Highlight the exciting human stories in our own past and students will be eager to learn more, writes the author of a new kids book about New Zealand history.
“New Zealand history sucks,” the other students said. “It’s boring. Why can’t we learn about something interesting. Like the Tudors? The Tudors are primo. Not like this crap.”
I was in a high school history class, cringing as my classmates ranted about a school trip to Parihaka – an overnight stay my dad had helped organise. A visit that, apparently, amounted to “shoving Māori bullshit down our throats”.
I was too upset to have any coherent thoughts on the matter at the time. My memory of that day is a haze of angry faces and pointy words. Afterwards I wondered why they were so full of loathing. Then, one day, something occurred to me. These people throwing a cascade of snark? They knew very little about that history. They didn’t know the stories of their own country at all.
New Zealand history is not part of global pop culture – unlike the Tudors, whose stories are told and retold in books, movies and television. Our history doesn’t lend itself quite so well to bodice-rippers and beheadings. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t interesting and relevant. Explorers and prophets. Wars and whalers. Suffragettes, strikes and the Springbok Tour. Our history is full of fascinating and important people and events.
Besides, it isn’t some sort of competition. Studying one era doesn’t mean you’ve signed a blood oath to never learn about anything else. Knowing local history helps us understand the context and culture that shape our present. Just like learning about the Tudors teaches us about English religious history and the role of women in the early 1500s. Not to mention that it’s best to avoid a man whose exes have no heads (plot twist: Henry the Eighth was not primo). When more people appreciate the breadth and depth of experiences that came before us, we all benefit. We are less likely to repeat mistakes. Our ancestors stand on our shoulders to guide us.
So why didn’t my classmates know our stories?
Because those stories weren’t taught in school, and very few, if any, were told in an interesting way. When no interesting stories are written about an era, a loop of doom is triggered: the stories are not told for a mainstream audience, because the makers and distributors of the art think they won’t sell. But if there are no interesting stories, most of that audience will think that era is dull and irrelevant, so won’t buy in.
It’s time to shatter this loop of doom.
Younger readers want to see well-written characters doing exciting things. All the better if those exciting things are happening in their own country. The benefits of such stories go well beyond keeping kids away from screens and aiding literacy. Learning about New Zealand history makes kids more interested in where they live, and fosters empathy for both those they see around them and those who’ve gone before. This doesn’t need to come at the expense of books set overseas. Quite the contrary – books about New Zealand history complements such stories, for a rich tapestry of tales helps children understand the wider world and their place within that.
As I’ve researched my series about two children who time travel through New Zealand history, I’ve found many stories that fascinate my test audience. The first book in the series, Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time, includes giant eagles, an erupting volcano and the Great Depression. The characters encounter changes in technology – how music is played, photos are taken, and television is watched. They experience a time before flushing toilets and electricity, see how people used to dress, and notice how the smell of a street can change over the years.
And they watch as the Taranaki Volunteer Militia gathers at Parihaka, right before the November 1881 invasion – a subject close to my heart, because nō Ngāti Te Whiti o Te Ātiawa au. My ancestors were there too. Amorangi and Millie’s story taps into my own story of those who came before.
Some of the kids I’ve read my book to are incredulous that Parihaka happened. Others are, for whatever reason, equally shocked about a not-too-distant past where phones didn’t have cameras and streaming services didn’t exist. History is multi-faceted and complex, and our relationship with the past can be deeply personal. But it’s all learning, and we have to start somewhere. Why not local history? After all, if we don’t learn about it in New Zealand, where will we learn about it?
Under half my high school class chose to go to Parihaka in the end. The visit was too boring, too offensive, too irrelevant. I’d love to ask those who chose not to go: did you ever learn about that “primo” Tudor history in the end? If so, I’d love to talk to them about Hillary Mantel’s portrayal of Thomas Cromwell, because my reckons could fill a whole other book. If not, I’d wonder: was presenting the Tudors as an alternative a straw-man argument all along? Could it be that, in the end, they’ve actually learned … nothing? Because that would be the biggest shame of all.
I hope Amorangi and Millie’s Trip Through Time will help to break the loop of doom, once and for all. I hope that this, and other authors’ stories, will encourage children to take an interest in where they live, as well as a love of reading. I also hope the book’s alignment with the history curriculum will make learning even more relevant and exciting.
Then kids will know that New Zealand history not only exists, but that it’s more interesting than they might have ever imagined. And, hopefully, these kids will grow up into adults who see history for the colourful and important tapestry of events, people and places I know it to be.
Adults who never use the word primo. Because while it’s great to learn about history, some things still belong in the past.