Crowds come out for Phyllis Johnston's book relaunch

By Ilona Hanne

Nia Chesswas with her grandmother Phyllis Johnston.
Nia Chesswas with her grandmother Phyllis Johnston.

The book might be called No One Went To Town, but plenty of people went to the relaunch of the popular book on Saturday,with more than 70 copies of the book being sold on the day.

Author Phyllis Johnston was at The Well Cafe to sign copies of the new edition as well as the second book in the series, Black Boots and Buttonhooks, which was also reprinted and relaunched.

Phyllis says she grew up on stories of the book's heroine May and her family, as May was her mother.

"I really took in May's story at my mother's breast. Telling stories was our entertainment, we had no television then of course. By the age of seven, I knew other children should hear these stories too."

However, many years passed before Phyllis did put pen to paper to retell the story of her mother's life.

"I had my own children and told them the stories. They then said to me I should write a book, and so I did."

The stories, which tell of May's turn-of-the-century pioneer-life in NZ, proved incredibly popular, read in classrooms around the country.

Over the years, Phyllis has visited more than 250 schools as part of the writers in schools programme, and it was a school visit that inspired republication of the series, first printed in 1980.

"Many years ago, I visited a school far from any town, out in the King Country, and met a young teacher. She and I just really connected. Then this year, many years later, I received a letter from the children at Omata School asking me to come and visit them because they were enjoying reading my books. When I got there, I met that same teacher again.

It made me realise my book had inspired so many children. I had closed the door on my writing career, but now realised the stories of May were still relevant today, and so here we are today with new copies of May's story."

The teacher Phyllis talks about is Kelly Madden and she came to the book launch with some of the pupils who had read No One Went To Town with her.

"The books aren't just for girls. They have lots of action in them. I like reading about May's brothers best," says Brayden Duggan, 9, one of the Omata School pupils who enjoyed reading the books. He says the books have plenty of adventures to appeal to both boys and girls.

Classmate Ella James (8) agrees and says May's story is interesting because it gives a glimpse into life in New Zealand many years ago.

"It is easier to be a child growing up in New Zealand now I think. Back then children did a lot more work. They had less time to play or relax."

Speaking at the relaunch, Phyllis' daughter Mary Johnston said she remembered travelling to Stratford with her mother in 1977 for a research tour as May had lived at Taihore for some of her childhood.

May and her family later moved away from the area to Piopio, and things have now come full circle, says Phyllis, with May's great granddaughter Nia Chesswas moving to Taranaki when she married her husband.

"I remember Nia calling me one evening and telling me she was getting married to Allan, who lived in the valley just next to where May had lived, all those years ago."

- Stratford Press

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