By Elizabeth Minter

    Five decades ago, an 11-year-old John Harding featured on the front page of the Herald Sun. A Meriam/Gu-Gu Yulangi man, John was the only blak member of Lalor Primary School’s football team, which won the 1972 Victorian Primary School Premiership. 

    The grand final was played at the MCG and John, whose efforts that day were recognised with the ‘Best on Ground’ award, played in a pair of Dunlop Volleys. John had to borrow a pair of footy boots for the photo. 

    This story explains one part of the inspiration behind Books ‘n’ Boots, a not-for-profit based in Maidstone co-founded by John and his partner Tara Newen. 

    For seven years, John and Tara have been collecting pre-loved children’s books and football boots and sending them to First Nations rural and remote communities and schools around the nation. Their vision is to close the health and literacy gap, one book at a time.

    Running a close second to John’s love of AFL footy is his love of literature and creative writing. John has been writing for theatre, TV and films for 35 years, and has won several state and national awards, including the Human Rights Drama Award. 

    The spark that lit the flame of Books ‘n’ Boots was a social media post that caught the eye of Tara. A teacher on Darnley Island in the Torres Strait had posted a call-out for books because the island children were reading the same books over and over again.

    ‘Darnley Island was where John’s mother was raised. When I read the post I immediately knew we had to do something,’ says Tara. 

    For John and Tara, healthy minds and healthy bodies are indivisible. Higher levels of education are also associated with better health outcomes through greater health literacy and better prospects for employment and income. 

    ‘We know that a love of reading plays a key role in developing literacy and education more generally. And appropriate learning material, and plenty of it, is a key part of Closing the Gap,’ says John. 

    One of the targets is to increase the proportion of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (age 20-24) attaining year 12 or equivalent to 96 per cent by 2031. That figure is currently 68 per cent, up from 52% in 2011. 

    Tara, a social worker by training, has worked for years with First Nations communities, particularly through her involvement with the Marge Tucker Hostel, which supports at-risk First Nations teenage girls. 

    Since it was founded in 2015, Books ‘n’ Boots has donated 16 tonnes of books – which equates to some 50,000 books diverted from landfill and delivered to First Nations communities. 

    Maribyrnong, Moonee Valley and Merri-bek Council libraries provide most of the books. Members of the public can also drop off boots and books at Community radio station 3CR in Fitzroy. 

    A dedicated band of volunteers cleans each book by hand, combing through each to ensure the content is culturally appropriate. If there is any doubt, a member of the Books ‘n’ Boots board, all of whom are First Nations people, is consulted. Only books in excellent condition are sent to community. 

    Demand is enormous. Some 15 sporting clubs in Alice Springs alone are on the waiting list for boots/sports shoes. A primary school in that town is also on the waiting list, with most of the 135 children attending school barefoot. 

    Books ’n’ Boots also runs the Aunty Eleanor Harding tutoring program, which was a particularly important service during the Covid lockdowns.

    Following a program about Books ‘n’ Boots on Radio National’s Life Matters in 2021, Tara and John were inundated with offers of help from all over the nation. 

    ‘We were so pleased because we are aiming to create a network of hubs across Victoria and interstate,’ says Tara. This would also help their environmental goals by cutting down on transportation costs. ‘But unfortunately, we have had to put all those offers on hold because we need more support to expand.’

    While there is no shortage of book donations, there is of places to store them. 

    ‘Books ‘n’ Boots desperately needs a place to call home,’ says Tara, with the couple currently storing all donations at their home. 

    Visit Books ‘n’ Boots at:

    Books ‘n’ Boots is grateful for the support of the following organisations: the Besen Family Foundation, the Awesome Foundation, Create NSW, the Aboriginal Benefits Foundation Trust, the Morris Family Foundation, 3CR, Straight Bat, the RACV and Magabala Books.

    You can listen to Books ‘n’ Boots on Life Matters at

    Katherine Isolated Childrens Service Books ‘n’ Boots
    Tara picks up boxes of books donated by Brimbank Library
    Palm Island Books ‘n’ Boots


    Elizabeth Minter is Daniel Mulino’s media adviser.


    Champions of the West is brought to you by Dr Daniel Mulino, federal Labor MP for Fraser.
    If you would like to nominate a Champion of the West, email

    Daniel Mulino
    Federal MP for Fraser

    (03) 9070 1974
    Shop 1, 25–27 Clarke St, Sunshine VIC 3020

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