A chapter book with cover art of sea creatures is overlaid on a backdrop of fireworks, and a beach
Your Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, this year (Design: Tina Tiller)

BooksAugust 11, 2021

Well that was a surprise: announcing the winners of the children’s book awards

A chapter book with cover art of sea creatures is overlaid on a backdrop of fireworks, and a beach
Your Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, this year (Design: Tina Tiller)

Congratulations to all the winners of the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young People, revealed tonight at a ceremony in Wellington. 

Congratulations most of all to the extraordinary Tania Roxborogh, who won the Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Junior Fiction Award and the most coveted prize, the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award, each worth $7500, for Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, illustrated by Phoebe Morris.

The night’s second-biggest winner is Huia Publishers, which published Roxborogh’s book as well as the winners of two other categories. I always look forward to Huia books: they’re aesthetically stunning, rich in story, and impeccably edited. A rare delight in children’s publishing.

Roxborogh (Ngāti Porou, Ngāti Mutunga o Wharekauri) has been writing forever and has won various prizes, including the junior fiction category four years ago, with My New Zealand Story: Bastion Point. Nothing close to book of the year, though – and (wince, sorry) I was not picking her for the big gong tonight. But surprises are all good, especially when they lift up a book like this. “After all,” as we’re told on page one, “It’s not every week that a Māori boy from the remote East Coast gets to save his town from a family of warring Māori gods.”

Charlie Tangaroa is a book with heart and humour. The protagonist is a quick-witted, resourceful boy who has also learned to simply cope: he uses a prosthetic leg, and when the pain or frustration get too bad he files them “into that place inside my mind I reserve for prosthetic-related prickle-in-the-arse things”.

Phoebe Morris’ illustrations are thoughtful and evocative and the cover, especially, is a kid magnet.

Inside there’s a storm, a tsunami, a lot of atua, a resurrection you’ll be holding your breath over. There’s also a sequel in the works.

The book “impressed the judges with its diversity of characters and their authenticity, and the inclusion of a main protagonist with a disability”.

“We felt that this added depth to the story while not being the focal point, as did the underlying issue of humans disturbing the natural environment,” said convenor of judges Alan Dingley.

Photograph of a middle-aged woman, hair up, smiling intensely; cover of a chapter book showing a boy in a whirlpool of sea creatures
Tania Roxborogh, winner of this year’s Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award (Photo: Supplied)

The Picture Book Award and the Best First Book Award, worth $7500 and $2000 respectively, went to Kate Parker for Kōwhai and the Giants (Mary Egan Publishing).

I was not initially super enamoured of this book – a beautiful piece of art, but without a wink of light, I wrote in a shortlist round-up last month – but the other day my son was feeling like crying for no reason and we cuddled up and had a re-read, and something about it really chimed with his mood, and helped. “A classic in the making,” said the judges.

Still, I hope Parker gets the chance to tackle a less existential theme. This one’s about humanity destroying the ecosystems of Aotearoa, and a little forest sprite’s fight to save them. It’s all done via papercut and lightbox, in tones of sepia, with simple, short chunks of prose. A palate cleanser after all the bad rhyming text.

Cover and inside spread of a picture book, striking sepia tones, all papercut, showing a giant tree and a tiny girl among leaves
The cover and opening spread of Kate Parker’s debut (Images: Supplied)

Shilo Kino won the Young Adult Fiction Award, worth $7500, for The Pōrangi Boy (Huia Publishers).

Of course she did. Yahoo Shilo! We at The Spinoff really really love The Pōrangi Boy – we had Kino pegged for the Margaret Mahy prize – and regardless of decisions handed down tonight, we’re excited to read whatever she writes next.

From the judges: “[Kino delivers] big themes of environmental damage, neocolonialism, bullying and poverty, but never [slips] into didacticism or preachiness. The judges commented on Kino’s ‘uncontestable genius’ for crafting believable, authentic voices thoroughly rooted in this place and these times.”

“Uncontestable genius” seems slightly at odds with not winning either the best first book award or the Margaret Mahy gong as well as this category, but I’ve given myself a little shake and told myself to stop being an egg, so. Yahoo!

Young woman in garden holding novel The Pōrangi Boy, smiling
Shilo Kino and The Pōrangi Boy (Photo: Supplied)

The Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction, worth $7500, went to Alexandra Tylee for Egg and Spoon: An Illustrated Cookbook illustrated by Giselle Clarkson (Gecko Press).

We picked it, everyone picked it, pick up a bunch of these big red recipe books and there’s kid-Christmas sorted. Sorry for mentioning Christmas.

Pages and illustrations from children's cookbook Egg & Spoon. All very cheerful, bright and quirky.
Samples of the goodness within Egg and Spoon (Photos: Catherine Woulfe)

The Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for te reo Māori went to Ngake me Whātaitai, written by Ben Ngaia and illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers (Huia Publishers).

Pati Hakaria, a kaiako who reviewed this category for us, was put off by the advanced te reo in this pukapuka. But as she said, it’s a category that must be incredibly hard to judge – not only do the formats cover a huge range (this year, for example, other favourites were Gavin Bishop’s perfect, but basic little boardbook Mihi, and Helen Taylor’s charming, colourful Pīpī Kiwi) but so does the language.

Per the press release, the book is about the origins of Te Whanganui a Tara (Wellington) and “through storytelling, children learn about the pūtaiao (science) of the hidden movements within Papatūānuku, and how these beautiful Māori placenames were given.”

It is gorgeously illustrated by Laya Mutton-Rogers, who also illustrated another finalist in this category, and was a finalist in her own right.

Cover and spread from a picture book. The language is te reo Māori, the colour palette is pāua, and art shows a rocky shore, big waves, a whare, and light beaming down from above.
The pāua palette of Ngake me Whātaitai (Images: Supplied)

Finally, the Russell Clark Award for Illustration, also worth $7500, went to Laura Shallcrass for Hare & Ruru: A Quiet Moment (Beatnik Publishing).

This is Shallcrass’s first book – lots of debuts on this year’s shortlist – and it’s a mindfulness story, about a hare in search of a moment’s peace. Shallcrass writes in gentle clear prose (another strike against rhyme!) but it’s the art that sings: with texture, with charming detail, and with the sort of perfectly-judged muted palette you’d more often see in an interiors magazine. I particularly like that the ruru is barely visible against the starry black sky – a wee visual joke – and the way that Shallcrass grounds each page with a thick layer of dirt, and worms, and dandelion roots.

Cover of a picture book showing illustrated hare crouching among weeds; spread from the book, at night, a starry sky, the hare is meeting a ruru that is almost invisible against the sky.
Hare and … can you see Ruru? (Images: Supplied)

This seems like a good spot to acknowledge The Sapling, a site which is the pinnacle of children’s book reviewing in this country and which is going on indefinite hiatus starting after next month. It’s not a funding thing. “We have had to make this very difficult decision to help us pursue better balance in our workloads, family life, and wellbeing,” the editors said the other day. “However, we are hoping to take the next few months to rebuild the site, and seek to make the operation of it more sustainable. It may be that we don’t come back exactly the way we are, but we will keep the old site running and promote pieces from our archives over the coming months as we sort ourselves out.”

We wish the Sapling team rest and deep breaths and a wonderful summer, and we have our fingers crossed they’ll be back soon.

Charlie Tangaroa and the Creature from the Sea, by TK Roxborogh and illustrated by Phoebe Morris (Huia Publishers, $25) is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington, as are all the other wonderful books mentioned here. 

Keep going!