Taupō author and illustrator Donovan Bixley has taken a step in a new direction, producing his first book in te reo Māori with a retelling of one of Aotearoa's most famous stories.
How Māui Fished Up the North Island was published last Thursday simultaneously in both English and Māori, with the Māori version titled Te Hinga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua.
While the legend of Māui fishing up the island is well-known, Donovan has taken a different approach with the story, focusing on Māui as both pōtiki (the youngest) and tinihanga (a cheeky trickster). He brings his unique style to the story of a whānau fishing trip which unexpectedly takes on an epic dimension when Māui finds himself not just pulling up a fish but a whole new land.
Now that he's established as one of New Zealand's foremost children's authors and illustrators, Donovan has the luxury of choosing the projects that appeal to him as well as working on his own award-winning Flying Furballs series and his current labour of love, an illustrated work on the life of Leonardo da Vinci to accompany his previous books on Mozart and Shakespeare.
Donovan says while the Māui book has been a "huge fun and totally inspiring" journey discovering some of the deeper layers and meanings behind the legend, he was initially reluctant to take the project on.
"After you've done 112 books you really start to wonder if you've got any good ideas left and whether you're going to get excited or passionate about anything again. My publisher asked me if I was interested in retelling Māui's story and I initially said no way, I'm a Pākehā guy, I don't have the mana or the knowledge to take on such an important Pacifica figure.
"Then I thought, a lot of my books are for younger New Zealanders and they're full of colour and humour and I thought I'd like to bring my version of Māui's story to young New Zealanders."
By chance Donovan bumped into Dr Darryn Joseph, a senior lecturer of Māori at Massey University who agreed to work with him as cultural adviser on the Māui book. Donovan wanted to portray Māui as the youngest and cheekiest of the family, but also honour him as the most important figure of Pacific and Māori legend and he was able to do that with Darryn's guidance.
Donovan says he was thrilled to discover the Māui project gave him lots of ideas, energy and inspiration.
"It's been one of the funnest books I've ever done. Every single day of coming in to work on this book was like going off to a really cool place and I spent hours and hours painting these pictures and I hope people will like the book and get lost in it as well."
The te reo Māori version of the book was translated by Keri Opai (the English version also contains plenty of Māori words and phrases) and Donovan says it was really gratifying when they saw Māui's little-boy cheekiness coming through in the book.
"That's the main thing for me, it's still got to be a book that little kids can connect with and I think little kids will be able to connect with a boy going on a fishing trip with his whānau."
Donovan says working on the book was "ridiculously nerve-wracking" but it was done with a lot of love and a lot of care.
"We've tried to do the best possible job we can do and we've tried to really honour Māui's tradition as well as have a lot of fun."
After years of striving to crack the children's book scene Donovan's now enjoying the fruits of his labours and says he spends as much time out promoting his books as he does writing them.
"I've found this really great niche of kids that are totally absorbed and I think it's because of the depth and detail that I put into my books ... there are lots of things to discover in them."
Donovan has been trying to improve his te reo Māori skills and intends to devote more time to learning the language.