Meet the bookseller with Athina Clarke
Athina Clarke is one of our brilliant children’s and young adult book specialists, and has worked at Readings since 2002 – first at the Port Melbourne shop, before moving onto Readings Malvern where she’s been the buyer for more than seven years. She has been involved in a number of initiatives around children’s books over the years and was named the recipient of the ABA Elizabeth Riley Fellowship for Children’s Bookselling in 2017.
Why did you decide to work in books?
I actually didn’t decide to work in books at all! I have always loved reading (and talking about) books but never imagined it as a job.
I was science trained and worked in medical research, then pharmaceutical and surgical sales for many years but my heart was never in it. While I was on maternity leave I spent a couple of months helping out a friend in their educational book shop, and once I was working with books (especially children’s) my passion had a place to work.
A few years later I was a publisher’s rep for John Wiley specialising in the tertiary sector. but still a long way from my dream of working with children’s books – until around 2000 when Books in Print in Glenferrie Road, Malvern (sadly, no longer there) hired me as a Children’s Book Buyer and my bookselling career began! Except for a short stint in marketing (children’s books of course) at Penguin, I’ve happily spent most of my bookselling years at Readings.
What is your favourite part of your job?
Many of my customers comment that I have the best job in the world… and I do! There are so many aspects to my job I love but helping children discover the joys of reading has to take pride of place. Sometimes I feel like a detective, trying to ascertain which book would be the best fit for one of my young readers – especially one who hasn’t yet connected with the perfect book. It’s really wonderful when people seek me out to tell me how much their child loved the book I helped them select, especially if that helped them on their way to becoming an avid reader.
Tell us about a book that changed the way you think.
Sadly, I was of a generation that was taught very little in school about our First Nations peoples. And it was shocking to me to find the little I had been taught was untrue. Reading Dark Emu was an eye opener. I’m currently reading Young Dark Emu – it’s such an incredibly important book – and I believe every family should own a copy.
Tell us about an Australian book that made a significant impact on you.
I was in my twenties when I began reading Patrick White’s The Tree of Man on a long train trip in Italy; I was transfixed. I had never read anything like it before and it’s not an exaggeration to say that nothing has come close since. It was my first introduction to Patrick White’s writing and I was dazzled. The Tree of Man seemed to embody everything – a universal concept, the drama of life in its entirety and even now thinking about the book’s effect on me at that time sends shivers up my spine. It is the finest book I’ve ever read.
Describe your taste in books.
Give me great writing, believable characters and story, and a fresh authentic voice and I’ll read it.
I would estimate that 95% of my reading is fiction and most of that would be children’s books – I especially love junior and middle fiction. I really enjoy the books published by Gecko Press – their titles for children are usually European translations. The books are beautifully produced, the stories are delightful, often funny, sometimes moving and soulful but invariably quirky in nature! Two of their most recent offerings, Zanzibar and The Runaways, are both incredibly appealing and wonderful for family sharing.
I find myself rereading certain favourites – I read Tom’s Midnight Garden, Charlotte’s Web and When Jay’s Fly to Barbmo (sadly out of print) every year. And I do love a good classic – Jane Austen and Charles Dickens feature in my yearly re-reading. I also enjoy the writing of contemporary authors like Michael Ondaatje – especially his poetry. (Too bad it’s such a long time between books, but he’s definitely worth waiting for!)
For years, I alternated between carrying copies of So Long See You Tomorrow (author William Maxwell was a long-time editor of some of the greats of American literature, as well as a writer) and Strunk and White’s Elements of Style in my bag, so I could whip out one of these slim little gems if I was stuck in a queue and immerse myself in the beauty of the language.
The other 5% of my reading would be a mix of biography and cultural studies; I’m also a real sucker for beautifully-photographed and produced interior design books.
What books are currently on your bedside table right now?
- Young Dark Emu
- This Taste for Silence – I’ve nearly finished this one and I’ve found myself thinking about some of these short stories for a long time.
- Nevertell – I’m reviewing this one for the November Readings Monthly – so stay tuned.
- The Stationery Shop of Tehran – I’ve read the first page and can’t wait to get into it as it’s come very highly recommended by a trusted colleague.
- Angel Mage – I think Garth Nix is one of the best fantasy writers I’ve ever read (and I’ve read most of his books).
- Scars Like Wings – I’ve been told by the publisher’s rep that it’s the YA answer to Wonder.