Barbara Hannay on the power of reading books: “I can’t imagine my life without them.”

by |September 19, 2019
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A former English teacher, Barbara Hannay is a city-bred girl with a yen for country life. Many of her forty-plus books are set in rural and outback Australia and have been enjoyed by readers around the world. She has won the RITA, awarded by Romance Writers of America, and has twice won the Romantic Book of the Year award in Australia. Her latest novel is Meet Me in Venice and is the September pick for Penguin’s Love Between the Pages book club!

Today, Barbara’s on the blog to talk about the power of reading. Read on!

Barbara Hannay

Barbara Hannay

I was fortunate to discover the power of reading at quite a young age. My mum took me to our local library at Red Hill in Brisbane, a red brick building on Enoggera Terrace. In those days we didn’t have a car and so we caught the bus, which added to the excitement.

My world until then was an ordinary house in a suburban street and the first book I can actually remember reading was about a family who lived in a flat above their grocery shop. I was fascinated. Then I discovered a series of books about twins who lived in other parts of the world – the Dutch twins, the Eskimo twins. I devoured these, thrilled to read about such wonderfully different ways of life. I remember loving the story of Heidi who lived high in the Swiss Alps with her grandfather. She slept in a little bed that was like a built-in cupboard and had a friend who was a goatherd. Wow! For me, books literally, opened windows on the wider world beyond my doorstep.

My favourite teacher in primary school was called Miss Isobel Mathams and I was lucky enough to have her for both Years 6 and 7. I have no idea how old she was, but my mum told me that her fiancé had been killed in World War 1, which was why she’d never married. Perhaps this was also why she threw herself so fervently into teaching and on Friday afternoons she read aloud to us. This was, of course, my favourite part of the week. I especially remember her reading the Just William books – hilarious stories about the adventures and misadventures of a school boy from a very middle class family in Edwardian England. And Daddy Long Legs, that wonderful book by Jean Webster told entirely through letters. I was a very keen reader and had already read this book, but I loved hearing it again via Miss Mathams’s wonderfully expressive reading.

I found it interesting, when talking to a fellow schoolmate from that class in later years, to hear that she had no memory of being read to like that. Her memories of Miss Mathams were altogether different. Perhaps that’s why she’s now a doctor and I’m an author.

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Around this time, I also read Ethel Turner’s Seven Little Australians and experienced my first encounter with powerful emotional punch. This book was written in the late nineteenth century and I know that death was often covered in books then, even in books for children. Beth in Little Women comes to mind. And Charles Dickens’s famous death of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop. But these characters had been quite angelic and somehow death “became” them.

In Seven Little Australians, however, it is Judy, the liveliest, naughtiest and most vibrant member of the family who dies. More than sixty years later, I still remember reading her death scene early on a Sunday morning. When the gum tree fell on Judy, crushing her spine, I was absolutely devastated. I’d just lost a best friend – not to mention having my heart completely broken by a gut-wrenching deathbed scene with Judy’s brothers and sisters all around her.

As soon as I finished this chapter, I ran to my parents’ bedroom, bawling my eyes out. They were very concerned, of course, until they realised I was “only crying over a book”. But I had learned an important lesson about the emotional power of the written word on the page, and it’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.

I’m truly grateful that I was introduced to wonderful stories at such a young age. The reading habit has never left me. On a daily basis, books continue to educate, inspire, entertain and move me and I can’t imagine my life without them.

Meet Me in Veniceby Barbara Hannay

Meet Me in Venice

by Barbara Hannay

The new romantic drama by multi-award-winning author Barbara Hannay.

A year after her husband Leo's death, widow Daisy invites her three adult children to join her for a holiday in beautiful Venice. It will be wonderful, her chicks under one roof again in their father's birthplace. But is it possible to recapture the past? Marc's marriage is in jeopardy, but for his mother's sake, he convinces his wife to keep up appearances. Anna's trying to hide the truth about the dismal state of...

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