Coconut Palms and Library Shelves

Nalini Singh, author of the New York Times bestselling Psy-Changeling and Guild Hunter series, reminisces about the stories and books that formed her childhood.

Nalini and her latest book.

Books and reading and stories are an indelibly entwined part of my childhood.

I remember sitting in the tropical heat under the swaying branches of a coconut palm while listening to a story told by a grandmother. My cousins and other children who lived on nearby farms sat around me, all of us enraptured by this teller of tales. I don’t have many memories from that childhood visit to a rural area where one of my aunts then lived, but that one is vivid.

I also remember asking my mother for help with a school assignment where we had to write a story both in English and Hindi. I think the story was only a couple of paragraphs long, but I sweated over that piece, already conscious that words and how they were ordered mattered.

And this I can’t remember—but my mother tells me she inhaled romance novels while pregnant with me. Apparently, I was taking notes in the womb that came to fruition some two and a half decades later.

…I was taking notes in the womb that came to fruition some two and a half decades later.

When I learned to read, I don’t know. I just know that my most treasured gifts were books. I still have a hardcover book of fairy tales that my parents gave me. It has a royal blue cover illustrated with fairy tale creatures and it still makes my heart swell to look at it. And even after reading thousands of books in the time since, I still remember those stories.

Alongside that sits another book with a glossy cover, a birthday gift from my eldest cousin that made my childhood self explode with joy.

Owning a book of my own was a big thing for me. Books were expensive in Fiji, where I was born and spent the first years of my childhood. We were just an ordinary young family, and buying big, shiny new books wasn’t a normal part of the budget. It was saved for very special occasions, and to this day, I’m very careful with my books. You won’t find me dog-earing books or breaking the spines. And if you borrow a book and return it damaged, I’m not sure our friendship will survive.

…my most treasured gifts were books.

At some point, I discovered comics, and I have a clear memory of asking my mum if I could have some of the new ones. Those beloved comics didn’t survive our shift to New Zealand, but I remember curling up and becoming lost in them.

Books and stories just made me happy.

I did most of my reading through the library book bus that used to come to my primary school. It was a small bus stuffed with books, and I couldn’t wait for the day until I could go from the children’s side of the bus to the adult side. I can still recall going up the steps to the bus, dressed in my light green and neatly pressed school uniform, and peeking over at that mysterious side.

As it happened, however, we moved to New Zealand before I made it there. Suddenly, I found myself living in a city dotted with libraries. Even my school had its own library! I was in heaven at this wealth of riches. I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in the local community library—but I know it was never enough. At one point, I found the Charles Dickens children’s editions and decided I’d work my way through them.

I have no idea why I chose the Charles Dickens shelf. Perhaps simply because it was there and it was my ambition to read the entire children’s section. I was also that kid who moved books to random shelves to “hide” them because my card was maxed out and I couldn’t immediately take the books out. My apologies to all the librarians I no doubt annoyed. (If it’s any consolation, I did my share of shelving and reshelving years later, when I worked at the Mt. Roskill Library.)

I can’t tell you how many hours I spent in the local community library—but I know it was never enough.

Books and stories helped form me as a person, and for that, I’m incredibly grateful. Through the pages of books I’ve flown the mythical skies of imagined worlds, I’ve been a scientist and a superhero, I’ve gone to Mars, and I’ve travelled to a tiny rural village on the other side of the planet. To this day, when I’m stressed, I pick up a book and read for an hour and I can find calm.

Books centre me.

For that reason, I try to read each and every day. It doesn’t matter if I’m on a tight deadline, I’ll give myself that reading time—because I’m a better writer if I feed the reader who lives in my soul. The reader who finally made it over to the adult side of the book bus.

Nalini Singh

Nalini Singh was born in Fiji and raised in New Zealand. She spent three years living and working in Japan, and travelling around Asia before returning to New Zealand now - although she's always plotting new trips. She has worked as a lawyer, a librarian, a candy factory general hand, a bank temp and an English teacher, not necessarily in that order.