Thursday, 23 June 2022

Books about Matariki

14 books about Matariki

Chosen and described by Trevor Agnew, 24th June 2022

1. Matariki, Melanie Drewery, Bruce Potter (ill) Reed (2003) Puffin (2016) 

The whole family go down to the beach for a bonfire before dawn. They cook kumara (sweet potato) and wait for the Matariki star-cluster to rise over the horizon. Nanny tells the children several stories and legends of Matariki. ’Some people say that Matariki is made up 
of the seven houses of the gods, 

and that people’s spirits go there when they die’ said Nanny, wiping tears from her face.
They eat their kumara and bread by the fire on the first morning of the Maori New Year.

This is a good story for showing celebrations within different cultures. The children ask their mother which of the many Matariki legends they should believe. ‘Well,’ said Mum, ‘Think of the story that feels right in your heart. That is the story for you.’

Bruce Potter’s pictures of the stars and the family on the beach are dramatic.

Note: Matariki is also known as the Pleaides, a small cluster of stars. From a New Zealand viewpoint, Matariki vanishes in the east about mid-April, then reappears about the end of May or later, above the north-east horizon, before dawn. The return of Matariki marks the beginning of the Maori New Year. Traditionally the Maori counted seven stars, sometimes described as Matariki and her six daughters. The smell of the food prepared by the watching people was said to revive Matariki, who was weak and hungry after her journey in the darkness.

2. Celebrating Matariki Libby Hakaria, Reed (2006)

This splendidly readable book uses the Matariki constellation as a framework for a range of information about the stars, Maori seasons, fishing, hunting, gardening and legends.

Matariki, known to the Greeks as the Pleiades, marks the beginning
 of the Maori year, when it rises above the horizon in early June. Traditionally the first full moon after the rising of Matariki was a time for feasts and celebrations and the hunting and preserving of birds. A wide range of activities, including telescope-making, kite-flying and cooking are included. (The recipe for Kumara Chowder is excellent.) The book’s design is attractive, with clear double-page spreads, and good use of colour and fact-boxes. The text is well laid-out and very readable.

In a nice touch, the Japanese name for Matariki, Subaru, is noted with a picture of a New Zealand rally team in their Subaru. Several songs about Matariki are included in an accompanying CD, and the lyrics are printed in the book in both English and Maori.

This book fills a gap in libraries and schools, providing background material for fictional books on Matariki. At the same time Celebrating Matariki is so attractively presented that it can be read for simple enjoyment.

3. Glow Worm Night Don Long, Tracy Duncan (ill.) Reed (2004)

This book is about a family observing the Maori traditional New Year, marked by the first appearance of the group of stars, Matariki. A young girl tells how she goes with her father and brother into the nearby bush late at night. They switch off their torches and look at the stars. 
Dad points out Matariki the Pleaides).

After that, everyone looks for glow-worms. 
Then, there they are – glowing along the stream. Glow-worms! Puratoke. They see some nocturnal creatures, such as the morepork (native owl) and freshwater crayfish. 
Later Mum gives everyone Milo and tucks them into bed. ‘Sweet glow-worm dreams,’ she whispers as she switches off the light.
As Tracy Duncan’s handsome colour illustrations make clear, Dad is Maori and Mum is Pakeha (non-Maori). Some of the dialogue is in Maori, as when Dad says, Tino makariri before everyone puts coats on to keep out the cold (makariri). The context and the illustrations always make the meaning clear to non-Maori speakers.
Tracy Duncan’s illustrations always reward careful study. There are creatures, such as the Puriri moth to be spotted in the bush scenes, and books in the house. The young girl is reading Taniwha, by Robyn Kahukiwa.

Note: Matariki, also known as the Pleaides, is a small cluster of stars. From a New Zealand viewpoint, Matariki vanishes in the east about mid-April, and then reappears about the end of May or in June, above the north-east horizon, before dawn. The return of Matariki marks the beginning of the Maori New Year. Traditionally the Maori counted seven stars, sometimes described as Matariki and her six daughters.

4. Scoop and Scribe Search for the Seven Stars of Matariki  
Tommy Kapai Wilson,  Rob Turvey (ill)  Random House (2009)

Tommy Kapai Wilson was a newspaper columnist and children’s author who, in 2008, wrote a children’s action serial for the NiE (Newspapers in Education) newspaper educational supplement. It was revised and reprinted as a book in 2009. Scoop and Scribe search for the Seven Stars of Matariki is slim on characterisation but is certainly a fast-moving fantasy adventure. 
After a tip-off by a mysterious tohunga named Koro Whetu, ace junior reporters 
Scoop and Scribe are commissioned to seek the seven lost stars which form the constellation Matariki (also known as the Pleiades or Subaru).

Whetu guides the intrepid news-crew as they travel around New Zealand collecting the stars, which have been stolen by a kea (mountain parrot). A prominent local feature plays an important part in each chapter, so that the stolen statue of Pania of the Reef is recovered in Tauranga, while at Katikati, Donald Paterson’s sculpture Barry, (the only NZ statue to feature a newspaper) assists in the search.
With its many Maori characters and references, the story is accompanied by a Maori-English glossary and some factual material about Matariki and the Maori New Year.

Rob Turvey’s colour illustrations help make this an attractive presentation of a light-hearted fantasy quest, with an appeal for young male readers.

5. The Seven Stars of Matariki Toni Rolleston-Cummins Nikki Slade-Robinson (ill.) Huia (2008)

The Maori New Year is traditionally marked by the rising of the star cluster Matariki (also known as Subaru and the Pleiades). There are many Maori legends about Matariki.
This picture book retells a Maori tradition of Matariki’s origins, from the Bay of Plenty region of the North Island, and introduces some associated customs and rituals.

Mitai, who lived at Maketu (near modern Whakatane) had the power
 to change himself into a bird.

When his seven elder brothers were entranced by seven beautiful golden-haired women, they ignored Mitai’s warning that the seven women were really patuparaeihe (fairy folk).
Mitai overheard these women (who could turn themselves into fantails) plotting to starve their new husbands to death. He persuaded his brothers – now gaunt with hunger – to weave nets so they could capture their seven murderous wives while they were still in fantail form. Then Mitai flew up and handed the captive fairies over to Urutengangana, god of the stars, who placed them far from Earth. Once a year, the god allows their golden beauty to shine out. So at each winter solstice, the seven stars of Matariki appear above the horizon.

6. Little Kiwi’s Matariki 

Nikki Slade Robinson (text and ill) Duck Creek Press (2016)

The little Kiwi and her friends discover the joy of Matariki in this charming picture book. A beam of moonlight wakens little kiwi. The tiny kiwi realises the time has come and runs through the bush in the darkness. One by one, she wakens her sleeping friends and tells them to come and see something exciting. ‘Can you feel it coming?’

Before long she has a procession of creatures (including 
katipo spider, tui, weka and a family of ruru (owls)) trailing
behind her. Young readers will enjoy the parallel to Chicken-Licken.
Finally they all arrive at the beach and stand in the moonlight, as Matariki rises. They celebrate the New Year in the traditional Maori ways. For example, the katipo weaves a silken kite and flies it as part of the fun and games.
‘Matariki?’ said Tui, ‘Time for music and dance!’ He sang to the stars.
The author’s illustrations are stylised and streamlined representations of New Zealand plants and birds. They are also witty. The tiny owlets are all eyes and the weka (woodhen) is a speedster.

Little Kiwi’s Matariki also includes an explanation of Matariki – it's origins, traditions and how it is celebrated today. The constellation is shown, with the Māori names for each star. The story also offers what Nikki Slade Robinson describes as ‘a gentle introduction to te reo within the English text.

Winner Best Picture Book of 2016 in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children.

Shayne's reading of Little Kiwi’s Matariki is available on YouTube  

7. The Seven Kites Of Matariki  Calico McClintock, Dominique Ford (ill.) Scholastic (2016)

The Seven Kites of Matariki is a modern tale about Matariki. It explains why the star cluster known as Matariki can be seen in an early morning winter sky, low on the eastern horizon.

In a Maori village, seven sisters are making kites to celebrate the arrival of the new year, just as their mothers and grandmothers had before them.
Each girl makes a different kite using local materials; 
the youngest sister, Ururangi makes ‘a many-
coloured kite with eyes of paua shell’.
The seven girls climb a hill to fly their kites and argue with each other about whose kite will fly highest.
‘My kite is the best.’
Unfortuately there is no wind on the hilltop and so the seven girls wrap themselves in their cloaks and wait beneath a giant puriri tree. Exhausted, they soon fall asleep. When the wind blows from the east, crying ‘Wake up. Wake up’ they don’t hear it. But their kites lift up in the wind, which carries them fluttering up into the sky.

Much later, Ururangi wakes up, sees her kite gone and awakens her sisters to tell them of their loss. Her six sisters look out into the morning sky and see their six kites flying there like the new year stars. The six head back to the village for kai (food).
Ururangi remains behind searching the skies for her kite. She is rewarded by being the first to see the seven stars of Matariki appear.

Dominique Ford’s beautiful illustrations capture the symbolism of the story well. Each kite is based on a traditional design and the colours are matched to the appropriate plants and shells used in making them.

Note: Ururangi is the Matariki star traditionally associated with the wind.

Shayne's reading of The Seven Kites of Matariki is on YouTube.

8. Tawhirimatea: A Song for Matariki June Pitman-Hayes, Kay Merewether (ill.) Scholastic (2017)

''Tāwhirimātea, blow winds, blow.’
This picture book (which doubles as a song book) shows the world through the eyes of a Maori family. As they gather shellfish, plant a tree, and have a family picnic, their words are reminders of the importance of the natural world about them. The seasons pass by, until the rising of the stars of Matariki signal the beginning of a new year.
‘Our universe is an amazing nature show.’

The second part of the book consists of the same lyrics, this time in Maori. 
Now, let’s sing it in Maori.’ 
The Maori words are by Ngaere Roberts.
‘Ko te ao nui, he Whakaari, miharo.’

The watercolour illustrations by Kat Merewether perform a double service. They show the family along with the birds, fish and plants in their natural surroundings but they also illustrate the traditional Maori pantheon of supernatural beings. Tāwhirimātea is the god of the winds, and his face appears, cheeks puffed, among the clouds, while Ra provides the sunshine and Ua the rain.

Each picture has its secret for young readers to spot.

On an accompanying CD, both versions of the song are performed by June Pitman-Hayes with her own ukulele accompaniment. There is also an instrumental track for young vocalists to sing along to.

9. Stolen Stars of Matariki Miriama Kamo, Zac Waipara (ill.) Scholastic (2018)

Stolen Stars of Matariki is a splendid picture book bringing some of the Māori traditions associated with Matariki into a 21st Century context.
Young Te Rerehua and Sam are visiting their grandparents at one of Canterbury’s important Maori traditional sites, Te Mata Hapuku (Birdlings Flat), a massive shingle spit and traditional eeling site. It is “a magical wild, windy place,” where they can gather agates on the beach. While Poua (grandfather) is gaffing eels at night, the children lie on the shingle with Grandma, looking up at the stars. One night Grandma spots something strange; there are two stars missing from the Matariki cluster. The patupaiarehe (fairy folk) have been stealing stars again. 
Their plan is to hide the stars beneath the
shingle, to be smashed to pieces, so they can wear the fragments on their clothing.
Using Grandma’s knowledge (and Poua’s gaff) Te Rerehua and Sam manage to infiltrate and outwit the mischievous patupaiarehe, and restore the kidnapped stars to their rightful place in the heavens.
Miriama Kamo has written a beautifully-styled story which has the simplicity and power of traditional folk tales.

Zak Waipara has produced magnificently atmospheric illustrations, with richly patterned and coloured backgrounds. He has successfully achieved the difficult task of mixing human and supernatural characters, as well as the technically difficult feat of portraying night-time activities. The result is a handsome and appealing picture book.

Stolen Stars of Matariki now joins a select mini-library of celebrations of Matariki.
These include Matariki (2003), Glow-Worm Night (2004), The Seven Stars of Matariki (2008), and Tawhirimatea: A Song for Matariki (2017).

In 2018 Scholastic also published a Maori language edition, Nga Whetu Matariki Whanakotia, with the Maori translation by Ngaere Roberts. 

Note: The rising above the N.E. horizon (in May-June) of the star cluster Matariki marks the Maori New Year. While it is common to count seven stars forming the cluster known as Matariki (or Subaru or Pleaides) some Maori identify nine. Their names are Matariki, Pōhutukawa, Waitī, Waitā, Waipuna-ā-rangi, Tupuānuku, Tupuārangi, Ururangi, and Hiwa-i-te-rangi. - info from Christchurch Library Website: The Nine Stars of Matariki

During the 2020 Covid-19 Lockdown, musicians from the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra provided a musical background, as Miriama Kamo read The Stolen stars of Matariki aloud. The composer of the original music is Claire Cowan.

10. Together in Love: a Legend of Matariki  Xoë Hall (text & ill.) Teacher Talk (2018)

This picture book is a brief retelling of the Māori creation legend telling how the children of the gods Ranginui and Papatūānuku force them apart to let in the light and allow the world to flourish. Tāwhirimātea, god of the wind, angered by this action of his sibling gods, tears out his lightning-bolt eyes and throws them up into the sky. They explode to become 
the star cluster of the Matariki constellation, which 
is now the harbinger of the Māori New Year.


When Māori come together at new year, to celebrate, they tell this story to their children as their parents did before them.

Xoë Hall’s simple retelling is nicely matched by her colour illustrations. She uses bright colours and traditional Maori designs to make the various gods distinctive figures.

Shayne’s reading of Together in Love is available on YouTube:

11. Twinkle, Twinkle, Matariki Rebecca Larsen (text and ill.) Imagination Press (2019)
Whistle like the windy sky,
Sprinkle showers passing by.

This charming picture book is both simple and useful. Within an over-arching story format of three native birds (Hoiho, Pukeko and Kiwi) touring outer space in a rocket, it presents a series of simple songs (with a familiar tune) about such things as our food, how it is grown, the seasons, the weather,

and of course the stars that act as markers.

Rub your puku round and round
Food we’ve grown, caught or found.

Bright colourful illustrations by the author match the simple songs, which are provided in both Maori and English. Particularly pleasing is the spaceship which is decorated with Maori motifs, an inspiration for young kiwi astronauts.
A pictorial Glossary ensures that all is explained.
These songs scan well and provide young people with useful vocabulary. The words are provided in both English and Maori. (Translators: Tania Solomon, Justin Kereama).

A bonus CD has the songs sung in both English and Maori by Paul Inia. (Music by Richard Larsen.)

Twinkle, Twinkle, Matariki is the perfect book for a kindergarten or kura kaupapa sing-along in English or Te Reo.

12. The Promise of Puanga: A Story for Matariki  Kirsty Wadsworth,  Munro Te Whata (ill), Scholastic (2019)

‘Hana and Puanga did everything together.’
The Promise of Puanga is a picture book about two friends, and the fun they have together, watching new-born animals in spring, swimming in summer and riding their bikes through the leaves in autumn.
A problem in their area is that winter comes without warning, killing the un-gathered crops. When Hana speaks to Puanga about this problem and the need for a warning about the approach of winter, she gets an astonishing confession.
‘I’m really a star,’ Puanga explained.
She has left her Matariki cousins in order to ‘explore and go on adventures.’
Hana has never seen the stars of Matariki because of the nearby hills and mountains.
Puanga summons Tāwhirimātea, the guardian of the wind, to take her back up into the sky to be a guardian for Hana’s village.
Tāwhirimātea promises that when Hana sees Puanga shining brightly in the sky, she will know it is time for the people to gather their crops. ‘She is our own special sign,’ says Hana. And so it happens.

Munro Te Whata’s splendid illustrations convey the friendship of the two girls in several charming scenes. His portrayal of Tawhirimatea is equally skilful, bringing together the colour of the night sky, the shape of the nearby mountain and the suggestion of clouds as his hair and beard.
The result is a lovely modern story based on traditional Maori elements.

This picture book, The Promise of Puanga, fills an unusual gap. In recent years some half-dozen New Zealand picture books have been published with stories about the cluster of stars Matariki, the rising of which signals the coming of winter and marks the traditional Maori New Year. What none of these books has mentioned is that in some areas along our western coasts, mountainous terrain prevents sighting of these stars (also known as the Pleiades, Mao or Subaru). The Promise of Puanga tells in story form how this astronomical difficulty was solved for the Maori people living in these western areas by the rising of Puanga (also known as Rigel).

There are Teaching Notes for this book at: The Promise of Puanga

A diagram showing Matariki and Puanga is at:

In 2019 Scholastic also published an identical Maori language edition, He Purakau Matariki, Te Ki Taurangi a Puanga.

13. Flit the Fantail and the Matariki Map  Kat Quinn (text and ill.)  Scholastic (2021)

This third picture book in the Flit the Fantail series is written and illustrated by Kat Quin (formerly Kat Mereweather).
We’re lost! Flit and Keri cry.
Lured by the moonlight and unable to sleep, Flit has left the safety of his nest and ventured down to the dark forest floor. Flit hopes to capture the moonlight (in order to illuminate his nest). Through the trees, he can see the star cluster known as Matariki.
Tahi, rua, toru, whā, rima, ono, whitu, waru, iwa, he counts.
Keri the young kiwi, out foraging, offers to help Flit in his quest. They struggle through the bush and scrub and climb up high but are still unable to reach the moon. The pair realise that they are lost. How can they find their way home?
Ruru the owl sees them huddled together and points to the stars above.
Sometimes those special stars can even guide us home.

Flit spots the cluster of nine stars he saw earlier above his home. He carefully pecks nine holes into a kawakawa leaf in the shape of Matariki. Then the two birds make their way home, using the leaf map to follow the Matariki stars. They reach home just before the sun rises. Flit then has a bright idea. Perhaps he can capture the sun and use it to light his nest at night?

The charming colour illustrations are by the author, Kat Quin.

An identical Maori language edition of Flit the Fantail and the Matariki Map was also published by Scholastic NZ in 2021, as Ko Flit te Tirairaka te Mahere Matariki.

14. Daniel’s Matariki Feast  Linley Wellington & Rebecca Beyer (text)
Christine Ross (ill)  Duck Creek Press. 
English ed (2014); Māori ed (2015) and combined English Māori and Chinese pinyin ed (2021).

On his first day at kindergarten, Daniel is shy.                                              

He is puzzled that they will be having a feast 
because of the stars. 
Then he listens to some of the other children 
telling stories of the Māori New Year.

At home Daniel tells his mother about the feast and she makes a spicy pumpkin soup using her late mother’s recipe. (This is a subtle reminder that Matariki is also a time for remembering those who have died.) Daniel has fun working in the garden with his new friends and afterwards he enjoys his Matariki feast.

Christine Ross’s illustrations really capture the world of small boys and also give a good idea of how to greet the Māori new year.

15. Matariki Around the World Rangi Matamua & Miriama Kamo
Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (ill.) 82 pages, hardback, Scholastic (2022)

The subtitle tells it all: A Cluster of Stars, A Cluster of Stories.
Miriama Kamo and Rangi Matamua have gathered stories from around the world that are linked to the distinctive group of stars known to Maori as Matariki. ‘All around the world, the star cluster has different names, different stories, different mahi (jobs), and even different numbers of stars.’ The result is the best book ever written about Matariki.    

The first part of Matariki Around the World describes the Māori traditional creation of the 
world and has handsome double-page descriptions of the Maori gods and the lunar calendar. There are similar double-page retellings of some Māori traditions concerning the attributes of each of the stars Matariki and her eight children (Pōhutukawa, Tipuānuku, Tipuārangi, Waiti, Waitā, Waipunarangi, Ururangi and Hiwa-i-te-rangi). For example Tipuānuku cares for food grown in the earth, and her brightness gives an indication of how kumara crops will fare in the year ahead.
‘Anā! Te paki o Matariki. Behold! The wonders of Matariki.’

The second part of the book offers some retellings of Matariki stories from other cultures around the world. Not only the well-known Pleiades (Greece) and Subaru (Japan) legends are offered but also a range of stories from Africa, Australia, China, India, Scandinavia and North and South America. All are fascinating but the most interesting are the ones from the Pacific, with the similarities and differences sympathetically examined.

The writing style of this book is remarkable. The text is well researched and culturally sensitive but it is also written in a relaxed and witty style. Here the authors are revealing the Viking name for Matariki: ‘So you would think they’d have a pretty tough-guy name for the Matariki cluster, wouldn’t you? Nope. They called it…ahem…Freya’s Hens. Hens? What? Are hens hardy, battle-scarred warriors?’ (We also learn that some Vikings preferred to think of Matariki as a ladybird because of the insect’s seven spots.) Either way, Freya was the goddess who cared for the spirits of dead warriors. ‘So Freya is pretty cool.’
Writing like this makes for enjoyable reading.

Each story is beautifully illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White.
Best of all, this handsomely designed book has an excellent index and glossary.
It is a picture book which every home should have.

Trevor Agnew  
24 June 2022
The first celebration of Matariki as a New Zealand public holiday.

Monday, 20 June 2022

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)

 I was reading John Scalzi’s Head On, when I came across a scene where an FBI agent was questioning a suspect in her massive mind palace, a virtual reality site where their disembodied personalities could meet. It contains a library of painstakingly detailed books.

The agent picks up a volume.

Catherynne M. Valente. My favourite author.

Mine too,’ is the reply.

That cryptic exchange sent me to the library and a copy of Space Opera, the funniest science fiction novel I’ve read. John Scalzi summed-up Catherynne Valente's Space Opera best, when he wrote that it was, ‘As if Ziggy Stardust went on a blind date with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, then they

got smashed and sang karaoke all night.’ This is a novel which everyone who loathes the Eurovision Song Contest should read just to encounter the Metagalactic Grand Prix for song and dance.

The next Valente title I located was the first of her Fairyland series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. At this point we should all remember what the great Diana Wynne Jones wrote in Fire and Hemlock: ‘Only thin, weak thinkers despise fairy stories.’

 I’ll leave you to find a copy of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Catherynne M. Valente’s books are in all good libraries and bookshops. Meanwhile here are a couple of quotations connected to her 12-year-old heroine, September:

“…September read often and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple but put on their full armour and rode out with colours flying."

 “The trouble was September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act?

If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon and it would all be a marvellous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving snow and arrows and enemies.

Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick solid books , so they cannot get out and cause trouble.”


Trevor Agnew

21 June 2022


Saturday, 29 January 2022

Nature's Wildlife Weapons


Nature’s Wildlife Weapons (2022)

James Ryan, Bateman

32 pages, paperback, NZ $19.99

ISBN 978-1-98-853877-8

 James Ryan is twelve and he has created a book that twelve year olds of all ages will enjoy.

 Suddenly I’m twelve years old again, and this book is to blame. Picture young James Ryan, intrigued by feathers and fossils, popping into the Canterbury Museum and becoming fascinated. Now he’s written a book about tusks and teeth, claws and horns. It’s called Nature’s Wildlife Weapons.  It’s excellent.

Picture young Anthony Wright, intrigued by ferns, popping into the Auckland Museum and becoming fascinated. Now he’s Director of the Canterbury Museum and he’s written the Introduction to Nature’s Wildlife Weapons. It’s excellent.

Picture young Trevor Agnew, intrigued by skinks and geckos, popping into the Otago Museum to get a lizard identified. Now I remain fascinated by museums and I have to write a review of Nature’s Wildlife Weapons. That’s simple. It’s excellent. 

James says he wrote this book for boys and girls like himself. He has succeeded in writing a lively and interesting introduction to the weapon systems used by animals. His writing style is clear and natural. ‘Tusks, antlers, horns and claws are what animals need to fight and hunt.’  Tusks, antlers, horns and claws are also what James enjoys collecting; several illustrations show items from his private collection. His interest has led James to research widely, from smilodon to coconut crab, sawfish to pouākai, megalodon to therazinosaurus.

The entertaining text is well laid out, with plenty of intriguing section headings, such as ‘What were the biggest claws ever?’ and ‘Deer with tusks – weird right?’. The paragraph ‘Gross Facts’ lived up to its name by bringing together George Washington’s dental problems and hippopotamus tusks.

James delights in the remarkable ways some creatures have developed for hunting, defence and impressing the opposite sex. ‘They show us life close up and real.’

It is no surprise that many of these well-armed creatures are no longer with us, while many more, like the pangolin and the rhinoceros are now threatened with extinction. It is ironic that protective features like horns and tusks have made some creatures vulnerable to poaching.

James has strong views on conservation and this comes through naturally in his section on elephant tusks. ‘Ivory was once used for all kinds of things – piano keys, knife handles and buttons. …Today there is no reason to use ivory for anything. These things can all be made from plastic or wood.’

I especially like the way he drops quiet little jokes into his text. ‘My mum says that my dad has mammoth meat at the bottom of our freezer.’

James also has a good feel for history. He was delighted to find that the drays carrying moa bones from the swamp at Pyramid Valley to the Canterbury Museum went right past his home. He adds, ‘When the pouākai, Haast’s eagle, was alive, they circled the sky above where I live today. And then, when they were gone, they came past one last time.’

Above all, this book radiates James’ enthusiasm for the way our museums enable us to see some of the world’s wonders. Posing with the huge jawbone of an extinct cave bear, he tells us that they were massive. ‘Standing on all fours this one could look a tall man straight in the eyes. This skull has been in the Canterbury Museum since 1874. And now we all get to see it.

Nature’s Wildlife Weapons is well set out, with a good Glossary to help young readers. The colourful illustrations have been carefully selected to catch the attention of browsers. Here are mammoths fighting it out tusk to tusk, coconut crabs climbing trees and narwhals admiring a 3-metre tusk.  

How appropriate it is that just as Nature’s Wildlife Weapons is launched, the Canterbury Museum has brought out ‘a stampede of stuffed specimens’ for its Fur Fangs and Feathers special exhibition, which runs until March 27th.

Imagine the effect it is having on all us twelve year olds.

Trevor Agnew

30 January 2022


Tuesday, 16 November 2021

Mina and the Whole Wide World Sherryl Clark


Mina and the Whole Wide World (2021)

Sherryl Clark, ill. Briony Stewart

University of Queensland Press, 110 pages

978-0-07022-6323-1, paperback, AUS$14.99 

I’ve never met an Australian I didn’t like but I confess to a slight irritation at their habit of snaffling New Zealanders and claiming them as their own. Pavlovas, Phar Lap, Split Enz, Russell Crowe – it’s a long list. With my enthusiasm for New Zealand children’s and YA books, I was always aware that Pamela Allen was a Kiwi. Then I was delighted to find that Bren McDibble hailed from Whanganui. Imagine then the pleasure I gained from finding that Sherryl Clark, winner of a zillion Australian awards for writing, hails from Kawakawa. (As all Kiwis know, Kawakawa is the gateway to the Bay of Islands and the home of the world-famous Hundertwasser public toilets.)  Melbourne is my favourite city and I don’t blame New Zealanders for wanting to live there; it’s just a shame they can’t pop back at the moment.

To bridge the Tasman in a literary way, I’d like to sing the praises of Mina and the Whole Wide World, written by Sherryl Clark and illustrated by Briony Stewart. I think it’s the best children’s novel I’ve read this year. To pay the ultimate compliment, this is a story that is perfect for reading aloud to a class. There is no higher praise.

When we meet Mina, the narrator of the story, she and her exuberant little brother Georgie are at a garage sale with their dad. She buys a globe, and takes it home holding the whole wide world in her arms. Mina is excited that she is about to have her own room – mum’s old office - where she can keep her possessions, like the globe and her purple glitter unicorn, safe from little fingers.

Then she sees her parents have serious faces. ‘I see their mouths opening and closing but their words are like stones dropping into my stomach.

They are taking in a refugee and he will have the room.

it’s not my room anymore.’

The new arrival, Azzami, is silent and withdrawn both at home and in school.  He is put in Mina’s class and his silence draws the hostility of ‘Oliver the drongo’.  Mina finds that because Azzami makes no response to the bullies, they pick on her. “your mate is a moron.”

When Georgie breaks her unicorn and she finds herself increasingly isolated at school, Mina resents Azzami. Then, during a writing class, Azzami comes to life drawing a picture. What Mina sees in that picture of his home in Afghanistan moves her to give Azzami a gift of a sketchblock and pencils.

A visit to see his mother in hospital has Azzami smiling. ‘his smile is like the sun coming out.

After a crisis at school Mina punches the bully Oliver and is punished with suspension. Azzami draws a picture of Mina as her heroine Ninja Annie. ‘Azzami giggles.’ The dramatic conclusion of the story comes as Mina learns that Azzami’s mother is recovering and Azzami will be leaving soon. Azzami draws dozens of pictures and his teacher – a thoughtful woman – gets Azzami to tell the class his story using, not words, but pictures. The effect on the class is beautifully described, as is the final scene where Azzami and Mila achieve a moment of unity with the help of her globe.

The skilful illustrations throughout the text are by Briony Stewart. As well as showing the characters and their interactions, she has drawn attention to specific details. We are shown the importance of the pencils to Azzami.  The screwdriver represents Dad repairing the second-hand globe for Mina. A snail tucked into its shell portrays Azzami’s withdrawn personality.

The pictures are particularly good at showing the expressions and body language of the characters. When the class is admiring Azzami’s pictures, the bully Oliver stands alone, baffled, his arms tightly folded.  It is a powerful visual metaphor.

The book’s design by Sally Soweol Han shows flair in its layout. Each poem begins at the top of a new page and the pictures are gracefully arranged so that they appear at exactly the right point in Mina’s narrative. The reader is drawn into every page by the arrangement of word and image.

Mina and the Whole Wide World is a great story beautifully told. Young readers probably won’t even notice but this is actually a verse novel, a story told in a series of blank verse poems. Sherryl Clark knows all about verse novels. Her earlier verse novel Farm Kid won the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Children’s Books. Sherryl gave her reason for telling Mina and Azzami’s story in verse: ‘I find the gaps that poetry leaves for the reader are perfect for telling very difficult, emotional stories where one can stop, reflect and imagine.’

Mina and the Whole Wide World is a story that will certainly invite readers to stop, reflect and imagine.

In my opinion this is the year’s best children’s novel by a New Zealand author.

 Trevor Agnew

Tuesday, 9 November 2021

Across the Risen Sea, Bren MacDibble

Across the Risen Sea   

Bren MacDibble

Allen & Unwin (2020)

Pb 978-1-76052-605-4


This is my friend Salesi and she’s a pirate and we’re rescuing you!

This dystopian novel must be unique; not only is it a rollicking adventure, it is also funny.

Across the Risen Sea has an engaging narrator, Neoma, a lively young inhabitant of the Ockery Islands. Her best friend Jag (Jaguar) is more cautious than the impulsive Neoma, who often leads him into trouble.  They are part of a community whose island home is Cottage Hill, part of the Ockery Islands.

Old Marta, who was a young woman in the before times, is able to give Neoma (and the reader) hints of the catastrophic results of a combination of rising seas and a summer of cyclones, followed by an outbreak of disease. [This seems to have happened a decade earlier and Marta may not be as old as young Neoma thinks she is.] The Ockery Islands are former hilltops at the entrance to what has now become the Inland Sea. Other communities, such as Jacob’s Reach, survive on these islands, living from their fishing, hen runs and vegetable gardens. Sometimes the people also sail to the partly submerged tall buildings of Surf Coast to scavenge and re-use equipment and goods.

Neoma’s world changes forever, with the sudden arrival by boat of three strangers who, ignoring the villagers’ protests, chop down their trees to erect a powered signalling device.

[The parallel with flag-raising explorers of Australia, New Zealand and the Pacific creates a subtle but powerful parable.]  Marta recognises the gold headbands worn by the trio. They are from the Valley of the Sun. Neoma is baffled because all the valleys have been inundated; where can the Valley of the Sun be?

Neoma’s impulsive attempt to disconnect the device’s power source has unexpected consequences. The people return and Jag is taken away to work for six months as compensation. Worse follows. Neoma realises there has been a tragic injustice involving a neighbouring community, Jacob’s Reach, and she impulsively sets out in her mother’s fishing boat to rescue Jag. I’m the doer. He’s the cautious one.

As she sails out from the Inland Sea to the edge of the Main Sea, Neoma faces challenges from a persistent crocodile, a persistent shark and – far worse – the grim female pirate known as Pirate Bradshaw, who has all the persistence of a tax collector.

Helped by an unlikely ex-pirate, young Salesi, the unsinkable Neoma finally learns the secret of the Valley of the Sun. But can she rescue Jag? And is there any way to establish positive communication between the two disparate groups?

While a bald summary may sound grim, this is a lively and amusing story, told with vim and flair. There are half a dozen strong female characters in this novel - and that’s not counting the shark and the crocodile. Neoma, however, is in a class of her own. I can’t wait to see who plays her in the film.

Trevor Agnew 

15 Jan 2021

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 off 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)