BooksMade possible by

Why do so few of the best New Zealand picture books for kids have characters who are girls, Māori, or Pasifika?

Thalia Kehoe Rowden finds a lot of great reads in the Storylines selection of the best picture books for young kids – but wonders why the hell it is in this day and age that so few authors write about  girls, or Māori, or Pasifika.

You’re standing in a children’s bookshop, wading through the vast selection of bright books in front of you. What to get, how to choose? Each year, the Storylines Trust makes your job easier by producing the Notable Book List.

I sat down with its choice of the best 13 picture books for the under-fives and shared them with my kids.

Māui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia, $25)

A super-cool modern version of how Māui the trickster and his brothers slowed the sun. It’s fun, clever and multi-layered, and it handily presents the story in both English and te reo Māori on each page.

Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ, $19)

A sweet story of family loss that handles serious subject matter with just the right tone. A little boy Danny and a little goat Rasmas have both lost their mothers. Wise Grandma pairs them up, and they become best friends and inseparable adventurers until Dad marries Rona and the family moves to the city – without Rasmas. Danny grieves all over again, is held by the warm presence of Rona, and finally the family is reunited with Rasmas as they buy their own farm.

The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Scholastic NZ, $19)

Carlos finds his Uncle Jack’s instrument, learns the pleasure of making music, and navigates his family’s grief at his uncle’s death in combat.

Gladys Goes to War by Glyn Harper, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Penguin Random House NZ, $20)

For children ready for more detail of what World War I was like, Gladys Goes to War introduces us to an ambulance-driving war hero who battled sexism and crashed through one barrier after another in a life full of both adventure and grief.

Henry Bob Bobbalich by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Link Choi (Scholastic NZ, $19)

If you feel like chatting with your five-year-old about unjust laws and civil disobedience, as happened in my house, or perhaps travel and apparel in the Middle Ages, then pick up Juliette MacIver’s latest virtuosic rhymer, Henry Bob Bobbalich. Link Choi’s stunning illustrations show the mediaeval world that oppresses Henry, forcing him to keep his feet on the ground when all he wants to do is climb, climb, climb. It’s darker in tone and subject matter than her bubbly Marmaduke Duck series, and there are lots of grown-up words and ideas nestled in the jaunty metre.

Tuna and Hiriwa by Ripeka Takotowai Goddard, illustrated by Kimberly Andrews (Huia, $20)

Set beside the white cliffs of the Rangitīkei river, and one of only two books in the list of twelve to have more female characters than male, this is a vivid, gripping account of how the tuna got its glowing belly. A warning, though: there’s no happy ending for the joy-filled water nymph Hiriwa.

Fuzzy Doodle by Melinda Szymanik, illustrated by Donovan Bixley (Scholastic NZ, $19) and Gorillas in our Midst by Richard Fairgray and Terry Jones (Scholastic NZ, $27)

Two smart books where the illustrations shine.

If I was a Banana by Alexandra Tylee, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (Gecko, $30)

A dreamy, philosophical chat, great at bedtime if you’re making time to imagine things with your little ones.

Gwendolyn! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Terri Rose Baynton (HarperCollins, $30)

Juliette MacIver is one of the most prolific top-flight children’s authors around, and has two books on the Storylines list this year. Gwendolyn! is the story of a charismatic penguin living in the jungle. A light introduction to themes of optimism, pessimism, itchy feet and contentment, it’s on high rotate in our house.

The Best Dad in the World by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart, $20)

Each page starts with the words, “My dad is the best dad in the world, because…”. Dads of many shapes, sizes and shades are depicted in the fun illustrations, but do read the whole thing before you choose it for a family you know.

Witch’s Cat Wanted: Apply Within by Joy H Davidson, illustrated by Nikki Slade-Robinson (Scholastic NZ, $19)

It’s hard to find good feline help these days, but there’s a good Kiwi solution to staffing woes in Witch’s Cat Wanted. I did wish the witch and other characters had been given names, and the rhyming parts had been tightened up a little.

It was a pleasure to be introduced to these books, only two of which we already had at home. It was disappointing, however, to crunch the numbers on who can see their faces and families reflected in the stories.

Whether you’re counting covers, stars or supporting characters, male characters outnumber female characters at least three to one in almost every book on this list. Yes, in 2017.

Only four of the twelve books star female characters, and not one is a little girl. There’s a penguin, a nameless witch, a mythical dancer who gets eaten by a jealous (male) eel, and one human woman who goes to war, despite sexist discouragement, which is given in detail.

By contrast, the male stars, five human boys and three animals, have all sorts of varied adventures. Rasmas and Danny have a wonderful friendship; one boy observes sneaky (mostly male) gorillas; another imagines life as dozens of different objects. Henry Bob Bobbalich scales cliffs; Fuzzy Doodle devours print and becomes a butterfly; Māui catches the sun; Carlos learns to play an heirloom harmonica; and Tuna attacks Hiriwa.

This is a problem! One of the reasons we celebrate New Zealand publications is so our kids can see lives like theirs in the pages of the books they read. This kind of imbalance, part of an unfortunate worldwide trend, says to kids that it’s just more interesting to be a boy.

And what is a Māori or Pasifika girl to make of this line-up? There are no protagonists here that look like her. Danny, Māui and Carlos are kids of Māori appearance with starring roles, but they are all boys.

It isn’t Storylines’ fault that the book scene is still dominated by male characters, and it’s also worth noting that most of the authors and half of the illustrators honoured in this list are women. There’s no villain, and no magic wand solution here.

But what an opportunity: imagine if award-givers like Storylines and the New Zealand Book Awards prioritised representation. For next year, I’d love to see both groups add gender and ethnic representation to their judging criteria and explicitly encourage publishers to produce more books starring girls and people of different ethnicities, so these lists can help book-buying friends of all little people in Aotearoa.

The Spinoff Longform Fund is dedicated to facilitating investigative journalism. Our focus is on supporting in-depth reporting on important New Zealand stories. Your donation will help us sustain this most resource-intensive form of journalism, ensuring that the most complex and important stories still get told.