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.

Upcoming Events!

This Saturday, 24 November, will be a great day for book lovers in Christchurch! Two great events will be running all day. I’ve teamed up with author Jo Carson-Barr, so we’ll both have a presence at each event.

Jo will be meeting readers and selling both our books at the Wham Bam Author Jam, at the Addington Raceway from 10 to 4. Lots of other authors will be there, too, from New Zealand and Australia. It’s a great chance to discover some new authors and books!

Get tickets and more info

I’ll be at the Tamariki Book Festival in Raoura Park from 10 to 3, along with a bunch of other local authors. The Festival includes readings (mine is at 10.20 am), activities for kids (including a scavenger hunt with prizes!), and opportunities for kids of all ages to do a little creative writing of their own. I’ll have live insects for kids to check out, and will talk about how I use science in my creative writing. I’ll also be selling my books and Jo’s.

Get more info about the festival

 

Making Connections with Children’s Stories

Brian Falkner discussing his publishing journey.

I’m in a rainy Auckland this weekend at the Storylines Children’s Writers and Illustrators Hui. There are over a hundred writers and illustrators here this weekend, from people who have yet to start writing their first book to the venerable Joy Cowley, who has published so many stories over her long career she’s lost count of them.

Some curious observations:

The vast majority–probably 80%–of the participants are middle-aged women, parents of teens and adult children.

Another 10% is composed of younger women.

Most of the women are writers, though some are illustrators.

Only about 10% are men, and at least half the men are illustrators.

So why are most participants middle-aged women? Is it that a workshop like this appeals more to that demographic? Is it because that demographic has a greater ability to take off for a weekend to attend a workshop (both because of finances and because our children are old enough to stay at home alone)? Why aren’t more of the women illustrators?

My unscientific and haphazard look at how we all arrived at this place reveals a preponderance of teachers and former teachers in the group (which would partly explain the preponderance of women). Not surprising, perhaps. We have spent more time with children than others, and have an affinity for children and the books they read. Maybe we want to write the books we wish our students had read? Some, like the wonderful David Riley, who produces books about Pacific island heroes, write the books his students are desperate to read.

However we’ve gotten here, all of us share the goal of making emotional connections with children through stories and books. It is inspiring to hear the creative and diverse ways in which New Zealand authors are doing that.