Obituary: Wendy Cooling 3 October 1941 - 21 June 2020

Wendy Cooling remembered by her friend and former colleague Anne Sarrag

Many readers will know that Wendy Cooling, pioneering children’s book dabbler’ (her words), and founder of Bookstart, passed away in June aged 78 after a short illness. There are few more beloved people in the world of children’s books than Wendy, and she will be greatly missed.

‘If you can read,’ said Wendy, ‘you can do anything. Reading is a resource for life.’

In 2006, she received the Eleanor Farjeon Award and in 2009, she was awarded the MBE for Services to Children’s Literature. Her most well recognised legacy is Bookstart what-we-do/programmes-and-campaigns/bookstart the BookTrust project she pioneered 28 years ago, which gets books into the hands of over 2 million babies and toddlers in the UK every year, and inspired equivalent programmes throughout the world. Alexandra Strick, a friend and colleague for 25 years, joined BookTrust when Bookstart was ‘just a word on the job description. Wendy came up with the idea and she kept on with it. She was instrumental in getting people aboard. She was convincing and articulate, so persuasive, a storyteller at heart.’

After leaving Booktrust in 1993, Wendy remained as adviser to Bookstart as she embarked on a freelance career lasting over 25 years during which she delivered unforgettable inspiring book-talks at conferences making the concept of linking literacy with reading for pleasure accessible for teachers – and with a focus for reaching families who would benefit most. Lasting friendships with publishers and authors were made as she became a successful anthologist, and in-demand consultant (she preferred ‘book dabbler’), all whilst giving her time generously to organisations who shared her vision. Charlie Rose explained that Wendy was instrumental in helping raise awareness of the literacy needs of children in local authority care: ‘she was one of the driving forces behind The Reading Roadshows – a national initiative – run by the National Literacy Association and the Who Cares? Trust (1999-2009) for foster carers and looked- after children.’

Wendy was passionate about inclusion in all its guises, she re- ignited UK IBBY whilst at Booktrust, chairing it for several years; she was also a patron of Outside In World a UK charity dedicated to promoting world literature, enabling children to broaden their reading experience and explore different cultures through books. In 2013 Wendy was asked to be a judge for the inaugural Little Rebels Children’s Book Award, intended to recognise children’s fiction which challenges stereotypes and advocates for a more peaceful and fairer world and awarded by the Alliance of Radical Booksellers in conjunction with Letterbox Library. Fen Coles of Letterbox Library reflects: ‘Wendy believed fervently not just in quality children’s literature but in all children having access to it; she was in the institution of the children’s book world but she wasn’t by any means institutionalised by it. We will miss her breadth of experience, her guidance, her clarity and her heel-kicking sprightliness.’ Malorie Blackman writes: ‘Wendy was passionate about putting books in the hands of all our children. Meeting her made me feel I could have a place and a space as an author in the world of children’s books.’

Wendy never took a hierarchical approach: she was friendly and approachable, always taking an interest in new and younger people entering the sector. Now, decades later there are leaders in publishing, libraries and charities who benefited from her informal ‘mentoring’

18 Books for Keeps No.244 September 2020

and friendship, including Jonathan Douglas, CEO National literacy Trust: ‘I fell under the spell of Wendy as a young children’s librarian. Her campaigning spirit ignited two National Years of Reading, and countless projects. But I’m personally indebted to Wendy Cooling for the infectious enthusiasm which changed a 25 year-old librarian’s life and for a unique and enduring friendship.’

Leslie Sims, Trustee of Libraries Connected and member of Wendy’s inaugural Bookstart steering group, recalls Wendy was often the most popular speaker at YLG and ASCEL conferences: ‘more than once she just stood up and talked about books she loved – sometimes because another speaker had not arrived – you could hear a pin drop. I was a better children’s librarian for the times I spent listening to her.’ In 2009 Wendy was awarded YLG honorary membership.

Author Justin Somper worked at Puffin Books becoming friends with Wendy, and recognises her powerful legacy: ‘She was ceaselessly generous with her time and did more to break down barriers and democratise children’s access to reading than anyone since Kaye Webb.’

I met Wendy in 1989 as I was leaving BookTrust and she was joining! We instantly clicked so I stayed on to run Children’s Book Week until she configured her team. We remained close friends, and her opinions always mattered.

Wendy’s passion for travel is legendary. For over ten years she was involved in the Bookaroo Festival of Children’s Literature in Delhi, India Teachers and librarians who shared conversations with her or attended her talks always went away with many new ideas. Swati Roy and M Venkatesh, Festival Directors at Bookaroo, describe Wendy as ‘an indefatigable defender of books and reading.’

In 2004 Orchard Books published With Love, an anthology curated by Wendy as a fundraiser for Bookstart. In it, Wendy wrote: ‘I think I was born with a passion for books and I’ve been lucky enough to spend my working life sharing this with children – and adults too! This collection introduces families to the very best authors and illustrators of today – and reflects my belief that a book can be shared with a baby right from the start.’

The last words go to Tony Ross: ‘I think we all have memories of Wendy, all good. She is a great loss to publishing, she seemed to fill the same space as a dozen of the rest of us. It is such a surprise, whenever I met her, I was left breathless by her ENERGY! Every time I met her, she was either returning from a distant trip, or embarking on one. When we met, I always felt idle in comparison. The world changes, but sometimes not for the better. It was better when she was with us.’

A celebratory event to remember Wendy Cooling’s life and achievements will be arranged with her family once the restrictions have lifted later this year. Meanwhile, there will no doubt be ideas starting to emerge for various ways to continue to remember Wendy and celebrate her impact, if you have any thoughts, memories or ideas to share please email us

© Tony Ross

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