A Passion Shared: Melanie Drewery revisited.
Oratia have just refreshed Melanie Drewery’s Nanny Mihi series by publishing a new title Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird (2018) and re-issuing a re-illustrated edition of Nanny Mihi and the Rainbow, which was originally published as a Raupo paperback by Reed in 2001).
Here are Melanie Drewery’s answers to some questions I put to her in 2007, while preparing an
article for Magpies magazine..
MD. is Melanie Drewery
TA. Is Trevor Agnew
TA. I’m sorry there are so many questions. Margaret Mahy said that my questions are like the Ten Commandments: you’re only expected to attempt a few.
You were born on 4 Feb 1970, in Palmerston North. What was your childhood like?
MD. Happy, imaginative, adventurous, independent. Much freer than the children of today, I think. We would pack a lunch in the morning and disappear on the farm for the day, or go out riding. My primary school was tiny; only 30 kids. We had a share in a yacht too, and we used to go sailing and have bonfires on beaches. Dad always made stuff and Mum was artistic so we were encouraged to make our own things.
TA. What were your interests and enthusiasms?
MD. Horses mostly, reading, making things, animals, writing and drawing. I hated sports.
TA. Did your parents encourage reading?
MD. Yes. When I was very small they used to act out stories with me. I even had a little red riding hood dressing gown. We all read a lot.
TA. Any special features of your early life? E.g. what was it like being raised in the 1970s?
MD. Fun, crazy I suppose when you look at all the rules now. I remember riding on the back of the ute, with a rug for longer trips. We had a game that involved hanging off the side and trying to catch tall grass. (forget seatbelts) none of us died but a friend of mine did once fall out of their car and break her arm. I remember my parents having fancy dress parties and doing groovy dancing, and being carried home in our sleeping bags. I have lots of memories that would make me squirm as a parent now- the rugged old rope swing over a bit of a cliff, the hut we burrowed out in the middle of the hay stack, galloping up the road when racing my friends, playing cowboys and Indians and trying to do trick riding, shooting each other with catapaults of all sorts, sliding down slips on nikau leaves or old sacks. It was all dangerous stuff but boy it was fun!
TA. Where were you educated? (A very
TA. Favourite books and authors? (apart from Badjelly the Witch, Joy Cowley and Margaret Mahy)
MD. When I was a kid: The Monster at the End of The Book (sesame street) Under The Mountain by Maurice Gee, Narnia, Little House on the Prairie, The Black Stallion
Mow: my latest favourite picture books are Fox by Margaret Wild, and Wolves by Emily Gravitt (I think that’s her name) I also think Lauren Child is a very good writer.
TA. You have had many occupations. Children’s librarian sounds intriguing.
MD. It wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. I loved the books, and the mending, and the storytimes, and helping children to find great books, but I did not love people who were grumpy or rude. It is not worth shouting at a librarian about a ten cent fine.
TA. You have also listed your occupations as pre-school teacher/ supervisor, potter and artist. What are these like?
MD. Hmmm, all different from each other- but also a bit similar. They all require me to be creative, and they all involve interacting with other people in a way that might move, teach, or inspire them (just like writing). I love working with little children and playing. It’s fun thinking up new games to teach them things, and seeing them get lost in the learning. Most of my pottery is fun too- not too many plain cups or bowls, more things like funky women and mermaids. The same with painting- but I find that hardest of all
TA. What brought you to them?
TA. Your NZ Book Council biography says you were born in Palmerston North & have lived in Feilding, Auckland, Picton, and Blenhiem (wherever that is). Why have you have lived in these places?
MD. Because my parents moved a lot.
TA. And now you live in
MD. I hope not, I’m a bit young for that!
TA. Is your home really a converted cowshed?
MD. Yes, with lots of relocated bits added on. People think I’m a bit of a hippy because it looks a bit odd.
TA. With your interest in horses, I’d have expected a converted stable.
TA. When did you first become interested in writing?
MD. I always loved writing at school. A school visit by Margaret Mahy when I was about 14 gave me the idea that I could do it for a job.
TA. How did you first become involved in writing for young people?
MD. I had a teacher at high school (Mrs Collins) who liked to read us picture books, and I knew that I wanted to write them, I like their layers.
TA. At what point did you start to see writing as a possible career?
MD. I had some work published in newspapers at about age 15/16, I sent my first manuscript away at 17 (no publishing success but I did win a radio competition) then kept on trying. I did sell the odd thing to radio, newspapers and magazines over that time.
TA. You had “thirteen years of trying” before your first book was published. How did that feel? (The 13 years AND getting published.)
MD. Fantastic but unreal - also it took another two years for it to actually come out, so it didn’t feel true until I had the book in my hands.
TA. Which was your first published book? Nanny Mihi’s Rainbow?
MD. Yes - Nanny Mihi and the Rainbow
You became a professional writer in 1998? Well that’s hard to define. I still have to do lots of other jobs- I was always trying to write for a profession, the only shift is that someone said yes.
TA. What effect has this decision had on your life?
MD. I am now committed to a life of poverty! Ha ha.
TA. Have you had help from other writers?
MD. Yes, I’ve found that writers are a lovely bunch. They are always happy to encourage and share with each other, and pass on trade secrets and gossip, anything to help each other up. It is very different to the visual arts where people tend to hold things very closely to themselves and are more competitive. Writers seem to have none of that- and be genuinely pleased when their peers achieve success.
TA. Is it possible to make a living as a children’s writer in New Zealand?
MD. It is very difficult- I wasn’t joking about the poverty thing. I have 15 books out now and I still make a lot less than the dole for them.
TA. What are the drawbacks of being a children’s writer?
MD. Hmmm drawbacks, um, people turning up at my door hoping to get a book signed when I’m in the middle of shouting at my children? I guess I mean the perception that because I write about love and family I must be a wonderful parent, when I’m actually just human and making it up as I go along, like anyone else is.
TA. What are the benefits of being a children’s writer?
MD. Knowing that my work is out there moving/ inspiring someone. Or maybe even making them laugh if I’m lucky. Being invited to visit schools and meeting heaps of children all around the place.
TA. You have listed your tribal link as Ngati Mahanga. How important has your Maori heritage been to you?
TA. It wasn’t until we moved to Picton. I knew nothing about it, so I’m a latecomer. But I do feel a strong link, and get quite emotional about things Maori.
TA. Do you see yourself as a Maori writer?
MD. I suppose I do. Sometimes I feel a bit too blonde, and I don’t speak Maori, but deep down it is very important to me, and I think that is reflected in my work.
TA. An awareness of Maori aspects of life is obviously linked to many of your books, like The Treasure (2003) and Child of Aotearoa (2004).
The NZ Book Council writes of you: “Drewery’s concern as a writer is to introduce Te Reo Maori in a way that is both non-threatening and engaging. For Drewery the Maori tradition in story form gives children easy access to Maori language and culture, and encourages further learning.”
The Nanny Mihi books must be the most “non-threatening and engaging” series ever written. Was this deliberate?
MD. Yes it was entirely deliberate. I do feel that I missed out, a bit, growing up in a time when Maori was almost a dirty word. I really wanted to contribute to the growing cultural pride, and the acceptance of Maori by all in Aotearoa. Working at Playcentre really helped me shape the direction of the Nanny Mihi series, because we used Te Reo every day, before they had really started to take that on board at schools (in my area anyway).
Nanny Mihi’s Rainbow (2001) for example has an old Maori lady amusing her holidaying mokopuna (grandchildren) on the beach. To their surprise, she helps them to learn the colours of the rainbow and the days of the week in both Maori and English. In other volumes they learn about numbers, vegetables and seasons. Maori terms are used naturally as part of the text, as when Nanny Mihi’s presents are eaten by her nanekoti (nanny-goat) in Nanny Mihi’s Birthday Surprise (2003).
TA. The Nanny Mihi stories are also full of fun. How hard is it to write with humour for young readers?
MD. Um, I think it has to be honest humour. Does that make sense? If it’s put on or patronising it comes across as a weak attempt. The characters have to be real within the funny situations.
TA. Koro’s Medicine (Nga Rongoa a Koro), 2004, is your book which has gained the most awards. With its details of traditional Maori plants used to ease blocked noses, heal cuts and keep mosquitoes from biting, it must have required careful research.
MD. Yes, it took me a year to write that. I did heaps of research and ended up leaving an awful lot of it out.
TA. Maori traditions and culture are an integral part of many of your books. The Grumble Rumble Mumbler (2007) for example introduces a whole spectrum of Maori monsters and supernatural beings as part of a very funny verse-story about a boy who won’t go to sleep.
MD. It’s a girl. It’s actually me and my daughter- did you notice the mother gets shorter with her as the story goes on? That’s because I do start to get grumpy. I enjoyed writing about a universal problem, but including some learning about Maori monsters (more research- I don’t actually know all these things) and also humour of course. The other thing that was important in this story was that the girl solved the problem for herself in the end.
TA.. Is your aim to introduce young non-Maori to Maori concepts?
TA. Or is it for Maori readers to reinforce their awareness of their culture by letting them see it in their books?
MD. Yes to this as well
TA. Or both?
MD. Of course.
TA. Or is it just to have fun?
MD. Crikey, can’t it be all of these things?
TA. The Grumble Rumble Mumbler was read aloud in libraries all over NZ in Library Week, in October 2007. How did it feel to have your words being recited nationally?
MD. I don’t know- I didn’t really think about it like that- I read it at our local library in
TA. Is this a breakthrough for ngongoro (snorers)?
MD. Absolutely- we’re all monsters.
Koro’s Medicine was shortlisted for the NZ Post children’s book award, while its Maori translation, Ngā Rongoā a Koro won the Te Koura Pounamu Award for the best children’s book in the Maori language. The judges said: “Ngā Rongoā a Koro has the ‘x’ factor…the topic conveys the cultural importance placed on rongoā and the storyline cleverly conveys this in a way that all readers will be able to relate to. We liked the simple language…and we feel that the book will be read often at home and at school.”
TA. How do you feel about this great tribute to your writing.
MD. Very moved- a bit tearful at the time.
TA. As well as this win, three other Maori language editions of your books have been shortlisted for Te Koura Pounamu Award: Te Taonga (2003), Matariki (2003) and He Tamaiti no Aotearoa (2004). How does this sort of recognition affect a writer?
MD. Well, I’m starting to feel like an actual writer. For the first few years I felt like a fake. I’d be on a book tour with ‘real writers’ feeling like sooner or later they’d figure out I was just there by accident. Kids would say, ‘How does it feel to be a famous writer?’ and I’d say ‘but I’m just me.’ I still feel like that- but I can now say I am a writer.
TA: Matariki (2003) is the one that librarians and teachers had been looking for – a book that introduces the Maori New Year and offers some of the customs and traditions linked to that star-cluster, the Matariki (or Pleaides, or Subaru) returning over the horizon each year. Was this an important book for you?
MD. Yes, very, it is still my best seller.
TA. I notice that most of your books have been translated into the Maori language. What effect does this have? On you? On your readers?
MD. I usually ask for that. I think it’s important.
TA. Do you have a favourite book? (Or is it like a family? No favourites allowed!)
MD. yes, the Grumble Rumble Mumbler is my favourite. Also the Treasure- because that
was a message to my girls.
TA. You are married with two children and two stepchildren. Do your own family appear in any of your books?
MD. Yes. Maddie stars in the Mad Tadpole, It was based on Molly. My husband, Jeremy, and his family are in Big Fish Little Fish (coming out 2008) Maddie and Tessa are also in a pony one and Molly and Claudia modelled for the pictures in Miria’s Harakeke (both coming out 2008 as well)
TA. They’re all daughters. Has this affected what you write, or the way you write it?
[I have four daughters myself, and I sometimes felt that some of the books they read were written with boys in mind, unconsciously excluding girls. Admittedly, this was before you were bor
MD. Yes and no. I do have girl stars, but I try to write for boys as well, because I think has swung a bit far the other way now.
TA. Have your family inspired anything you’ve written?
MD. Oh yes, all the time.
TA. There’s a perception that your books all have Maori themes but that’s not true is it? I was thinking of Papa’s
MD. No I don’t want to be pigeon holed- Maori themes are important to me, but there is room for me to write about other things as well.
TA. I enjoyed Dad’s Takeaways (2007), where the family gathering their meal at the beach are Maori but could have been any New Zealanders. This seems to me to be symbolic of an acceptance of the role of the Maori element in the national makeup that wasn’t present say thirty or forty years ago. Your view?
MD. Yes, you’ve got it in one.
TA. Incidentally, I get the feeling that this is a modern, re-constituted family. Dad is Dad. But there is no Mum. Is Ngaio a big sister? Or dad’s new girlfriend? Or am I reading too much into the story.
MD. I wanted to leave that open to the children’s interpretation, so they could fit it to suit their own situation. She could be Dad’s sister or girlfriend, or just a friend. I also try to have boys and girls of indeterminate age in my stories for the same reason.
TA. Are you trying to reflect kids’ real-life experiences here?
Most of your books are picture books (e.g. The Treasure, illustrated by Bruce Potter), or books that rely heavily on their illustrations (e.g. the Nanny Mihi series, illustrated by Tracy Duncan).
TA. As a writer what part do you play in guiding the people who will create the pictures?
MD. Not a lot. More now that I am established.
TA. Is there collaboration?
MD. Sometimes, but not always.
TA. Do you provide suggestions?
TA. What is your input?
MD. I do like to write a bit of a brief, if I have a strong vision.
TA. Have you had any good experiences? Bad experiences? Unexpected experiences?
MD. Best not to answer that lot for risk of offending/playing favourites.
TA. The Mad Tadpole Adventure (2007) This is a novel or at least along story with chapters. Have you written any other novels?
MD. Yes. Big Fish Little Fish, Jiminy Shows Off, Fishing Fame. All are in various stages of production.
TA. Are you planning to write any more?
TA. I was very impressed with the writing in The Mad Tadpole Adventure, especially Maddie’s inquisitive, prattling way of telling a story, that lets the young reader work out what’s really happening (as opposed to what’s happening in Maddie’s fevered imagination. Young readers also enjoy the way that Maddie’s easy questions really flummox her mother. How did you come to write this story?
MD. It’s a little like my reality- well maybe I exaggerated a bit.
TA. Where did the inspiration for Maddie come from?
MD. She’s a mixture of all the silly side to me and my daughter’s personalities. Although she’s named after my own Maddie.
TA. Come to that, where did the inspiration for Isabella Princess Big Eyes come from?
MD. The dratted tadpole that turned into a frog of course. And also the fabulously awful names my kids come up with for their pets sometimes.
TA. The Mad Tadpole Adventure is written for the 8 to 10 year old age group (although others enjoy it including grandparents). I feel that the 8 to 10 year-olds must be the most overlooked group in children’s publishing. Yet almost all of your work seems to have been aimed more or less at this group. Do you agree?
MD. Yes. As for the early chapter book idea, they are waiting to see how it goes before they publish anymore in this style. I think there is a real need for funny engaging writing at the emergent reader level.
TA. Do you see a need to encourage reading/ enjoying books, etc at this younger level?
MD. Yes- because it’s absolute magic when kids get lost in a story for the first time. Do you remember the first few books you actually had to turn the page on? I do.
TA. Jenny Cooper’s illustrations for The Mad Tadpole Adventure are world-class; funny imaginative and skilful.
MD. Yes they are wonderful.
TA. How do you feel about the various illustrators who work on the books you write, especially the picture books?
MD. Ooooh no favourites allowed.
TA. As a painter, have you ever considered illustrating your own books?
MD. Yes, I just have- they’re coming out 2008 Big Fish Little Fish and Miria’s Harakeke. Also have submitted roughs for Jiminy Show’s Off (hope I get the job - drawing horses and horse stuff for a job would be like one of my eight year old fantasies)
TA. Your next book due out is Big Fish Little Fish (Reed Raupo). What’s it about?
MD. The Perano Whalers (Jeremy’s a Perano)
TA. Anything else on the slipways?
MD. As already mentioned.
TA. Any plans, ideas for books you really want to write next?
MD. The stupid annoying difficult evasive adult novel I’ve been working on for years. Considering doing it as short stories because I’m beginning to suspect I have a terribly short attention span.
TA. What question would you really like an interviewer to ask?
MD. What is your meaning to the life the universe and everything?
TA. What answer would you like to give to that question?
MD. A passion shared.
Melanie Drewery’s Awards [updated]:
2004: Te Koura Pounamu Award: Shortlist: Te Taonga (ill. Bruce Potter)
2004: Te Koura Pounamu Award: Shortlist: Matariki (ill. Bruce Potter)
2005: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Shortlist: Koro’s Medicine (ill. Susan Hamilton)
2005: Te Koura Pounamu Award: Winner: Nga Rongoa a Koro, (ill. Susan Hamilton) (Maori language edition Koro’s Medicine)
2005: Te Koura Pounamu Award: Shortlist: Ho Tamaiti no Aotearoa (tr Hone Apanui)
2008: Russell Clark Award: Finalist: Dad’s Takeaways (ill. Christopher White)
2008: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Shortlist: The Mad Tadpole Adventure (ill. Jenny Cooper)
2009: NZ Post Children’s Book Awards: Picture book: Winner: Tahi, One Lucky Kiwi