Paku Manu Ariki Whakatakapōkai is a new picture book written by Michaela Keeble, with her son Kerehi Grace, and illustrated by Tokerau Brown. Books editor Claire Mabey spoke with Keeble about why and how the book came together.
Kia ora Michaela, congratulations on releasing this book! Can you tell us how Paku Manu Ariki Whakatakapōkai began life for you?
The book mainly was written in one sitting – I just sat down and tried to remember all the things my young son Kerehi had said about his particular place in the world. The work came in ordering and re-ordering, editing and re-editing, and slowly working out what it was about. A little while later I had the opportunity to read at a public event (my first reading!). Kerehi came and listened and laughed a lot. It seemed like everyone else was laughing too. It felt like I’d touched a chord for some people and gave me enough encouragement to keep going.
How did the character – and the name – of Paku Manu Ariki develop?
Paku Manu Ariki, being very much out of Kerehi’s mind and mouth, arrived on the page pretty much fully formed. Some critical things came later, like his hair, his different coloured eyes and his name, all of which are now inextricable from him. Tokerau also brought Te Moana-nui-a-Kiwa deep into the story, and the character’s family, community and world grew and changed – it made sense and the nature of our family is strangely more reflected in the book than I’d ever intended.
I had been thinking to give the character a short plain name. At that time, Kerehi was really not enjoying people pronouncing his name incorrectly. I mean, who does enjoy that? It was getting under his skin. But Tokerau and others suggested the character needed a real name, one with meaning and beauty. We talked about the rhythm, the right number of syllables, and the elements in the book that could be brought to the surface through the character’s name. The name came together slowly until it settled. Even though I felt pretty nervous to use it, I hope we made the right decision.
Why choose the picture book format for this story?
The picture book format kind of chose us. This story was more like an essay for a long time, or really just a letter to myself. Luckily, I shared the letter with friends. Cassandra Barnett and her son Izuba printed it out, cut up the words, and pasted them onto watercolour paintings they’d made. They bound the pages into a handmade book, and gave it to Kerehi for his birthday. A picture book! So I guess it was Cass who found the format for us.
With Gecko Press, we did talk long and hard about the kind of picture book it might be – smaller and more serious, for older kids, or large – even huge – for younger kids. Gecko Press led the decision process and I think they found the perfect size and shape.
The concepts of fear/fearlessness and power/action are central in the story, and to the world view of Paku Manu Ariki. Did you have these qualities at the start or did they develop as you crafted the book?
This book was written at a time when Kerehi’s whānau Māori were engaged in a struggle to retain an important piece of their land. The government was trying to take it for a freeway, using the New Zealand Public Works Act. This book was also written at a time when global politics felt quite cartoonish – with Mr Trump in particular all over our TV screens and newspapers. Kerehi (and lots of his cousins, here and in Australia) were obsessed with “Donald’s Trump”. Images, feelings, words and history surround a child when they’re growing up, no matter how you try to protect them or how hard you work to explain the inexplicable. For a child interested in power and justice – like Kerehi – the world we live in doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Your question also makes me think of my own fears. Tokerau saw that the story is about the relationship between a child and his mother – I had only thought of it as the child’s story. But of course it’s my story too. Making this book, doing something rather than nothing, taking action I guess, helped me both relax and have fun, as well as find my backbone.
How did you discover Tokerau as a collaborator? And what makes his work so special?
I googled and googled and came across these ink works that were part of a Māori Goth exhibition. They spoke directly to me, and I felt their maker would understand the character of Paku Manu Ariki. I had no idea if he would want to illustrate, but sent an email, and he said yes. First miracle. One of those ink paintings was of a volcano with an eye in the middle. Very Ralph Steadman but nothing like anything I’d seen. Alive and honest and totally unique. Not copying anyone else. I think Tokerau is incredible and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to work with him.
Did the words come before the illustrations? or did you develop the two languages alongside each other?
The words came first, before Tokerau was on board. But as his illustrations morphed and grew, I think they changed and deepened the meaning of the words and the nature of the story. He invented Paku Manu Ariki’s journey to the underworld, and accessed and brought in so many different presences. Some of them may have been floating at the edge of the text already, but he identified them and gave them shape. We did think through and add and change some important lines. I think Toki would have loved me to be more flexible with the language, but I couldn’t see a way to change very much at all! The way Toki’s own visual language developed was a privilege to watch and be a part of. He is very sensitive and leaned right in, when it may have been more comfortable to keep some distance.
Is this your first children’s book? How did you find the craft of writing for this age and this format? Did being a poet help your process?
Yes, but definitely not my last – or (hopefully) the last for Paku Manu Ariki. I love writing in this way. It is like poetry – fun and unusual language. Maybe the enduring kids books really are poetry, in that not a word is wasted or out of place, and every word and comma and line break carries the story forward, and repetition (words or themes or images) is a good thing.
I feel increasingly sure that adults need to read more picture books: did you have adult readers in mind as well as kids?
Agree! I feel that kids books are like grandparents, and aunts and uncles, and cousins and friends, of all kinds and from all places, in this weird culture we live in that physically separates children from their extended families. Kids books at their best are about the millions and billions of experiences, to which kids themselves are way more open than their adults.
But I didn’t have any readers in mind – I wrote to capture my son’s voice and wild insights and to soothe myself through the ups and downs of parenting.
What are your hopes for the book?
I hope it finds its readers and I hope they laugh and understand its spirit. I hope it generates conversation between kids and adults about identity and belonging and the nature of authority. One of the best moments Tokerau included in the book (according to me, ha) is the character of Mum – a joyful wrestler, even if “she’s only Pākehā.” I hope the book also helps non-Māori kids and adults think about how to “be” in Aotearoa, how to move towards a strong identity by getting in behind self-determination and tino rangatiratanga.
Gecko Press is your publisher: was it important to you to work with them?
It was a shock when Gecko Press said yes. A friend introduced me to Julia – which maybe eased the way or helped Julia be open to this strange story, though she is a very open person already. The team at Gecko Press placed so much trust in us, and had a lot of patience. I love their books. They’re open-ended, with space for interpretation, for not following the rules or the ruling morals of the day.
I think we all learned a lot, and were brave to make this book together, and I can’t thank every single Gecko person enough.
Children’s books do such essential work, do you have favourites that you could recommend?
I’m no expert in kids books. I go to the library and pull mountains off the shelf at a time, but it means I don’t remember who wrote them or what their titles are or who made the art. We do have unshakeable favourites at home. Everything by Robyn Kahukiwa and Patricia Grace. Jon Klassen. Eric Carle. Shaun Tan. Kerehi’s dad still reads Te Tanguruhau (The Gruffalo in te reo Māori) to him pretty often. One of Kerehi’s favourites is The Lines of Grandma’s Face, by Simona Ciraolo. Another big hit is I’m the Biggest Thing in the Ocean, by Kevin Sherry. John Walsh’s dark and brilliant Nanny Mango was a major surprise – Gecko Press introduced it to us when we first met. Who knew!
What children’s books influenced you in terms of both life and reading and imagination, and also in the making and vision for this book?
I have a very bad memory and can’t remember the kids books I loved. All I’m getting is the smell of turnips – I did have one book I loved for the smell of its pages, I’d breathe it in and in. Was the book about turnips? Did I even know what turnips smelled like?
My mum was a primary school teacher and a massive reader – and literacy champion – so we grew up with kids’ books. She loved fantasy and science fiction, same as my dad. My stepmum, Kerehi’s Nani Ma, loves crime fiction. Books are great!
If anything, for this story, it’s been essays and books for adults that have influenced me, as a parent and resident first, and then as a scribe. Ani Mikaere on Pākehā identity. Moana Jackson on appropriation. These are things I think and talk about a lot. I know it’s very easy to get things wrong and very difficult to get things right, no matter who you are. It feels important to try, so we can have fun and fail and learn and try again.