Donovan Bixley is no stranger to being a finalist in book awards. But this latest one is special.

The book, Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua, written and illustrated by Donovan and translated by Darryn Joseph (cultural adviser) and Keri Opai is a finalist in the 2019 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

The book is one of three finalists in the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award category, for books written completely in te reo Māori.

Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua was also simultaneously published in English as How Maui Fished up the North Island.

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The awards judges said "the best storytellers know that words carve memories, and the titles nominated for the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written entirely in te reo Māori all have tales that engage and captivate audiences".

They were particularly impressed with books that exemplified Mātauranga Māori in their view of the world, including retellings of traditional Māori stories.

This is the eighth time a book by the Taupō-based author and illustrator has been a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and Donovan has been a winner three times, for his illustrated novel Monkey Boy (best junior fiction), The Three Bears, Sort Of (children's choice) and Much Ado About Shakespeare (best illustrated book).

However he is flattered with the inclusion of Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua given it is his first book in te reo Māori and he was unsure of its reception.

"It's a very odd kind of position to be in, just working with two Māori advisors and basically my guides in the process and then they did the translation as well. It was very odd for them too because I'm coming at this really beloved story and reinterpreting it from a new point of view."

Donovan says he wanted the book to be bright and vibrant and focus on the humorous side of the story so that it would appeal to young children while honouring the importance of the legend.

An image from the book shows Maui and his brothers setting off from Hawaiki.
An image from the book shows Maui and his brothers setting off from Hawaiki.

"I'm thrilled that the judges' comments reflected that the translation has captured that same feeling that I tried to create of trying to be colloquial and modern as well as honouring the importance and significance of Māui. It treats him [Māui] seriously and also has fun with it too."

He's also pleased that stories like Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua are showing New Zealanders more about themselves and their culture and showing a Māori hero to young children in a way that's not too serious.

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"It's my personal opinion that we've chillaxed a little bit and we can have a bit of fun with it. For me, for that book in particular, it's trying to bring it to a young audience, make it bright and vibrant and colourful and try to have something that young kids can connect with."

Winners of the Book Awards for Children and Young Adults will be announced on August 7.