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Butler, Muriel Dorothy

by Elizabeth Cox


Dorothy Butler’s life was dominated by books and the role of story in children’s lives. She urged parents to read to their children, stressing that ‘Books can be bridges between children and parents, and children and the world’.1 Her love of books, which began during her own childhood, became an integral part of her parenting, and she eventually wrote children’s books herself and operated a successful children’s bookshop. Her ground-breaking studies of childhood literature and literacy became internationally recognised reference books.

A childhood full of books

Muriel Dorothy Norgrove was born in Grey Lynn, Auckland, on 24 April 1925, the younger of two children of Emily Isobel Brown and her husband, butcher William Victor Norgrove. Emily was a natural storyteller, telling her children stories about their family’s early history. The family moved around Auckland during Dorothy’s childhood as her parents’ fortunes waxed and waned, though a more settled period began after they moved into a new state house in 1938. Dorothy entered Auckland Girls’ Grammar School the following year, and she mowed neighbours’ lawns to raise money to buy books.

As her family could not pay for her to attend university, Dorothy returned to Auckland Girls’ Grammar in 1943 as an assistant to the domestic science teacher – she worked at the school until 3.30pm and attended university classes from 4 until 8pm. Completing her BA in 1945, she trained to be a secondary schoolteacher at Auckland Teachers’ College. There she read a book by influential New Zealand librarian Dorothy Neal White which advocated the importance of reading for children. This changed the course of her life.

Married life and a growing family

Dorothy married Roy Edward Butler, a fitter and turner and later an engineer, in Auckland on 11 January 1947. She began teaching at her old high school, but was forced to give this up when she became pregnant with her first child. Dorothy and Roy began married life in a tent on their property between Birkenhead and Glenfield, then predominantly rural, while they built a house together. They went on to have six daughters and two sons between 1947 and 1960; they had no hot water, fridge or washing machine until after their fourth child was born. The family later bought a hearse to transport all the children.

In 1972 they bought land at Karekare on Auckland’s wild west coast. They restored two historic houses on the property, and henceforth divided their time between Karekare and Auckland. The family owned the property for more than 40 years, and Dorothy hosted many literary friends there.

Children’s books

In 1962 Dorothy helped establish a new Playcentre in Birkenhead, where she worked as a supervisor. She was determined to ensure the children had access to many books. Despite initial scepticism from some parents, she watched the growing success of the ‘happy interaction of young children, parents, and good books’.2 Parents came to her home for guidance, and she began to give public talks and to sell books she obtained from the very few booksellers then retailing children’s books. Her work with her own and other people’s children confirmed her belief that early experiences with books could play an important role in baby and child development.

When her children were older she lectured on children’s literature at the Adult Education Department of the University of Auckland, and taught in the evenings at the Auckland Technical Institute. She contemplated returning to secondary teaching, but it was the early years of a child’s life which really held her interest. Instead she used her growing reputation and expertise to become a children’s bookseller. At the time there was only one other specialist children’s bookshop in New Zealand.

She launched the shop in her own home in 1965, in a small study off her bedroom, ordering books, sight unseen, from British catalogues. The whole family were involved in unpacking the parcels, often carrying books off to read before they were sold. A librarian later said that ‘Butlers is the only place you can buy a book hot off a bedside table!’3

The business was bolstered by Dorothy’s interactions with parents and hundreds of schools and libraries; she delivered the books in a large caravan built by Roy, known as her ‘Bookwagon’. The shop slowly took over the house; one room was transformed from a non-fiction department during the day to a bedroom at night. The shop remained in the house for seven years, with the building enlarged to cope with the demands of eight children. As Dorothy wrote 50 years later, moving aside to make room for books seemed reasonable to her children, and fitted in with her own desire for both an engaged motherhood and a successful business: ‘the two did not overlap as much as intertwine; they became inextricably enmeshed.’4

Dorothy was a specialist bookseller for 25 years, and the shop eventually became the family’s main source of income. It moved into premises in Takapuna in 1972, then to Ponsonby in 1985. Roy, suffering from rheumatoid arthritis, retired from engineering in 1974 to take a larger role in the business. Thousands of children visited Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop.

In 1976, her desire to see books before ordering them took her on her first overseas trip, to London and the international Children’s Book Fair in Bologna, where she met many of the children’s publishers, authors and illustrators whose work she had been selling for years.

Dorothy was fascinated by the process of how children learnt to read, and from 1977 to 1984 the shop was home to her remedial reading centre, which taught hundreds of children with reading difficulties. The bookshop, now famous, was sold in 1990.   

Children’s literature scholarship

Dorothy returned to the University of Auckland in the early 1970s and completed a diploma in education in 1975. Her final project was a study of the benefits of providing a book-rich life for children with disabilities, through her study of the development of her granddaughter Cushla, born with multiple disabilities. This study, published as Cushla and her books (1979), transformed Dorothy into an internationally-recognised literacy expert. The book was widely used, and in 1981, the International Year of the Disabled, received a citation by the American Library Association as an outstanding book about disability.

Within two years of Cushla’s publication, Dorothy published two more ground-breaking books for adults. Reading begins at home (1979), co-authored with literacy advocate Marie Clay, helped parents prepare their children for a life of literacy. Revised in 2008, this book was well received overseas and remained in print for many decades.

Babies need books (1980), perhaps her most important work, was commissioned by British publisher Bodley Head. It urged parents to read to their children from babyhood and recommended books to read with young children; it became the leading text in its field internationally. Dorothy presented a six-episode television programme based on the book in 1982, and later wrote a sequel, Five to eight (1986), which recommended books for older children.

Dorothy was awarded the Eleanor Farjeon Award in Britain in 1980 for outstanding services to children’s literature, and in 1982 the May Hill Arbuthnot Honor Lecture Award in the United States. These awards were followed by lecture tours in Australia, Japan, the United States and the Pacific, which cemented her international reputation.

Children’s books

 Dorothy edited the first collection of New Zealand stories and poems for children, The magpies said, in 1980, and a number of other edited collections of poems and stories for children followed during the 1980s. She also wrote 30 story books for children during the 1980s and 1990s, some based on New Zealand history and stories from her mother’s childhood in Thames. Perhaps the best known was her series about ‘My brown bear Barney’, which remained in print for more than 20 years.

Other book-related projects also emerged – one venture in the 1980s, Dorothy Butler Video Books, filmed experienced narrators reading books aloud. She was also involved in a children’s book publishing venture, worked as a consulting editor for children’s book publishers, and reviewed books for the Sunday Star Times.

Dorothy was a foundation member of the Children’s Literature Association of New Zealand in 1967, and of the New Zealand Children's Book Foundation in 1989. She also supported many New Zealand children’s authors and illustrators starting out in the profession, including Tessa Duder and Lynley Dodd.

Later life

Her first autobiography, There was a time, was published in 1999, followed in 2009 by a sequel, All this and a bookshop too. They described her life in books, as well as her family life and the loss of her daughter Patricia in 1997 and husband Roy in 2003. They also served as a social history of children’s bookselling and publishing in New Zealand.

Despite poor eyesight – she read with one eye for many decades – she remained an avid reader throughout her life. In 1992 she was awarded the Margaret Mahy Award in recognition of her outstanding contribution to children’s literature in New Zealand. An OBE followed in 1993. Dorothy died in Auckland on 20 September 2015, aged 90, survived by seven of her eight children.

Dorothy and her bookshop contributed enormously to the increased availability and visibility of children’s books from the 1970s onwards, and to international recognition of their importance. She did not believe the children’s books community could ever rest on its laurels. At the award ceremony for the Margaret Mahy Award, she issued her audience with a challenge: ‘children need books, and we must provide them, thereafter moving heaven and earth if need be to ensure that true and lasting contact is made between the two.’5

  1. Dorothy Butler. All this and a bookshop too. Auckland, 2009, p.123. Back
  2. Dorothy Butler. ‘A Children’s Bookshop in New Zealand: One Family’s Enterprise’. Horn Book Magazine, April 1977, republished 2013 Back
  3. Butler. All this and a bookshop too, p.156. Back
  4. Dorothy Butler. ‘A Children’s Bookshop in New Zealand: One Family’s Enterprise’. The Horn Book Magazine, April 1977, republished in 2013 Back
  5. Dorothy Butler. ‘Telling Tales’. Margaret Mahy Award Lecture 1992, New Zealand Children’s Book Foundation, 1993, p.14. Back

Links and sources


How to cite this page:

Elizabeth Cox. 'Butler, Muriel Dorothy', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2020. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)