Farewell, Dear John: we miss you already

Like the rest of the New Zealand children’s book community, The Sapling has been rocked by the news that our hero John McIntyre passed away at the weekend. Editors Jane and Sarah wanted to share a few words in respect of John, what he’s done, what’s he’s meant and who he was. Rest in Peace, dear John.

John hosting the Gecko Press 10th birthday party in 2015

When we were first inventing The Sapling – when it was no more than a pipe-dream – I said to Sarah, ‘We must get John McIntyre to do a Dear John reading advice column.’ And, presumptuously, we knew he’d say yes. He always said yes! He was a great believer in never turning down new ways to promote The Children’s Bookshop. But, really, I think everyone knew that his motivation wasn’t always business-related; he was incredibly generous, and a passionate believer in the importance of getting kids reading and helping whānau have access to books. In 2011, he and his wife Ruth won a top honour because of this, the Storylines Betty Gilderdale Award for Service to Children’s Literature, the first time the award has been made to booksellers.

John gave booksellers a good name. He knew his customers and he knew books. My first interaction with him was on the phone, early last decade, when I was a fledgling bookseller, and I remember being stunned into silence (me!) by his knowledge and confidence. He was so sure-footed. His opinions always fell certainly and freely – about the quality of books, about how to host book launches with military precision, and about how to run a bookshop. And the best part about this was: he wasn’t afraid to admit when he was wrong. In fact, he seemed to delight in it. Like the now-legendary tale of when he told Julia of Gecko Press, pre-Gecko Press, that no one would buy the first book she planned on publishing, Donkeys, because it was weird. He worked how wrong he’d been into every speech relating to Gecko Press I ever heard him give. And I always found it funny! I think he liked that he’d been ‘disobeyed’ – and I enjoyed being called one of the ‘feisty Gecko women’ for the years I worked there.

John wasn’t stern, exactly – he was generous to a fault with his time and advice – but even so, it always felt like a great achievement to get him to crack a smile. (He probably thought I was a lunatic most of the time due to my attempts.) But this is why I was so pleased back in 2011, at the launch of Barbara Else’s The Travelling Restaurant, to capture this perfect shot (below) of John and Ruth. Look at them, smiling, right at home, together and in their bookshop. My heart breaks for you, Ruth. Bloody hell, John, you were one of the ones who should have been made immortal. The child I’m carrying should have received the benefit of your wisdom and advice.

Jane Arthur, co-editor of The Sapling

It’s hard to estimate the impact that John McIntyre has had on the world of children’s books in New Zealand. His bookstore is not just another bookstore: it is a haven for all, both children and children-at-heart. His curation of books, and creation of community has made the store a destination visit for booklovers from all over New Zealand.

I got to know John a little as Education Manager at the Book Council, and through my involvement with Storylines Wellington Family Day, of which he was a huge supporter – and later through my current position at Booksellers NZ. Over many conversations about books and life, we realised he had flatted with my Uncle Mike in Harihari as a young teacher (Mike was, and still is, a phone linesman in South Westland). Jane noted above her attempts to make him laugh: I did, once. And a glorious feeling it was!

The depths of his knowledge about children’s literature – and by extension, the psychology of children and their parents – were impressive and unbounded. He was generous with his wisdom too, hosting antenatal groups and pre-school groups frequently. His Radio NZ slot was an absolute must-listen, and seeing him step down from this just a few weeks ago was incredibly sad.

I was at a launch just two weeks ago at which John officiated, for Granddad’s Guitar, by Janine McVeagh and Fifi Colston. He did a wonderful speech, as he always does, and asked us all to become ambassadors for the book. This is how he has created community.

John’s legacy lives on in the business he and Ruth created, the children they had, and the thousands of children he helped to inspire a love of reading in. We will be posting his final Dear John next week: The Sapling will miss him dearly. We wish Ruth, Sam and Kate all the best as they carry on without their wonderful John.

Sarah Forster, co-editor of The Sapling