Father’s Day: Four Dads on Reading at Home

Ahead of Father’s Day, four Kiwi Dads let us in on what their family reading lives are like. Here are some excerpts from previous The Sapling articles by music journalist Nick Bollinger; founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and writer at Crime Watch Craig Sisterson; political cartoonist, comic artist, illustrator, and writer Toby Morris (aka The Pencilsword), and journalist, writer and editor of The Spinoff Books, Steve Braunias.

First up is Nick Bollinger, with an account of reading with his daughters that begins with the birth of his twins, and traces the different seasons of family reading over the next fifteen years.

Nick, Henrietta and Sally Bollinger

While Kathy was recovering from a caeserean and Henrietta and Sally were lying in incubators somewhere else in the hospital, I went to a book sale and found a big hardback copy of We’re Going On A Bear Hunt by Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury. On the endpaper I wrote: ‘To Etta and Sally. Welcome to your home and to many bear hunts. From your Dad.’

It would be two months before they got home. Our twins weren’t much bigger than a couple of pounds of butter and probably weren’t thinking much about stories yet.

The bear hunts began during Etta and Sally’s first year. We sailed with Max to where the wild things are, and searched for Ida after the goblins had stolen her. We followed Frog and Toad as they hunted for Toad’s lost list, played with the serpent in the rabbit garden, and worried about the contents of Mr Fox’s bag.

. . .

Soon Elsie began to join us. She was three and a half years younger than her sisters. Some of the stories were too scary for her, but she exercised a kind of self-censorship. When Harry Potter encountered Fluffy the three-headed dog she got off the bed and silently left the room, grabbing on her way Round Robin, a safe and familiar picture book, which she got Kathy to read her somewhere beyond the reach of three-headed dogs.

. . .

By the time they were nine or ten they were reading to themselves, often by torchlight after bedtime. Sally dived deep into fantasy – trilogies, tetralogies, quintets, none of which I’ll ever read. She became a connoisseur of the genre.

Once they started secondary school our nightly readings began to be interrupted. There were homework assignments, sleepovers, computers. We made it through the Inkheart and Wind On Fire trilogies. But during the second book of the Mortal Engines quartet we stalled. There was no point in reading if one of us wasn’t there. One night I realised it had been weeks since we’d all curled up on the bed together. I went back to reading other kinds of books, to myself.

One evening I heard an animated monologue coming from one of the bedrooms. It was Elsie, now twelve, reading aloud to her big sisters. They were sprawled about, Sally with her paper and pens, all completely absorbed in the story. They didn’t notice me. I lay down and listened.

This is just a teaser: do go and read the rest of Nick’s moving essay here!

Nick Bollinger

Nick Bollinger is a writer, critic and broadcaster. He has been a music columnist for The Listener and presents the music review programme The Sampler on RNZ National. He is the author of How To Listen To Pop Music, 100 Essential New Zealand Albums and Goneville, which won the Adam Prize for Creative Writing in 2015.

He lives in Wellington with his partner Kathy. Their three daughters have all grown up and left home.

Recently Craig Sisterson, founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards and writer at Crime Watch shared what he and his two-year-old daughter Madi get up to in the realm of books. Here’s a taster.

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Story time is one of my favourite times with Madi, our two-and-a-half year old. ‘Again, again, more story Daddy!’

I’m the stay-at-home parent, so have to fit in spurts of freelance work among days centred on drawing, Lego building, playing in the backyard, and heading out on adventures to local parks or to catch up with friends (along with far drearier tasks). It’s a kaleidoscope of joyful moments and exhaustion, but no matter how stressful life might get, whenever Madi grabs a book and clambers up onto my knee, delight shining from her face, all’s well with my world.

We don’t have a set story time, like before bed, but often read books at various times throughout the day. The only hitch is once we get started, we can be sitting there a fair while, reading either the same story over and over, or a few different books one after another. Since she was a few months old, Madi’s loved books. She has her own bookshelf in her room, as well as one downstairs in the lounge, and each is stacked with dozens of great kids books. So we have lots of choices at least!

…once we get started, we can be sitting there a fair while, reading either the same story over and over, or a few different books one after another. 

. . .

We try to keep Madi in touch with her Kiwi roots, and salt in Kiwi authors onto her shelves. Along with Hairy Maclary we’ve got some Margaret Mahy, Tu Meke Tui, and others. An acquaintance of mine from the New Zealand book community who’s also over here in London, former Penguin editor Katie Haworth, has recently started writing children’s books. We really like her book Emma Jane’s Aeroplane, and I’ve also just bought That’s Not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette MacIver, which won Best Picture Book at the recent New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

Reading Hairy Maclary

I used to take Madi to Baby Rhyme Time at our local library every week, and we’d stay for an hour or so afterwards, reading stories and borrowing a few to take home. Libraries are wonderful resources – they’re under massive pressure here in the United Kingdom but they open up a whole world to everyone, at little to no cost. I loved going to the library when I was growing up in Nelson, and I can already see that same joy in Madi.

You can read about more of Craig and Madi’s favourites here.

​​Craig Sisterson

Craig Sisterson is a freelance features and travel writer, and founder of the Ngaio Marsh Awards, New Zealand’s prizes for crime, mystery, and thriller writing. He writes for a variety of magazines and newspapers in several countries. Before heading abroad, he was Deputy Editor of NZLawyer magazine. He’s also worked as a commercial lawyer, US summer camp counselor, and vineyard hand. He grew up in Nelson, and currently lives in London with his two-year-old daughter.

In May this year, political cartoonist, comic artist, illustrator, writer, and dad Toby Morris (aka The Pencilsword) introduced us to his sons and their sometimes surprising choices of reading matter – and even drew us a picture of how bedtime reading works at their place!

I love story time, one my favourite parts of the day. We’ve got two sons, Iggy, 3, and Max, 5, and every night either me or my wife will squeeze into the bottom bunk with a drink and a piece of apple each and read them either three picture books or a few chapters of a longer book. It’s really important bonding time for me, a big part of our daily routine at the moment. I’ve always been a bit of a picture book nerd, so now being a parent has given me a good excuse to really enjoy them.

I’ve drawn a bit of a diagram to show you the typical scene, it’s pretty cosy:

. . .

I’ve always been interested in picture books and have collected up lots that I’ve loved, but reading so many to my kids in recent years has in some ways changed my view of what works and what doesn’t. Most of the things I’ve loved have also been enjoyed by the kids too, but there are the odd ones that I always thought were great that didn’t resonate for whatever reason. I think as a young illustrator I valued beautiful illustrations or technically impressive illustrations, for example, whereas now I think it’s more important to just be clear and have some personality in it.

So now I mostly like whatever works, and in being a bit more open to that I’ve come to appreciate aspects that I might have overlooked before – which is really what got me thinking that I could and should have a go at writing and drawing my own. I felt like I started to get it, I guess. Or at least find inspiration from different things that I thought worked that I could piece together in a way that suited what I can do.

A spread from Toby’s picture book Capsicum Capsi Go

Bookshops or libraries? Both! We love both in our house. It’s really special having your favourite books that you read over and over until they fall apart, and there is something so special about bringing a new book home from the shop but aside from the practical cost (we could never afford to buy everything we want to read!) it’s also been really cool letting the kids lead the way with what they’re choosing at the library. They can try things out and find some unexpected gems.

They go nuts, and some of what they get out is way off track but it’s so cool to see them trying things and so interesting to see what they choose. For example Max, our five-year-old, is currently really proud of himself because he just got a book out of the grown up section for the first time. He chose this very serious book called Oak-Framed Buildings which is full of diagrams and plans for various types of traditional roof joinery techniques, and just today I’ve noticed he has placed a whole load of bookmarks in it. Who knows what is going on in his head, but it seems like something cool. We’re either getting a new house soon, or we’ve got a curious kid, and both sound fantastic to me.

For more recommendations, and reflections on the world of children’s books, you can read the rest of Toby’s essay here.

Toby Morris

Toby Morris is a cartoonist, comic artist, illustrator and occasional writer. He draws the regular comic series The Pencilsword for The Wireless website, and political cartoons for RNZ’s website. He has written and drawn books including Don’t Puke On Your Dad: A year in the life of a new father, and in 2016 produced his first two books for children: Capsicum Capsi Go, and The Day The Costumes Stuck.

In August, Steve Braunias, editor of The Spinoff Review of Books and author of The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road, reported on what his ten-year-old daughter has been reading lately.

Books are like stars shining down on little kids. They lit up Minka’s world, they glowed, they were magical and necessary. We’ve kept some of the most loved of those picture books as souvenirs of childhood, and they sit in the bottom row of her bookcase – Where is the Green Sheep, Baby Happy Baby Sad, Huge Harold, Eat Your Peas, The Cow and the Elephant.

Books were her favourite toy. We’d take her to the library, and she’d get out four or five books, sit on the carpet, open one up, and read out loud. Librarians would walk by and marvel at the apparent fact that a three-year-old was such an advanced reader. But she wasn’t. The book was a prop. The story – happy, inventive ravings – were all in her mind.

Books were her favourite toy.

She made her own books for a while. She’s left-handed and all her early writing was mirror writing, and backwards. We have a picture on our bedroom wall, signed by AKNIM. The K is facing the other way. I kind of wish she still wrote like that but it’d make things difficult at school.

Emily reads to her every night. They snuggle in bed together and do Wimpy Kid, Harry Potter, things like that. Sometimes though I read to her from books I own. She listened to my reading of The Rocking Horse Winner by DH Lawrence for two nights but couldn’t take any more – it’s really horrifying. She started playing football this year so she’s given me permission to read the stories in Goalkeepers Are Crazy, a 1975 collection of football stories by Brian Glanville. They deal with failure and poverty and madness, but she seems to listen to them pretty intently. I wonder what she makes of the adult word that Glanville describes – one filled with disappointment and loss – and whether it’s appropriate bedtime reading. I tell her that I met Glanville, at his home in London, and show her his autograph inside the book. ‘Glanville’, she says, and laughs.

For more of what Minka chooses for herself, and some of her favourites from when she was younger, you can the rest of Steve’s essay here.

Steve Braunias

Steve Braunias lives in Te Atatu and works at the New Zealand Herald, and as editor of the Spinoff Review of Books. He is the author of nine books, including The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road, his LOL travelogue published by Luncheon Sausage Books in 2017. Steve was born in Mt Maunganui in 1960.

You can buy The Man Who Ate Lincoln Road from bookshops nationwide – but here’s a link.