A new Reading Ambassador role and expert recommendations for children’s books

Published on Wednesday, 04 November 2020
Last updated on Sunday, 01 November 2020

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Books have the power to enrich a child’s life from birth, and whether a baby is gazing at a board book or a school child is whizzing through their favourite series, reading is a fantastic way to ignite the imagination, expand the vocabulary and set a youngster up for success.

Jacinda Ardern says, ‘We know from research that reading for pleasure makes a huge difference to a child’s wellbeing and their potential for life-long success – in personal relationships, education, health and employment,’ and in recognition of this, the first ever Reading Ambassador for children and young people will start work from early next year.

NZ’s Reading Ambassador is being funded by the Te Puna Foundation for two years and they will promote the importance of reading in the lives of young Kiwis, their whānau and communities to create a ‘nation of readers.’

The Te Puna Foundation is the fundraising body for the National Library of New Zealand, and to learn more about its reading campaign, and get some children’s book recommendations, we spoke with Kate De Goldi, an award-winning writer, teacher, publisher and Trustee of the Foundation. 

The appointment of a Reading Ambassador is great news, Kate. Can you tell us a bit more about how they’ll support children and young people to learn from and enjoy books?

The Reading Ambassador will first and foremost be a passionate reader who both models reading and publicly advocates for reading-for-pleasure. They will spread the message that reading for pleasure is foundational to full literacy and one of the most important factors for ensuring wellbeing for individuals and communities, and for educational and employment success.

They will be the public face of the National Libraries’ vision for building a nation of readers.

The Reading Ambassador will represent and advocate for many beneficial reading approaches through a programme of work which will involve them presenting to, and working with children, in early learning centres and schools, with educators, whānau and communities around the country to raise awareness of the multiple approaches needed to grow readers. They will share their reading knowledge in person and online.

The Reading Ambassador will be closely involved with existing National Library projects that work to assist access to reading information and resources in communities around the country.

They will also advocate for reading’s importance to organisations and sectors of society outside of education, including employers, business interests, health and justice.

How can parents help to instil a love of reading in young children?

There are many ways to incorporate words and stories into children’s daily lives, including by:

  • Singing/reciting nursery rhymes and songs, and playing recordings of rhymes and songs
  • Talking to children constantly and with as wide a vocabulary as possible
  • Joining the local public library and borrowing books regularly
  • Taking children to story and song time at the local library
  • Modelling reading – parents showing that they value reading by actually doing it
  • Giving books as birthday and Christmas presents
  • Reading aloud as often as possible throughout children’s preschool years, and nightly once they start school, for as many years as possible. Once children have learnt to read it is often useful (and fun) to read their books with them – reading aloud an alternate page or chapter each
  • Playing audio stories (available from libraries) when parents are not able to read themselves – or as accompaniments to children’s indoor activities, e.g. when building blocks or doing puzzles
  • Limiting screen time on TV, tablets, phones and computers

New Zealand has produced some fantastic children’s authors, including Lynley Dodd and Pamela Allen. Could you please recommend some quality books for babies and toddlers, preschoolers and schoolkids?

There are so many fantastic NZ titles and, as a starting point, I recommend the following:

Books for babies and toddlers

  • Kākahu – Getting Dressed
  • Kararehe – Animals
  • Kanohi –  My Face
  • All by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson

These board books are written in te reo Māori and English, and aimed at zero to five years. They have simple, repetitive sentences, and subdued colour illustrations (good for the early months of babyhood) of everyday objects and experiences.

  • Ngā Ahua – Shapes
  • Ngā Tae – Colours
  • Te Kaute – Counting
  • All by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson

These books are entertaining and instructive. They offer an interactive reading experience as they ask little ones to find the hidden shapes, guess the colours and practise counting skills in te reo Māori and English. They reflect a baby’s world back at them in vibrant colours.

All by James Brown

These books offer simple, delightful lessons in numbers, letters and colours. They’re illustrated with items in the Te Papa museum collection, so they introduce young readers to the art and artefacts of Aotearoa New Zealand’s culture. Each object is described in delightful rhyming couplets that offer interesting ways of looking at the world, and Colours and 123 are in te reo Māori and English.

  • Mihi by Gavin Bishop

This book is from one of NZ’s best illustrators and it introduces baby to ideas of ‘me’ and ‘my place’ in the shape of a simple mihi or pepeha.

  • Oink by David Elliot

This is a beautifully illustrated, quietly comic, wordless book. It’s perfect for noting small changes and the progress of a very simple story – all of which takes place in the bath.

This book uses simple staccato rhyming to tell a very entertaining story, and it’s a wonderful read aloud.

This is a simple, very funny story about a boy who works hard to avoid his aunt’s sloppy kisses, then learns how much he loves and cares about her.

These stories are told with wonderful rhythm and rhyme and are brilliant for reading aloud. Flash is a loveable, if slightly wayward, puppy who cavorts, makes chaos and is a delightful prospect for a toddler!

The Moon and Farmer McGee (illustrated by David Elliot)

Margaret Mahy is the author of these five titles and they’re just a selection of her best picture books for toddlers. Each simple, but shapely story is rich with character and fantastic word play, and they’re all perfect for reading aloud.

Kuia and a grandmother spider argue with each other in the kitchen, but are made peaceful and whole by the arrival of their mokupuna. The story suggests the importance of intergenerational connection and the handing on of cultural practices. It’s a beautiful classic.

This is a simple, funny story celebrating breakfast, family, community and the entertaining puzzle of a baby’s first words.

Everyone in the whānau, and especially parents and tamariki, can read this book together to introduce te reo Māori into the home or consolidate the language. The lively pictures are labelled in te reo Māori and English, and each page introduces concepts and words that children use as they first begin to talk and explore the world around them.

Books for preschoolers

This collection contains eight of Peter Gossage’s brilliant retellings and illustrations of classic Māori myths. He captures the rhythms of oral story in minimal, but evocative language, and accompanies the text with a series of dramatic illustrations. These stories have magic, excitement, adventure, intrigue and powerful imagery. They’re a wonderful introduction to the founding myths of Aotearoa.

The classic rhyme is retold in the context of Aotearoa New Zealand. Rich illustrations wordlessly tell the complex story of colonisation, and preschoolers will enjoy and learn from this book.

  • Tu Meke Tūi! by Malcolm Clarke (translated by Evelyn Tobin) and illustrated by Hayley King

This story uses kīwaha (colloquialisms) and playful huarite (rhymes), all in te reo Māori to show manu (bird) against predators. The beautiful illustrations show the fauna and flora of Aotearoa.

This is a perfect book for a four- to five-year-old whose interior imagination will be at full stretch. It shows a boy’s-eye-view of everyday things brought alive by the close and eccentric attention of a young person.

In this beautiful, lyrical story, a boy follows the river’s journey from its source in the mountains all the way to the sea. This book is both a geography lesson and a metaphor for the shape of human life. It’s written with warmth and wisdom, and is richly illustrated, so it offers much for a child and reader to talk and wonder about.

This is a sensitive, multi-layered story about loneliness, exclusion and belonging. It provides an opportunity for an adult and child to discuss feelings, emotions and the ideas of kindness and inclusion.

Books for school children aged around five to eight years

  • The Bomb by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan

There’s a beautiful unity of text and illustration in this title, and it tells a story about being true to oneself. A boy yearns to do the perfect ‘bomb’ in the water and finds help from his Nan who encourages him to listen to his own voice and follow his own unique style.

  • Rona by Chris Szekely

This is a wonderful collection of interconnected stories about Rona, a lively nine-year old who lives with her grandparents. Rona navigates complex emotions and impulses at school and home (mischievousness, fury, jealousy and vulnerability), but is safe always in the love and steadiness of her Nan, who’s a great character!

This is a moving and often funny story about a young child who’s navigating the sadness in her home while her father is dying. It’s a wonderful book to read aloud with a child. Together, you can marvel at complex events and the sometimes oddness of the world through a child’s eye.

These wise and funny stories are wonderful read-alouds for ages five to 50! They focus on two reptile friends who discuss love, friendship, everydayness, human weakness and life’s mysteries.

This book is a rich, immersive visual experience of NZ’s land, people and wildlife. It’s full of fascinating facts and powerful images, with a strong message about how humans influence the survival of our living treasures.

This anthology contains Joy Cowley’s favourite short stories and poems for young people and it’s full to the brim with rich language, humour and playful rhymes. School-aged children can gobble up this book in one go, or dip in and out of it.

This is a new edition of Baxter’s incomparable poems for children and it offers acute observation, reflection, word play and whimsy.

This ghost story and adventure requires bravery from its young hero and is told by an author with great skill and an excellent funny bone. Get ready for sheer fun!

Where else can parents find books that will enthral their children?

The library is a brilliant place to find books that are in print, out of print and written by Kiwi or international authors. New Zealand titles usually have the NZ label on the spine, and it’s also worth regularly checking the websites of New Zealand publishers whose lists include excellent children’s books from overseas authors and illustrators.

As an example, The Noisy Book by Soledad Bravi is a joyfully interactive book from a French author and NZ publisher that features bold illustrations and excellent noises for babies and toddlers.

The following NZ publishers offer wonderful children’s books by local and international creators:

The National Library of New Zealand has made reading for pleasure part of a national campaign. Could you tell us what the campaign involves?

The first steps of the National Library’s reading campaign have been:

  • The creation of the Reading Ambassador role and a nationwide programme for the inaugural recipient, and
  • The Communities of Readers 18-month pilot project, which involves four communities of readers working with the Library to identify and address specific barriers to reading. These communities are in:
  1. South Dunedin, where there’s a preschool to school focus involving whānau
  2. West Auckland, where there’s a primary school cluster focus on teachers as reading models
  3. Huntly College, which is focusing on high school student reading, and
  4. Christchurch, where there’s a focus on vulnerable youth

There is a research component to the Communities of Readers project which will provide information for the creation of future projects.

The Te Puna Foundation supports the Reading Ambassador role and the Communities of Readers project (as well as other initiatives, like the He Tohu travel fund, which enables schools from outside of Wellington to visit the library) and we’re dedicated to creating a nation of readers in this country.

Are there any exhibitions at the National Library that you’d particularly recommend for children?

He Tohu is a permanent exhibition of our country’s three foundational documents, which is valuable for children, parents and whānau to see.

We also have four mini-exhibitions called Precious running from now until 14 December, 2020.

To create these exhibitions, students from eight Wellington schools responded to the question: He aha tō tino taonga? What is precious to you? and the results are absolutely fascinating and beautiful.

This all sounds wonderful, Kate, and thanks so much for your insights.

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