'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Thursday 23 May 2019

Guest Post Interview: Kathy Kozlowski

Kathy Kozlowski is the winner of ABIA Pixie O’HarrisAward 2019, which recognizes representatives from all areas of the children’s literature industry who have worked consistently in this field, have ‘demonstrated commitment beyond the call of duty and who have developed a reputation for their contribution.’ Kathy is also the recipient of the Leila St John Award 2019. After 52 years in the children’s book industry, she has been the instrument of progress and innovation in her field. She is currently Readings Kids Specialist Bookseller. 

A little overwhelmed by the awards she’s received for doing what she loves, she spoke with Anastasia Gonis about her life in children’s books.

Congratulations Kathy, on your double award!

How do you feel about winning these awards? Will this acknowledgement have any specific impact on your life?
Of course I am a bit chuffed to have won them but also surprised. I have been just a children’s book specialist with all the interesting things that brings with it! A rich life, but I have not done anything outstanding. I am just a little worried now that people will expect me to be better than I am.

Your first job in books was in 1967 as children’s librarian. What decision brought you to this point which was the beginning of a glowing career?
Sitting round with friends at university reading Winnie the Pooh to each other made me realise that working with children’s books could be desirable and studying librarianship could be a good way in. I intended to take both the archives unit and the children’s libraries one and decide between the two, but they were timetabled to clash, so I chose the latter. It’s a decision I’ve never regretted.

You have been a bookseller, a rep and a dedicated volunteer for the CBCA Victoria. What other areas connected to children’s literature have you ventured into?
I was a manuscript reader for Puffin books for some years where I was fortunate enough to work for Robert Sessions who was inspirational and had an uncanny ‘feel’ for a good picture book.

Can you share with us the story of The Bunyip of Berkeley’s Creek and how it unfolded for Jenny Wagner and Ron Brooks?
I did not have any input into its creation, but was at a conference in Sydney where I happened to sit next to someone called Jenny Wagner. In the course of the conversation she told me of a picture book she had written illustrated by Ron Brooks. It was about to be published by a small, mainly photographic publisher, Childerset, with whom she worked. When I saw it I got in touch with Bob Sessions urgently and told him how brilliant it was and that he must get in touch with them immediately. Through him it was published by Longman Young Books (Penguin’s then children’s hardbacks division) and Childerset.  It was, of course, a huge success. In fact that first edition had a mistake none of us picked up. The female wallaby, joey clearly visible, 'finished his drink and hopped off'.

What about your valuable input in Zana Fraillon’s work, No Stars to Wish On? Would you like to share that with us?
Zana used to come to storytime at Readings with her young sons and one day told me of this book she was writing about a young boy in a Central Victorian children’s home. I read it and was hugely impressed with her talent though I didn’t like everything about the book. So I put her in touch with Sarah Brenan at Allen and Unwin where I knew she would get good editorial advice and nurturing. She is a brilliant writer and lovely human being and has gone from strength to strength.

You’ve travelled the world on book-buying trips and have been effective in making available to migrant children in Australia, books in other languages. Can you expand on how this came about?
I was talking to Ron Thomas from the Education Department one day (I think he was in Curriculum Development) when he told me how hard it was for migrant children who could not share stories with their parents at home, as there were no children’s books available in their family languages. I had been thinking of going to England to catch up with friends so I paid my fare there and back and The Little Bookroom sent me to the Bologna Children’s Book Fair and then through Italy, Greece, Turkey, and the then Yugoslavia finding children’s publishing houses and buying books.

I relied heavily on any advice I could get in Bologna and then plunged in with the bravado of youth making contacts wherever I could, including some invaluable advice from some quietly cultured older women I met on a beach near Delphi! It was all pretty challenging as I couldn’t speak any of those languages so had to rely on advice given, which was occasionally through a mixture of sign language, single words and laughter. But the outcome was pleasing.

As judge for the 1995 Human Rights Awards, what did that role entail? How did you utilise your knowledge in that capacity?
I knew the then Australian Disability Discrimination Commissioner Elizabeth Hastings who was a fierce human rights champion, and in a wheelchair herself. So I was able to talk to her about the awards and I hope bring her human rights insights and my literary assessment to the process.

Currently in your term as judge for the CBCA Crichton Award, now known as the CBCA Award for New Illustrator, what criteria do you look for when judging a debut illustrator?
Actually I am just completing my third year as judge. It is normally a two year term but I did three as part of the changeover process. The panel was made up of three judges, an illustrator, a member of the CBCA committee and a professional working with picture books, so we all brought our particular skills to the process. One looks for illustration and text that work together well, where the illustrator has not just restated the text in visual form but interpreted it. Layout and use of space is important as is variation and interest in perspective. Those sort of things. I found it invaluable having an illustrator there as he or she can judge technique and the craft of illustrating in different medium with a creator’s eye.

You have worked at a job you love for a long time. From the opinion of a highly successful Specialist Bookseller, what makes a good children’s bookseller?
A love for reading children’s books of course and, particularly with picture books, an ability to see the book and ‘read’ the pictures from a child’s perspective and not just for one’s own pleasure. Listening is also very important. A lot of people who come in to a children’s book section are way out of their own field and need help. Both children and adults need to be able to talk about what their looking for and know they are understood. Whether it’s a child trying to explain their favourite type of book, or an adult wanting you to know their child is so rambunctious he can’t sit still to listen well or is over sensitive, for example, they need to know they are heard.

Your ability to choose the right book for the right child is monumental. What do you look for in a book to offer to a child? Or is it the child you match to the book? If so, how?
Oh, thank you but I’m just average. I envy the lovely breezy warmth of some of my young colleagues.

I think listening is important. Also working out whether this particular child just needs encouragement in the skill and fun of reading or whether they are ready to be surprised, mystified, and stretched in their thinking. Being emotionally engaged is hugely satisfying and sometimes a child will read well above their normal level being so caught up in the story. But others really want the safety of something familiar and undemanding. You have to try and pick who’s who. Sometimes I get it wrong, but I am inclined to suggest the tried and true rather than the latest thing which can be surer ground! But it is important to support new exciting books too.

What changes have you seen in the children’s literature industry in the last five years and how do you see the future of printed children’s books?
Children’s books are an important part of the publishing industry now. I hope profit chasing doesn’t detract from the importance of the young minds that are being fed by them. Books about strong girls and the achievements of women are dominating at the moment. It probably has to tip a little too far towards the ‘girls are the best’ message before it balances out and settles down. As the grandparent of a young boy I want him to know boys can be wonderful too. Wonderfully kind, wonderfully considerate, energetic and resilient. Just like girls!

Retirement is near. What are your plans for the future and how will you, if you can, let go of a life in children’s books?
Yes, I shall miss my young colleagues at Readings Kids. They keep me in touch and stop me from ossifying. Apart from a trip to Indonesia when I first retire I am not sure what next. I do a little volunteering now and will probably do more. Also lots of coffee with friends!

Thank you Kathy, for sharing your rich life in children’s books with us.