Thursday, 9 September 2021

ATUA: Maori Gods and Heroes Gavin Bishop

 ATUA: Māori Gods and Heroes (2021)

Gavin Bishop

Puffin (Penguin Random House)

64 pages, hardback, NZ$40

ISBN 978-0-14-377569-0



 Gavin Bishop isn’t just a great artist, storyteller and speaker; he is also a great teacher. There is no suggestion that ATUA is a textbook; it’s much too enjoyable for that. It’s just that Gavin Bishop has woven a fascinating tapestry of Māori mythology and legends, then carefully inserted tufts of knowledge into his smoothly-linked patterns. The result is a splendid cloak of knowledge, to be worn proudly by any New Zealander. Opening a page in ATUA is to learn something you didn’t know and to have it firmly lodged into your memory by a well-chosen word or picture. Or both.

   In simple terms, ATUA is a 64-page large format hardback; a companion picture book to Bishop’s earlier AOTEAROA: the New Zealand Story (2017) and WILDLIFE of Aotearoa (2019). In broader terms the three books can now be seen as a fully developed masterwork.

ATUA is a magnificent retelling of some of the Maori myths of Creation and the epic exploits of their gods, demi-gods and human heroes.  Myth is not a synonym for false. These are tales that the first Polynesian settlers of Aotearoa brought with them and, as Bishop gracefully puts it,  found them ‘recoloured’ by their new environment. They formed the basis for the rules and customs, religious beliefs, manners and daily behaviour of Māori tribal society. As such, they still have relevance for us today, a point Bishop acknowledges frequently. Each tribe also developed its own distinctive canoe legends and hero stories, and Bishop has drawn widely from them as well.

   The book is an elegant production, skilfully designed by Luke and Vida Kelly. We begin with absolutely black endpapers. The next two pages are just as black. The text is tiny, huddled in a corner.

Before the beginning, there was nothing.

No sound, no air, no colour – nothing.

Te Kore. Nothing.’

   Out of the darkness comes a sense of waiting, followed by hints of light, and a stirring. Then a massive double-page illustration presents the great sky father, Ranginui e Tū Nei and the mother earth, Papatūānuku.

There they lay, clutching one another tightly, madly in love.’

And we still haven’t reached the title page!

Gavin Bishop recites his mihi and begins his story. Rangi and Papa have over seventy children: ‘all boys, all gods, all immortal.’  

   Two awe-inspiring double-page fold-outs provide a panorama of these gods, with seven of the most significant ones dominating the scene and the story. These illustrations are created in a range of traditional styles echoing tribal carvings and paintings.  All the pictures show the Bishop firmness of line and deft colouring that we have come to expect. (I have been lucky enough to see some of the original paintings for this book and, believe me, every page has an impact of its own.)  

Before long Tānemahuta has succeeded in separating his parents. Tāne dresses and decorates his father with sun, stars and moon, then covers his mother with ‘a garment of forests’. The world as the Maori knew it begins to be created and stocked with trees, birds, insects, fish, reptiles and people. People such as Maui, Tawhaki and Kupe, each of whom gets worthy treatment. That’s Tawhaki on the cover, storming heaven.

    Each double-page is a story in itself, but the user-friendly prose is only part of the pleasure of ATUA. The tale of Tawhaki’s revenge against the ponaturi (sea-spirits), who killed his father, has three imaginative illustrations. The largest shows the home of the evil ponaturi, with an articulated whale skeleton as its roof beams. The effect is delightfully creepy.

Whether they are deities, demi-gods or mortals, everyone in ATUA speaks in a fresh, informal way. When Tūmatauenga tries to separate his parents, he boasts to his brothers, ‘Get out of my way, weaklings! Let the god of war do the job.

Hey, old fella, come and carry these adzes for us,’ says a woodworker to Tawhaki, ‘We’re too tired.

Hey! Cut that out,’ calls Maui’s father.

   Every section also carries small messages, amplifying and explaining, linking the past to the present. The page depicting Te Marama (the moon) shows and names all 30 days of the lunar cycle as well as indicating good days for fishing or planting. Neatly tucked in by the picture of the full moon, in a space no bigger than a playing card, is the story and picture of Rona and her ngaio tree. ATUA is full of tiny gems like this.

The book that began with pages of dark nothingness ends with pages showing a lively mixture of gods and well-laden voyaging canoes.

   This is truly a book to treasure.


Trevor Agnew

31 August 2021

Tuesday, 13 July 2021

Betty Gilderdale 1923 – 2021

Betty Gilderdale 1923 – 2021

 Betty Gilderdale, an important figure in New Zealand children’s writing, died in Auckland on 9 July 2021, aged 97.

Betty was born in London in 1923. She and her husband, Alan Gilderdale, immigrated to New Zealand with their young family, in 1967, and she became a lecturer at the North Shore Teachers’ College. Her passionate interest in books for young readers meant that before long Betty Gilderdale was widely recognised as a reviewer, defender, commentator and historian of New Zealand children’s literature. She also became a skilful and witty picture book writer.

 Using her expertise in children’s literature, she did much to establish the importance of New Zealand writers and their work. Her enthusiasm for locally-produced stories and picture books inspired generations of teachers, librarians and parents. Her painstaking research work resulted in her ground-breaking history A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982). For this remarkable book, Betty Gilderdale set herself the task of reading and analysing every New Zealand-linked children’s book published between 1833 and 1978. She succeeded in this mammoth task, producing a well-ordered and readable survey, along with an invaluable bibliography. Her judgements were clear and well balanced; insightful but firm. ‘Few of the early books were literary masterpieces,’ she noted.

 Under the Rainbow (1990) was her collection of extracts from books read by New Zealand children in the 19th and 20th Century. Betty Gilderdale was able to use her deep knowledge of children’s literature to provide a wide range of exciting and dramatic extracts, often with contemporary illustrations, as well as a good selection of poems.

 Introducing Margaret Mahy (1987) revised and updated as Magical Margaret Mahy (2013) was a lively account of Mahy’s life and work. While it was aimed at students who were researching Mahy’s life, this book’s appeal was universal. Every aspect of Mahy’s life was illustrated by quotations from her stories. Thus a school visit, childhood memories, unsympathetic teachers and the building of her house were all used as springboards to the various facets of the Mahy imagination. Betty Gilderdale’s carefully simplified writing style created a splendidly accessible celebration of one of the world’s great writers for young people.

Betty Gilderdale also wrote a biography of Lady Barker and published her own autobiography My Life in two Halves in 2012. Her advice to young writers was succinct, ‘Keep reading. Keep writing. Turn of the telly!

 Elizabeth’s husband, the late Alan Gilderdale, often provided the splendid artwork which accompanied her words, including the immortal picture book, The Little Yellow Digger (1992) which, with its various sequels, has sold over half a million copies. The ubiquitous little digger has been to school, visited the zoo, dug up dinosaur bones and saved a whale. With the assistance of son Peter and artist Fifi Colston, the digger lives on into the 21st Century, and has introduced the alphabet and even saved Christmas.

In 2003 the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Beloved Book went to The Little Yellow Digger. The book had just completed its first decade in print. ‘The Little Yellow Digger has proved to be one of those satisfying books that a child wants to read over and over again,’ said Wayne Mills, chair of the Children’s Literature Association (now Storylines) as he presented the award to Betty and Alan.

In 1994 Betty Gilderdale won the Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award. Ten years later she became a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit ‘for services to children’s literature.’

The best honour of all, however, came when the Children’s Literature Association chose to give her their Award for Services to Children’s Literature in 1999. (She had been a committee member for over three decades.) In the following year the award was renamed The Betty Gilderdale Award in honour of her lifelong advocacy.

 It is hard to imagine a person who has made such a major contribution to every aspect of children’s literature in New Zealand.

 Trevor Agnew

(Winner, Betty Gilderdale Award, 2013)


Monday, 12 July 2021

Faking It Kyle Mewburn


Faking It: My Life in Transition: A Memoir (2021)

Kyle Mewburn

Penguin Books

270 pages paperback NZ$38

ISBN 978-0-14-377518-8


I was strawberry jam in a can marked spinach.’

Kyle Mewburn is a storyteller and in this memoir she tells the sometimes painful story of how she found herself a female in a male body. By the end of her story she is at ease in her female body. This transition was not an easy one, but Kyle’s narrative skill and sense of humour sweep the reader along so

that a sometimes painful story becomes a gripping and almost painless read.

Kyle describes her childhood in 1960s suburban Brisbane and lets us share some of the harrowing stresses she endured as ‘a girl in a boy-shaped box.’ She didn’t have the world’s best parents, so family life would have been difficult anyway. Kyle found solace in books but had to be careful to choose “the boyest ‘boy books’ available”. Bright and bored, she played truant and – in a wittily described section - also turned to shoplifting Viewmaster reels. Kyle’s policeman father was not impressed.

A short-lived career as a sports reporter followed. Kyle describes covering one lacklustre football match, ‘It was the first time I was paid for writing fiction.’ Later of course, Kyle wrote many award-winning picture books and stories. Some of these tales feature in Faking It, such as the award-winning Old Hu-Hu (2009) which has its origins in the death of her grandfather.

During a marathon OE cycling tour of Europe, Kyle met and later married Marion, whose love and commitment shines throughout the book. They made their home and careers in New Zealand. Writing success finally allowed Kyle to have the treatment which would enable her to say goodbye to ‘boy Kyle’. Taking one last glance in the mirror, she muses, ‘I made a pretty good fist of being Kyle. … I’m going to miss him.’

The surgical operation which feminised Kyle’s features is described in detail in Faking It. In fact, in the course of her memoir, Kyle answers every question you might want to ask. And a few you never even thought of. Again her descriptions are both vivid and amusing. (And she has bravely included some before-and-after photographs.)

Banned from touching her post-operation nose, she recalls, ‘After five days without picking or blowing, my nose felt like a family of gerbils had moved in and begun renovating. If only they’d fix the leaky plumbing!’ Despite this witty, self-deprecating style, we are always aware of the underlying pain, both physical and mental.

Kyle seems to have found it easier to accept the bodily pain. However, the act of telling family members of the transition also created a great deal of emotional pain. Some were accepting but she hasn’t spoken with her father for a decade.  Rather more disheartening were the comments of some of the boorish males she encountered as she began her life as a woman.  It must be said that the residents of Milton and Millers Flat come out of this story well, as caring community members. And there are the many kindly souls who couldn’t handle the pronouns but wished Kyle well.  Good on him,’ said one old farmer.

A bonus for male readers is that they can now find out what women talk about when they’re together down at the creek (on page 235).

As a storyteller, Kyle often creates a brief story rather than use a simple metaphor. She compares her post-operative self to a newly-hatched baby turtle digging its way out of its sandy nest and finding it still had a vast dangerous beach to cross. Now that Kyle has published this book and received sympathetic reviews and media coverage, she may be said to have reached the sea.

Lovers of children’s books will enjoy her references to some of her reading and writing, especially her first encounter with The Phantom Tollbooth and her satirical re-telling of Melu (2012) to a hui of children’s writers and artists as Melu the Non-binary Mule. Better still her next picture book is due out in 2022.

If I can add a personal note, I have had the pleasure of reviewing over forty of Kyle’s books for The Source website [] and hearing her talk at library gatherings. Earlier this year Jenny and I were at the Auckland Writers Festival, feeling a bad case of imposters’ syndrome in the lounge set aside for speakers. One of the organisers invited us over to a table to meet an author. A charming woman declared, ‘Trevor Agnew, how good to see you,’ and shook my hand. Jenny was still admiring the woman’s beautiful painted nails, when the penny dropped. Kyle Mewburn. She was happy, confident and at ease.

Perhaps the least noticed but best proof of the revised Kyle’s acceptance is that the New Zealand School Journal has published her brief, moving account of her boyhood and transition as Break-up Day. (Level 4 School Journal, May 2021.)  You can’t get more accepted than that.

 Trevor Agnew

12 July 2021

Friday, 9 July 2021

The New Zealand Wars Matthew Wright


The New Zealand Wars (2021)

Matthew Wright

Oratia, 100 pages

Paperback, NZ$29.99

ISBN 978-0-947506-93-3


The New Zealand Wars is a good book. It is a well-written and well-illustrated account which will be welcomed in schools and libraries. It will be an important and useful text book for several reasons. First it provides a clear account of the conflicts and their causes. Secondly it looks at the various ways the wars have been (and continue to be) interpreted. Thirdly and perhaps most importantly, it is readable.

In the narrow space of 100 pages, Matthew Wright manages to sketch in the main figures involved, both

Maori and Pakeha, and to show the issues which brought them to open warfare. Matthew Wright’s introduction sets the tone for his account. “Few people at the time – and few historians since – have agreed on what the wars meant.” Not only does he describe the fighting, he also shows the ways in which it has been interpreted.

Ranging from the 1840s to the 1870s, Wright’s account outlines the origins and the events of the wars, as well as providing answers to contentious questions. (Did Māori invent anti-artillery bunkers? Did Māori invent trench warfare?) There are also useful explanations of technical terms – redoubt, sap, mokomokai - when they occur in the text. Useful examples of eyewitness accounts are also included.

The descriptions of the main figures are brief but sharp. As an exemplar for young historians, this sentence doesn’t waste a word: “Then von Tempsky – the popular commander, New Zealand’s own action hero and a household name at the time – was shot dead.

The pictures are certainly well-chosen but, more importantly, they also have well-written captions. In fact some captions are tiny essays explaining the significance of what is shown. So young historians are guided to take a searching look at how an event is depicted by an artist, or the significance of a feature in a photo. (He points out that the Ōmarunui battle monument wasn’t erected until 1916 and was later damaged. Thus his photo of the topless edifice demonstrates that “… the battle remained controversial.”)

The selection of the pictures is wide-ranging. There are photos, such as the 1863 image of the construction of the Great South Road. Well reproduced, it shows not only the amount of labour involved but also how effective this road would be in moving troops and supplies. Then there are contemporary paintings and sketches, some reproduced in colour. Hamley’s 1864 watercolour of pipe-

smoking soldiers weaving gabions (protective baskets) is a double-page delight.

There is a useful index and booklist. This is an open-ended resource encouraging readers to look further into each topic mentioned. There are plenty of maps, as well as sketches and photos of the terrain that was fought over, thus making, say, the importance of roads and river in the Waikato campaign vividly clear. Fact boxes abound, several of them giving guidance to some of the surviving battle sites.

The New Zealand Wars is a good book.

 Trevor Agnew

8 July 2021

Thursday, 17 June 2021

Inside Bubble Earth: Climate Change


Inside Bubble Earth: Climate Change

Des Hunt (2021)

One Tree House

56 pages, paperback NZ$40

ISBN 978-0-9951176-8-6


‘By now it should be obvious that holding your breath until your face turns blue isn’t going to save you or Bubble Earth. But there are other things we can do …’

Des Hunt is a writer who needs no introduction. His novels and non-fiction books are in every school

library. Inside Bubble Earth: Climate Change is his explanation of climate and climate change for young readers.

He begins by summoning up a tuatara’s-eye view of the history of climate patterns on earth and the possibility that the tuatara may face mass extinction as a very early victim of our current climate crisis. Along the way readers will be fascinated by his account of how the sex of tuatara eggs is determined by the temperature as eggs incubate. If the temperature three months after laying is above 22.5℃ all eggs will hatch as males! Hunt takes this possibility and uses it to explain the importance of variation in survval. Colourful diagrams and illustrations help to make his points.

As a former teacher and a full-time science explainer, Des Hunt does a good job of explaining the scientific method and applying it to climate change and its significance for ‘Bubble Earth’. Starting with the basic building blocks of life – atoms – he works through photosynthesis (how plants get energy) and respiration (how we breathe) to describing the nature of light and the perils of the greenhouse effect. This brings the reader to carbon dioxide, fossil fuels and the part played by our farms. There is also a simple analysis of six renewable energy sources.

Des Hunt always has a lovely conversational writing style.  ‘Now is the time to talk about the scary stuff,’ he warns before listing the consequences if we do nothing, Some grim examples of extreme weather events follow, although many of us have already had a mild taste of these lately. The dangers threatening our oceans and our environment are sketched in. Will we allow the human race to be the next example of mass extinction?

It won’t be Des Hunt’s fault if we do. He also offers young readers a couple of pages of actions they can take personal responsibility for to help save Bubble Earth. These are: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Rethink.

There are two pages of Activities, four pages of Glossary and two pages of suggested Websites, as well as a solid index. The book design is by Vasanti Unka.


Trevor Agnew

18 June 2021


Tuesday, 15 June 2021

Aotearoa: Lost Worlds Dave Gunson


Aotearoa: Lost Worlds (2021)

Dave Gunson

Bateman Books

48 pages, paperback, NZ$19.99

ISBN 978 1 98 853866 2


‘Roar with the dinosaurs!’

Dave Gunson is a gifted artist who over the years has caused me to change my attitudes to owls, bees, weta and – now – dinosaurs.

In recent decades there has been a spectacular change in what we know about the prehistoric life-forms

of Aotearoa New Zealand. Researchers have found evidence of everything from huge dinosaurs (Sauropods) to tiny dinosaurs (Compsognathus), giant snails to tiny mammals, giant penguins to crocodiles. One result of this continuous flood of fossils is that Dave Gunson has rewritten his earlier book on the subject, Lost Worlds of Aotearoa (2005).

The new updated version, Aotearoa: Lost Worlds (2021), has all the merits of the previous edition with the bonus of the fruits of a couple of decades of exciting research. That recently-found, long-dead mammal which joins the bats as our only known land mammal is so new that it hasn’t even got a name yet. It looks like a rat with pretensions to being a squirrel with fangs. Even stranger is Kaikoura’s giant snail, Perissoptera, with its 75mm ‘skirted’ shell covered in racing stripes.

Forming the backbone of this book are the ten magnificent double-page panoramas of our long departed flora and fauna. Each set of portraits is accompanied by a well-organised and researched descriptive key. My favourite picture re-creates some of the inhabitants of a long-gone swamp: a crocodile, a grayling, a Waitomo frog, a Giant Gecko and a Giant crab. It is a splendid scene, which is bound to inspire more enthusiastic fossil hunters. As Dave Gunson temptingly puts it, ‘For all we know, Aotearoa might well have seen some of the most interesting and unusual species that have existed, but to find out more, we have to wait for the rocks to give up their evidence.’  

Coupled with the descriptions of the amazing creatures that used to roam our land is a continual reminder that they are no longer with us. Gunson has provided short and punchy narrative segments which sum up the various causes of extinction. At first these are satisfyingly remote: a possible asteroid strike 65 million years ago, violent volcanic activity and recurring ice ages. They seem to have killed off our native examples of corals, dinosaurs, freshwater turtles, crocodiles and coconut palms. As we reach more recent times, we humans begin to feel qualms of guilt. Hmm. The New Zealand Goose were all eaten by early Maori, just like the Adzebill and the Small Moa. The New Zealand Quail were all gone by 1879; one Canterbury sport shot 120 quail before breakfast. Various types of Wrens were wiped out by ferrets, rats and the resident Stephens Island cat. What about the Laughing Owl? ‘By the early twentieth century, t had its last laugh and was gone.’ Gunson writes as well as he paints and the book concludes with the Notornis and a message of hope for tomorrow.

Written in a clear style, with skilfully detailed colour illustrations, Aotearoa: Lost Worlds is easily accessible to 8 to 12 year olds, but will prove fascinating to browsers of any age.

 Trevor Agnew

10 June 2021


Tuesday, 9 March 2021

North & South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres


North & South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres (2021)

Sandra Morris Walker Books

Hardback 36 pages, NZ$30

ISBN 978-1-925381-80-1


It is no accident that Sandra Morris has produced some of the most beautiful children’s books about our plants and birds. Her enthusiasm for wildlife and her skill in presenting it in both words and pictures is obvious in such titles as Discovering New Zealand Birds (1994)  Pohutukawa (2000) and Welcome to New Zealand: A Nature Journal (2015).

Her latest title North and South: A Tale of Two Hemispheres is both exquisite and original. Sandra Morris says she has “always been intrigued with the fact that the two hemispheres undergo opposite seasons at the same time of the year.”  (I remember as a child being fascinated that Dutch and British immigrant families in our school had skipped winter and experienced three summers.)

The book is carefully organised to show how important the seasons are to wild creatures and thus the

threat posed to many of them by climate change. (Some creatures originally selected, such as the Golden Toad of Costa Rica, are now extinct.) As well as the four seasons so familiar to us in the temperate zones, she also includes the Wet Seasons and Dry Seasons so crucial to the tropic regions. A series of coloured dots draw attention to the conservation status of the creatures shown. The scale ranges from ‘Least concern’ (green tree python) to ‘Endangered’ (African elephant). None of the species illustrated in this book are in the   ‘Critically Endangered’ category, but many of them (including the bar-tailed godwit and brown kiwi) are listed as ‘Vulnerable’.  Threats are listed for each creature.

There are twelve double-page spreads, one for each month of the year, with each displaying two species, one from the northern and the other from the southern hemisphere.  Each month has a unifying theme, such as Cunning Camouflage or Extreme Environment.  For example, November’s category is ‘Save it for later’. This has the hazel dormouse eating-up in preparation for hibernation while the honeypot ants are storing away the nectar of spring flowers.  Coloured strips down the edge of each page show the month chosen and its local season. Small world maps show each creature's location, with the dormouse in Europe and the ants in northern Australia. The endpapers have a large-scale world map showing the seasonal locations of all the creatures in the book.

The pictures, done in water colours, with sprinklings of salt for texture, are always appealing. Even the Saltwater crocodile, caring for her young, has a benignly maternal appearance.   Some of the creatures shown are a surprise such as the stag beetle and the portuguese man-of-war. The section on Tasmania’s eastern quoll is amazing reading and worth the price of the book by itself.

I was impressed by the care taken over the labelling and the detail made available to young readers. The educational value is greatly increased by the one-page index and two-page glossary.

North and South is an imaginative and user-friendly resource for a new generation of environmentally-aware young readers. It is also readable and enjoyable.


Trevor Agnew  10 Mar 2021