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All the books in the Whatumanawa Collection. Image by Archi Banal.
All the books in the Whatumanawa Collection. Image by Archi Banal.

BooksNovember 8, 2023

Kakapa ana te Manawa: A review of Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Whatumanawa Collection

All the books in the Whatumanawa Collection. Image by Archi Banal.
All the books in the Whatumanawa Collection. Image by Archi Banal.

Rangimarie Sophie Jolley reviews the Whatumanawa Collection by Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Porou), professor at Te Whare Wānanga o Awanuiārangi.

How honest can we be with kids?

Really – how do we give them an age-appropriate understanding of the complexities of life? In a time where mental health is an ever evolving conversation, we need more tools than ever to help ourselves and our kids to make sense of the world we live in. We seek guidance at every turn – trying to find the best / right ways to communicate with this new generation of emotionally intelligent beings. 

When it comes to our own whānau, we tend to look at the culture of our immediate, extended and wider family units for some guidance. These units can take on a variety of shapes and dynamics – some of us are parents, guardians, grandparents and caregivers. Regardless of the roles we take, it’s often impossible to know what’s appropriate unless all the adults involved are on the same page. 

Perhaps, therein lies the issue. Most of us operate in large whānau / community groups with multiple adults, children and dynamics wherein opposing views are normal. We generally agree to some shared tikanga / basic philosophies and principles, but we’re not always in control of what our children are exposed to.

Our tamariki are exposed to more content than we ever were – they make connections differently and their view of the world surpasses ours in ways that can be really intimidating. This often means that the role of a parent, kaitiaki or tuākana is vastly different than it was even a decade ago. 

The Whatumanawa Collection by the renowned scholar of indigenous education Linda Tuhiwai Smith is the perfect bridge between these spaces, ideal for those who support young people who have gone through something difficult. These are not bedtime stories about fairies and dragons – these are tools, tailor-made resources designed to support complex conversations amongst whānau. 

Professor Linda Tuhiwai Smith.

There are five books within the series, each broaching the subjects of trauma, domestic violence, suicide, separation, life and death. The series is beautifully illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, whose magic with colour and perspective give light to some very heavy moments. These books also contain psychotherapist input into the design of the stories. This is particularly evident in the activity notes at the conclusion of each story, where the reader is given a chance for critical reflection and the opportunity to safely digest the content. 

I enlisted the wisdom of four of my favourite humans aged 9, 11 and two 13-year-olds to help review each book. They read each book individually and then wrote their responses to the following:

  • the things they liked most / least;
  • something new that they learned; and
  • what feelings came up for them. 

I sat with each one individually as they moved through the series – using the stories as an opportunity to engage them in conversations about how they were affected (if at all) by each book. 

The reviews below contain references to traumatic subjects that may be triggering for some. There are content warnings before each book.

Ka wehi au ki ngā Wenerei | I don’t like Wednesdays

Content warning: Suicide 

Synopsis: A young boy is mourning the loss of his older brother to suicide. The story focuses on how the younger brother processes this trauma – it gives language to the pain he experiences and the internal dialogue that accompanies such a loss. It also paints a picture of the invisible elements of grief – the ways we shut down and the effects of that on ourselves and the people around us. 

Review: All of our kids responded to this book except for the 9-year-old, for whom it proved a little too sad to talk about just yet. However, it was the 11-year-old’s favourite because, as he sees it, “it showed me how to appreciate the people we have, while we have them”. For us, that sparked a conversation about times in our lives where we’ve felt really grateful for the people in our whānau and the ways we can show that appreciation. 

The teenagers (13) and I agreed that the way the story demonstrates the difficulty of talking through our feelings was useful. The ways tamariki deal with grief can be difficult to recognise or understand, but this story gives light to those complexities while extending grace to the process. 

For one of the teens, this story elicited the most tangible emotional reaction: “It was hella sad and made my eyeballs water”. High praise from one who generally shies away from expressing themselves. For that sentiment alone, I’m grateful. 

He Reo Iti Noa Ahau | I am a Little Voice 

Content warning: Domestic Violence 

Synopsis: A child has been removed from a traumatic home and is unable to communicate as a result of their traumatic experiences. The child has trouble hearing as a result of an injury and comes to live with his Nan after being hospitalised as a result of the violence he experienced at home. The child’s Nan becomes a stabilising figure, alongside a child psychologist who supports his rehabilitation. The child is also introduced to new whānau members who enable them to reintegrate into te ao Māori.

Review: This was the only story within the collection that our 9-year-old actually liked – because he really loved the sense of resolution in the story. When the main character (Rāwhiti) finds his maunga and his awa, our kids found their connection to the story. A very powerful moment. 

The 11-year-old felt confused by this story, he didn’t feel comfortable thinking about how much Rāwhiti had gone through and that stopped him from engaging with the story itself. He did, however, love the relationship between Rāwhiti and his cousin Hoani, as did the teenagers. They were also really reflective of what it takes to help someone recover after experiencing something traumatic, and praised the use of tikanga Māori to support that healing process. 

Ko te Wai, ko Tama me te Marama | Te Wai, Tama and the Moon

Content warning: Death, grief, loss 

Synopsis: Te Wai is a young girl with a great imagination and an attitude to match. One day she coralls her best mate Tama into accompanying her on an adventure to the moon. While waiting for their spaceship to arrive, they’re met by lots of whānau members who give them food and encouragement. Te Wai’s Mum is gravely ill, and as her community supports her to learn about the stars and how everyone eventually becomes one after death. She learns that this, too is awaiting her Mum. 

Review: Our 11-year-old loved the playfulness of this story. He was also able to talk through the comfort provided by all the different characters, sharing that the way the aunties and kaumātua made him feel good was by giving the kids kai. The teens were grateful for the presence of tikanga Māori, particularly pertaining to death. They also talked about the power of friendship during times of loss and how important it is to show up for the people you care about. 

The youngest (9-year-old) was sad about the death, and didn’t want to talk much – except to say that the aunty was a good person for taking care of the kids when she could. 

Listening to these rangatahi and tamariki pick apart the aspects of Te Wai’s community was comforting, however the story itself didn’t feel as strong as the others (though, when a subject is as complex as homelessness, illness and parental loss – it’s a hard story to tell). 

He Mahi Taunga Kore | Nothing is Impossible 

Content warning: Domestic violence 

Synopsis: Rangi’s Mum is in a violent relationship and is hospitalised as a result. Rangi is taken away by social workers to stay with his grandparents, who support him to recognise that nothing is impossible. 

Review: The teenagers were quick to praise the ways that this story actually gives a name to the harm that a lot of Tamariki witness and experience. We talked about how so much of what they’re exposed to is through a sort of sheen – I’m often trying to assess how much they should know and sometimes, they’re ready for more than we realise. 

They also loved seeing that the roles our Nans play in our lives was reflected, as did the 11-year-old. The 9-year-old was scared by the presence of the ambulance, but liked the Nan and how she encouraged Rangi to believe in himself. 

Rīwai me te Mātai Arorangi | Rīwai and the Stargazer 

Content warning: infant death, homelessness 

Synopsis: Rīwai and her whānau have been having a hard time, living in a van whilst having her little brother, Te Awanuiārangi (Tawa as she calls him) gravely ill in hospital. The story follows Rīwai as she navigates the loss of her brother, alongside the harsh reality of high living costs. Throughout, Rīwai is shown love and kindness, culminating in the whānau returning to their Marae for the tangi. 

Review: Definitely a tearjerker – but also, as the teenagers reminded me, a beautiful example of the ways that tikanga Māori serve to wrap around us when we’re facing difficulties in our lives. That they could identify the tikanga in action was a very powerful commentary on how important these types of stories are – so many of our cultural practices are often misused or misrepresented in literature, but for these rangatahi, their presence did exactly what they’re designed to do. 

The use of tikanga Māori in this story gave space for the reality of our emotional needs, and somewhere for the sadness to go. 

The 11-year-old found solace in the imagery, praising the dad for his artistic skills and the illustrator Te Aho-White for theirs. They were also struck by the feeling of appreciation for the home they have with their whānau, and not wanting to take that security for granted. 

For our little big-hearted 9-year-old, this story was a little too close to home and so his review became a conversation about what we’re scared of, and how we talk about that. Which, again, exemplifies the very purpose of these stories. 

I would recommend these stories for anyone working with children. There certainly aren’t other tangible resources like these, that are founded in te ao Māori. Read them yourself, and if you find a child working through some of these issues – share them with the whānau. Share these tools far and wide and equip the adults around these kids with the tools they need to gain perspective. 


  • Read one at a time. I could only manage one per day and yes, I cried. 
  • Take time to reflect. Use the prompts at the conclusion of each book to help. 
  • Use water before or after to help process the contents. Drink, swim or shower where possible. Water is a great neutraliser for energy. 
  • Read alone before sharing with tamariki, so you can anticipate their responses / are prepared for them and have taken time to process your own. 

As parents, aunties, uncles, teachers, leaders and role models, we’re often standing on a hill waiting to make sense of the distant horizon within the purview of our tamariki. Now, when we cast our gaze into the darkest shadows of that looming horizon, we might see the Whatumanawa Collection. It’s there, waiting for us to collect each offering and see how it might enable us to build something better, something more compassionate, something that our children will benefit from for generations to come. 

We might even see something that we desperately needed for ourselves, that we can use to change the stories our inner children have lived through. And from that position, we might find the tools we need to support our tamariki to face that horizon for themselves, and create a view where the very real trauma that they face can be left behind, fully processed and put to rest. 

And when it comes down to it – that might be the one thing that we can all agree we want for them.

The books in the Whatumanawa Collection collection (Huia Publishers, $22 per book; published in both te reo Māori and English editions) can be purchased at Unity Books Wellington and Auckland. Linda Tuhiwai Smith is appearing at Verb Readers & Writers Festival this Friday 10 November, in Wellington.

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