Introducing New Zealand’s first Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador

Published on Wednesday, 07 July 2021
Last updated on Thursday, 15 July 2021

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Last year, we shared the news that a Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador would be appointed to boost youngsters’ engagement with books and help create a nation of readers.

We’re now very pleased to report that New Zealand’s first ever Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador is writer and publisher, Ben Brown (Ngāti Mahuta, Ngāti Koroki, Ngāti Paoa).

Ben writes children’s books, non-fiction, poetry and short stories for young readers and adults, and he’s bringing experience and passion to the Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador role.

Here, Ben explains why reading is so important for young Kiwis, their whānau and communities. He shares reading advice for the home and child care setting, and provides some book recommendations, too.

Congratulations on your appointment, Ben. You will be the Reading Ambassador for two years. What do you hope to achieve in that time and how will you go about it?

Thank you very much. I’d like to begin by saying that for me to be given an opportunity to serve this faculty of ours we call ‘reading’ – this wondrous capacity we’ve made and maintained since charcoal marks on a cave wall found meaning and we learned that the workings of other people’s minds could be made real and knowable to others of us – well, frankly, I feel privileged, humbled and raring to go, all rolled into one!

Perhaps I’m a teeny bit apprehensive, but that’s because I cherish the belief, and it’s a firm belief, that reading is a gateway to the fulfilment of human potential, which some might call ‘success,’ and others might call ‘riches’, or even ‘greatness,’ in whatever form they might consider appropriate to such grandiosity. Fair play, humans respond to dreams.

Maybe I’m over-inflating things a bit – I don’t think so, but really, I reckon a big part of the mahi is to reinforce the singular human activity above all others that makes us truly awesome as a species – that is, our ability to communicate with other humans.

We seem to have an impulse to share whatever we think and learn and know and feel to greater or lesser or oftentimes extraordinary degrees of complexity and detail.

We engage with each other in this way through language – a rather ancient collection of symbols and sounds that each of our various and particular cultures have somehow agreed to over millennia, epochs and eras as fit for their own purposes.

We use these quite primitive faculties to express every conceivable emotion, to inform every certainty, imagine every possibility, ask every question, greet every friend, insult every enemy, and so on and so forth.

As Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador, I want to remind everyone of the genuine magic that exists within that reality, which is the ACTUAL magic of words. It’s why there are things called ‘spells.’

I’m just going to get out there and start delivering that message, among others, such as the value of story and reading for the sheer joy of it, the extension of the idea of reading as listening to incorporate oral traditions of story. And I’ll probably tell and read a few stories aloud while I’m at it, as well.

Why is it so important that parents read to their children every day, and how long should they do this for?

Reading to your kids serves two great purposes that in the beginning, is less about reading and more about reinforcing the bond between parent and child.

It’s about explicitly expressing through the act of spending time and giving voice and encouraging feedback that a child learns I belong, I am safe, I am loved...

The bonus comes with the recognition and understanding of first words that evolve into a growing vocabulary. This is a joy to witness and one of the greatest gifts you’ll give your kids.

Start from Day One if you want, read for as long as you can without becoming impatient or tired of it (visibly or noticeably anyway), and read to them in age until your teenager no longer requires your services in that regard.

What kinds of literature should be shared at early childhood education (ECE) services and Out of School Care and Recreation (OSCAR) services to engage children, enhance their literacy, and open up greater understandings of the world?

Personally, I’m a believer in exploring both the familiar and the unknown, side by side. These can be simple and recognisable stories, contexts and situations, characters and places, reinforcing a sense of self, family and community.

But equally, it’s important to feed the insatiable curiosity, the endless and fascinating period in a child’s life when EVERYTHING is new and the brain is hungry for more and more stuff to discover.

Even if the themes and contexts of a story are familiar, I think the language, words and usages, styles of delivery and so forth should be as interesting and quirky and expressive as you could imagine children of a particular age being able to get their heads around, before being put off.

Throw in a new word or two every time. Grow vocabulary. Make it fun!

Humour and unexpected outcomes never fail, and quite often it’s a case of the more unlikely, the better. Allow a kid the scope to imagine. Allow silliness to intervene. Explore stories and poems and lyrics that use or accentuate the natural rhythms and cadences. Try a second language even…      

As Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador, you’ll be helping youngsters to appreciate stories that reflect Aotearoa. Can you please recommend a few stories for pre-school aged children?

There are so many great books for that age, but for starters, here are five titles that younger kids will get a lot out of:

How can ECE educators and parents work together to enhance children’s early literacy?

I encourage educators to sit down and kōrero with parents/care-givers wherever possible. The presumption should be that everyone wants the same outcome – reading excellence and enjoyment.

Recognise that role-modelling shapes behaviour. Don’t make the process a chore or a battle.

I think there also needs to be leeway given where there are clearly difficulties with reading in some of our tamariki. Some kids just see the world and objects in it in a different way to most of us. Be flexible with technology and recognise within it a potential tool to overcome some of these barriers.

Read aloud at home. Read aloud at ECE and OSCAR.

Patience and tolerance can ease a lot of learning distress, and all parties involved in the education of the child should be not only aware, but reminded, of this.

Educators, I believe, can take the lead and relieve parents of some of the weight of worry. But the approach should always be consistent, and the experience positive. Set the tone. And never, ever, ever disparage any attempt at reading that doesn’t quite come off.

Words are magic. Profoundly so. There’s always a way in.

This is all very inspiring, Ben. Thank you for your time and we wish you well with the Te Awhi Rito Reading Ambassador role.

Photo credit: National Library, Mark Beatty

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