Week in Review

The woman who gave away 1600 books for Xmas

Sonya Wilson hit on a Xmas good deed: donate new books to kids who don't have books.

I had the idea for #KiwiChristmasBooks at about three in the morning. I was lying awake in bed, trying to re-write a short story in my head — my university assignment that was supposed to be a work of great genius, but was languishing closer to great mediocrity — when I got to thinking about books. Good books. Those books from my childhood and the worlds they opened up for me, the experiences I had through those stories. The lessons I learned. The characters I met. The things they taught me about my fellow humans.

Books are so great, my genius creative brain thought, monosyllabically.

I’m going to buy books for my family for Christmas this year, I thought. And also, I’ll donate some books to kids who don’t have books. It would be my Christmas good deed.

And now, I thought, I shall go to sleep.

I couldn’t sleep.

Actually, I thought, I could ask my friends and family to donate books too. I could make it a thing. I could get 50 books. If I tried hard, if I hustled, I might get a hundred. And I’ll give them to the Women’s Refuge. And the City Mission.

I still couldn’t sleep. I kept thinking.

Not second-hand books, I thought. I’ll ask people to donate new books. Books so fresh, when you opened them you could smell the glue that held together their pages, pages that contained stories that nobody else had read. The kids these books would be going to were in crisis, their families in desperate need. I wanted books for them that were theirs and theirs alone. New Zealand books. I would ask people to buy local, buy Kiwi stories where possible, support local writers and booksellers while they were at it. Two birds: one stone.

I’ll do a Facebook post about it tomorrow, I thought. And then I’ll finish my short story. I thought: the road to great genius is pot-holed with great distractions.

*

“Do you guys need books?” I asked the Auckland Women’s Refuge and the Auckland City Mission. “If I collected a bunch of books — would you want them for your families? Would that be useful?”

Both organisations responded: Yes. Please.

When I met Lilly, the donations co-ordinator at the Auckland Women’s Refuge, she told me that the kids she sees, the ones who’ve fled from violent homes, often escape with nothing more than the clothes they are wearing.

“Some of them,” Lilly said, “haven’t even had time to put on their shoes. They don’t have footwear. Or a toothbrush. They have nothing.”

They certainly don’t have any books.

Lilly told me the safe-houses around Auckland are already full. December and January is always the busiest time of year for the Women’s Refuge, particularly after Christmas. She has been ringing around town to get donations — food and drink for the kids and something she can give them as a Christmas present. “Some of these kids have never had Christmas before,” she said, “because Dad doesn’t allow toys in the house.”

*

I set up a hashtag - #KiwiChristmasBooks - and posted on Facebook and Twitter and Instagram, "Hello kind-hearted, generous friends. Do you want to help some struggling kiwi families out this Xmas? Want to give the gift of story, of imagination, escape, knowledge, empathy and general brain-building kick-buttery? Well, have I got a deal for you!"

People liked the idea. And within a few days, the books started to arrive.

My mum sent me a book from Invercargill. My friend Abbey posted a book from Taupo. My classmates from uni brought in books to class. Staff and students across the Faculty of Arts at the University of Auckland got on board; there are some good humans in the  School of Humanities.

Kiwi authors started to respond on Twitter. Sue Copsey sent several copies of her kids books, Whiti Hereaka, Melinda Szymanik, Kate Hursthouse, Lisa Hamilton-Gibbs, Selina Tusitala Marsh all sent in copies of their children’s titles too. Good Idea status was confirmed, so I hustled a little more. I dropped off donation boxes at a couple of local bookstores. My husband and I emailed some TV production industry mates and asked them to contribute. We put notices in newsletters at a couple of friends’ schools, asking their communities to donate books and donation boxes in a couple of other friends’ company offices. Another mate designed me a poster and some bookmarks that we left with booksellers around town. “Donate a Book for Christmas!” the posters shouted. “Board books, picture books, chapter books, middle grade, young adult, we’d love them all!”

Here’s the thing: I asked for books, but I got Books. Beautiful books; books that were works of art: a massive ink-blue tome covered in gold and silver lettering full of mysterious treasures from far-off lands, a large-format collection of ancient maps complete with magnifying glass, glorious children’s treasuries and anthologies and best-of collections.

I asked for books, but I got sent entire worlds. Stories set in ancient Greece and war-time Britain and pre-colonial New Zealand. Unicorn books and sheep books and fish books and fairy books. I got books about rhinos and ‘liar’ birds, ponies and moa, evil spirits, witch-fairies, dragon defenders and dinosaurs.

I got books by James Russell, Craig Smith, Catherine Chidgey, Des Hunt, Donovan Bixley, Isa Pearl Ritchie, Mandy Hager, Eileen Merriman, Weng Wai Chen, Courtney Sina Meredith. Classics by Lynley Dodd, Tessa Duder, Jack Lasenby, Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Maurice Gee. The Little Yellow Digger, Pipi Longstocking, Tintin, Little Women, The Iliad, The Odyssey. Where the Wild things Are, Where’s Wally? Where’s Kiwi? Where’s my office space gone? All I can see is books.

I got books with no words — illustrations designed to have the child make up their own. I got books written in te reo Māori: Kei te Pēhea Koe? Tīrama, Tīrama, Whetū Riki e. I got books so beautiful I wanted to cuddle them; books that came wrapped in their own cellophane, so pretty and precise were their contents — the graphic design, the typeset, the font — all a work of art. Whole worlds were pressed onto pages: a galaxy of starfish, a parliament of owls, a loveliness of ladybugs, all of these now sat flat in my office, waiting to expand, to come to life in the arms of a child, or of a mum.

Time Out Bookstore emailed me: “Someone just donated $500 worth of books,” they said. The University Book shop announced they’d give a 20% discount for anyone buying books for my cause. So did Dorothy Butler’s. Point Chevalier School donated dozens of copies of Baboons on Balloons — A story of Resilience, written and illustrated by its students. I went out to see Linda Vagana at Duffy Books in Homes. “We’ve had loads of books donated by publishers that are separate from our core business,” she said.

“If you have any spare, let me know,” I said.

Linda smiled. “Where’s your car? Let’s fill up your boot.”

*

By the first week of December the piles of books had taken over my office as well as my lounge. There were more than 1600 books. Around 600 of those came direct from publishers and Duffy’s, but that still leaves a thousand others that were bought from shops. Somewhere between $10,000-$20,000 worth, at a very rough guess. I was, as you could imagine, rather pleased.

I took half of them to the Women’s Refuge last week. The books will be given as Christmas presents to the children and mothers seeking the refuge’s support. And new arrivals will get a new book in their welcome pack too.

“It makes my day when I give them the present and see their faces,” Lilly said. She mimics a child’s wide-eyed surprise. “They are like, ‘wow!’ They are so excited.”

 The other 800 went to the Mission, where teams of corporate volunteers were busy sorting and wrapping gifts.

“This is amazing,” Ember, the coordinator, said. “And lots of baby books too — we are short on gifts for infants.”

They are short on most things, actually. Demand for their services has jumped 40 percent over the past year.

I gave a couple of my own books to the cause too. Two new copies of The Lion in the Meadow, with its whiskery lion and too-big fire-breathing dragon, and one of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. A beautiful, kooky, Carnegie-medal winning story that begins with this quote: “Fairy tales are more than true: not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”

I love that. And I hope a young person doing it tough this Christmas will love it too.

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