Thalia Kehoe Rowden tracks down 22 picture books which actually reflect the New Zealand of today.
Where are the characters in New Zealand books that look like Pasifika or Māori children? What books can they read to see their faces, families and lives reflected?
I’ve reviewed every single book I’ve found that has been published in the last three years, and stars a human child who appears to be of Pasifika or Māori heritage. There are 22 picture books and a set of non-fiction titles, and they are generally excellent.
I hope you go and buy or borrow some of them today, because all kids in Aotearoa need to read these books. Māori and Pasifika kids need to have proof in their hands that their lives are interesting and important enough to make books about. Other kids need to see that, too.
It’s 2017, for flip’s sake! Why on earth are we still struggling to find books for our kids to read that show children from all kinds of backgrounds? One of the problems is that there’s zero financial incentive for New Zealand authors or illustrators to make their books reflect the lives and faces of Pasifika and Māori kids. In fact, it costs those creators every time they do.
Pick up one of your favourite picture books and imagine how long the artwork in it took that illustrator to design, paint or draw. Picture books usually have 32 pages, plus covers and endpapers – that’s 30-odd canvases to cover, taking many months, or even years, to create. A standard advance, which is often the most that illustrators or authors will receive for a New Zealand book, is around $1000-$2000.
That gives Kiwi illustrators nowhere near a subsistence wage, unless they get picked up by an international publisher – and even then there’s no guarantee of reasonable royalties. An author who works fast might do better, but have you ever tried writing a fantastic story in, say, rhyming couplets? These things take time.
There are problems – and partial solutions – at every part of the supply chain: more mentoring and training of local authors and illustrators; pressing agents, editors and publishers to make diverse representation more of a priority as manuscripts are shaped for market; helping booksellers and librarians to get such books into the hands of Kiwi kids; lobbying award-givers to make sure they include representation in their judging criteria.
At the recent Auckland Writers’ Festival, Tina Makareti offered several suggestions to bolster our national literature, and the Māori and Pasifika writing that needs to take up more of its space. She said, “One of our issues is pure socioeconomics. Māori and Pasifika families are generally larger and more communal and, frankly, poorer. Writing can be an individualistic, selfish thing. It doesn’t have to be but I think it generally is. I have encountered many students for whom the clash between family commitments and the desire to write, or even just study, was insurmountable. I don’t think most Pākehā writers will have ever encountered the kinds of pressures I’m talking about. I think we need a fund that takes a writer through from promising early stages to completed single author publication, and I think that’s a process that takes three to five years. If we are serious about changing those stats, we need to get people up that last step, where you need serious time, but you also have to pay the bills. A three-to-five year fellowship for Māori and Pasifika writers.”
In a market as small as New Zealand, state funding is the only way many creators can stay afloat, and this is perhaps more true for the people best positioned to tell stories about Pasifika and Māori children. Imagine if Creative New Zealand – or Te Puni Kōkiri, the Ministry for Pacific Peoples, the Ministry of Education, or any number of relevant government agencies – decided to pay a group of authors and illustrators a living wage to create new picture books reflecting Aotearoa…
In the meantime, go and get some of these books for kids you know. Maybe today, even?
The Marble Maker, by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia, 2016, $20) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
Join the Marble Maker and her opera-loving lab assistant sheep in a quest for immortality. The Queen of Marble Season doesn’t just play for keepsies, she makes marbles, too. The pictures, especially in the underground laboratory, are just delightful. There are random animals to follow – a mole making a nest out of marbles, some wandering chicks. This is a fabulous, world-class book.
Keys, by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Josh Morgan (Huia, 2014, $20) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
When Dad comes home from work, late at night, his daughter is waiting for him. She wants to know about all of his jangling keys while she puts off going to sleep. Dad has lots of tall stories to match the odd shapes – does he really have a space rocket at his work, and does the curly, curvy key really open a clunky hunky door into a chocolate biscuit factory behind the tea-room? Whatever the truth of those stories, the last, plain key is the one he uses on the front door, when he comes home to cuddle his little daughter….An award-winning book from the same team as The Marble Maker. The bedside setting and palpable affection between the little girl and her Dad make it a particularly lovely bedtime book.
Rasmas by Elizabeth Pulford, illustrated by Jenny Cooper (Scholastic NZ, $19)
This was one of my favourites on the recently announced 2017 Storylines Notable Picture Books list.
It’s a sweet story of family loss that handles serious subject matter with just the right tone. Danny and the 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 Seven Kites of Matariki, by Calico McClintock, illustrated by Dominique Ford, (Scholastic NZ, 2016, $14) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
Seven sisters make seven unique kites, with eyes of seashells, to celebrate the New Year. They walk up a hill to catch a breeze, but the east wind is hiding. The illustrations are charming, combining traditional and whimsical elements. The simple story of how the sisters’ kites became the Matariki stars is full of rhythmic writing and memorable details, like the role of Grandfather Puriri, a tree the sisters rest against while they wait for the wind. It’s a gorgeous book.
The Great Kiwi ABC Book, by Donovan Bixley (Upstart, 2017, $20)
Bixley’s exuberant modern Kiwiana books are cornerstone favourites in our house. They’re bursting with life and colour, and crammed with sneaky details, so you spot more each time you read them – always a good feature of a children’s book which is designed to be read not once or twice, but hundreds of times over the years.
His latest not only has a range of people in the pictures, but includes plenty of te reo Māori words, complete with macrons.
A is for Aotearoa, by Diane Newcombe, illustrated by Melissa Anderson Scott (Puffin, 2016, $25)
A cross between an alphabet book, a geography tour, and a lift-the-flap puzzle, this book is full of rich illustrations and esoteric details. Each letter is a different place in New Zealand, and you have to guess its location from the pictures and rhyming clues. They’re not all easy! But there are answers and more info in the back.
I find the colouring a bit muddy, and the combination of pictures and text sometimes crosses the line from quirky to confusing or messy. The rhyming clues aren’t always perfectly constructed, but the strength of the book is in the scale of the enterprise, as we visit 26 different parts of the country, with can spot lots of factual detail on each page.
Tāwhirimātea: A Song for Matariki, by June Pitman-Hayes and Ngaere Roberts, illustrated by Kat Merewether (Scholastic, 2017, $20) (Text is in both English and te reo Māori; music CD included)
A young family sings a simple song to the Atua as they spend the day outdoors:
Tāwhirimātea, blow winds blow,
Rā, warm us up with your sunshine glow.
Papatūānuku, we plant seeds in you.
Ua, rain, helps new life come through.
The pictures are friendly and soft, with some lovely depictions of flora, fauna and the family. The text is first in English, then in te reo, and there is a glossary at the back for maximum learning. The CD contains the song in both languages, and an instrumental version. The music is too simple to grab me, and my kids didn’t enjoy it, but they’re big fans of the book.
Grandad’s Guitar, by Janine McVeagh, illustrated by Fifi Colston (Submarine/Mākaro Press, 2017, $25)
At first Kahu isn’t too impressed with the battered guitar he’s offered. But as he strums away, he learns that the guitar has had some pretty cool adventures over the years, when his hippie grandparents travelled the world together. An autobiographical, sentimental family story, with scenes in Greece, Afghanistan and India.
When We Go Camping, by Sally Sutton, illustrated by Cat Chapman, (Walker, 2017, $19)
As the late John McIntyre often said, “Bad rhyme is like bad music.” Blessed as we are in Aotearoa with expert rhymers like Margaret Mahy, Lynley Dodd and Juliette MacIver, it can be easy to forget how awful a badly-written rhyming book is. Luckily, this is another excellent one, from the writer of the Roadworks books. Sally Sutton specialises in rhythmic onomatopoeic delights:
When we go camping, we bang in the pegs, bang in the pegs, bang in the pegs.
Guy ropes are tricky; they trip up our legs! Smacketty tappetty bopp-io.
When we go camping, we zip down the door, zip down the door, zip down the door.
We tie up the windows and lie on the floor. Zippetty zappetty flopp-io.
The Singing Dolphin/Te Aihe i Waiata, by Mere Whaanga (Scholastic, 2017, $20) (Text is in both English and te reo Māori)
This is something special. Mere Whaanga has created a bilingual, beautifully illustrated story of an ancient family, and a boy who became a dolphin. Grandmother is raising three grandsons: Tahi and Rua who are down-to-earth workers, and little Potiki the dreamer, the singer, who is too little to join in the important jobs – or is he?
Each part of this book is wonderful. The pictures have real artistry to them, capturing the attention of both adults and children. On the first page spread, I counted 13 different native birds, plus assorted sea creatures. More appear as the story unfolds.
Having the text in both languages works very well. There’s a glossary at the back, so someone who doesn’t speak te reo could learn to follow along with the Māori text as well as the English.
The Best Mum in the World, by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart, 2017, $20);
The Best Dad in the World, by Pat Chapman, illustrated by Cat Chapman (Upstart, 2016, $20)
Companion books featuring a sweet-but-not-saccharine celebration of all kinds of mums and dads. There are jokes on most pages, and lots of things to engage with as you read it with children.
Jill McGregor’s Children of the Pacific series of non-fiction books (Puriri Paddocks, 2012-2017, $20-$25)
The rest of today’s list is fiction, but I’d like to make a special mention of Jill McGregor’s non-fiction Children of the Pacific series.
These glossy photographic books tell detailed, matter-of-fact stories of what goes on in communities around the Pacific, and they are among my kids’ favourite books. Find out about native bats, or making tapa cloth in Tonga, show day in Niue, all the ways to use different leaves in Sāmoa, or what family life is like in Tuvalu.
Each book is narrated by real children, who are photographed throughout as they show us around, and includes glossaries, maps, and other useful stuff.
Lillibutt’s Australian Adventure, by Maris O’Rourke, illustrated by Claudia Pond Eyley (Duck Creek Press, 2015, $30)
The Lillibutt books don’t fit any traditional mould, and adult readers may find them a bit odd, but my children enjoy them. They’re full of thoughtful, respectful details about the lands they explore. In Lillibutt, a Bininj girl called Myilly receives a dream from an ancestor, and takes her friends from Aotearoa, Moana and the kunekune pig Lillibutt, on a trek across northern Australia.
Daniel’s Matariki Feast, by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, illustrated by Christine Ross (Duck Creek Press, 2014, $20) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
Daniel is a bit nervous about joining his new class, but he makes friends as they get ready to celebrate Matariki together, and share the stories of stars and gardens, from their parents and grandparents. The classroom scenes are full of details kids will recognise from school or kindy, and many will relate to both Daniel’s worries and the friendliness of his new mates.
Superhero Levi, by Robyn Kahukiwa (Steele Roberts, 2014, $20) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
Superhero Levi’s exploits are exactly what you see in any backyard or playground if you give a kid a cape – and maybe a taiaha. It’s a fun, straightforward book for every child who likes dressing up and playing superheroes.
The Harmonica by Dawn McMillan, illustrated by Andrew Burdan (Scholastic NZ, $19)
Carlos’ Uncle Jack, we realise from the beautifully detailed illustrations, was killed in combat. When he finds Uncle Jack’s harmonica and teaches himself to play it, Carlos learns the pleasure of making music, and navigates his family’s grief.
Māui – Sun Catcher by Tim Tipene, illustrated by Zak Waipara (Oratia, 2016 $25) (Text is in both English and te reo Māori)
Featuring super-cool illustrations, this award-winner is a fun, clever and multi-layered modern story of how Māui and his brothers slowed down the sun. It’s one of an increasing number of books being published with the text in English and te reo Māori on the same page.
Counting in the South Pacific, by Jill Jaques, illustrated by Deborah Hinde (Jillz Books, 2015, $20)
A colourful counting book is a winner for most small children, and this is an excellent example. The illustrations are warm and full of interesting details, and the counting goes in gentle rhyming couplets:
Three juicy coconuts lying in the sand
Four wiggly fingers waving on a hand.
Kids can practise counting fun things like shells, dogs, and turtles, and explore scenes of daily life in a South Pacific community. The back page has a translation table of how to say numbers in four Pacific languages (Māori, Sāmoan, Tongan and Fijian).
Piri’s Big All Black Dream, by Jared Bell, illustrated by Jimmy Diaz (Penguin Random House, 2015, $20)
How did Piri Weepu get to be an All Black? By dreaming big and practising hard – oh, and eating up his veggies. The illustrations are so full of bouncy energy that they’ll capture the interest of all sorts of kids, and certainly any who like rugby. It’s a slightly hokey but very affectionate story that ends with a whakataukī:
Whāia e koe ki te iti kahurangi
Seek the treasure you value most dearly.
A Gift for Ana, by Jane Va’afusuaga, illustrated by Azra Pinder-Pancho (Little Island Press, 2016, $25) (Sāmoan language edition also available)
Ana is visiting her grandmother in Sāmoa for the first time. She wakes up, climbs out of the mosquito net, and finds her grandmother sitting outside on her grandfather’s grave. Ana hears the old story of how the mango tree was planted, eats a juicy, sticky mango, and gets to plant her own mango seed in the family garden.
The Boy and the Dolphin, by Robyn Kahukiwa (Little Island Press, 2016, $25) (Te reo Māori edition also available)
A simple story of a boy who becomes friends with a dolphin after he rescues it from a fishing net. Every kid I know would want to be this boy, and read this book.
The Tunnel in our Backyard, by Malcolm Paterson, illustrated by Hana Maihi (Oratia, 2016, $22) (Text combines English and te reo Māori)
A colourful book, with a fair bit of heft. We follow Tui’s family as they travel around Auckland, moving house and doing errands. Along the way Nanny Marei tells them stories about earlier times, from Ruarangi escaping from a war party through a secret tunnel leading away from Maungakiekie, to the building of the Waterview tunnel with a machine called Alice. Underground and overground, Nanny knows an awful lot of cool stuff about Auckland.
It’s formatted so that all the words and phrases that aren’t English are translated in notes at the bottom of each page. There’s lots of te reo Māori, and a bit of Ethiopian, too, as Tui meets her new neighbours. There’s plenty of extra stuff at the back of the book, including maps and website recommendations.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.