Sunday, 16 August 2020



Mophead    Selina Tusitala Marsh


It was an exciting experience to read Mophead because I quickly realised that it was a winner, a book young people (and adults) would enjoy reading. In fact, Mophead won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award and the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction at the 2020 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Mophead also picked up a 2020 Storylines Notable Book Award in the Non-fiction category. A winner, indeed.


Below is a review of Mophead, which I wrote for The Source website in December 2019.


Mophead (2019)

Selina Tusitala Marsh

Auckland University Press

88 pages, hardback, NZ$25

ISBN 978 1 86940 898 5


Do you want to hear a story/

Um, OK

When I was 10 …

This unusual illustrated story or picture book (or more accurately a graphic memoir) is the author’s cleverly constructed and charmingly-illustrated account of how she came to accept herself, her appearance and her identity. Selina Tusitala Marsh - who was the New Zealand Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019 - begins her story by telling how 'when I was 10 I was teased for having BIG hair.'

She describes her hair as ‘wild Afakasi hair’. (Afakasi means a Samoan person with some European ancestry.) She tells how she got thick wavy hair from her Samoan-Tuvaluan mother and thin curly hair from her New Zealand-Scottish-English-French father. ‘My hair was so wild that it defied gravity.’ Teased and called ‘mophead’ and ‘golliwog’, Selina tied her hair in a tight bun and her classmates stopped calling her names. ‘I was the same.’

A turning point in Selina’s life was a visit to her high school by poet Sam Hunt. ‘He was tall and thin. He had WILD hair and WILD words.’  Impressed by the way that Sam was happy to be different, Selina made a life-changing decision. ‘I was going WILD.’ Using a few apt words and her quirky illustrations, Selina sketches in her writing career, her inspiring discovery of other wild women (from Queen Salote to Maya Angelou) and what she calls ‘the wild words of Pacific Island women poets.’

When invited to perform her poetry for such celebrities as Queen Elizabeth II and President Barack Obama Selina is always told, ‘It’s formal. You’ll need to tie your hair back.’ (Her various responses make this book a joy to read aloud.)

As New Zealand’s 11th Poet Laureate, Selina is given a tokotoko (carved ceremonial walking stick) which incorporates a traditional Samoan fly-whisk (fue) made from coconut fibres. To Selina’s delight, the tokotoko reminds her of a mop. 

The story ends (and begins) with Selina’s return to her home on Waiheke Island, with her tokotoko. A small boy mistakes it for a mop and Selina asks him, ‘Do you want to hear a story?’

Mophead is a book for all ages. Its text is exceptionally well-constructed with never a word wasted (as might be expected from a poet). A powerful message is conveyed with wit.

The lively line illustrations and dramatic lettering, which make the book such fun to read, are all by the author. The rear endpapers add another whole layer of enjoyment.

 Trevor Agnew 

16 Dec 2019

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