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Tapping into our natural curiosity

Author Chris Daniell with the children’s books she wrote over the 2020 lockdown. PHOTO/MARY ARGUE

Mary Argue

On average, we have 6000 thoughts a day.

Most are batted away instantly. Barely landing before, poof, they’ve gone again.

But what happens if you sit with those thoughts? Interrogate their origin, follow them to a conclusion?

Children do this fearlessly every day, pulling the thread of curiosity – but by the time adulthood arrives, most of us have forgotten how.

Unless you’re Chris Daniell, that is.

Living on a secluded block on the outskirts of Masterton, writer Chris Daniell is perhaps best known for the collection of outdoor poetry scattered about the region.

In 2019, she began a project collecting poems from people connected to Wairarapa and displaying them around town. There are now about 50 across the region, from Featherston to Castlepoint. More recently, however, she has turned her hand to children’s books.

In last year’s lockdown, people embraced all manner of new activities – bread making and yoga reigned supreme.

Daniell, however, became a children’s book author, writing and publishing three books in quick succession.

She said becoming a grandmother was a good motivator – each book is dedicated to one of her three grandchildren – but so was the persistent thought that life was short.

“I was asking myself, if not now, when?”

Children’s books are not Daniell’s first foray into writing, although they are a stark departure from her other published works.

In the 1970s, Daniell worked at Radio New Zealand, producing morning and midday reports stories.

She says it was a hectic environment and challenging to squeeze nuanced stories into short radio bulletins.

An idea that had been nagging her for years came to the fore, she said, to document the oral histories of New Zealand and capture the flavour of the country in black and white.

“I always loved words. I would get sick with excitement when the new school journals came out. I loved the slippery black and white covers.”

Daniell says the idea of writing personal histories of Aotearoa was ignited while travelling around Europe.

“It made me really realise how distinct each culture is – the food, the dance, the writing.

“I wanted to talk to older people and answer the question – who are we as New Zealanders?”

So when she couldn’t put it off any longer, she left broadcasting and travelled to Central Otago.

There, she tracked down people in their 80s and 90s and convinced them to tell their tales.

It was a novel idea at the time, Daniell said. No one was writing down the oral history of ordinary people.

She was drawn to voices were normally kept hidden away: women, miners, musterers, hermits.

“The men and women who said, ‘I don’t know anything, I am not important,’ had some of the best stories to share,” she said.

She recalls it as an often-chaotic project, frantically scribbling down notes as her subjects dived into the recesses of their memory.

“The biro would run out, and the dog would be jumping up on you. And I didn’t use a tape recorder.

“It would have been too intimidating. These people grew up without cars.”

From 1979 and the late 2000s, Daniell published four books in total: Something In The Hills, Speaking A Silence, I’m 95 – Any Objection? and Just An Orange For Christmas.

Focusing on different regions in New Zealand, she recounted people’s stories in first-person narrative.

“I wanted their thoughts to come through clearly.”

Now, writing children’s stories is Daniell’s chance to see her own internal monologue on the page.

The three stories Do The Hills Talk?, Jessie’s Yellow Bike, and Do Rabbits Get The Stitch? each draws on a nugget of her own pondering thoughts.

Daniell said her first book, Do the Hills Talk? stemmed from an idea that had always troubled her.

“Everything in nature can express itself.”

For example, she said, the grass and trees rustle in the wind. Water makes a sound as it moves over the ground.

“But the hills, they just sit there, and it bothered me.”

Following that thought to its conclusion produced a book that explores what would happen if our landmarks, solid anchor points for forests and rivers, were to move.

“Maybe it’s too deep,” she laughs, “but I didn’t want 1 + 1 = 2.”

Daniell said she wanted the stories to be filled with interesting words that made strange sounds and asked open-ended questions.

“All children are like that in their thinking, and it gets squashed out of them. Loving the sound of words is something we need to keep.”

Daniell is in the process of finding a publisher for her fourth children’s book. The others, illustrated by Pauline Bellamy, are available online and in bookshops in Masterton, Carterton and Featherston.

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