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Learning the trick of standing upright – the explosion of children’s literature in New Zealand since 1980

Pokarekare ana, nga wai o Rotorua
Whiti atu koe hine, marino ana e.

E hine e, hoki mai ra, ka mate ahau, i te aroha e.

Tena katou katoa – or less formally, Kia ora -

Just after Margaret Mahy was presented with the Hans Christian Andersen Medal in Macau two years ago, Pokarekare ana was the waiata her five New Zealand supporters stood up and sang. The audience was somewhat surprised. Perhaps you don’t think of us as an especially musical nation, as you would say, the Italians or the Welsh, but singing a waiata during even the most formal ceremonial events is what Maori have always done and New Zealanders increasingly do.

Twenty-five years ago I would have said that is what ‘the Maoris’ do, not your average white westerner who typically, I think, would rather face a firing squad than sing solo in public.

But in twenty-five years a profound sea change has come over our country in the South Pacific. Today we talk about Maori. There is no S in the Maori language, so to impose a plural S is now an unacceptable transposition from English. Pokarekare ana has become the unofficial national anthem, much like ‘Waltzing Matilda’ for Australians. It’s a love song, roughly translated as Stormy are the waters of restless Rotoruaif you cross them, girl, they will be calmed; Oh girl, come back to me, I could die of love for you. It’s one of the two Maori songs all New Zealanders know, the other being the Maori version of the national anthem ‘God of nations,’ now taught to all school children from my own children’s generation onwards.

What else has mainstream New Zealand culture absorbed, during the vigorous Maori renaissance of the past 25 years? No longer are we a somewhat smug, colonial, mono-cultural, monolingual nation. We now have children’s books comfortably using Maori words understood in the mainstream vernacular – kia ora, meaning greetings; haere mai, welcome; tangi, funeral; ka pai, okay, good; tamariki, children; mokopuna, grandchildren; kai, food; whanau, family; koha, gesture of goodwill, money; hui, a gathering; marae, a place for discourse; taonga, treasure; puku, tummy; whenua, land, and interestingly, also afterbirth; ka kite ano, catch you later; aroha, farewell. Some say Maori – with its long vowels and lacking plosive consonants like b, d and g, and fricatives like f, v, s, z - has the same sweet and lilting musicality as Italian.

Picture books published in both Maori and English editions are now appearing in numbers unthinkable even ten years ago, to meet the needs of the total immersion Maori schools and general public interest. We have – mostly - gone through the 1970s and 1980s political correctness which stated that only Maori should write stories with Maori characters, themes and vernacular – this despite the fact that without the strenuous efforts of a pakeha company, A.H. and A.W. Reed and a number of visionary pakeha academics, authors and editors, the number of books in and about Maori in the past 30 years would have been small indeed.

We have now matured to acknowledging that both Maori and pakeha writers can contribute in different, inter-dependent ways. When I co-edited Out of the Deep, an anthology of New Zealand and Pacific stories two years ago, one of the famous Maori creation myths was retold by a well-known author who happens to be pakeha, and not a single voice was raised. David Hill is, after all, a New Zealander, and the creation stories belong to all of us. Pakeha, by the way, means white, non Maori.

Feminism, too, has utterly transformed the literary, societal and political landscape, without a doubt, permanently.

Before 1980 male writers and male protagonists dominated even in the works of female writers. Girls were more usually portrayed as victims, or at least, passive. Only in recent years have we come to recognise how subversively, profoundly feminist were Margaret Mahy’s great novels of the 1980s: The Haunting, The Changeover, The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters especially. My own Alex quartet from 1987 was hailed as another torch-bearer for a surge of strong females. It was inevitable, of course. The genie was well and truly out of the bottle: in the 1990s New Zealand was in effect a matriarchy led by a gang of five: at one time, our Governor-General, Prime Minister, Speaker of the House, Chief Justice and CEO of the largest corporation were all female. The two Prime Ministers of the last 11 eleven years have been female. Even if the political pendulum swings back in favour of conservative males, as there are signs it may soon do, most of the old barriers against women succeeding in publishing, the professions, business and public or community life generally are gone, for good. The young women growing up in New Zealand now are confident, assertive, ambitious, even a little scary –light years away from my generation of restrained, domesticated 1950s teenagers.

Renaissance, re-birth, and integration into the mainstream properly describe what has happened to Maori language and culture in the past 25 years, and to women’s role in society, but it’s not an appropriate word to describe our literature for young people. That has been more of an astonishing explosion, one which through good timing and good luck, I was part of and have been able to follow at first-hand.

In 1980, New Zealand was eight years on from Britain joining the EU and throwing its traditional Commonwealth partners out into the cold. Repressive right-wing governments were stuck in a 1950s time warp, much given to government by regulation favouring the farmers whose produce earned most of our income (and still does).

Apart from the books we call ‘school readers’ produced by the Ministry of Education for school reading programmes, we had precious little local children’s publishing: maybe 20 books a year, many of them skimpily produced, poorly promoted, and in any case not particularly good. Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and a few others like Anne de Roo were being published in Britain, and since this was well before the age of global marketing and the Internet, we were barely aware of them, still less of Mahy’s fast-rising reputation in Europe and America during the 1970s.

The change was set in motion by a talented Kiwi editor, Wendy Harrex, returning around 1979 from six years with Oxford University Press. Supported by the legendary children’s editor at Oxford, Ron Heapy, she very soon had leading adult novelist Maurice Gee, illustrator Gavin Bishop and myself in her New Zealand OUP children’s stable. She argued the case for awards, and her successes encouraged other publishers to follow OUP’s lead, backing a new wave of interesting writers (admittedly mostly pakeha) determined to make a professional career of their passion for children’s literature.

Many of these authors and illustrators are now in their 60s but still publishing at the top of their game, many still winning awards: Maurice Gee, whose 1979 book Under the Mountain is currently being made into a movie, and Gavin Bishop; Lynley Dodd, the creator of Hairy Maclary; Joy Cowley, who through some 700 ‘school readers’ has forged a global career as one of the world’s greatest writers of educational material as well as fine novelist and picture book writer. Novelists David Hill and Jack Lasenby are immensely popular with New Zealand children; Sherryl Jordan, William Taylor and illustrators Robyn Belton and Pamela Allen have gone on to considerable success in Australia, the US and some in Europe. New books by the senior Maori writer, Patricia Grace and illustrator Robyn Kahukiwa are publishing events. And of course Margaret Mahy, from her 1982 Carnegie Medal-winning novel The Haunting onwards, has extended her virtuoso range from picture books, school readers and short story collections into more than 20 ground-breaking novels for children and young adults.

Festivals got going in the late 1980s, notably around the New Zealand children’s book awards sponsored by AIM toothpaste and latterly, New Zealand Post. From 1993, we’ve enjoyed the Storylines Festival of New Zealand Writers and Illustrators, now in its 16th year and I believe one of the largest children’s book festivals anywhere in the world. In 2001 the Storylines Foundation became the IBBY New Zealand Section, and in 2006 our third nomination of Margaret Mahy for the Hans Christian Andersen Medal was successful.

Today something like 130 books are submitted each year for the four categories, (children’s and young adult fiction, non-fiction and picture book) of the New Zealand Post Book Awards. It’s not a great number compared with say Australia, but remember, we are a country of only 4.2 million people.

New stars are appearing. Bernard Beckett recently sold a slim novel called Genesis to the international market for a quarter of a million dollars; Brian Falkner is about to be published by Walker Books in New York. Novelists Elizabeth Knox, V.M. Jones, Ken Catran and Anna McKenzie are winning acclaim in international markets; illustrator David Elliot is forging an international career; the prolific young Maori writer Melanie Drewery is especially popular in primary schools. Kate de Goldi is both an accomplished YA novelist and publisher of her own award-winning picture books. The series by Jill Marshall about girl spies and Stacey Gregg about girls riding horses are making big money in Britain and elsewhere.

Yes, in 25 years we now have successful publishing, two great festivals, arts council support with grants to writers and publishers. A group in Margaret Mahy’s home town of Christchurch is working to establish a permanent children’s literature archival centre. There’s a strong public awareness that of all the genres in New Zealand publishing in the past 25 years, the writers for children have had the greatest success, artistically, financially and internationally. Of all books exported, our educational series comprise the lion’s share, and with bigger print runs, both locally and offshore, our children’s and YA novels generally earn more than adult novels. Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley have both won the highest national honours and are universally revered throughout the land. Besides Margaret’s Andersen Medal, we have twice nominated Joy for the Astrid Lindgren Award. Both have more than one honorary doctorates from New Zealand universities.

But there is work to be done. There might be a familiar ring to some of these statements. The Storylines Trust and other smaller children’s literature advocacy groups, volunteers all, really struggle for sponsors for their festivals, awards, publications and the other events they believe must happen to sustain and lively children’s publishing scene.

Media reviewing is patchy at best and far too often, ill-informed. The two biggest newspapers rarely review any children’s book, although harried by publishers’ marketing departments, they might do a feature on a rock star author around festival time. Our television, renowned in the 1970s and 80s for its quality children’s drama, offering work and income to writers, now uses what local money there is mostly for banal reality TV. Children’s drama has practically vanished.

Academic scrutiny in books and periodicals of current children’s literature, exploring trends or any given writer’s themes and work, is almost non-existent. Yet two areas of education give grounds for hope: there are now university courses in children’s literature and ‘creative writing for children’ where 20 years ago there were none, and in most of our teacher education courses, the central place of literature, especially our indigenous literature, is strongly asserted.

Some publishing areas urgently need improving. There’s now a body of picture books in Maori but very few novels, either written in Maori or translated; the publishers say the market is just too small to warrant the costs involved. Picture book design is generally lacklustre, compared with the sophisticated publications coming out of Australia: Shaun Tan, Bob Graham et al. Local publishers are unwilling to commit the sort of money to a new publication as their counterparts regularly do in Australia or Europe. We urgently need more and better illustrators, but publishers’ advances or fees are too low to attract and keep newcomers.

Then again, our novels often need better editing than they are getting, other than just copy editing. With a few notable exceptions, covers range from adequate to woeful. Promotion is difficult in a culture where publishers won’t spend money on print or screen advertising, relying largely on all the free publicity as they can get – which frequently, in a media market crowded by eager publicists, is not much.

There are curious gaps in the genre being published. Historical novels have thankfully come back into favour, but our children are still short of stories illuminating the milestones of our brief colonial and post-colonial history, such as the 1840 signing of our founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi; the Maori or Land wars of the 1860s; the depressions of the 1880s and 1930s; the great ‘cradle-to-grave socialist achievements of the 1930s; or the sporting controversies, mostly around rugby, of the last three decades. In the main, we’re heavily into contemporary social realism. Surprisingly, very few new writers have followed the fantasy torch held so high by Margaret Mahy. Bernard Beckett, Elizabeth Knox and V.M. Jones are the most distinguished so far. There are similarly few novelists of any substance, either Maori or Pakeha, drawing inspiration from the rich traditions of Maori or Pasifika folklore; notable here are Witi Ihimaera, the late Gaelyn Gordon and Joanna Orwin.

Most seriously, our writers face a fundamental, historic dilemma. We want to reflect our own culture, for our own children, but small sales mean to earn a half-way decent living we need to look to overseas markets and be prepared to do battle with editors’ pressure to compromise or even deny our cultural heritage.

This short presentation was titled ‘Learning the trick of standing upright.’ It’s half of a very well-known quote from our most admired 20th century poet, Allen Curnow.

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year,
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Curnow was born in 1911 and wrote that in 1974. I think the ‘marvellous year’ was 1936, when both Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley were born into ordinary middle-class families, third or fourth generation Kiwis. From their huge joint output of books, essays and speeches over the last 40 years, it is clear that neither has ever thought of standing any other way but upright. The Labour Government of the past nine years has enthusiastically and without precedent supported the arts as a way of encouraging a stronger national identity as a post-colonial Pacific nation. That’s great, of course, but if the politicians had been reading our literature for children since 1980, I think they’d have realized some of us, led by Margaret and Joy, were already well on the way, and happily taking the nation’s children along with us for the journey.

E hine e, hoki mai ra, ka mate ahau, i te aroha e.

IBBY New Zealand Section
Storylines Children’s Literature Charitable Trust of New Zealand

New Zealand authors and illustrators
Selected books

Mostly these are recent books, in print, but some authors’ first or iconic books are also included. Please go to the Storylines Children’s Literature Trust or New Zealand Book Council website, (addresses on Links page), for detailed information on authors. Publishers listed below (and many of the authors) have their own websites, obtainable through Google.

Pamela Allen
Who Sank the Boat?
Mr McGee and the Biting Flea and sequels
Grandpa and Thomas and sequel
Cuthbert’s Babies
Where’s the Gold?
Martin Baynton
Jane and the Dragon and sequels
Why Do You Love Me?

Fleur Beale
Slide the Corner
I am not Esther
A Respectable Girl
My Life of Crime
The Transformation of Minna Hargreaves

Jennifer Beck
Nobody’s Dog (ill. Lindy Fisher)
Present from the Past (ill. Lindy Fisher)
The Bantam and the Soldier (ill. Robyn Belton)

Bernard Beckett
Home Boys
Red Cliff
Malcolm & Juliet

Robyn Belton
The Duck in the Gun (with Joy Cowley)
Greedy Cat (with Joy Cowley)
The Bantam and the Soldier (with Jennifer Beck)
Marta and the Manger Straw

Gavin Bishop
The Horror of Hickory Bay
Kiwi Moon
Mr Fox
Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant
The House that Jack Built
Weaving Earth & Sky
Riding the Waves
Ken Catran
Sea of Mutiny
Deepwater Black
Golden Prince
Voyage with Jason
Letters from the Coffin Trenches
Moran Quartet

Joy Cowley
The Duck in the Gun
The Silent One
Mrs Wishy-Washy (ill.Elizabeth Fuller)
Greedy Cat series
Shadrach trilogy
The Sea Daughter/Tulivai and the Sea
Snake & Lizard (ill. Gavin Bishop)

Lynley Dodd
My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes
Hairy Maclary series
Slinky Malinky series
Schnitzel von Krumm series
A Dragon in a Wagon

Melanie Drewery
Nany Mihi series
Koro’s Medicine/Nga Rongoa a Koro
Tahi – One Lucky Kiwi

Tessa Duder
Night Race to Kawau
The Alex Quartet
The Tiggie Tompson trilogy
Carpet of Dreams
Margaret Mahy: a writer’s life
A Book of Pacific Lullabies (ill. Anton Petrov)
Out of the Deep (ed. with Lorraine Orman)
Hot Mail (with William Taylor)

David Elliot
Dragon Tangle
Sydney and the Sea Monster and sequel
Pigtails the Pirate

Brian Falkner
Henry and the Flea
Super Freak
The Real Thing
The Tomorrow Code

Vince Ford
A Handful of Blue

Maurice Gee
Under the Mountain
The Halfmen of O trilogy
The Champion
The Fat Man

Betty and Alan Gilderdale
The Little Yellow Digger series

Gaelyn Gordon
Stonelight trilogy
Prudence M Muggeridge, Damp Rat

Patricia Grace
The Kuia and the Spider
Marea and the Albatross

Stacey Gregg
Pony Club Secrets series

Kate de Goldi
Closed, stranger
Clubs (ill. Jacquie Colley)

Jenny Hessell
Grandma McGarvey series (ill. Trevor Pye)

David Hill
See Ya, Simon
Fat, Four-eyed and Useless
Time Out
Take It Easy
Aim High

Witi Ihimaera
The Whale Rider

V.M. Jones
Juggling with Mandarins
Karazan Quartet
Shooting the Moon
Echo & Hush

Sheryl Jordan
Winter of Fire
The Juniper Game
Secret Sacrament
Denzil series
The Raging Quiet
Hunting of the Last Dragon

Robyn Kahukiwa

Elizabeth Knox

Jack Lasenby
The Lake
The Mangrove Summer
Dead Man’s Head
Travellers series
Harry Wakatipu series
Aunt Effie series

Brigid Lowry
Follow the Blue
With Lots of Love from Georgia

Anna McKenzie
High Tide
The Sea-wreck Stranger

Linda McNabb
Cirlce of Dreams series
The Stonekeeper’s Daughter

Margaret Mahy
The Lion in the Meadow
Dashing Dog
The Great White Man-eating Shark
The Haunting
The Changeover
The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom
Kaitangata Twitch
Maddigan’s Quest
Down the Back of the Chair

Janice Marriott
Chute Thru
Taking Off
Thor’s Tale

Jill Marshall
Jane Blonde Sensational Spylet series
Katerina Mataira
Maui and the Big Fish
Cry-baby Moon

Joanna Orwin
Guardian of the Land
Out of Tune

Ruth Paul
The King’s Bubbles

William Taylor
Possum Perkins
Agnes the Sheep
The Blue Lawn
Crash! The Story of Poddy
Land of Milk and Honey

Phillip Temple
The Beak of the Moon

Scott Tulloch
Willy’s Dad
Willy’s Mum

Joy Watson
Grandpa’s Slippers and sequels (ill. Wendy Hodder)

The principal publishers of New Zealand children’s and young adult books are:
Archetype/Allen & Unwin
Bush Press
Gecko Press
Hachette Livre
HarperCollins Publishers
Hui Publishers
Learning Media
Longacre Press
Macmillan Publishers
Mallinson Rendel
Pearson Education
Penguin Group/Puffin/Raupo
Random House Ltd
Scholastic New Zealand
Waiatarua Publishing


Learning the trick of standing upright – the explosion of children’s literature in New Zealand since 1980.


The first children’s books were published in New Zealand in the 1840s but with the small local readership, growth was modest and hesitant until around 1980.

It is generally acknowledged that with the publication of Maurice Gee’s Under the Mountain in 1979 and Gavin Bishop’s first picture books from 1981 on, New Zealand children’s literature came of age, reflecting the country’s new cultural and economic independence (Britain had joined the European Community in 1972) and the contemporaneous challenges of increasingly powerful Maori and feminist voices to the prevailing dominant English, male culture.

This paper will examine how children’s literature since 1980 has explored New Zealand’s history, mythologies (both Maori and Pakeha) and contemporary society while undergoing transition from a colonial transplanted literature to one now truly reflecting its cultural context. It will also examine the historical and current influence of awards, festivals and other activities of literary organizations, notably Storylines, on the rise and rise of children’s literature to becoming arguably the strongest genre in New Zealand literature today.

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