maitland’s Brock and Kolla, Val McDermid’s Karen Pirie. I could go on. Trust me, I really could.

T is for tutoring

If I hadn’t had to engage deeply (and, truth be told, more than a little reluctantly) with Sophocles’ Antigone when tutoring a Year 11 student in English Literature, my reading experience with Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire would have been markedly diminished. (You can read my thoughts on the way the two stories mesh in my blog post, ‘Burning for Love’.)

Studying a book in order to shape someone else’s critical appreciation makes for a different reading experience. It’s analytic and probing and immersive.

My thanks to the English teacher who chose Antigone as a set text.

U is for unfinished

I have several ‘Collections’ on my Kindle where I group the books I’ve read. There’s plenty of crime fiction and a good dollop of historical fiction. There’s children’s fiction, YA fiction and general fiction. (It’s mostly fiction.) And then there’s a collection headed ‘Too Awful To Continue’. Only four books, from among 300 titles, are listed there. Don’t ask. I won’t tell.

V is for verse, especially the silly and nonsense variety

Spike Milligan’s Silly Verse for Kids allowed me to wrangle many an unruly classroom back to attention. It’s counter-intuitive, but a bit of craziness brings cohesion to a bunch of raucous children. It’s partly the appeal of nonsense, and partly the soothing power of rhythm. I can still recite ‘On the Ning Nang Nong’ and, with prompts, ‘The Land of the Bumbley Boo’.

Cover image courtesy of Allen & Unwin

Edward Lear’s nonsense works too:

They went to sea in a Sieve they did,
In a Sieve they went to sea:
In spite of all their friends could say,
On a winter’s morn, on a stormy day,
In a Sieve they went to sea!
(From ‘The Jumblies’)

Nonsense and silliness, in verse form, are treasures for frazzled teachers and their fractious pupils. Just remember to ‘beware the Jabberwock’!

W is for women writers

Women authors account for 75% of the books I read. (Only in the crime fiction genre do the numbers come close to a 50/50 female/male split.)

An excellent source for reviews of books by Australian women is the Australian Women Writers Challenge (AWWC). (The challenge began in 2012 after the underrepresentation of women in the pages of major literary and reviewing publications was exposed by the VIDA Count.) The AWWC’s function is to promote and support women writers. Nearly 6,000 books have been reviewed in less than eight years.

X is for XML

XML – eXtensible Markup Language – is a tool for creating information formats and sharing data. Basically (very basically), XML uses tags to give instructions to the data. I was introduced to XML in the early 2000s when I was tasked with writing an electronic newsletter for AustLit. XML appealed to me because of its orderliness – for every opening tag, there needs to be a corresponding closing tag.

Writing code for web pages is the 21st century equivalent of being a 19th century compositor. It’s a task that appeals to a certain personality type.

Y is for YA fiction

Cover image courtesy of Black Inc.

Young adult fiction is marketed to readers aged 12 to 18. When I was that age, the genre was barely out of nappies; it’s a creation of the mid-20th century. Despite not falling into the target age group, I include a good smattering of YA among my reading. The books often tackle gritty issues: life after a friend’s suicide (Claire Christian’s Beautiful Mess), judgements about, and the experiences of, asylum seekers (Clare AtkinsBetween Us), growing up in a fractured family (Claire Zorn’s One Would Think the Deep), unexpected teenage pregnancy (Dianne Touchell’s A Small Madness).

YA is not for the faint-hearted.

Z is for Zafón

I began my ABC with an author, so I’ll close with one, too – Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Zafón’s The Shadow of the Wind sees the young protagonist, Daniel Sempere, visiting the Cemetery of Forgotten Books where he finds, unsurprisingly, a book. The story behind the book, the last remaining copy in existence, becomes Daniel’s obsession – a fate with which other readers might well identify.

Links and Sources

Links to the books, authors and institutions mentioned in my alphabet:

A: Portrait of Jane Austen, by Cassandra Austen. NPG 3630 © National Portrait Gallery, London. (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0); the three quotes are from, respectively, Pride and Prejudice, Emma and Persuasion, all by Jane Austen

B: The St John’s Bible; Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

C: Kate Morton

D:  Let Go My Hand by Edward Docx; Educated by Tara Westover; The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

G: Press Here by Hervé Tullet

H: Persuasion by Jane AustenThe Corinium Museum; The Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff

IJeannie Baker; Graeme Base; Oliver Jeffers; Shaun Tan; The Australian Society of Authors’ Style File

J: AustLit

L: Bendigo Library; National Library of Australia; image of NLA, © National Library of Australia

M: Moby Dick by Herman Melville; The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger; Ulysses by James Joyce; War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

N: ‘Writing the Wild’ and The Land’s Wild Music by Mark Tredinnick; Terry Tempest Williams; James Galvin; Barry Lopez

P: The Company: The Story of a Murderer by Arabella Edge; The Accomplice by Kathryn Heyman; the wrecking of the Batavia; The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller; The Song of the Girls by Pat Barker

Q: The Seven Basic Plots by Christopher Booker; The Fellowship of the Ring (movie); The Lord of the Rings by J R R Tolkien

R: Not Forgetting the Whale by John Ironmonger; Howard’s End Is on the Landing by Susan Hill; The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall and Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.

S: Joe O’Loughlin series by Michael Robotham; Sean Duffy series by Adrian McKinty; Shardlake series by C J Sansom;  Cormoran Strike series by Robert Galbraith; Brock and Kolla series by Barry Maitland; Karen Pirie series by Val McDermid

T: Antigone by Sophocles; Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie

V: Silly Verse for Kids by Spike Milligan; The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear;  ‘Jabberwocky’ by Lewis Carroll

W: VIDA Count; Australian Women Writers Challenge 

Y: Beautiful Mess by Claire Christian; Between Us by Clare Atkins;  One Would Think the Deep by Claire Zorn; A Small Madness by Dianne Touchell 

Z: The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón