Today our special guest writer is the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Rt Hon Jacinda Ardern, who is also Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage. She tells us about her surprising reading journey as a child and teenager.
The Prime Minister and her two nieces at Parliament, on the occasion of her swearing-in.
My relationship with words started young, and I guess I have my mother to thank for that. To this day, she tells stories of my sister and me as infants, having to put up with her holding up flash cards of the names of different objects around the house. I think she was determined that we would be readers – or, at least, that we would be achievers of some description. Although I’m not quite sure that ‘scientist’ and ‘politician’ were the futures she had in mind for her daughters, she did produce two girls who loved to read.
I’ve been asked before for my earliest memories of some of those childhood books that we were read by my parents. I used to really struggle to name them, but now I have nieces and nephews in my life. When they bring home books from the library or even from school, suddenly there are images and words that feel familiar to me. I still remember the first time that happened – it was the book Clifford the Big Red Dog. My enthusiasm when I saw it was just as if I was reading it as a child once again, alongside my Hairy Maclary books. And even as an adult, reading a book about an oversized red dog – or a bouncy little one from Donaldson’s Dairy – has lost none of its charm.
It was in my teenage years that books and words first moved me. It was a slow progression – I can’t say that any of the books from The Babysitters Club, which I read prolifically as a young one, particularly stuck with me. Probably my first most memorable reads were books like Tessa Duder’s Alex, and from further away, Nancy Drew. I grew up in a small town called Morrinsville, and next to the home where I was raised was a mystical forest – or, at least, I believed it to be a mystical forest! There was something about those books featuring Nancy as the main character and instigator of adventures that allowed me to transform myself into someone as exciting as her. I would pretend sometimes that there were adventures to be had in the forest, in the same way that Nancy Drew was solving mysteries and crimes.
The Prime Minister visiting Rongomai School in Otara
There’s also something to be said for the required reading we all go through as young people. Some of those early books – like Lord of the Flies and Go Ask Alice – stick in my mind to this day. I’ve often been one for reading books that allow you to escape. In part, I wonder whether or not that stems from those uncomfortable years of reading books that made me feel a little insecure. Insecure because here were stories of people who were living lives that were so distant from my own: uncomfortable lives, challenging lives. That was particularly the case for Go Ask Alice.
There were also characters who made me want to transform myself further afield. Tomorrow, When the War Began still sticks in my mind as the one book where I was so desperate to be one of the characters, even more so than Nancy Drew.
When I was about 14 though, everything about my reading habits changed. I remember being on holiday in a small unit in a beach town when my father started regaling to me tales from the book that he’d just finished reading. I was so enthralled by the story. It was a non-fiction book about a group of explorers or travellers in Antarctica who had perished in a great mystery. The book covered the journey of trying to discover their fate, including what happened when all of the bodies were eventually exhumed from the ice and tests carried out to understand what had happened. I recall that it was the food they had eaten that had caused them to perish on the ice, rather than the conditions or the experience itself. The captain was the first to go, as he was the one eating the most tinned food, which turned out to be the source of contamination and their ultimate demise.
When I was about 14 though, everything about my reading habits changed.
I remember all of that because that was the first time I picked up a book about Antarctica, and I almost haven’t stopped since. I moved on to stories about Shackleton, Scott, and Oates. None of their stories bore any resemblance to the life that I was living, but they were so extraordinary. I think what drew me to them the most was that they were simply humans who had chosen to do unthinkable, unimaginable things, just for the goal of completing a challenge. Most of the time, they didn’t succeed, and the goal of the trip changed from traversing an icy plain to instead staying alive.
To this day, a book called Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing remains my favourite book of all time. Of course there’s a lot more reading to be done in my life - and these days, it’s mostly Cabinet papers - but that book moved me in a way that none other has, perhaps because it was true.
To this day, a book called Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage by Alfred Lansing remains my favourite book of all time.
I will always love the fact that books have an ability to elevate you from where you are and take you to a world that feels completely dissimilar to your own. That can start at the youngest of ages, perhaps with a book about a giant red dog that you’ve never ever seen in your life, right through to the adventures of a redheaded girl or even a post-apocalyptic reality.
Ultimately, the books that I’ve always loved the most are the ones that are true: the stories of genuine human courage and resilience. Maybe that’s because reading non-fiction gives me a little more hope and belief that we are all capable of more than we know, and it just takes the story of others to reinforce that from time to time. I will always love the whimsical stories, the make-believe, but perhaps never quite as much as the reality.
Perhaps that’s why they say truth sometimes can be stranger than fiction.
Jacinda Ardern is the Prime Minister of New Zealand, the Leader of the Labour Party, and the local MP for Mt Albert. She’s also an avid reader (though currently, her reading list is mostly made up of briefings and Cabinet papers), and loves reading with her nieces and nephews.