Holly Walker and the books her kid is reading

Holly Walker is a parent, activist, reviewer and former Green MP, whose first book, The Whole Intimate Mess: Motherhood, Politics and Women’s Writing, is newly released with BWB Books.

Holly and Esther

What does ‘story time’ look like at your house?

Story time is bedtime. We have quite a full-on routine in our house: my partner Dave and I both work full time, or close to it, and our daughter Esther, who’s three and a half, spends three days a week at daycare and the other two at kohanga reo. They do lots of reading at both centres, so she often comes home quoting books she’s heard there.

At home, from when we arrive until bedtime is the witching hour – dinner, bath, bed, and plenty of negotiation to get there. When we finally do, story time is a relief! Esther usually has one or two stories with Dave, followed by two or three with me before lights out and some songs. She always pushes for the maximum, unless she’s so tired that she falls asleep while I’m still reading.

Before I had kids, I imagined that we would spend hours snuggled up reading together, but so far at least, that hasn’t been the reality for us. I expect when our second baby arrives later this year, and I’m pinned to the couch breastfeeding, we’ll do more of that.

What are some of the books your kid has been obsessed with?

Currently on high rotation in our house are the Ant and Bee books by Angela Banner. I had never heard of these before Esther’s godmother sent us a couple for her third birthday, but they are really quirky and fun. They’re designed to teach kids to read, by introducing new vocab alphabetically, and then using the new words in red throughout the book so the kids can recognise and repeat them. The storylines are totally random, but seem to make total sense to a preschooler. The effect has been quite amazing – we never set out to push early literacy, but largely thanks to these books, Esther is now spelling out whole words. I am bloody sick of reading them (and they take ages!) but she’s not!

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When Esther was a baby, the first book she was obsessed with was Down the Back of the Chair by Margaret Mahy. She was a terrible sleeper, so we used to spend hours trudging around with her in the buggy trying to get her to sleep, and, weirdly, it used to help if we recited this story to her. Something about the rhyme scheme and rhythm, I guess. I still know it by heart! My favourite line is when the taxi shoots out with a roar at the end.

And look, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that some of the books she’s obsessed with I can’t stand! She has a little boxed set of Doc McStuffins storybooks adapted from the TV show, which are just dire. The storylines are fine, but the language used to adapt them for print is just so lazy and shallow. Yet we read them a lot. Also the storybook adaption of Frozen is often requested, which I’m well and truly over.

When she’s tired and feeling infantile she likes us to read her baby books again, particularly one called A Bath for Giraffe by Nick Ackland. It obviously speaks to her when she just wants to be taken care of like a baby! It’s a bit tiresome, but mercifully short!

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What are the kids’ books you like best?

My recent new obsession (which thankfully Esther shares) is the fabulous Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo, which I picked up recently. I wasn’t sure it would hold her attention, but she’s into it. Each page tells the story of an awesome woman or girl from history in simple language with a striking illustration on the facing page. We’ve been reading a couple each night, and they are always followed by requests for ‘just three more, Mum.’

In a similar vein to Rebel Girls, we were gifted Gladys Goes to War by Glyn Harper (illustrations by Jenny Cooper) by my friend Anna, who worked on its publication. It tells the story of Gladys Sandford who was a mechanic and ambulance driver during WWI and New Zealand’s first woman pilot. It’s great, even though it’s necessitated some tricky conversations. War is quite hard to explain in an age-appropriate way to a three-year-old!

I love all of Margaret Mahy’s books, and so does Esther. Particular favourites are The Lion in the Meadow, of which we have two editions, and Bubble Trouble, which has the most wickedly tongue-twisting rhyme scheme, and great illustrations by Polly Dunbar.

The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr is another favourite. I think a lot about what it means – did Sophie’s mum trash the house and need to create a really good excuse when her husband got home? Is she unwell? Either way, I love the dad’s compassionate response of ‘let’s go to a café’ when he gets home.

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Holly and Esther, starting ’em young

Because we’re hoping for Esther to grow up speaking both English and Māori, we’ve sought out a few translations of classic children’s books into Māori. We have The Very Hungry Caterpillar (Te Anuhi Tino Hiakai), We’re going on a Bear Hunt (Te Haere ki te Rapu Pea) The Gruffalo (Te Tanguruhau) and Where the Wild Things Are (Kei Reira Nga Weriweri). These are great because when you know the story already, you can translate bits and switch between the two languages easily.

When I was a little bit older than Esther, I really loved being read all the Roald Dahl books by my parents, and I can’t wait to get into these with her in another couple of years, along with Harry Potter, Little House on the Prairie, and the Anne of Green Gables series. Nothing’s changed really – I still fall asleep most nights to Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter series!

Bookshops or libraries?

Both! Some of my happiest childhood memories are of carting home huge stacks of books from the Hutt

Library, and Esther loves this too – though she’s more likely to get one or two books and read them over and over again, whereas I was all about volume. But I like having the house permanently full of books too. I’m lucky that I do a lot of reviewing, some of which is paid in vouchers, so I’m constantly adding to our collection. I will confess I usually use these to buy books for myself though, not Esther!

Holly Walker
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Holly Walker is a writer, reviewer and children's advocate. From 2011 - 2014 she was a Member of Parliament for the Green Party. Her essays and reviews have been widely published, and her first book The Whole Intimate Mess, a short memoir about motherhood, politics and women's writing, was out from Bridget Williams Books as part of the Texts series in 2017. She is currently working on a PhD in Creative Writing. Holly lives in Petone with her partner, and her two daughters.