26 May 2017

John McIntyre: champion of children's literature

From Nine To Noon, 10:05 am on 26 May 2017

John McIntyre, Nine to Noon's much loved children's book reviewer died at home on Saturday 10 June 2017, after a long battle with ill health .

We spoke with John, just a couple of weeks ago in a full interview about his life and career, including the setting up, with his wife Ruth, the Children's Bookshop in Wellington, and his years of campaigning for children's literature, and particularly NZ children's literature.

Every second Friday for 15 years, children's bookseller John McIntyre has discussed the latest releases for children on RNZ.

But don't call him a reviewer – "I'm a cheerleader".

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Photo: supplied

Since 1992, McIntyre and his wife Ruth have run The Children's Bookshop in the Wellington suburb of Kilbirnie.

He tells Kathryn Ryan he's passionate about getting good books into the hands of children, especially boys, who often need non-fiction and adventure books to engage them.

Too few fathers model reading to their sons, John says.

"Dad worship is very real and boys who have reading dads will be reading boys just as rugby dads have rugby sons."

Another problem that he sees is literature and literacy being interpreted as the same thing.

"I can understand academic rigour around literacy, but for kids, books are just stories. They don't care about metaphor."

McIntyre started his professional life as what he calls a "crap teacher", then came "the feral years" – odd jobs in NZ then backpacking through India and South-east Asia.

When he was offered a job as a tour leader taking campers through Russia and Scandinavia he was eyeing up "four or five years of feckless behaviour", John says.

Then was "blindsided by a woman" – his future wife Ruth.

"I was sleeping on the floor in the lounge [in a London flat]. Ruth took pity on me, really, I wasn't sleeping on the floor much longer. 37 years later we're still hanging in there."

When he was 38, John's kidney failed.

He hated dialysis, but after a couple of years got the phone call to say there was a kidney for him

"If you want to be a donor, please have the conversation. It does change lives and it changed mine immensely. Every good thing that's happened [to me] in the last 25 years is because a family at the time of greatest grief said yes. "

After the kidney transplant, he and Ruth opened the book shop.

"We took no wages, really, for the first year and lived on what we had in the freezer."

"We gave it two years. I thought 'If it doesn't work, I'll walk away. At least I won't die wondering'."

McIntyre says bookselling is his first love and to him a dream job.

"All the things that I'd done in my life – the teaching, the hotel work, the bus driving, the speaking to bus loads… all that fell into place in bookselling."

The secret to a good bookstore is creating a place where people feel welcome to come and talk, he says.

"It's wonderful. You open the doors every morning and you have no idea what's coming through them. I love that."

John McIntyre's advice to children's writers:

Good enough isn't good enough.

"It has to be excellent and you can't be the judge of that yourself… You need editing, you need another eye."

Don't forget you need a story with dramatic tension and a beginning, middle and end.

Don't feel the need to write in rhyme if you don't have the skill.

"Bad rhyme is like bad music."

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