Last year the fledgling charity scheme Kiwi Christmas Books gave 1600 children’s books to Auckland Women’s Refuge and the Auckland City Mission. This year they’re going national, as founder Sonya Wilson explains.
My earliest memories involve books. Kew Hospital, circa 1983: I remember stiff scratchy sheets, red jelly on a grey tray, the smells of medical-grade bleach and institutional-grade mashed potato, and the comforting repetitive rhythm of my mother’s voice reading The Berenstain Bears and the Spooky Old Tree.
“Three little bears, one with a light, one with a stick, one with a rope.”
I was four, I had just had my tonsils out, and I wanted to be the bear with the light.
I remember, later, my nana reading Margaret Mahy’s The Lion in the Meadow, her base notes creating a low hum in my ear as I leaned against her chest. Then in Standard 4, my teacher, Mr Hansen, reading Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, and after that, E.B. White’s Charlotte’s Web. I remember sitting cross-legged on the mat, thrilled to be hearing about someone else’s far-away world, drinking in this wondrous new knowledge that even my parents probably didn’t have: pheasants love raisins and ascend to the trees to roost at dusk; spiders lay eggs by the hundreds. Thanks to Dahl’s Mr Victor Hazel, I learnt that if you are bad and selfish and greedy you’ll get your just deserts, and thanks to Fern, the pig-saving little girl, I saw what it took to be good and strong and brave.
There is such power in the pages of a book. There is intrigue and excitement and bafflement, ideas and ideals that penetrate minds, even years later, even into adulthood. Books offer views of other worlds, they are windows into strangers’ souls, introducing us to characters who wear different shoes, different skins, different scars. Books are objects of art, too: their smell and their weight and their beautiful, tactile, tangible covers. Walt Disney said that there’s more treasure in books than in all the pirate’s loot on Treasure Island. Mason Cooley said that reading gives us a place to go when we have to stay where we are. Neil Gaiman described books as a dream you can hold in your hand. I agree with them all.
Kids plus books equals good. I was thinking about this basic equation one night late last year, thinking about the kids who don’t have any access to books at all. I had the idea to buy a few books for some kids in need in the lead-up to Christmas, and get some mates to buy some, too. That idea became Kiwi Christmas Books, a charity scheme that took off almost of its own accord, resulting in the donation of more than 1600 brand-new books to the families using the services of the Auckland City Mission and the Auckland Women’s Refuge last December. Someone suggested I take it nationwide in 2020, and I said, “Yes! I will!”, because I always want to say yes to that particular person, and I was drunk on the modest success of my good idea.
Would books be good? I asked the Whangārei Women’s Refuge and Family Works Southland and Christchurch City Mission and many others in between.
“YES PLEASE!” they caps lock-shouted.
“Even a few will make a big a difference for those children who we meet every day that have nothing but the clothes that they’re standing up in,” said the Refuge.
“Demand for our services has more than doubled since Covid,” said the Mission, and in a message after a missed phone call, another charity wrote: “I am sorry that I was not able to talk to you directly on the phone as leaving a message does not really convey our heartfelt thanks at this incredible opportunity.”
Kids need books. Lots of kids need books.
Would you like to host a donation box? I asked Onehunga Books and Stationery, Story Time Whangārei, Otago University Bookshop, Young Reflections Invercargill, and many others in between. “Yes!” they said, too.
My clever friend Georgia designed some posters. We made a website and suddenly, between the copy and the art, it was beginning to look official, as if I knew what I was doing. The emails started coming in: “We are a bookshop in Cromwell/Masterton/Karori, can we join?” I signed up bookshops and charities in 10 different towns and cities. “But why aren’t you in Moerewa / Tīmaru / Blenheim?” the emails started asking. “The kids here need books too.”
By the end of the first week of November, there were books on my desk, books in the boot of my car, books wrapped in courier bags – bright red, the colour of Christmas. There is a big, A3 format butterfly book, there is The Pōrangi Boy, a new novel by new writer Shilo Kino, there is Digger, an older novel by older writer Joy Cowley; there is Selina Tusitala Marsh’s Mophead and Margaret Mahy’s The Man whose Mother was a Pirate and Miriama Kamo’s The Stolen Stars of Matariki, and I’m stoked, and grateful, and – to be honest – a little overwhelmed. A woman posted 20 brand-new beautiful books in one package; when I emailed to thank her, she replied: “I’m a doctor at Starship Hospital, so I know how important books are, and how many kids are missing out.”
When I dropped off a poster into The Dorothy Butler Children’s Bookshop in Ponsonby, the owner looked a little shell-shocked too, because a local company had just walked in and spent $5000 on New Zealand books to donate to our cause. It turns out that one of the company owners is an old school friend of mine. He didn’t tell me they were going to do it. I cried as I walked to my car, and then I rang him: “What the hell, dude?”
He said: “We just wanted to do something good.”
We will gift hundreds of books to hundreds of kids this year. Thousands, maybe, if things continue as they have been. A book for a kid spending Christmas in a refuge safe house, a book that will be theirs and theirs alone. A brand-new novel for another kid living in a garage, the smell of glue still rising from the book’s binding, the pages still tight to the spine. They will be the first to read the words inside, they will be the ones to dog-ear page 145, to smear WeetBix on page 46, to cry all over chapter 32.
I know they’re just books. I know that these books won’t miraculously solve these kids’ problems. They won’t answer all their questions, but they’ll ask some, of life and of its reader. They’ll shine some light into the shadows, they’ll explore what is possible and what is good, they’ll show the power that stories can have, the lessons we can learn from language. They might pique an interest in a new hobby, or provide an escape into a fantasy world; they might help cement the learning of a language, or settle a noisy mind; they might help expand on some locked-down dreams.
Or they might just make someone laugh. And if that is all that they do, that alone will be enough.
The Kiwi Christmas Books donation scheme runs until December 14th. You can see a full list of recipient charities and information on how to donate a book, at kiwichristmasbooks.org.nz