Wildlife of Aotearoa
by Gavin Bishop ( Puffin, $40)
Reviewed by Dionne Christian

This week, the 2019 recipients of the Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement were announced: illustrator and children's writer, Gavin Bishop (Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui) was honoured for non-fiction work; novelist, essayist and biographist, Elizabeth Knox for fiction and prolific poet of more than 55 years, librettist and translator Fleur Adcock for poetry.

If ever anyone dared doubt why an illustrator and children's writer is named as the non-fiction winner, they need to get hold of Bishop's latest book, Wildlife of Aotearoa. Now. It is destined to become a classic, a book that should take pride of place in family homes, classrooms and libraries around the country.

Ostensibly for children, it is for everyone, especially those with an interest in New Zealand wildlife from our seas through to our homes. Bishop guides us into making that all of us. You can't read it in one sitting - nor would you want to. It is a treasure box to be delved into, each page read and looked at – and looked at again – with wonder, care and amazement.

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Amazement that Aotearoa New Zealand is home to such an array of species; amazement that one person was able to bring all this together in vivid and rich detail. As Bishop himself writes: "I leapt into the unknown when I started this book. I had no idea, for example, that many native freshwater fish spend a good deal of time at sea or male mosquitoes do not bite."

Wildlife of Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Puffin, $40).
Wildlife of Aotearoa by Gavin Bishop (Puffin, $40).

He has brought all these facts together, packed them tight using a plethora of resources and sources, made them readable and relatable. He drew each creature – from pakake nui (blue whales) to many parents' scourge kutu (head lice) – as well as landscapes and habits. He's used te reo and English for each one and included a glossary so terms and names like "acclimatisation society" are explained.

What's more, Bishop subtly weaves stories through each spectacular page. We start in the breeding grounds of the tropical Pacific, where five kūwharuwharu/longfin eel larvae drift toward Aotearoa. Aptly named Tahi, Rua, Toru, Whā and Rima, they weave throughout the pages, illustrating the length and difficulty of their jouney and the human-made hazards that have made it more challenging. There's also a nod to our leading local palaeontologist, Joan Wiffen, who proved Aotearoa was once home to dinosaurs.

The sections "Some animals became well known" and "Some wildlife ended up in museums" are a trip down memory lane; the one about wildlife in our homes eye-opening. At all times, there's a gentle but firm commitment to conservation and taking better care of flora and fauna.

I've used too many adjectives here but it really is a stunning achievement. There hasn't been a book like it since his Aotearoa – The New Zealand Story.

The Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement 2019 recipients are Elizabeth Knox, Gavin Bishop and Fleur Adcock. Photo/ Ebony Lamb and Jemimah Kuhfeld
The Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement 2019 recipients are Elizabeth Knox, Gavin Bishop and Fleur Adcock. Photo/ Ebony Lamb and Jemimah Kuhfeld

Who the winners are:

The Prime Minister's Awards for Literary Achievement are given annually to writers to recognise outstanding contributions to local literature; each recipient receives $60,000.

Fiction: Elizabeth Knox lives in Wellington and is an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit, the author of 13 novels and three novellas, in genres from autobiographical fiction to fantasy. In 2000, she received the Arts Foundation New Zealand Laureate Award; in 2002, she was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to literature. Her book The Vintner's Luck won the Deutz Medal for Fiction, the Readers' Choice and Booksellers' Choice awards in the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards and the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize (2001) and inspired a screen adaption starring Keisha Castle-Hughes. Her latest novel, The Absolute Book, came out in September.

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Poetry: Fleur Adcock, Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit and Officer of the Order of the British Empire, is a poet, editor and translator based in the United Kingdom. Her first book of poetry, The Eye of the Hurricane, came out in 1964 followed by numerous collections and a life dedicated to poetry, translating from Romanian and medieval Latin poetry, writing libretti and texts for musical works with acclaimed composer Dame Gillian Whitehead.

Non-fiction: Based in Christchurch, Gavin Bishop spent his childhood in the remote railway settlement of Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu before gaining an honours degree in painting from the Canterbury University School of Fine Arts and becoming a teacher. He has written and illustrated around 70 books, winning numerous fellowships and book prizes. The Storylines Gavin Bishop Award for Picture Book Illustration started in 2009 to encourage emerging illustrators. His was made an Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit in 2013.

Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer's Fellowship winner:
Historian, academic and translator Dr Mere Whaanga (Ngāti Rongomaiwahine, Ngāti Kahungunu, Ngāti Pahauwera) is a writer, illustrator, historian and academic, born and raised in Wairoa who has written several books for children. As the Māori History Fellow at the Ministry for Culture and Heritage from 2001 to 2003, she completed a history of Ngāi Tahu Matawhaiti, A Carved Cloak for Tahu and, in 2011, became the co-ordinating historian for the sites of significance project of Te Tira Whakaemi o Te Wairoa Treaty claims. She also project-managed Te Arawhiti the Truth and Reconciliation hui which was part of the Treaty claims process. Long associated with iwi/hapu business and community initiatives, she is interested in Māori and indigenous peoples' development, land and resource management, contemporary Māori art, and the creation of training and employment opportunities for Māori.

•The awards are presented in Wellington on Monday.