A Warm Winter Solstice

The winter solstice passed this week, cold and rainy. It was also the anniversary of moving into our new house. It was truly a delight not to endure the run-up to the solstice in an unheated, uninsulated shed. To have a warm, dry place to eat and sleep; to have electricity and plumbing—what a luxury!

8 am with the sun barely rising …

Indeed, I still sort of feel I’m living in someone else’s house. Until a year ago, my husband and I had never owned a house less than a hundred years old. Then suddenly we had square corners and level floors. We had double glazing and insulation. We had doors that opened and closed properly, walls without fifty coats of paint, and not a speck of rot anywhere.

It was a bit of a shock.

And now I wonder if I’m going soft. I don’t wake up to a freezing house and have to light the fire. I don’t worry that the roof will leak every time it rains. I don’t have to venture to the attic to empty and re-set the rat traps. I don’t wake wondering if today is the day the water heater, septic system, or well pump is going to die.

Sometimes I miss the character of an old house—a house that is old enough to have a life of its own, a house that tells stories. Sometimes I feel guilty—a new house is such an unnecessary luxury.

But truth is, modern life is pretty good, especially in the cold, rainy days around the winter solstice. So for the moment, I’ll simply be thankful for all those luxuries that make the dark days brighter.

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Crunchy Granola Bars

I’ve been tinkering for years with granola bar recipes, and have never come up with one that is crunchy and robust enough to take on a long hike.

granola bar

But I may have just managed it …

Starting with a recipe that was supposed to be a soft bar, I did a fair bit of tweaking and have ended up with a beautifully crunchy and robust bar full of yummy oats, nuts and seeds. 

Give them a try, and let me know how they work for you!

50 g hazelnuts
50 g cashews, roughly chopped
200 g old fashioned rolled oats
40 g pumpkin seeds
40 g sunflower seeds
15 g sesame seeds
50 g dates, chopped
100 g butter
100 g brown sugar
75 g golden syrup
grated zest of 1 orange
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt

Preheat the oven to 180ºC. Grease a 23 x 33 cm baking pan and line with baking paper.

Spread cashews, pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and sesame seeds in a shallow baking tray. Place hazelnuts in a separate tray. Toast both in the oven for about 10 minutes until the nuts are lightly browned. Rub the skins off the hazelnuts and roughly chop. Transfer all the nuts and seeds to a bowl.

While the nuts are toasting, grind 80 g of the oats in a food processor until they become a coarse meal. Add all the oats to the nut mixture and stir to combine.

Place the butter, golden syrup, sugar and orange zest into a small saucepan and stir gently over medium heat until the butter is melted. Stir in the cinnamon and salt, and then pour over the nut mixture. Mix well, and then press evenly into the prepared baking tray.

Bake about 35 minutes, until the bars are a dark golden colour. Allow to cool for about 20 minutes, and then cut into bars while still slightly warm. Allow to cool completely before removing them from the pan.

* I used golden syrup in this recipe because I had some left over from another recipe that called for it. Next time, I’ll try it with honey, because I rarely have golden syrup on hand, and honey tastes better.

Beautiful Gingerbread

Sometimes you just have to take the time to make something beautiful, even if it is destined to be chewed up and swallowed.

fancy gingerbread cookies

I made gingerbread cookies out of Yotam Ottolenghi’s book Sweet last week. The gingerbread itself is nothing out of the ordinary, but the recipe calls for stamping the cookies and topping them with a boozy glaze.

I have a couple of wooden pasta stamps that were perfect for the job. The resulting cookies, brushed with a brandy-laced glaze, were as lovely as they tasted. The extra work was minimal, and the final product looks far fancier than it deserves to. 

In fact, I like the technique, and am thinking it would make pretty speculaas, too. I might even try an extra-fancy batch of homemade Oreos, stamped and glazed before sandwiching.

And of course, because I easily go overboard in my excitement, I’m also now wondering if I could carve my own little cookie stamps. Maybe bees or dragonflies, or a little dragon to go along with my books …

Wild West

On a whim, my husband and I spent last weekend on the west coast. We stayed in our favourite west coast town—Hokitika—and hiked in the mountains nearby.

view from Mt Greenland
The view from the top of Mt Greenland

Having lived in a rainforest for two and a half years, I know I wouldn’t want to live on the west coast (where rainfall ranges from 2 to 11 metres per year), but I love visiting.

On this visit, we hiked up Mount Greenland. The path up is an abandoned road that used to connect the small gold mining settlement of Veronica to the township of Ross. An article in the West Coast Times in 1888 records Veronica as a promising settlement, complete with a hotel and two stores. Even then, the road from Ross was apparently atrocious—other newspaper accounts from the 1880s colourfully describe knee- and waist-deep mud on the way to Veronica.

The mine near Veronica was abandoned in 1940, and the rainforest has been reclaiming the road ever since. The day we hiked it was sunny and cool, but even without active precipitation, the road streamed with water in places. There were a few short stretches without washouts, deep puddles or slips, but only a few. Ferns leaned over the edges of the narrow track, so that in spots, even hikers were forced into single file. It is clear some informal maintenance of the track still goes on, but the forest is doing its best to erase it.

rainforest

And this is probably what I appreciate most about the west coast—nature is in charge, and humans maintain only tenuous grip. The settlement of Veronica has all but vanished under vines and tree ferns. The gold rush of the 1800s left no ghost towns—the forest has swallowed them all up. Other west coast townships, like Franz Josef Glacier, Fox Glacier, and Kumara Junction, feel equally under siege by Mother Nature, as though it would only take a few moments of inattention before the trees would creep down the streets, and the vines snake over the houses.

As apocalyptic as that vision is, it gives me hope. Hope that one day, the planet will erase the scars of our fleeting presence here and carry on in a riot of life.

Throw Out the Rules and Write

One of the groups of students I work with is a group of advanced year 7/8 writers. All of them are working above their grade level, and so our time together is about providing them opportunities to explore writing in different ways and hone their skills.

This week I started a unit on poetry, which always elicits groans and protests from some students. But to me, poetry is a way for them to develop skills they’re inclined to gloss over in other writing—using rhythm and repetition, using metaphors and descriptive language, thinking about the emotions they want to evoke in their readers.

Anyway, I didn’t want to approach poetry with these students in the same way it had been presented by all their teachers through primary school. I wanted to surprise them with poetry.

So on Monday morning, when I said we were going to start poetry and got the expected grumbles, I launched conversationally into a poem I’d prepared for them. 

When I say you’ll write poetry
You want to write prose.
But it’s not as bad as you think.
For poetry is simply prose
With metre and rhythm to link
The sounds with the words when they’re spoken aloud
Because this is where writing began.
With stories recited ‘round fires at night
Using rhythm and rhyme so we can
Remember our history, whakapapa too,
Remember what’s wrong and what’s right,
Give thanks to our gods,
Record all our deeds,
And remember the info that might
Come in handy someday when we look to the past
And wonder just where we went wrong.

And that music?
You know, that you play on your phone,
And dance to on Saturday night?
It’s nothing but poetry set to a tune.
So while you all grumble and fight,
Saying poetry’s musty, for old troglodytes,
I know poetry’s more, when we stop to look close,
Than a sappy old card for your mum.
It’s our history, our music
Ancestry and more.
Doesn’t have to be silly or dumb.

It took them a few lines, but when they realised I was speaking in verse, the looks on their faces were priceless.

Now, my poem didn’t convince them all—I still had a couple of grumblers. But I played them some videos of modern spoken poetry—edgier and messier than most of what they get exposed to at school—and I saw eyes light up. 

“Do we have to use rhyme?”

“No.”

“Can we use rhyme?”

“If you want to, of course.”

The idea they could write something wild and messy that followed no rules and call it poetry was revolutionary to some of them. They’ve written some excellent poems, too. No boring acrostics, no forced limericks, no pale imitations of famous poems. Instead, they’re focusing on the words, emotions and meanings embedded in their poetry. They’ve used metaphor, rhyme, rhythm, and alliteration with intent, rather than because they have to. And I think most of them are actually having fun. I know I am.

Lemon Coconut Pancakes

Earlier this week, my husband made a curry for dinner which took a small quantity of coconut milk. The remainder of the can of coconut milk sat in the fridge all week.

So this morning I made an experimental breakfast to use up the coconut milk—lemon coconut pancakes. They turned out pretty good—fluffy and light, and quite different from ordinary pancakes. They were good with maple syrup, and even better with gooseberry jam.

Here’s the recipe if you want to try them yourself:

1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup wholemeal flour
1/2 cup barley flour
2 Tbsp sugar
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
2 eggs
grated rind of 1 lemon
1 cup coconut milk
3 Tbs melted butter
1/4-1/2 cup water

Whisk together the flours, sugar, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, lemon rind, coconut milk, melted butter and 1/4 cup water.

Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet. Mix just until all the flour is moistened. If the batter is too thick, add more water.

Cook by the spoonful on a greased skillet, flipping when the top of the pancakes become bubbly, until both sides are golden brown.

Flour tortillas–old dog, new tricks

A week or so ago, I ran across an article somewhere on the internet extolling the virtues of using boiling water in breads and pastries. I was curious, and a bit dubious (particularly in regards to the pastry) but they mentioned that in Mexico, flour tortillas are made with boiling water.

Hm. I’ve been making flour tortillas regularly for two decades. It never occurred to me to use boiling water.

So yesterday evening I gave it a go. Using my own tortilla recipe (see below), I simply replaced the water with boiling water.

As the article mentioned, the flour absorbed the boiling water much more quickly than cold water. The texture of the dough was more dry and crumbly than usual, and at first I was worried it wouldn’t roll out well.

But I was able to work each ball of dough into smoothness, and the rolling out went like a dream—I was able to roll the tortillas thinner, with little sticking or ripping.

They cooked as usual, and then came the real test—eating.

The finished tortillas were pliable and strong, and the flavour was definitely superior to the cold-water version—less floury, more cooked.

And just like that, my tortilla recipe changed… Who says you can’t teach an old dog new tricks?

Go ahead and try it for yourself.

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup wholemeal flour
1 cup cornmeal
3/4 tsp salt
2 tbs olive oil
1 1/2 cups boiling water

Heat a large heavy cast-iron skillet on high.

Whisk together the flours, cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and mix. Add the water and stir until evenly moistened. Lightly knead until the dough comes together in a ball. Pinch off small balls of dough (about 5 cm (2-in) in diameter). Knead each ball lightly, then roll out on a generously floured board until they’re 1-2 mm (1/16-inch) thick. 

Lay the tortillas, one at a time, onto the preheated skillet. Flip after a minute or two—when the tortilla begins to bubble and the bottom is spotted with brown. Cook a scant minute on the second side, then stack inside a folded tea towel. Flip the whole stack over before serving (this helps equalise the moisture levels in the tortillas so the bottom ones aren’t too soggy, and the top ones aren’t too dry).

Looking back, looking forward

On 26 March 2020, New Zealand went into a nationwide Covid-19 lockdown, and my family moved into a shed. It wasn’t exactly ideal, being homeless during lockdown …

From the comfort of the new home we finally moved into at the end of June, we’ve been reliving that time as we hit milestone after milestone. 

A year ago today, our month-long nationwide lockdown was extended at least two weeks. We were simultaneously devastated and heartened by the news. Covid cases were dwindling—our efforts were working, but would take a while longer.

That day I posted the following poem on the fence:

The storm rages ‘round us
We’re soaked to the skin
Our ship pitched and tossed in the waves.
The captain barks orders,
Hand firm on the wheel.
She knows the relief her crew craves.

But she cannot allow us
Our petty desires,
As much as she longs for them too.
To weather the storm
We must all pull together
Or the tempest takes many, not few.

I don’t think I really understood how true those words would turn out to be. As the world collectively registered over 3 million Covid-related deaths this week, I reflect once again on how different our experience here in New Zealand has been from the rest of the world. Once again I am grateful for the incredible leadership we have in dealing with this crisis, and the collective commitment New Zealanders have shown to doing what needs to be done to protect everyone here.

Yesterday, we reopened our border to Australia, allowing families and friends to reunite, and tourists to travel. It raises our Covid risk as we expand our national ‘bubble’, but both countries have proven quick to respond to the virus, and I believe we will continue to pull together to keep everyone safe.

Books for gifted kids


As an educator teaching extension literacy and maths, and as parent of two gifted children, I have thought a lot about gifted education. As an author, I naturally write for kids like my own—my middle grade books have a fairly wide vocabulary and are long for middle grade, while still being subject appropriate for the 8-13 year-olds they’re aimed at.

I’m on a social media group for parents of gifted children, and the question of books comes up regularly. What books do you get for the voracious 9-year-old reader who is bored by ‘kids’ books, has read all the Harry Potter and Rick Riordan books, but is not yet ready for the subject matter of young adult books? 

So here’s a list of books my kids loved when they were in that 6-12 year-old range, and others I’ve read or seen recommended since then (my kids are now 17 and 19, so I don’t have their take on the more recent titles).

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. This series of three books, with at least two companion books not directly in the series, is tailor-made for gifted kids. The books’ protagonists are all explicitly gifted children. All of them have different strengths, and all have weaknesses. They are all extraordinary in some way, but they need each other to accomplish their goals. Not only are the characters relatable to gifted kids, but the books are hefty, with riddles and puzzles throughout—they’ll keep even gifted children busy for a long time.

Skyward by Brandon Sanderson. Technically, this book is young adult, and there’s a little bit of romance (just crushes, really, nothing major), but at its heart, it’s a rollicking good adventure story about a girl who wants to fly and escape her world. And there’s a sentient space ship with a great personality. It’s a good book to introduce those upper middle grade readers to Brandon Sanderson, who has written lots of fabulous books for older readers.

A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking by T. Kingfisher. I bought this book on the strength of the title alone, and was not disappointed. For kids with a quirky sense of humour, this is perfect. A girl whose magical abilities are limited to influencing dough must save herself and her city from someone trying to stamp out magicians and take over the city. Lots of creativity and laugh-out-loud moments.

The Warriors series by Erin Hunter. My children devoured these books when they were quite young. The main characters are cats, and there are all sorts of groups and alliances among them—sort of like a feline Game of Thrones (without the adult themes). Each book is short, but there are dozens of them in multiple series.

Wings of Fire by Tui T. Sutherland. This massive series (14 books, I think) is popular among my 8-12 year-old students, though I’ve never read any of the books. In the series, dragons are the main characters, and there’s lots of drama. Tui T. Sutherland is one of the authors who writes under the pen name Erin Hunter, so I imagine there are similarities between the Warriors series and Wings of Fire.

A Face Like Glass by Frances Hardinge. This is a strange sort of book about a society in which facial expressions are taught and strictly controlled, so that no one’s face expresses what they are thinking. The main character was never taught facial expressions, so her natural expressions shock people, and she wears a mask to cover them. She uncovers nefarious doings in the city, and works to free the people from a ruling class that treats them as slaves. Lots of twists and turns in the story to keep gifted minds guessing what’s going to happen next.

Great authors with books too numerous to list are Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, Margaret Mahy (whose books range from picture books to young adult), and Tessa Duder (with both fiction and non-fiction books to her name).

And don’t dismiss the older ‘classics’—Alice in Wonderland, Heidi, the works of Charles Dickens, Shakespeare, Enid Blyton—many of these books are timeless, and because of their age, they introduce lots of interesting words and have a different perspective on life that gifted children can find fascinating.

And finally, I’ll put in a little plug for my Dragon Slayer series—set in a modern day New Zealand where Dragons are real and aren’t the enemy everyone thinks they are. The series follows the adventures of four children who ultimately form the Dragon Defence League to protect dragons and help people learn to live with them. There’s lots of adventure, some environmental themes, and plenty of colourful dragons.