Childhood Literary Inspirations

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

I grew up with books, which should come as no surprise to anyone. Because I write fantasy for children, people often expect my childhood literary inspirations were books like The Hobbit, The Earthsea Cycle, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe or other classic fantasy stories.

I read these books as a child, but the ones I really remember are quite different.

Heidi: The natural world has always been my comfort zone, so I immediately connected with a character who prefers a life running around the mountains with a herd of goats over one learning proper manners in the city. Some of the scenes in the book were so vivid to me as a child, I can still see, feel, smell and taste them.

Little House on the Prairie: Another book whose main character is a tomboy—I sense a theme here. Little House on the Prairie appealed to my sense of adventure and love of the natural world. I even learned some gardening tips from it that I still use today. 

Doctor Goat: I can still recite this silly rhyming picture book in its entirety. It taught me about rhyme, meter, and being silly. Yes, Dr. Seuss books did too, but Doctor Goat is what sticks in my mind decades later.

Time Life books: My father had a near-complete set of these non-fiction books. They fed my insatiable desire to understand the natural world for many years. They were written for adults, but I read them over and over again until I understood.

Grimm’s Fairy Tales: Something about these stories sticks with me long past the point where I can accurately recount them. Perhaps it’s the way they hone in on our most fundamental wishes and fears and turn them back on the characters who express them. Perhaps it’s just because they’re freaky and often horrifying.

So, what books inspired my own children’s books? None of them individually, and all of them collectively. My own stories are crazy-quilt patchworks of everything I have ever read, stitched together with my own personal experiences (some of which can blow any fantasy adventure out of the water). My rich reading life, coupled with a ‘real’ life lived to the fullest, has furnished me with an overflowing font of story ideas.

As a parent, I have tried to provide the same rich book life to my own children, and I’m passionate about getting kids reading. Come join me and and a fabulous line-up of local authors at the Tamariki Book Festival (Nov 22 at Tūranga), and let’s celebrate the wonderful stories written right here in Christchurch!

Books and Children—Beyond Academics

In the lead up to the Tamariki Book Fest, I’ll be posting a series of blogs about the importance of books from my perspective as a reader, parent, teacher, and author.

The research on books and academic achievement is clear—children who experience books from a young age have better literacy on entering school and carry that advantage all the way through to university and beyond. 

But what of the other, less tangible benefits of reading to children and encouraging a love of books? Research indicates reading can improve mental health, empathy, social skills, cultural understanding and imagination—all of which I can attest to in watching my own children and my students interact with books. 

My husband and I read to our children nightly for a long time. We only stopped when the eldest went off to university. Reading was family time at the end of each day. No one missed unless they absolutely had to. Not only did we read stories, but we discussed them after each night’s instalment—what did we think of the plot, the characters, the vocabulary the author used? What did we think would happen next? If the book was fiction, how did it reflect the real world? Our discussions took on history, writing, storytelling, race relations, sexism, relationships … if it showed up in a book, we talked about it afterwards.

We did all this, not so much for the literacy benefit to the children, but because we genuinely enjoy books and wanted to share that love.

The intangible benefits I’ve seen in my own children are huge:

Introspection: Most children’s books carry a message, either overt or hidden. Characters’ actions provide opportunities for parents and children to discuss behaviour in a non-confrontational way, and give children a safe way to evaluate their own behaviour. 

Love: The greatest thing we can give our children is time. I know in our family we were all busy. But by taking time every day to read together we said, “This is more important than [insert household chore here]. You are more important than [insert work obligation here].” It was a powerful way for all of us to daily reaffirm our family.

Imagination: We read some crazy books with the kids. The authors’ creativity was often reflected in the children’s subsequent play. Books fuelled their creativity by showing them ‘out of the box’ ideas and encouraging them to imagine ‘what if …’

Knowledge: Once kids realise they can learn stuff from books, they’re away, reading up on their favourite animals, looking up weird facts to impress their friends, or exploring their heritage through historical fiction. Books can both inspire and satisfy their curiosity.

Cultural understanding: Books are a window to unfamiliar cultures and alternate ways of thinking. Through books, children can walk the streets of foreign countries, experience different family structures, eat strange foods, and engage in daily life around the globe.

Mental health: Books can be a valuable part of a mental health toolkit. Bored? A book can take you somewhere exciting. Lonely? Book characters can become friends. Sad? Books can offer humour or positive stories to cheer us up. Overwhelmed? Books can give us a respite from our worries and responsibilities. Finding yourself? Books can provide role models for life.

The Tamariki Book Festival celebrates all the benefits reading provides for children—the tangible academic boost, and the intangible quality of life benefits. We hope to see you all there (22 November at Christchurch’s central library, Tūranga) to help us enjoy and celebrate the power of books.

Rock the Local Resources

A few of the rocks we’ve collected …

I’ve been struggling with what to do with my tender seedlings here at the new house. I hesitate to keep them in the house, knowing the amount of moisture they produce. It wouldn’t do to turn the new house into a humid greenhouse.

What I really need is a heated greenhouse, but that’s a luxury I don’t expect to ever have.

At the old house, I lined the perimeter of the greenhouse with water bottles to trap solar energy during the day and release it at night. I recycled all those bottles before the move, so I have nothing to keep the greenhouse warm at night now.

Except the other day I picked up a paperweight from my desk—a rock I’d collected from the beach. It had been in the sun and was positively hot to touch.

Of course! Store solar energy in rocks. It’s a technique that was used by Māori for hundreds of years in Canterbury to grow semi-tropical crops in this cool climate.

Perhaps I hadn’t thought of it before, because the previous vegetable garden was nearly rock free. But we’ve already picked tonnes (literally) of rock from the soil here. I can practically pave the greenhouse with sunlight-absorbing rock that will warm the plants all night.

It will take some thought—I really don’t want to add rocks to areas I’ll be tilling and planting each year, but I like the idea of using the materials available on site to solve a problem.

Now we have to figure out how to use all the rest of the rocks …

Happiness is a Kitchen Full of Baked Goods

The weekend was crazy-busy with garden work. Saturday, I worked from 7 am to 6 pm weeding, mulching, digging post holes. Sunday’s schedule was similar, but I stopped around 3 pm because the final job on the list was planting out lettuce seedlings, and the weather (hot and with severe gales) was sure to kill them all. Besides, I could barely move—back, arms, hands and feet all hurt from the punishing work. All I wanted to do was collapse.

Except that I wanted to collapse with baked goods in hand.

So instead of sitting down, I baked. Apricot tart for dessert, and a double batch of Irish coffee crunchies (from The Gourmet Cookie Book) for lunches. Baking made me forget my tired body for a couple of hours. As I pulled the last of the cookies from the oven, I was on a roll. I started in on chopping vegetables for dinner. While dinner cooked I filled the cookies with icing and finished cleaning the kitchen, so that by the time dinner came out of the oven, the cookie jar was filled, the tart was waiting to be cut, and all the dishes were washed.

I could barely sit upright long enough to eat dinner.

But every time I’ve been in the kitchen since then, I’ve looked at those baked goods and smiled. Okay, and maybe I’ve snitched a cookie too, but don’t tell anyone. 

Happiness is definitely a full cookie jar.

New Garden Challenges

We’re nearing the end of September and the garden work is ramping up. It’s exciting watching the new garden come together, even if it is moving more slowly than I’d hoped.

Everything is new this year, and it’s no surprise problems are cropping up. I’ve already lost most of my first tomato planting to frost, because I don’t have a heated indoor place to start my seeds anymore. I could have prevented the loss and brought the plants indoors for the night, but I haven’t had to worry about that for years … I’ve learnt now, so hopefully won’t get caught out again.

I’ve created my garden plan based on planting at the old house, but as I start to plant out peas, lettuce and spinach, I’m finding the need to adjust. How does one convert a set of six to seven metre long beds and a few odd-shaped ones to a rank of 3-metre and 8-metre ones? Add to that the fact the soil is dramatically different at the new place, and I don’t know how all the plants will respond to it and to the amendments I’ve added (cow poo, organic fertiliser, compost, green manure). Will my carrots be harvesting size before the zucchinis sprawl across their bed? Will the lettuces grow quickly enough to self-mulch? After fifteen years at the old place, I knew intuitively how each crop grew, how to get the most from the space I had by timing plantings and spacings, which varieties did best.

This year, I’m starting practically from scratch. I will plant as I am used to planting, because it’s a place to start, but I’ll be taking copious notes. Next year, I’ll have more information to go on, and the following year I’ll have more … and some day, planting at the new place will be as second-nature as it was at the old place.

Kitchen Disaster

A beautiful new kitchen is no proof against disasters.

Yesterday I baked a batch of chocolate cupcakes. I used a devils food cake recipe from Tartine. It’s an intensely decadent recipe that uses 1 1/4 cups of cocoa. The result is a dark, rich cake that could satisfy any chocolate craving.

The recipe makes two dozen cupcakes, and as I walked across the kitchen to put the trays into the oven, one of the trays slipped out of my hand. A dozen unbaked cupcakes flew through the air to splat on the floor and all down the kitchen table. 

I was so stunned, I didn’t even swear. Half my cupcakes had just been ruined, and there was cake batter splattered across the kitchen.

After a few moments I began to laugh. Then I took some photos before trying to salvage some of the batter and clean up the mess.

I managed to retrieve enough clean batter for six cupcakes, so all was not completely lost.

And I got a blog post out of it—always look for the silver lining …

And the cupcakes? Delicious!

A Shaky Decade

Today marks 10 years since we were shaken out of bed at 4.35 am by the M7.1 earthquake that started the Canterbury earthquake series. Those quakes ultimately took 185 lives and changed downtown Christchurch forever.

A decade on, the scars remain—half-crumbled buildings, hastily repaired roads, a generation of anxious children …

At the time of the first quake, I knew my relationship with the earth below my feet had changed, but I couldn’t know how lasting that change would be.

Ten years later, I’m still primed for earthquakes, sensitive to every vibration. If a big truck rumbles down the road, I have to pause until I’m sure it’s not a quake. Every distant train is a quake until proven otherwise. And large construction works set me on edge.

I have no trust in buildings any more, especially multi-storey ones. Just three days ago I was in Christchurch’s new central library, Tūranga, when I felt a tremor through my feet. Tūranga was constructed post-quake and includes the latest technology for earthquake resistance. Any vibrations I was feeling were likely coming from inside the building, not outside—someone running down the stairs, probably. I knew this, but it didn’t prevent the spike of adrenaline that zipped through my body.

I don’t trust my new house, either. The old one proved itself through quake after quake, riding the waves like a sturdy ship, coming through every quake virtually unscathed. The new house, though certainly scoring higher on any quake-worthiness measure than our 135 year-old villa did—is untested. Its foundation may crack, its bricks will almost certainly tumble in any large shake. Until I know for certain how it fares, I cannot trust it.

Any building I enter, I scan for earthquake hazards, safe places, and exits. Every track we hike, I consider rocks that could be shaken loose, hillsides likely to collapse. Anywhere I drive, I take note of power poles that could fall across my route home and waterways whose banks might slump, taking the road with them.

I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of another large quake—I know one will happen, and I’m okay with that—but I am still more on edge than I was ten years ago. I’m more aware of the earth underfoot, more wary of the danger of living on the Pacific Ring of Fire where Earth flexes her joints, more observant, more in-tune with the planet.

That’s not a bad thing.

So today I’ll listen for the pulse of the planet, double check I am prepared for another quake, and simply enjoy life in this beautiful place.

Kia kaha, Christchurch. 

Welcome Spring!

It’s the first day of spring.

So, naturally, it’s snowing.

But the daffodils are flowering, the willows are greening up, and pine pollen billows from the neighbour’s trees. Regardless of what the sky is dropping on us, spring is here.

And not a moment too soon. Like most people around the world, we feel like the past six or seven months have dragged on for decades. Can I even remember the TBC (Time Before Covid)?

For us, lockdown began during a glorious Indian summer. Warm sunny days begged for last-chance trips to the beach. Trips we couldn’t take, trapped in our bubbles and stuck on foot.

By the time we were released from lockdown, summer had given way to chill autumn rain and frosty days.

Living in our shed through lockdown, then beyond and well into winter, we felt the season’s bite early and hard. We lived in the cold shed forever, and we would live there always … at least that’s how it felt. Every icy day was a year long.

Finally, we moved into our new house. It was (and still is) glorious—a warm dry refuge from the weather.

But winter was still grinding away outside. With landscaping only partly finished, the yard was a mire of wet clay and puddles. We were still trapped indoors. Even the novelty of a warm dry house wasn’t enough to speed the days along. Time dragged its feet. Winter moved at a toddler’s pace. I couldn’t go yet—it had to get its coat and shoes. Then it lost a glove and spent a month looking for it among a drift of discarded outdoor gear.

So it was a spectacular feeling to boot winter out the door—gloveless still—when I planted the season’s first vegetable seeds last weekend. It was an act of defiance to turn garden beds, and ready the greenhouse for newly-sprouted seedlings.

I look forward to the growing season ahead. Welcome spring!

Pumpkin Scones

Necessity is the mother of invention.

That may be so, but laziness is invention’s maternal grandmother.

I was lazy on Sunday morning. I wanted pumpkin muffins, but I didn’t want to have to grease and then wash the muffin tins.

So I made up a new scone recipe to satisfy my pumpkin cravings. The results were delicious and satisfying. Best of all, there was no greasing and washing of muffin tins. Here’s the recipe in case you’re feeling lazy too.

2 cups barley flour
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp each of cloves, nutmeg, ginger and salt
125 g (1/2 cup) butter
1 egg
1 cup cooked, mashed pumpkin
1/4 cup cream
1/2 cup brown sugar

Sift together the flours, baking soda, baking powder and spices in a large bowl. Cut the butter into the flour mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs. In a medium bowl, whisk together the egg, pumpkin, cream and brown sugar. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry and mix until just moistened. Knead lightly and briefly until the dough comes together into a ball. Divide the dough in half. Pat each half into a round about 2 cm (3/4-inch) thick and cut into 8 wedges. Place the wedges on an ungreased baking sheet and bake 11-12 minutes at 200ºC (400ºF) on fan bake.

*I added nothing to these scones, but they’d be excellent with dried cranberries incorporated into the dough. I expect that replacing half a cup of the barley flour with cornmeal would be a nice variation too.

Alpine Therapy

Last week was a difficult one for all of New Zealand. On Tuesday, four cases of Covid-19 cropped up outside of managed isolation facilities at the border. The virus was circulating in the community again.

Auckland, where the cases occurred, was placed into alert level 3, with schools closed, and movement and business activity restricted. The rest of the country moved to alert level 2—not as strict, but in some ways more stressful, because we weren’t confined to the safety of our home and personal ‘bubble’. Once again, we navigated work and the rest of daily life knowing the virus could be lurking among us. Once again, we looked on every sniffle and cough with suspicion.

I’m proud to report that New Zealanders once again have stepped up to the challenge and are doing their part to stamp this new outbreak out so we can all return as quickly as possible to alert level 1. Still, stress levels were high in our household all week. So Saturday we took in some alpine therapy.

It was a shivery -3 degrees when we started up the Bealey Spur Track. We’d hiked the track many times when the kids were young, but never got far. On Saturday, we set a rapid, stress-relieving pace, reaching the Bealey Spur Hut (and the official end of the track) in just two hours. The peaks above called, so we carried on past the hut along Hut Spur, enjoying stunning views of the Waimakariri River below, and Mount Rolleston and Crow Glacier above. 

We relived memories of past hikes, tracing their routes along the ridges and through the valleys around us. We watched cars snake across the wide bed of the Waimakariri River, noting how easily the river could wipe out the road. We examined plants and fungi and slime moulds. We contemplated the uncertain future of Crow Glacier. 

And, yes, occasionally we discussed Covid-19, particularly as we descended, meeting dozens of people heading upward for their own alpine therapy. But somehow it was all easier to manage with tired legs and lungs filled with icy alpine air.