Reflections from Kathy Kozlowski: Pixie O’Harris winner

15 Jul 2019

Kathy Kozlowski was this year awarded the Pixie O’Harris Award for service to the children’s book industry. Starting out in libraries and making the move to bookselling not long after, Kathy shares her insights to the changes seen in the sector, and at the heart of the matter, what children’s books and booksellers offer the world. We start by asking her what has made her stay in the industry.

“It’s certainly not the pay! It’s a combination of things. It’s partly the fact that it’s such an important industry – we’re working with children and their imaginations and giving them the chance to stand in other people’s shoes, to laugh and escape from their worlds. It’s a really important thing to do and I love it.

There are also the people who work in the book trade – they’re so interesting. There are few of us that are career booksellers but there are musicians, photographers, artists, authors and playwrights – the whole lot. I’ve mixed with those people and often they are much younger than I am and that’s been a great pleasure.

I like the cutthroat aspect of the industry too. Unlike librarianship, you’re always trying to find a balance between having wonderful stock, keeping an eye on the bottom line and keeping your turnover high. How you do that is fascinating. How do you display books in a way that people will come in and love? And how do you handsell so that you get the right book for the right child?

 What do you feel makes a good bookseller?

This is something, I admit, I’m not exactly sure about. We’re all so mixed and that’s lovely. Being a good listener is at the heart of things. People who come into the shop don’t know what they’re looking for. They’re either adults who are passed their childhood so they don’t know children’s books or they’re children who are unsure and wanting help.

Having worked out what is the best book, you have to find the best hook to inspire the child and sometimes you are balancing between what the child wants to read and the parent. Something that the child will love but it is more literature based and not some crappy thing that’s television related. That can be quite a challenge.

A good bookseller also needs to know how to put up dump bins, how to do a display, be willing to take storytime, be able to set up events. Half of those I fail at, but they’re some of the qualities.

What does your typical day look like?

 A typical day for me in the store, apart from the ubiquitous shelving, is about talking with customers and getting them the right books. Often librarians come in too. I’m no longer doing the buying of books as I’m nearing retirement so I do the floor work which I really like.

Have you had a particular experience where you’ve seen the value of what booksellers do for readers?

There was one time when there was a teacher from a western suburbs school who came in saying the school wanted to change the non-reading culture of their students. They wondered if they could bring in their year eight class for us to present books to. The first group that came in were pretty out there, and not familiar with bookshops. They somehow found their way straight to the true crime section. All the boys wanted Chopper Read – and the girls wanted Britney Spears. I had to get them away from that and onto the books the school would want them to read, which we had chosen very carefully, to capture their imagination.

I started by saying to them, “If a writer came to your school and observed, what would they write about? What do you do in your recess? What makes you cool, what do you have to wear to be cool? What do you do at the weekends? What are your parents’ and your school’s expectations for your lives? How does that make you feel?” I could see from these questions that they were engaged and thinking. Then I said, “So if someone wrote a book about that, and I read it, and I’m three times your age and I live on the other side of the city and I don’t know your world, I’d suddenly know what life is like for you. Wouldn’t that make me a richer person?”

I looked up at this stage and it was one of those moments of eyeball to eyeball and I knew this boy was totally with me, and just longing to read books. It was great. It’s one of those special moments that lives on.

What have been the greatest changes you’ve seen in bookselling over the years?

 My goodness, there have been changes in the industry – where do I start? There was no genre for young adult books. Of course, there were books like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables that you would give to older children. And you could go into the adult section and select Mary Webb or Georgette Heyer etcetera for girls and thrillers and Paul Brickhill’s The Dam-busters for boys. I still remember when Paul Zindel’s The Pigman came out. It was the first I knew of a purely teenage book, written just for teenagers, with teenage thinking behind it. We were fascinated and kind of a bit shocked.

Other lovely things have happened and more recently. Previously, if the front cover had a black face on it, sadly you knew it wouldn’t sell very well. It’s an appalling thing to say but it’s true.  And now, by contrast, we sell a lot of Indigenous books all the time. It’s wonderful. When I first came to work with Readings about 14 years ago, we had a small row of Indigenous books that hardly moved but we kept them out of principle and tourists would occasionally buy them. Now we have three rows of Indigenous books and they sell all the time. It’s lovely knowing that young people are reading these stories and seeing them as part of their lives.

A book that has recently changed the publishing and book world is Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls. It was the beginning of a flood of books about women who have achieved in sports and history, in art, which we were sorely lacking. There’s been a crying out for books for boys on the same theme which are now coming. The feminists would say there have been books for boys in every history book, every science book they’ve ever read but it is good to get that balance. I love the fact that my granddaughter growing up today will think of what women do, and what women think in a totally different way to what I did and it’s because of her reading.

Is it possible for you to have a favourite children’s book?

Sometimes I am pushed to share what my favourite children’s book is. There are too many but if I have to pick it is Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian. To me it is the perfect book. It has a very dramatic narrative, strong adult and children’s characters and it’s full of poignancy and emotion so very satisfying in many ways. I’d also put forward Shirley Hughes’ Dogger as it’s a perfect picture book. It’s a 70s book and looks its time, and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. They might think ‘who is this lady giving me this old book?’ But if you look past that, it’s a classic story about a small boy and his toy dog, the one you go to sleep with and take everywhere, and his losing it. The terrible drama of that for a child – losing your favorite thing. Then his sister does something very kind, to get it back. Aren’t you curious to read it now? And if I want to have a laugh, I pick up Bob Graham’s Greetings from Sandy Beach.

What was the industry like when you started?

I started out as a children’s librarian and around 1971 I moved over into bookselling. When I first started out, picture books were only really just starting to blossom. They were mostly two colour picture books, not a lot in the beautiful colours you get now. Australian children’s picture book publishing was almost non-existent.

What’s the most joyous part of your job?

Everything, really. I love customer service and reading books and introducing children to books and the pleasure of reading, so what a wonderful job!

I believe in stories and the power of story on the imagination. Booksellers are the purveyors of stories and ideas and playing that role has kept me here. What has been my greatest passion is the tradition of passing on our culture, and the things that are important to us and our dreaming and our imagination through story, and that’s a great privilege to have done.”