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New Zealand's Book House bustles with readers

In fittingly named Book House, high above the harbor of New Zealand's capital of Wellington, are the offices of Price Milburn & Co. -- an unlikely location, perhaps, for one of the world's largest producers of primary readers in English, and a great deal more.

Cofounder and manager of the firm is Hugh Price, a slight, gray-haired man with wide experience in teaching, administration, editing, and publishing. A onetime teacher of (in his wording) "infants," he joined the New Zealand Ministry of Education where he devised the "Ready-to-Read" program in the early 1960s. Perhaps because of the effectiveness of Mr. Price's concept, New Zealand today has -- he says -- the highest rate of literacy in the world.

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"Supposedly simple graded books with some measure of literary content were thought impossible," Mr. Price remarks. "Nevertheless, we found ways to make the texts interesting. Children could learn to read and still like what they were reading."

The result of his proposals to the ministry was a course covering the first three primary years. As a principal supplier, Price Milburn publishes more than 500 "Readalongs," starting at 25 cents each.

"Let me suggest a simple problem with a word recognition," Mr. Price says. "Take 'an' or 'the.' Or 'like.' These are difficult because there's no object to handle. What's an 'an,' for heaven's sake? But look at this." He opens one of the small books. " 'I like my room,' with a bright photograph. 'I like my doll ,' with another. And so on through the whole text."

Price set up his company (after leaving the government) in 1957, in partnership with james Milburn, a teacher at a Wellington Junior High. In 1968 the firm took a growth-leap with an order from the United States for 3 million readers. Swift reordering followed.

"Every line was re-examined, then rewritten if it had to be," Mr. Price remembers. "Every 'Mum' became 'Mom,' everyisem and -ourm got changed where necessary." Fortunately, the number of titles and quantities of books ordered -- including the first book anywhere for children about America reaching the moon -- were sufficient to warrant resetting words with variant American and British spellings.

Most of Price Milburn's export sales are to Australia, Britain, and the United States. (Cypress Publishing in glendale, calif., is the North American distributer.) But recent shipments have included 1 million readers to Kuwait and 800,000 to Dubai in the Persian Gulf.

In addition, several years ago Price Milburn took a contract from the Welsh Educational Authority when English printers refused to set up textbooks in Welsh. With a guaranteed market, Price Milburn published 17 titles of 10,000 copies each. Locally written texts were sent to Wales, translated, and sent back. Once they were set up in type, Welsh speakers in Australia corrected the page proofs. So successful was this initial effort that the Welsh school system purchased 750,000 more.

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Aside from Welsh, Price Milburn also keeps 20 to 30 Maori books in print (Maoris are the indigenous New Zealand inhabitants). Others are in Greek and Italian, for the children of recent immigrants to New Zealand and Australia, and in chinese, for students in Malaysia.

From his present roster, Mr. Price is proudest of being copublisher for "The New Zealand Civil Rights Handbook," a hefty 640- page guide for the ordinary citizen, written by a law professor at Auckland University. "The earlier version, just a pamphlet really, not only sold out; people were taking it from the public libraries, then keeping it. The libraries kept having to reorder -- good for us, bad for them," Mr. Price observes. "We've been getting some grumbling from the government about the new edition, but to our joy the minister of justice has been recommending it at press conferences."

Price Milburn is noted too for its music department. "We publish serious music only, to the highest standards," Mr. Price says.

An extraordinary recent example is a two- volume set (issued jointly with Faber & Faber in London and G. Schirmer inc. of New York) of "The Harpsichord Master," a collection of songs for beginners at the keyboard. Published in London by the great composer Henry Purcell, it had been lost since 1697. By a fluke, the unique copy turned up in the Auckland Public Library.

One small Price Milburn volume is a photofacsimile of the well-worn 30-page folio, containing marginal notes by forgotten owners of centuries ago; the other is a modern transcription of the scores in standard format, with an introduction detailing the work's curious history.

Its success brought a major problem to Price Milburn. As sales grew, increasing capital was needed. With only four original shareholders, this proved difficult; so the house was recently sold to a teachers' union. Mr. Price remains as manager, with Mr. Milburn as a part-time associate. The staff -- including Mrs. Price -- numbers about a half-dozen, full and part time.

Hugh Price seems both busy and contented. For diversion in his office, he posts absurd headlines, ludicrous quotations (politicians are a particularly rich source), and other proofs that literacy, while a blessing, often has strange byproducts.

A favorite is written on an order Price Milburn received last February. The book- seller wanted, he wrote, 15 copies of that wellkn own children's fable, "Jack & the Beans Talk."

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