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.

Summer Stocktake

Mid-April, and it’s time to take stock of the summer’s garden. 

Compared with gardens at the old house, this year’s was a disaster—stunted plants that died off early, solanaceous crops decimated by viral disease, and heat and drought that I struggled to combat with irrigation.

But compared with what I expected, the garden was a huge success. I managed to provide the plants enough nutrients and water that they all managed to give us something. We had enough peas, corn and carrots to freeze some. We gorged on strawberries and melons. I gave away heaps of zucchini. The laundry room is piled with pumpkins. We’ve got more garlic and onion than we’ll be able to eat before it starts to sprout. And we’ve had a steady supply of tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. 

The stars of them all have been the carrots. Last spring I blogged about how well my carrots germinated this year—better than they ever had before, which was quite a surprise in the new garden. At the time, I reserved judgement—it was too much to hope the carrots would grow well in heavy clay soil studded with rocks.

But all summer we’ve been eating beautiful carrots, and last week I harvested everything remaining in the bed, because the slugs and slaters were taking their toll. The fridge is packed with carrots now, and I blanched and froze several kilograms as well.

In spite of everything, it was one of the better years I’ve had for carrots. To be fair, the roots are small, compared to the old garden. Some are bent where they hit a rock, and many broke off when I tried to lift them—if they penetrated too far into the clay, they were nearly impossible to harvest.

But even the purple carrots grew, which is quite an accomplishment for me—in past years, the purple carrots have done well in early spring, but then have been decimated by aphids, so we only ever eat them as baby carrots. Last week I harvested quite a few nice big purple carrots.

Best of all were the Paris market carrots—little, super sweet round roots perfect for lunch boxes and snacks. Their shape made them easy to pick, so there weren’t any left when I harvested the lot last week, but they’ll definitely be in next year’s lineup as well.

Overall, I consider the summer’s garden to have been a success. It’s looking pretty bare out there now, and I’m hauling cow manure from the neighbour’s place and incorporating it into the soil, so by spring I hope to have a few more nutrients available for the plants. I’m already looking forward to next summer.

Gevulde Speculaas

I recently purchased the book Sweet, by Yotam Ottolenghi and Helen Goh (because the book was always checked out of our local library when I went for it). Like Ottolenghi’s other cookbooks, Sweet is a celebration of flavours, and unapologetic about excess.

My first foray into making some of the glorious recipes in the book was gevulde speculaas—stuffed speculaas.

Speculaas is a staple cookie in my household—richly spiced, quick to make, and delicious any time of year. Ottolenghi’s gevulde speculaas recipe, however, is speculaas for special occasions.

His spice mix includes cinnamon, aniseed, white pepper, ginger, coriander, cardamom, nutmeg and cloves. These are incorporated into a soft dough that is wrapped around an almond paste filling flavoured with lemon and candied citrus peel.

The cookies are baked as a log and cut into slices when cool. Each bite is a spectacular flavour explosion. Unlike traditional crisp speculaas, these stuffed speculaas are soft and moist. They’re the perfect accompaniment to a cup of coffee or tea, and look amazing too.

They are a lot of work to mix up, but they partly make up for it by being baked as a log, so there’s no individual cutting or shaping of cookies to do. They’re definitely celebration cookies, not everyday ones, but I’m certain I’ll be pulling the recipe out again.

Crazy Cake Season 2021: Cake #3

After my daughter’s octopus cake, the remainder of Crazy Cake Season has been less than crazy. My son’s cake was a bit of a do-it-yourself kit, and consisted of plain cupcakes and a tub of frosting posted to him, since he was back at university for his birthday. 

Cake number three, for my husband, was a small affair, since it’s only the two of us at home now. I don’t think I’ve ever made a cake this small—it seemed hardly worth the effort when I pulled the single 18 cm round out of the oven. 

He had asked for ‘fruity chocolate’ cake this year. So I made a chocolate madeira cake, filled with lemon curd and a lovely whipped cream and yogurt filling. I topped it with chocolate ganache, more whipped cream and yogurt filling, and fresh strawberries.

The cake was a new recipe for me, inspired by a slice of commercial cake I ate at a dinner party a few weeks ago. The commercial cake was delicious, with an intriguing texture—quite different from the usual bland froth of commercial cakes. A little research on the bakery’s website revealed it to be madeira cake, so I’ve set myself a goal to try making madeira cakes. My first try was a bit dry—something to work on—but with the fillings and fruit, the total package was delicious. 

I was particularly taken with the whipped cream filling, which came from CookingLight, and was easy to make:

1/2 cup cream
1/3 cup icing sugar
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 tsp vanilla (I increased this to 1/2 tsp)

Whip the cream and sugar together until stiff peaks form. Add the yogurt and vanilla and beat until smooth.

I had extra strawberries and was munching on them as I assembled the cake. In the process I discovered that the filling makes an amazing fruit dip. Worth making some extra, just for dipping strawberries into.

A Squirrelly Weekend

Dried vegetables don’t look nice, but they’re great for backpacking.

I had a very squirrelly weekend last week. It wasn’t full of bushy-tailed, nut-eating rodents (they don’t live in New Zealand); I was the squirrel in my weekend. Squirrelling away food for later.

Thursday, I addressed an overabundance of zucchini by making zucchini bread. I tucked three loaves into the freezer to eat in the coming weeks.

On Friday, I used more of that zucchini, along with lots of other vegetables from the garden to make a vat of pasta sauce. Some of the sauce was eaten for Friday’s dinner, but most went into the freezer to eat in the coming months.

On Saturday, I shelled dry beans from the garden. Once they’ve fully dried, I’ll pack them in jars to be made into chilli and refried beans over winter.

Later that day, I made six meals worth of veggie burgers to squirrel away alongside the pasta sauce in the freezer.

All weekend, I had the dehydrator running, drying fruit and vegetables for tramping (backpacking) trips over the next year.

On Sunday, I picked, processed and froze the year’s harvest of soy beans.

My husband got into the act, too. He made two large pizzas, two-thirds of which we froze for future meals.

The garden is beginning to empty and the freezer is filling up. It’s a good feeling, in spite of the work involved. Like a squirrel, I’ll be able to curl up in my nest through the winter, nibbling on the food I’ve stored up.

Christchurch Quake, 10 years on

My 9 and 10-year-old students filed into the room today. 

“Where’s William?” one asked.

“He’s gone to the earthquake memorial,” I answered.

“What earthquake?”

I explained about the series of quakes Canterbury had endured, starting in September 2010 and including the one on 22 February 2011 that killed 185 people. These children had been babies at the time, or not even born yet.

“People died?” Fear shone in the girl’s eyes.

“Was it scary?” asked another child.

I paused, the memory of that day and the days after it playing through my mind.

“Yes. It was scary.”

“Even more scary than Covid? More scary than lockdown?”

Well … different.

These children were born into a quake-damaged city. A broken Christchurch is all they’ve ever known. They do not understand the ‘before’ and ‘after’ we adults do. They grew up in a landscape slowly settling into quiescence, and don’t know the sudden rupture of the solid foundation of life beneath them.

Or perhaps they do. Covid has shaken their world as much as the Canterbury quakes shook ours ten years ago. Perhaps they are not as physically rattled as we were, but their lives are disrupted, and life as they knew it is gone.

Ten years on from the quakes, the city’s scars are still visible. Empty lots remain where buildings once stood; the cathedral stands half-collapsed; in some places, shipping containers still protect passersby from the risk of building collapse.

But the quakes gave us opportunities to rethink the city. We now have more green space along the river. We have a spectacular central library that serves as a community hub. We have the Margaret Mahy playground, the High Street eateries, pocket parks, art and community spaces that didn’t exist pre-quake. We’ve got the Dance-O-Mat!

Covid hasn’t brought down our physical structures, but it has devastated social structures worldwide. It has shone a light on our ‘essential’ workers, highlighting that many are the most underpaid and overexploited people in society. It has emphasised the critical roles played by schools and preschools, whose staff are historically underpaid and poorly supported. It has highlighted the importance of local communities, science-based decision making, and disaster planning. It has reminded us painfully of the imbalance in gender roles and expectations in our society.

We need to allow Covid to change us as much as the earthquakes did. We need to let it drive us to rethink our values, our society, our expectations. Encourage us to find new ways to live our lives, to reflect upon those things we should be valuing more.

In the days and weeks after the February quake, help poured into Christchurch, much of it grassroots efforts by individuals or small groups. As a community, we remembered what we had perhaps forgotten in our daily rush and bustle. What is the most important thing in the world? He tāngata, he tāngata, he tāngata! The people, the people, the people.

Disaster allows us to rise again, remade. Let us remember the lessons of the past as we move forward and envision a post-Covid world in which we remember what is most important. 

When Everything is a Gift

My stunted yellow corn.

I never expected much from this year’s vegetable garden. The soil test revealed a virtually sterile substrate, nutrient-free, stripped by decades of conventional agriculture and then scraped by the developer’s bulldozers. It will take years to improve the soil to the levels of my old garden. In the first year, I figured I’d be lucky to coax a few meals out of the garden.

There’s no question the vegetables I planted are suffering. The plants are half the size they should be, and many are yellow and senescing early for lack of nutrients.

But the compost, manure, and other organic fertiliser I’ve incorporated into the soil have done some good. We have plenty of onions, cucumbers, carrots, herbs and green beans. We are overwhelmed with zucchini. The soy beans and dry beans will all give harvests. Pumpkins swell on their vines. We’ve even eaten a few melons.

Every fruit feels like a gift.

I could be dismayed at the state of the garden—corn only waist high, tomatoes ripening at golf ball size, potatoes decimated by disease … but I know what the plants are up against. I know how hard they’re working to produce anything. I admire their effort and determination.

So, in spite of how pathetic the garden is, I am pleased. I feel blessed at every meal, and I look forward to an even better year next year.

Weekend Getaway

Carrington Peak

Over the long Waitangi Day weekend, we hiked up the Waimakariri River to Carrington Hut. Using Carrington Hut as a base, we took day walks to Kilmarnock Falls and Waimakariri Falls Hut.

The weather was glorious, and hiking on the riverbed, it was easy to cool off with a quick dip in icy water. The hike to Waimakariri Falls Hut was particularly rewarding: there are two ‘official’ falls on the river, and dozens of smaller streams dropping off the surrounding peaks in spectacular fashion, so you feel as though you’re walking through a watery wonderland.

Wading in to see Waimakariri Falls.

The upper falls, just below the hut, are hidden in a deep, narrow fissure in the rock. Waist deep in icy water is the only way to see the water roaring down—great fun, but not something you’d want to do on a cold day. 

Above the falls, the river is narrow enough to jump across with dry feet, and flows through a fabulous alpine landscape. We didn’t hike all the way to the snowfield where the river actually begins, but we were close. 

The fuzzy flower of a South Island edelweiss

My favourite two things on the hike were the South Island edelweiss (Leucogenes grandiceps), which looks like it was made out of felt by someone named Aunty Flo, and the river water itself. The water was crystal clear, yet colourful (the gorgeous turquoise of glacier-fed rivers) and full of substance. I could have watched it flow over the rocks for hours (come to think, I did watch it flow over the rocks for hours).

Waimakariri Falls Hut. The snowfield visible to the right of the hut is the source of the Waimakariri River.

Least favourite part of the hike was Carrington Hut. It’s a great hut in a stunning location, but last weekend, it felt as though everyone from Christchurch was there. Carrington Hut has 36 bunks, but only 1 toilet and 1 sink. With about 40 people in the hut and another 20 or so tenting nearby, it was way over its capacity. As usual, everyone was considerate and did their best to make it work, but it was still unpleasant.

All in all, a lovely weekend getaway, and an easy hike, as long as you’re comfortable with river crossings.

It’s Okay to Wilt

Last week, the temperature hit 38ºC (100ºF) two days in a row. Working at home those days, I sat on the polished concrete floor, because it remained a few degrees cooler than the air, which was blowing hot and dry from the northwest. My phone and computer kept overheating, and eventually I shut them down and switched to pen and paper.

At some point, I commented to my husband about the sad state of the vegetables in the garden. Every leaf was wilted, and the plants looked like they were only barely alive, in spite of the watering I’d done the previous day.

“Yes,” he remarked. “But remember, they’re supposed to do that.”

He’s right—wilting is part of a plant’s way of coping with heat. Wilted leaves expose less surface directly to the sun, conserving water and keeping temperatures within the leaf cooler. A wilted plant can’t grow or photosynthesise—permanent wilting is fatal—but it can allow the plant to survive while conditions are harsh so it can continue to thrive when conditions improve.

It strikes me that wilting is a lesson we could all learn from plants: ease up when times are tough.

How many of us have expected to keep going at our usual pace through all of life’s struggles—illness, children, death of loved ones, earthquakes, pandemic … I know I’ve been irritated with myself, pushed harder, forced myself through difficulties at full pace, only to find I didn’t actually move at the speed I wanted, or I messed things up and had to do them a second time, or I simply made my eventual collapse worse.

How much better would I have done if I’d allowed myself to wilt before the point of collapse? Maybe I could have asked for help, or lowered my standards, or simply given myself permission to relax for fifteen minutes, an hour, an afternoon.

I’ve gotten better at wilting—the wisdom of 50 years of life—but I could still improve. I just need to remember the garden during a summer heat wave.