Vale Barbara Murison: Champion of Kids’ Lit

Barbara Murison, MNZM, was one of the most dedicated supporters of children’s literature in New Zealand for over 60 years. Through her career as a librarian, and as a reviewer and manuscript assessor, she was a wonderful person to have on our team. Here are some messages from her friends in this community. Please feel free to send yours to be added at

Sarah Forster, The Sapling

I met Barbara Murison in 2007, on the doorstep of her home in Ngaio, where I had gone for the first of many Storylines Wellington Family Day planning meetings. I admired her voluminous bookshelves, her deep knowledge of New Zealand children’s literature, her incredible fitness – leading tramps frequently – and her quick wit and honesty. She was a reviewer, a manuscript assessor, a judge, and attended every children’s book launch in Wellington (and further afield). As we came up with The Sapling, I was inspired by Barbara and hoped for her approval, and we received it: but on the offer of getting some of her friends to write about her contribution to this world, she growled in an email, ‘Wait ’til I’m dead.’ So here it is: the love and respect shines through.

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Iona McNaughton, Barbara Murison and Eirlys Hunter (photo by Aimee McNaughton)

Ruth Paul, Author

Barbara once apologised for not meeting me because she’d hurt her ankle on a tramp. I always thought she’d injured herself on a trampoline, rather than a walk. For some reason the mental image of Barbara on a trampoline was the first to enter my mind and is clearly how I think of her metaphorically: leaping and nimble, laughing and ever on point. Now, when I miss her, I’ll switch out the trampoline for cloud and smile about our private joke.

Philippa Harrison, former Girl Guiding Leader

I am so sad to hear of Barbara’s passing. I remember her well from the 70s when I helped with her Brownie pack for girls with special needs for a while. I remember her straight posture and energy and, above all, her smile. She was such a force for good in many fields.

Melinda Szymanik, Author

I first met Barbara when I was awarded a mentorship by the New Zealand Society of Authors in 2004/5 and she was assigned as my mentor, working with me as I wrote my first children’s novel Jack the Viking. Her gentle encouragement and guidance was just what I needed to successfully complete the manuscript and build my writing confidence. She always kept in touch afterwards and organised get-togethers of her Auckland mentees whenever she was in town. It was like belonging to a special club with her as camp leader and camp mother all rolled in to one. She was always so passionate about children’s books, and was always a positive, vibrant presence at children’s literature events, launches and awards. It’s hard to imagine the children’s literature community without her in it and it won’t ever be quite the same.

The Alphabetical Life of Barbara Murison – Mary McCallum, Mākaro Press

I was lucky enough to work with Barbara Murison when I was organising a Wellington Storylines Festival about ten years ago, after that I saw her at nearly every children’s book launch or event that I attended. Then Barbara signed up for a memoir writing workshop I was running. What a treat to have her there! After a couple of weeks of doing exercises, she shared a story from her draft memoir, An Alphabetical Life. It was sharp and funny and well-observed. The workshop group loved it. After that I kept asking to see the whole manuscript, and Barbara kept fobbing me off saying no one would want to read it and it wasn’t ready anyway.I managed to strong-arm her in the end – no mean feat with Barbara – and it was finally delivered to me last year. I read the printed copy at night after a day with other people’s manuscripts, and I came to look forward to my time with this woman’s singular voice in my head. Barbara’s manuscript is, like she was, packed with energy – both in the language she uses and the way she dives into stories with an observant and often humorous eye. How I admired the fearlessness in the writing and the chutzpah in the way she lived her life. So many of the stories, especially the ones of childhood and her first jobs working with books, are immediately engaging and often very funny.I loved one description of a trip Barbara made to the Wairarapa schools when she was only 23 and working in the School Library Service. She drove around in a rental Ford Popular, read Make Way for Ducklings and Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel to six-year-olds, and then decided to make one more unscheduled stop at a school along a particularly bad road. Many would have turned back, but not Barbara, who crashes into a ditch. She is rescued by a couple of farmers with a tractor and a Land Rover, who wash the car down and send her on her way unfazed. When I finished reading An Alphabetical Life, I sent it back to Barbara with feedback that included the things I’ve been saying here about how wonderful it is, along with some suggestions of work she could usefully do to synthesise the later writing and bring the manuscript up to date (it ended a few years before I received it). If she could do that, I said, I’d be keen to consider it for publication. Barbara said she would do her best. Sadly not long after that, this wonderful woman got sick and the project was abandoned. Last we spoke she said the manuscript would just have to stay in her papers for anyone who was interested to read it. There is a possibility I might be able to see what she managed to do in the way of revisions, and I have no idea where that will take us. For now I feel privileged to have read An Alphabetical Life and to have known Barbara. She was a huge supporter of children’s literature, especially in Wellington, and a huge support for my press. She was always there at Wellington children’s book launches and other book events, wearing bright colours, grinning from ear to ear, looking askance if something went on too long, taking photographs and buying books. I won’t forget her coming all the way from Waikanae to Days Bay one Sunday afternoon last year to celebrate the launch of our junior fiction title Toughen Up, Andrew, a book she’d read as a manuscript years earlier. Last week, we sent Barbara a copy of our new picture book, Grandad’s Guitar, not to review – as we would have up until a few months ago – but to enjoy. It would have arrived too late for her to see it, which feels like a real loss to us – although I know Fifi Colston, who illustrated it, drove up to Waikanae to show Barbara her beautiful artwork. I know Barbara would have poured over Grandad’s Guitar and once upon a time would have been the first to post about it on her blog, and the book would have shone a little more brightly because of that. Just as we all shone a little more brightly with Barbara Murison in our orbits. Or were we in hers? Yes, I think that’s it. She’ll be greatly missed.

Eileen Mueller, Author and Storylines Wellington Family Day Coordinator 2014 – 2016

Barbara’s warmth, humour and down-to-earth nature endeared her to children and adults alike. She loved having fun at Storylines Family Days, planning activities for kids, reviewing books and all things writing and literature. She was a great mentor to many authors as they started their writing journeys, and a friend to all. I will miss her enthusiasm, lively nature and her good-hearted jibes.

Anne Kayes, Author

Barbara Murison was chosen by the NZSA to assess my manuscript in 2015. She gave me such wonderful, useful feedback. Her assistance was crucial in the development of what is now my first book, Tui Street Tales. I will always be grateful.

Desna Wallace, Author and School Librarian

Barbara was such a treasure and just so passionate about children’s literature. Barbara was incredibly thoughtful and supportive after the Christchurch quakes. Many an email went between us as she encouraged my students to review books for her wonderful journal Around the Bookshops. Long after the quakes and my own book’s publication, Barbara remained supportive and I will treasure that and her friendship.

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Barbara donated a lot of books to a lot of libraries, schools and children. Here’s one I came across at random last night. The book is Krakto: Champion of the World, by Philip Temple, illustrated by Chris Gaskin.

Leonie Agnew, Writer

Nobody introduced me to Barbara; she introduced herself at my first book awards and promptly invited me out for dinner with other writers and illustrators. She also ran a publication Around the Bookshops and tracked me down so I could be included. These are little things and many people will have better stories, but she really stood out. We have so few individuals like her across the country – people who are committed and passionate about New Zealand children’s books. She was a deserved winner of the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award.

Wayne Mills, Quizmaster

I wrote to Barbara when I heard her devastating news. She was a stalwart supporter of the Kids Lit Quiz and regularly marked, supplied book prizes at the Wellington heats and always attended the National Final in Wellington with one of her many friends. There was nobody in the world of kids’ books in New Zealand who wouldn’t have run across Barbara at some stage. She’ll be greatly missed.

Tessa Duder, Writer

Barbara Murison enjoyed enduring friendships with many authors and illustrators, on a personal as well as professional level. On my trips to Wellington over near on three decades, for writers’ hui or awards presentations or book launches, she was usually there, clearly enjoying every moment. Her support was shown in little ways: a catch-up coffee, an email dialogue or message of congratulations – as well as the more visible endeavours such as her review and news magazine, produced not for money but of out sheer love for the genre and its young readers. She took a keen interest in what was being published and everyone involved in writing, publishing and promoting books for the young. Storylines acknowledged her wisdom, enthusiasm and national influence back in 2002 when she won the Storylines Betty Gilderdale award for services to children’s literature. As a true and valued kaumatua of New Zealand children’s publishing, she will be much missed.

Philippa Werry, Writer

I feel very lucky to have had a friendship with Barbara that has spanned decades, albeit with a gap in the middle.When I was a child growing up in Wellington, my sister and I went to Brownies, and Barbara (who was very involved in the Girl Guide movement) was my Brown Owl. The Brownie troop met in the crypt of St Paul’s cathedral in Thorndon, which was one of the most mysterious places ever, with dark shadowy spaces stretching out beyond the pillars. I have vague memories of going to Barbara’s house to do one of our badges, and going to Brownie camp with her. When I was eleven we moved to Auckland, and I only returned to Wellington much later. When I started writing, I met up with Barbara again. She was an integral part of the children’s literature and local writing community. Barbara hosted committee meetings of the Wellington Writers Walk at her home in Ngaio, which also witnessed her wonderful 80th birthday party celebration. She always tried to come along to NZSA meetings, even once she had moved to Waikanae. I saw her at book launches and Storylines days, sat beside her at the marking table for the Kids Lit regional finals and read her book reviews and interviews in Around the Bookshops and then online. Some of my favourite memories are of her looking elegant and gorgeous, and enjoying the occasion hugely, at the Prime Ministers Awards evenings at Premier House. She was so disappointed – that is not strong enough a word – so utterly devastated to miss out on last year’s Ibby conference in Auckland, for which she had bought a ticket well in advance, but then found herself not well enough to go.

… Barbara was always full of energy and enthusiasm, and she never wanted to take anything slowly! 

Barbara’s generous support for NZ writers and illustrators was legendary and so much appreciated. She always had interesting things to say about new books; her delight in them was obvious, and she was so sorry when she had to make the decision to stop reviewing any more. A few years ago, she and I took a group of people on a tour of the Writers Walk and soon after Barbara (in her 80s) had led off, they asked if we could walk a little more slowly. But Barbara was always full of energy and enthusiasm, and she never wanted to take anything slowly!It has also been a privilege to share a small part of the journey of someone who has been so open about the fact that she was dying. When Barbara posted on her blog back in January that she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer (because, as she said, she was ” a great believer in calling a spade a spade”), I don’t think she had any idea of the fuss that would erupt, or how very fond so many of us were of her.Barbara sometimes used to describe herself to me as “your old Brown Owl.” She always said it with a smile, as if she couldn’t quite believe she was actually “old”. The last time I saw her was at the hospice, just a few weeks ago, and it was the loveliest visit. She was just buzzing after a wonderful day of being pampered – a hot bath, a foot massage, a glass of wine with lunch and even a helpful visit from the IT guy. She took me for a walk so I could actually see and appreciate the amazing bathroom, and then she insisted on walking outside and coming to the top of the steps with me. I came away smiling. We will miss her.

– Philippa Werry

Barbara Murison at work, image from her last post on Around the Bookshops

Libby Limbrick, Chair, Storylines Children’s Literature Trust

Barbara’s enthusiasm and love of books was infectious – even up until a couple of weeks ago she wrote in an email of how she was discussing books with staff at the hospice, and that both she and one of the nurses were reading Patrick Ness’s latest book (which she said she didn’t like!). So many of us in Storylines have fond memories of Barbara at Storylines Family Days and other special occasions. She was an exceptionally deserving recipient of the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for outstanding service to children’s literature. Throughout New Zealand, and probably beyond, there must by hundreds of people, young and not so young, who have been inspired and encouraged by her to become readers, and writers, of wonderful books. We will miss Barbara hugely and remember her with much respect, gratitude and love.Libby Limbrick

Iona McNaughton, Writer

With our annual fundraising Blue Dragon Book Fair happening in a couple of days in the Ngaio Town Hall, I remember Barbara’s great enthusiasm and willingness – nay, insistence – on coming every year to help sort the massive children’s and young adult section, and then collecting the money at the sales table. Her energy, fun and spirit was something she carried into everything in her life and I am honoured to have been a friend among so many. I will miss you, dear Barbara.

Arohanui from Iona, Dave, Aimee and Caitlin

Maria Gill, Author

I met Barbara at the Spinning Gold Festival in Wellington around eight years ago. We stood outside on a wind blasted balcony while she took a photo of me; my hair resembling an afro by the time we wrenched the door open and went back inside. Barbara later told me she had touched up my teeth because in the light they had looked a little yellow. No photoshopping could have saved the hair, though (my thoughts, not hers).

She was writing a booklet about New Zealand authors and illustrators, 2nd edition. Back then she did everything in printed book form, later teaching herself how to set up a blog and review books digitally. We emailed often over the years about books and literary events. She must have communicated with many authors telling us that she had received our latest book and what she thought of it – often glowing recommendations. She made us feel special. We’ll miss her huge contribution to children’s literature and her kind and thoughtful personality.

John McIntyre at the Children’s Bookshop wrote this wonderful post about Barbara, and many others have contributed their thoughts in the comments – please read them.

If you would like to add a longer piece to this memorial page, please email it to us at Photos are also welcome.