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A reminder of the passing years, happened when a grandmother told me she learned to read with my books. Oh, really? Yes, really. I replied that those days were still inside me, as they are in her. That conversation became the cause for much reflection on my own childhood and the books I read.
In my childhood, New Zealand was considered a colony of Britain, a sapling cut from the main bush, and planted some place beyond civilization. Well, rightly or wrongly, thatís how we felt. Our "mother" country tended to regard us with kindly condescension while the deeply spiritual culture and traditions of the tangatawhenua, the indigenous people of this land, was mostly seen as a tourist novelty.
I grew up with British and American books. Apart from some New Zealand stories in our School Journals, all my reading was set in the Northern Hemisphere. When I was 9 I encountered Australian May Gibbís classic "Snugglepot and Cuddlepie." A few years later I found Katherine Mansfield. But KM didnít count because she had left New Zealand for the world of real literature. I felt there was something inferior about being a New Zealander.
So you know where this is going - to the belief that children need to see themselves in the books they read, especially in their early years. That truth seems self-evident, but we donít always see the obvious, and I have worked in countries where new school reading was based on other cultures. Years ago, I was asked to help edit some English texts in an Asian country. The new stories featured a thatched cottage, a donkey and children who had boiled eggs and toast for breakfast. I asked why Asian children should be expected to identify with this. The answer was, "Because these are things in story books."
For about twenty years, I could recycle excess income by facilitating writing workshops in Asia and South Africa. People wrote stories based on their own childhood experience, and recorded their own legends and folk tales. I edited the selected stories to the required reading levels, and a local publisher found suitable illustrators. I remember a poignant moment when a Malaysian mother on the verge of tears, held one of these books, saying, "This is the first time my child has seen our country in a book."
I knew exactly how she felt.
Meeting with that grandmother who learned to read with some of my books, reminded me of the richness of a long writing life. In March of this year, Gecko Press published the new Snake and Lizard book "Helper and Helper." This could well be my last full length work for children, although every novel Iíve written has felt like my last. I am, however on a different path. Iím one of those people who has always had "a religious gene" and that has grown with life experience. Much of my writing these days is for Catholic publications such as Tui Motu or the on-line CathNews, and as preparation for retreats and spirituality workshops. Recently, I started a two-year Ignatian course, and that feels right, as though itís the summation of everything that has gone before.
I suppose it sounds a little silly to embark on something new in my 81st year but my dear husband Terry is fully supportive in his quiet, affirming way. I remind him that most of what has been achieved in the last 30 years comes not from me but from our marriage.
We enjoy life in our little cottage in Featherston. I potter in a small vegetable garden, preserve fruit from the peach, apple and plum trees, and obey our lovely, demanding cat.
Some of you will remember that in the Sounds, we had a variety of pets including 13 adopted cats. When we had to move nearer medical services, Terry thought that with his limited sight, we should not have a cat. He would trip over it, he said. But one day last year, we saw a handsome tortoisehell cat eating the bread weíd put out for birds. She was homeless. While we tried without success to find an owner, she decided she was ours. Because she was beautiful, elegant, we called her Lady. After two days, though, we changed the name to Madam. She took over, and we became her servants. While she can be very affectionate, this is on her terms. She sleeps on our bed, choosing to lie against my lower leg, with her head on my foot. When I try to move, she hisses and tries to bite me.
Terry can no longer travel overseas but we still drive or fly short distances to see family. My children are all middle-aged, with Sharon the eldest turning 60 this month. Terry enjoys the grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and they love him dearly.
I get much pleasure from buying books for the great-grandchildren, most of them by New Zealand authors. Today children are immersed in books that reflect their environment and themselves, and there are many good authors. We miss a treasured friend Margaret Mahy, but her books are still around, some in shops and libraries. Her genius remains.
I continue to get lovely letters from schools. There are too many to keep, but I hold onto some treasures. Here is one from a girl age 6 who had been asked to choose her favourite character in a Mrs Wishy-Washy book. "My favrit crachter is the pig becos it is lovely and pink and it gives bakon."
I now have five great-grandchildren and see a love of books and story handed down to the next generation. The youngest is Ivy who at six months, explores the structure and texture of books, becoming familiar with page-turning skills, and finding story in the pictures. She is off to a good start with caring parents Anna and Richard. While I may not see her as an adult, I am assured that she too, will come home to who she is through her reading.
As I close this letter, I send out special love and greetings to all those parents, teachers and publishers, who are making a difference to the future of the world.
Love and respect are the greatest gifts we can give a child.
Peace and many blessings,