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Photo of a Māori girl beaming as she exits a tunnel slide; design feature out the side shows a zigzag of green with book emojis.
Terrific books just keep coming down the pipeline (Photo: Jane Ussher, featured on the cover of board book Ko wai te papa tākaro?; Design: Toby Morris)

BooksApril 23, 2022

The glorious resurgence of New Zealand children’s books

Photo of a Māori girl beaming as she exits a tunnel slide; design feature out the side shows a zigzag of green with book emojis.
Terrific books just keep coming down the pipeline (Photo: Jane Ussher, featured on the cover of board book Ko wai te papa tākaro?; Design: Toby Morris)

The magic is back and thank goodness for that, writes books editor Catherine Woulfe.

I’m wincing as I type this but: for at least a couple of years there it was rare to come across a New Zealand picture book that was done well. Where the words weren’t a screaming shambles, and care had been taken with the design and artwork, and everything bopped along with joy and story and little-kid magic. Eirlys Hunter, a longtime teacher of creative writing for children and a writer herself (most famously of the Mapmakers’ Race series), laid it out in an essay we published last year

Even without the constraints of rhyme, too many picture books ignore rhythm. To be fair, they’re not too hard to identify as they usually also have dull illustrations, are written in banal clichés and tell a hackneyed story – or no story at all. They come from a cynical production line and there’s no love of writing – or respect for children – involved in their creation.

I love picture books, I truly do, and every time a new book arrives I go in optimistic, but for a long stretch things just felt flat. Tired. Not-great book after not-great book turned up on my doorstep and each one made me sad. Oh there were still flashes of storytelling wizardry, but they were too often swamped by cliché and earnestness, badly-drawn kiwi (they have straight beaks, you guys) and trippy-uppy writing. It felt like there was a disconnect between all our huge talents, the brilliance of our writers and artists, and the finished books themselves. I had a big moan about this when the finalists for the 2021 book awards were announced. 

But now! Whatever was wrong – and it was partly Covid, of course, but it wasn’t just Covid because it had been going on for ages – seems to have abruptly come right. For the first time in a long time, our cup runneth over with top-tier books, the kind you can read right after Where the Wild Things Are and Hairy Maclary and not feel like you’re lurching down a level. When this year’s children’s book awards finalists are announced in June, the picture books category in particular is going to be absolutely stacked. Our lucky, lucky kids.

Two picture book covers, one grand and mostly black, the other cheerful, with a blue elephant perched on top of a small child.
(Images: Supplied)

Two of this terrific crop I’ve written about before, so I’ll skip over them here: My Elephant Is Blue, by Melinda Szymanik and Vasanti Unka, and Gavin Bishop’s splendid big hardback Atua. They alone were enough to make me feel like we were on an uptick. 

But just after Christmas, Huia snuck out the dark rockpool adventure The Eight Gifts of Te Wheke, with Steph Matuku on words and Laya Mutton-Rogers on pictures.

Photograph of picture book showing birds eye view of two children on a beach facing a giant octopus in the water.
A gift (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

It’s about a giant octopus, Te Wheke, dragging a little girl into his undersea lair, and about her brother, who rescues her. The story is so strong you could read it without pictures and it would still be lush and tense and creepy as hell. 

“Give her to me,” said Te Wheke. “I’ll make her stop crying.” 

And, as he drags her in: “Now hush, little girl … Be as quiet as a fish.”

But the illustrations are astonishing. Mutton-Rogers nails a huge range here: close-ups of shocked faces, a birds-eye house interior, a faceoff between boy and octopus, a feast. The spread I love most shows Te Wheke’s lair: think Graeme Base’s teeming Animalia but with an anti-capitalist wink. The detail doesn’t really come through on a screen, so here’s just a section of the spread: 

Illustration showing a giant octopus spread over a treasure trove of junk.
A close up of the hoary old capitalist (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

You could easily spend 15 minutes looking at this one spread, and we have. Another thing I love: the mum in this book is drawn big and strong and she has boobs. She looks like she gives great hugs but takes zero shit. She looks real. 

Illustration showing two kids and their mum sprawled on the sand, a huge octopus slumped in front of them.
The rarely-seen picture-book mum who actually has boobs and a bum (Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

I’m going to throw another Huia book into the ring here too. (At the moment they’re up there with Penguin as our strongest publisher for kids – you can always pick a Huia book by their vibrant covers, their impeccable design and production standards, their baked-in sense of humour.) The Greatest Haka Festival on Earth is a hard-case story about Nana and the kids travelling to Te Matatini. Words by Pania Tahau-Hodges, illustrations by Story Hemi-Morehouse, it’s quite a long one to read aloud but worth it. I’m sure it has helped tide kapa haka fans over while Te Matatini has been on ice – there hasn’t been an IRL festival since February 2019. 

Photograph of two picture books, one in grey and brown tones, the other bright blue.
(Photo: Catherine Woulfe)

I thought things couldn’t possibly get any better, but then a couple of weeks ago the kids tore open a big flat courier package and found a book called The Lighthouse Princess. READ IT, the three-year-old commanded, smacking it onto my lap. And so I did. And honestly it was like Christmas morning when you’re a kid, like when you’re the first one up and you wander out to the lounge for a fizzy moment of reverence, just you and the tree. 

The Lighthouse Princess is a perfect book. It’s full of cosy nooks and light touches – there are chocolate fish in the sea, friendly penguins that pop inside for a bath – but it’s also hardout feminist, in a matter-of-fact way that sits so much better than all those strident girl power books the shops are flooded with. It begins: 

The princess lived in a tower by the sea.

She wasn’t sad, and she wasn’t stuck. 

This princess wears dungarees and carries a spanner; she gets things done and fixes stuff that breaks. She rescues a boy who shipwrecks nearby. Does she need rescuing from the tower, he asks? No, she says. She likes it here. Their relationship continues like that, a healthy, open call and response, and it’s still fun, because they’re also sliding down the banisters and swimming with seals and fishing (for chocolate fish, natch). My two-year-old daughter adores it and so does my seven-year-old son, and so do I. All by itself this book is enough to shore up my faith in our children’s publishing industry.

Spread from a picture book showing a storm at sea, and a girl racing over rocks to save a drowning boy.
Check out those slicey fast-running hands (Image: Supplied)

The story is put together with tenderness and zing and a poet’s ear – it’s a delight to read aloud, even when you’ve already read it aloud 39 times in the space of four days. It doesn’t bother with rhyme but it pays a lot of attention to rhythm, and assonance – the wonderful clunk and snick of words put together just so. “The birds tucked themselves away among the rocks.” “The wind whipped the waves up high.” Whipped – you’ve no choice but to say it like you mean it, to say it like the wind on the sea. Later, after the storm, you say “the restless shine of the sea beyond”, and it sounds exactly like a sssh. Ssssh

These wonderful words are by Susan Wardell, a Pākehā mother who lives near the harbour in Dunedin, and who also writes creative nonfiction and poems and academic papers (she’s a social anthropologist). 

The illustrations are by Rose Northey, a Wellington mechanical engineer turned artist. And they jump with just as much life and music as the words. The colours are fairly toned-down – a lot of woody light browns, a lot of grey-blue – and the pictures are lovely to look at, but they’re in no way ornamental. Northey has taken the story and sewn in her own, adding great confident whorls of magic and mystery and the plain old weird. (Why, my boy keeps asking, does the girl use the moon as her lighthouse light? How does that work?) 

Spread from a picture book showing gorgeous wooden interior of a lighthouse, two kids whooshing down the banisters. All sorts of cosy nooks.
It’s feminist but it’s also, crucially, fun (Image: Supplied)

For awards purposes board books get bundled in with picture books, and on that front, too, things are looking better than they have in ages. David Elliot’s put out the very cute and properly funny wordplay book Bumblebee Grumblebee (Gecko Press). Gavin Bishop continued his run of gorgeous wee board books via Gecko, with Koro (plus an English version, Pops) telling the simple sweet story of a girl and her grandfather making egg and puha sandwiches.

Covers of four board books for littlies
Consider this a baby shower shopping list (Images: Supplied)

And Massey University Press has poured all its design and execution nous into a series of excellent, glossy little bilingual and te reo Māori board books. (The main picture on this piece is from the cover of the second in the series, Ko wai kei te papa tākaro / Who is at the playground?, which is out in June.) Words are by Te Ataakura Pewhairangi and Jane Ussher is on photography, but the real stars are the kids – delighted, guileless, sure-of-themselves. At the centre of things, as they should be. 

All of the books above are available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington. Only five will be named as finalists in the picture book category of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Finalists in all categories will be announced on the 2nd of June.

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