The Books of Jenny Bornholdt’s Childhood

Poet, author and anthologist Jenny Bornholdt tells us about the books she read – and heard – as a child.

My earliest memory of being read to: Kate Harcourt’s voice on the radio programme Listen with Mother as I sit on the bottom step of our stairs at home in Lower Hutt, while my mother feeds clothes through the clanky ringer in the laundry.

I don’t remember what it was that Kate read, but this listening experience was repeated a few years later when my sisters and I regularly tuned in to the radio’s Sunday morning request session to hear stories like The Selfish Giant (that line: ‘Who has dared to wound thee’), Rapunzel, Diana and the Golden Apple… I found the stories thrilling and can still hear the actors’ voices.

Even though I remember Kate Harcourt as being the first person to read to me, I know my parents did this every evening from the time I was old enough to sit up and look at a book. Reading was part of our family life and even when I was old enough to read by myself at night, eavesdropping on my youngest sister’s bedtime stories meant I got to hear Charlotte’s Web and, memorably, the Moomintroll books, which I still love.

Some early books: Papa Small, a story about Papa Small, Mama Small, the small Smalls and baby Small, by Lois Lenski; The Very Little Girl, by Phyllis Krasilovsky; The Shoemaker and the Elves, a Ladybird book. I can see a trend emerging here – the Smalls, the little girl, elves – there’s something very appealing about being small yourself and reading about others of the same stature.

…there’s something very appealing about being small yourself and reading about others of the same stature. 

This is probably why I also loved Flower Fairies of the Garden, though the characters’ gauzy delicate clothing might have played quite a large part in this. Sadly our quarter acre section in Lower Hutt was far too carefully tended to accommodate fairies, who seemed to live in charmingly unkempt gardens.

Raggedy Ann and Andy was another book about miniatures; rag dolls with insects and animals as friends – a secret world within the one we know. I loved the sense of possibilities inside or outside of the ordinary; strangeness running alongside what we know. I also dipped in and out of the Golden Treasury of Poetry, loved Peter Rabbit and read endless nursery rhymes – those odd worlds where an egg with a name can fall off a wall and an impossible number of blackbirds be baked in a pie. The rhythms of these stories and poems are stuck in my head and I’m sometimes surprised to find them repeated in poems I’ve written.

The rhythms of these stories and poems are stuck in my head and I’m sometimes surprised to find them repeated in poems I’ve written.

Via my grandfather who was Australian, we had Cole’s Funny Picture Book, which kept me amused for days. This annual was a riotous miscellany, cheeky, sometimes a bit rude, and you never knew what the next page would bring. Cole’s had the ability to make you feel, thrillingly, that you were part of a secret club. It’s great that Kate de Goldi and Susan Paris have produced two volumes of a New Zealand Annual, to keep the tradition of a miscellany/annual alive.

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Comics were read at the house of our friends next door. These always made me slightly anxious that I might miss something – should I be reading across or down, had I covered everything on the page? Even now, graphic novels make me nervous and I feel the same sense of worry over whether I’ve read everything in the right order.

I’m writing this while recovering from an ear infection. These were common for me during childhood. Many hours were spent in bed feeling submerged and distant from the rest of the world. Once the pain had gone, I read. The Famous Five, The Secret Seven, The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, the rest of Narnia. I loved adventure, other worlds. Later I was an avid reader of The Readers’ Digest. Stories of surviving a blizzard by killing a bear, hauling out its innards and crawling inside; medical emergencies and acts of bravery – I couldn’t get enough of them. The High House by Honor Arundel was a book that had a big impact on me, because it told of a young girl discovering another way of living and learning to be independent. I also loved The Lord of the Rings, and can still remember the feeling of being completely inside the story, but that pretty much marked the end of my reading of fantasy.

There’s much talk about ‘our stories’ and the dislocation of reading, in children’s books from the sixties and earlier, about English settings. I understand this, but it was never a problem for me. I read for emotional location, not geography. I don’t think I noticed where a story was set, whether it was a paddock or a meadow, or whether houses were terraced or had gardens – it was all about what was happening in the characters’ lives.

I read for emotional location, not geography.

After many years of not paying much attention to children’s literature, becoming a parent meant I re-read many of the books I’ve mentioned and discovered a host of new ones. Reading Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll series was revelatory and her illustrated books The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My and Who Will Comfort Toffle? really got me. Jansson’s stories and drawings are brilliant, odd, often heartbreaking and contain a great mix of affection, anarchy and weirdness. If anything has sent me in the direction of writing for children, I think it’s recognising these qualities in Tove Jansson’s books.

A young boy said to me recently that when he felt worried about something, he read and it made him feel calm. This is exactly how I feel. Reading for me can be comfort, a source of great energy and always a sense of calm. It’s a place I can relax into, in the same way that walking into a library makes me feel that all is right with the world.

The Longest Breakfast

By Jenny Bornholdt

Illustrated by Sarah Wilkins

Published by Gecko Press

RRP $30.00 (HB)

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Jenny Bornholdt

Jenny Bornholdt is a poet and anthologist. Her poems have been continuously recognised in publications such as Best New Zealand Poems (International Institute of Modern Letters), and she has been selected for numerous awards and fellowships, including the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, the New Zealand Poets Laureate Award, and the Montana New Zealand Book Awards, now known as the Ockham New Zealand Book Awards. She is the author of two picture books, A Book is a Book(2013) and The Longest Breakfast (2017), both published by Gecko Press.