The 10 best New Zealand children’s books of 2019

We were in the middle of drawing up this list when Potton & Burton quietly dropped a new book – it is optimistic and surprising and all kinds of wonderful, and here is our wee rave about it. Plus, in no particular order, here are the other nine best children’s books of 2019. 

New Zealand Nature Heroes: inspiration and activities for young conservationists, by Gillian Candler (Potton & Burton, $29.99)

Stock is only just arriving at bookstores. It should be on shelves by Wednesday/Thursday-ish. 

What you need to do at that point is go and buy it for all the children in your life who give a shit, which is all of them, and know that the book will also be a balm to their parents who are desperately scared and just want to do something. 

Nature Heroes is written by the nature hero behind Whose Beak Is This?, At the Beach and many equally great variations on both.  

It is aesthetically lovely. Thick creamy stock, cool historical pictures, and lots of break-out boxes and graphics. Everything has room to breathe. 

What Nature Heroes does is take our conservation stories – some you’ll have heard before, some you won’t – and organises them, compellingly, around people. So you have bird-mad Pérrine Moncrieff, who was absolutely devoted to campaigning to protect habitats, the feather in her cap (oh my god, sorry) the creation of Abel Tasman National Park. You have Lance Richdale, who was obsessed with albatross and hoiho. In 1938 he camped out near a clutch of albatross eggs, protecting them until the one surviving chick fledged (“This is how the royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head began”). Or meet marine scientist Jordan Aria Housiaux, whose work tagging and tracking sevengill sharks will help us ensure their survival. 

There are 15 heroes and each is presented as a person, not just a list of achievements (Moncrieff, for example, was also the first commissioner of the Girl Guides in Nelson. She resigned after losing a battle to bend the uniform rules as she wanted girls to not have to wear black stockings on tramps. How very dare she). Candler subtly drops in detail about how they started out as nature-obsessed kids (read: you can do it, too).

Throughout, kids’ questions are anticipated and answered, and sad stories and marvelous ones are given the same clear-and-simple treatment. Here: “When there are only a few birds left, individuals can be given names.” Or: “In the aquarium, Betty Batham saw an octopus lay eggs on the glass of the tank. Over the next 11 weeks until they hatched, she observed how the mother octopus guarded her eggs and kept the water flowing around them to keep the eggs clean and aerated.”

And! Linked to each person’s story are two or three easy, cheap, seemingly non-crazy-making activities you might legitimately want to do with your kid these holidays. Activities that will either make an actual difference, or help your kid make the most of what we’ve got left. Or both.

Learn to make seed bombs. Or lizard homes. Learn to survey the beach, and to effectively pester politicians. “Be polite. Be creative.”

Might we recommend getting started with a critter counter? Cut the ends off milk bottles and wrap your ‘tunnel’ in black paper. Line the inside with white paper. Soak a sponge in food colouring and pop some peanut butter in the middle of it; put that in the middle of your tunnel. Come back in the morning and see who left paw prints. A pictorial guide to said prints is, naturally, included.

2  The Cat From Muzzle: a high-country cat’s incredible walk home, by Sally Sutton & Scott Tulloch (Picture Puffin, $19.99)

There was a stage where my boy would only eat Marmite sandwiches and only wanted me to read stories by Sally Sutton. Roadwork. Demolition. When We Go Camping. Happily, just like a Marmite sandwich, Sutton is reliably great. None of her rhymes are shit. Everything makes sense and sounds like us and the stories trot along delightfully. Always. 

3  The Adventures of Tupaia by Courtney Sina Meredith & Mat Tait (Allen & Unwin, $35)

Tough stuff – philosophy, first contact, death – is woven together and coloured in by Meredith and Tait. You can almost hear the two of them breathing on this story, breathing life into it. 

4  Things in the Sea are Touching Me! by Linda Jane Keegan (Scholastic, $19)

We’ve raved about this one before, when it was shortlisted in the picture book category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults (the other finalists, including big winner The Bomb, were published in 2018). 

It’s joyful and sunshiney and sensitive, and it’s apparently the first picture book published in New Zealand to feature non-hetero parents. 

5  Mophead: How Your Difference Makes a Difference by Selina Tusitala Marsh (Auckland University Press, $25

What happened when our redoubtable then-Poet Laureate caught a throwaway comment from some dick in a suit in a hotel lobby? She wrote a book about the hassles she got as a child, and how she turned into pure awesome. Drew the pictures too. 

6  Wildlife of Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Penguin, $40)

A couple of years ago Gavin Bishop gave us Aotearoa, a cornucopia of a picture book which was heavy on the land wars and shipping disasters but light on the flora and fauna. Turns out he was saving all that up for Wildlife. Moa! Katipo! Hedgehogs! Geckos! Hammerheads! Our guides through this roll call of our very coolest creatures are five tiny tuna larvae, Tahi through Rima. Don’t get too attached, is all we can say. 

Like Aotearoa it’s enormous – 28 by 38cm – which means when they’re not being read they can be leaned together, making an excellent house for vehicle families. 

7  Te Tiriti o Waitangi / The Treaty of Waitangi by Toby Morris with Ross Calman, Mark Derby, and Piripi Walker (Lift Education, $20)

A bilingual, ground-breaking, graphic take. It was launched in June and by the end of August it’d been on our bestseller lists so many times we resorted to just asserting “Toby rulz!” every time it popped up.

8  Winter of Fire by Sherryl Jordan (Scholastic, $19)

The best book in the world.

My First Words in Māori by Stacey Morrison with Ali Teo and John O’Reilly (Puffin, $20)

Marmite = Ihipana. Sally Sutton = an ihipana sandwich.

10  Aroha’s Way: a children’s guide through emotions by Craig Phillips (Wildling Books, $19.95)

Aroha gets anxious and worried and has thoughts that scare her. Then she finds a way through: breathing techniques, moving her body, talking, mindfulness.

Companion reading for our #1, we reckon.

New Zealand Nature Heroes: inspiration and activities for young conservationists, by Gillian Candler (Potton & Burton, $29.99) will be available from Unity Books from Wednesday-Thursday-ish. 


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