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Kitty Brown, co-creator of the Reo Pēpi books, with pēpi York (Photo: Supplied)
Kitty Brown, co-creator of the Reo Pēpi books, with pēpi York (Photo: Supplied)

BooksDecember 19, 2020

Pēpi steps: Two mothers on creating taonga with te reo Māori

Kitty Brown, co-creator of the Reo Pēpi books, with pēpi York (Photo: Supplied)
Kitty Brown, co-creator of the Reo Pēpi books, with pēpi York (Photo: Supplied)

Celebrating a new series of the beloved Reo Pēpi bilingual board books, we have essays from Kitty Brown (Ngāi Tahu) who creates the books with her cousin Kirsten Parkinson, and Helen Steemson, a Pākehā mum determined to share te reo with her Māori son. 

Kitty Brown

Recently, my two-year-old spoke her first words in te reo Māori. I was elated. However, not long afterward her cognitive development surpassed my reo skills. My struggle to keep up with her need for language means she now defaults to English first, most of the time, like me. It brings tears to my eyes sometimes when I say “Watch out bub!” and then, “Ata haere e kō!”

I have accepted the reality that I will probably never be a fluent speaker of te reo Māori. Instead, I will be a lifelong second-language learner. I’ll be one of those aunties that shouts “Horoi ō taringa!” at dinnertime. Maybe I already am.

I’m an admirer of those with the reo. I know people who have spent their lives in recovering the language. Years in formal education settings and on marae, piecing it back together. Structuring a social life that can support the language. And making whānau choices that nurture te reo.

I have a deep respect for their determination and commitment to revitalising te reo Māori. I see profound and positive results for their whānau. The ripples that spring from this mahi flow into our communities and resonate throughout our culture.

Te rūnanga o Ōtākou: Kitty and Kirsten live close to whānau on their papakāinga on the Otago Peninsula (Photo: Supplied)

As someone who includes te reo in creative projects, I am often asked in reverent tones by Pākehā, “Are you fluent?”

“Kāo,” I respond. Their inevitable disappointment brings me a sense of shame and on it goes. Not Māori enough.

There are many barriers that prevent Māori from learning te reo. The impact of colonisation should never be underestimated. Time is scarce and we are laden with problems to solve; from shocking child mortality rates to land claims; protecting our depleted natural resources to upholding our Treaty responsibilities. The variety and depth of the challenges faced by Māori can be quite overwhelming. We must choose what will fit in our one kete.

That should not stop us sharing and celebrating the parts of Māoritanga we do hold with absolute pride. We each need to use our own talents to champion our tikanga, our reo and te ao Māori in our own way. The wonderful Dalvanius Prime, a lifelong learner of te reo, famously said, “I’m not the star, the reo is the star.” Dalvanius didn’t let his personal lack of proficiency stop him using his creative gifts to shine a big ol’ disco light on te reo and revolutionise New Zealand music at the same time. And this is the type of approach that inspires me, in spite of some of the negative emotions I have encountered during my reo journey.

In spite of our lack of fluency, my cousin Kirsten Parkinson and I choose to write pukapuka in te reo Māori because like Dalvanius, we see the bigger picture. We see that our job is to plant a seed for tamariki, so what they have is more than we did.

Kirsten Parkinson and Muriwai (Photo: Supplied)

Shame is an emotion that often accompanies the pain of not knowing our native tongue. It’s interesting that instead of saying “I don’t know the reo … ” we often say “I don’t have the reo.” We sense that something that should be ours is lost. And we feel at odds with the fact that we have not been able to retrieve this missing piece.

A recent study showed that four out of five Māori say they cannot speak te reo Māori – yet in the same study, one third of Māori say they can understand it well enough! There is a fear in speaking te reo that cripples many attempts to learn and use it. Yet there is an abundance of inherent understanding, aroha, and spirit for the language in our people.

Even with all the courses, all the wānanga, all the pukapuka, I may not ever be able to speak fluently, but I know all about that aroha and spirit. Those qualities drive me to provide a Māori worldview, a Māori lens for my children through which they can understand the world. And it’s a wonderful time having young children! Indulging in the playful parts of our language, enjoying stories and having illustrations to help with comprehension. And speaking the reo with pēpi? Many Māori parents will know this sparkling moment when we get to share our delight in the reo with our babies – before they outgrow us and our ability.

Cousins Kirsten (left) and Kitty, co-creators of the Reo Pēpi books (Photo: Supplied)

In a way, Reo Pēpi has served to crystallise this time for me. My work in the creation of children’s books reflects the bittersweet truth: that my own reo might always be best suited to pēpi. This doesn’t mean my aroha for the reo is something less. I am always going to need te reo Māori in my life. I’ll need its poetry. I’ll need its truthful concepts. I’ll need its song and rhythm, my whole life long. And for these gifts, I’ll offer what I can, with what I have.

As we move towards a bilingual society for our mokopuna, it is our pleasure to introduce Toru, the third series of Reo Pēpi bilingual books that prioritise te reo Māori and support basic language acquisition in tamariki. They are what I wanted to see on the shelves when I first went looking, years ago. Durable and hardy, bright and clear, our pukapuka are created with all the hopes, aroha, and wairua we have for our own tamariki and for te reo Māori.

Helen Steemson

I grew up in 1990s Hamilton and spoke Māori at primary school.

At the time, I didn’t realise the significance – that I was being swept along by the Māori renaissance. I just knew that kapa haka was rawe and maths was hōhā. In retrospect, I don’t think any of my kaiako were fluent, but they clearly revelled in the chance to learn te reo alongside all of us. I was welcomed in and handed a precious taonga, which I, as is standard, took for granted.

Then my family moved to Auckland where there was no bilingual unit and people thought it was weird that I wanted to do kapa haka. Everyone spoke English, so I did too.

It wasn’t until my son Zeb (Ngātiwai) was born that I realised what I’d lost. I could have given him this link to his whakapapa, but I’d let it rot away with neglect. So with my brand new pēpi in arms, I decided we’d learn te reo together – just like my kaiako.

Little boy eating ice cream, Mum laughing
Helen and Zeb (Photo: Supplied)

Series one and two of the Reo Pēpi books by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson were my first (among many) tools in that mission. The way they’re put together seems specifically designed for someone like me. They’re engaging for Zeb and the English running alongside the kupu Māori helped me over early hurdles. With a pronunciation guide in the back, even my dad gave them a crack.

At first, raising my tama bilingual was easy. I spoke to him mostly in te reo and brushed up enough to keep one step ahead of him. “Good morning!” “Would you like strawberries or apple? “Hold still – there is poo on your leg”: these are all phrases I can comfortably construct in Māori. But beyond his babyhood, Zeb left me for dust. His little brain collected up English words and grammar faster than I could hand him te reo. He was lapping me. And alongside that, I started to need ever more complex language to parent him successfully. “If you don’t put on pants, we can’t go to the playground” is far harder to put together, especially in the face of a flailing two-year-old.

And to be honest? Being the only one in your orbit speaking a language in which you’re not fluent, and doing that with a toddler who is expert in ignoring you in any language: it’s really tiring. I go for long periods where I forget that I want te reo in my life.

But reading pukapuka Māori brings me back. They remind me of my passion for this language and let me spark conversations without Zeb getting frustrated with my clumsiness. “Speak English, Mama!”

Toru, the new series of Reo Pēpi books (Photo: Supplied)

It’s why we were so thrilled by the arrival of Reo Pēpi series three. The language has levelled up again, with more complex ideas and vocab. The first two series explored simple things: shapes, colours, counting, clothes, facial features and animals. Series three titles are Mahi (actions), Kupu Tauaro (opposites) and Kare ā-roto (feelings). While Kupu Tauaro delivers straight vocab, the other two books spell out beginner conversations and longer phrasing. I now have language to describe excitement (hiamo!), confusion (rangirua) and spikiness (taratara).

These beautiful pukapuka Māori have added to our growing collection, and definitely rank among our favourites. I had to, quite literally, fight Zeb for them while writing this article. They’re simple enough that I can give Zeb context for him to follow along and there’s a richness to the imagery that keeps him hooked.

Others in our most-read stack are Sharon Holt and Deborah Hinde’s Reo Singalong series, which bring some waiata into the mix, and a bunch by Donovan Bixley. Zeb also loves my ancient copies of Peter Gossage’s Māui stories and we have a very dogeared copy of Kei Hea te Hipi Kākāriki? by Mem Fox and Judy Horacek.

We’ve also had to shelve some incredible translations of Kiwi favourites. The skill is breathtaking – the reo maintains the rhyme and rhythm of the original English – but reading it with any fluency is beyond me. (Ngā mihi nui ki ngā kaiwhakamāoritia Ngaere Roberts rāua ko Waihoroi Shortland). One day, maybe.

Every few months I look up te reo courses and join Facebook groups for learners. I get out my Māori Made Easy books to brush up courtesy of Scotty Morrison. I know I can and should be doing more. But while I get my act together, there are the pukapuka to keep the aroha alive.

Reo Pēpi Toru, a set of three board books by Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (Allen & Unwin, box set $49.99 or individual book $17.99) is available from Unity Books Wellington and Auckland

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