Author's campaign to boost reading marks 15th birthday

By Michael Dickison

Alan Duff will be in Auckland next week. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Alan Duff will be in Auckland next week. Photo / Herald on Sunday

A bookless society condemned a Maori family to dysfunction in Alan Duff's fictional world.

In the real world, the Once Were Warriors author has fought the literature famine, giving more than seven million books to tens of thousands of children through his foundation.

Duff's charity programme, Duffy Books in Homes, celebrates its 15th anniversary next week.

They are years that span the height of his fame to the depth of his troubles.

Writing about his programme, Duff has said a bookless family did not stand a chance in today's world.

It is a sentiment expressed in an epiphany by Once Were Warriors character Beth Heke: "Bookless. Bookless. We're a bookless society. And I live in it, don't I? And my kids."

Duff said that in this scene Beth began to think it was because of this lack of books that her family had no chance in the world.

"I knew from growing up that hardly any Maori homes had books, nor the homes of low-income white people. So I decided to do something about it. We set up a team. The rest speaks for itself," he said.

The programme's general manager, former Silver Fern Linda Vagana, said Duff took the programme's mission personally.

He would visit schools and come back wanting to give special orders of books to individual children who had touched him.

"I almost cringe because he wants to save every single kid," Ms Vagana said. "You need to see him with the kids because he's just amazing.

"When he steps in front of them, everything that's political or an issue around him gets pushed away. The kids automatically have a real respect for him."

Duff started donating books in 1992 after visiting Camberley School in Hastings, and began Books in Schools programme in 1995.

It now covers more than 500 schools and 100,000 students.

Under it, children can pick new books to take home, the idea being that book ownership can inspire a love of reading and break a cycle of booklessness.

Duff attained fame as his programme was taking shape, when his award-winning 1990 book Once Were Warriors was turned into a hit film in 1994.

But this year, as the programme turns 15 and he turns 60, Duff is in France, far from his monetary and legal troubles.

In November 2007, Duff's property development firm, Pan Austral, was put into liquidation, with reported debts of $2.6 million.

Last September, the High Court upheld a police appeal over charges laid against him for resisting arrest when stopped for speeding.

He has not been back in New Zealand for about a year, but he stays in close touch with the programme as a board member.

He will be back in the country for the anniversary celebrations at Mangere's Viscount School on Tuesday.

Former Duffy kids include BMX champion Sarah Walker and this year's Miss World New Zealand, Cody Yerkovich.

Scheme for schools
* Duffy Books in Homes celebrates its 15th anniversary next week.
* Alan Duff started donating books in 1992, and the scheme has grown to cover more than 500 schools and 100,000 students.
* Children pick new books to take home. The idea is that owning books can inspire a love of reading and break a cycle of booklessness.
* Former Duffy kids include BMX champion Sarah Walker and this year's Miss World New Zealand, Cody Yerkovich.

- NZ Herald

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