Te reo for babies – as easy as tahi, rua, toru

Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson (both Ngāi Tahu, Waitaha, Kāti Mamoe) are two wahine who’ve done everything right when it comes to self-publishing their Reo Pēpi boardbooks, which teach babies and families basic te reo. They write, illustrate, publish and market the books themselves, and have reprinted many times since launching in 2016. They’ve just released their second set of three books – Ngā Āhua/Shapes; Ngā Tae/Colours; Te Kaute/Counting – so The Sapling editor Jane asked them to share the secret of how they’ve done it, and done it so well. (Spoiler: hard work and research!)

Kitty Brown (left) and Kirsten Parkinson, the wahine behind Reo P​ēpi

T​ēn​ā kōrua!​ I just love what you’re doing. Thank you so much for making these beautifully produced, spot-on books for introducing te reo into the home (especially for nervous novices like me). I’m hapū​ ​with my first tama and ​the books you’ve made will guarantee we read – and learn – together in te reo.

What are your backgrounds with te reo? Did you grow up speaking it?

Kāo! We are both beginners. We grew up in 1980s South Island, in whānau where rarely a ‘Kia ora’ was whispered! In our family te reo Māori was retained only to remember processes, places, people and things that didn’t have an acceptable translation to English. All Māori lost the language to a certain extent – Ngāi Tahu lost it early and thoroughly … but not irrevocably!

Personally we took every opportunity to learn offered throughout our schooling and remained beginners. We were re-inspired as we became māmā to equip our tamariki in a very different world to the one where we grew up. Heoi anō … and so … we are learning te reo alongside our children now.

Who is involved in the process of making (and editing and marketing, etc) the books, from first idea to finished, printed pukapuka?

We have a mīharo, amazing team of people we draw from throughout the process of making Reo Pēpi pukapuka. Our two mana wahine editors are Fern Whitau and Kristin Jerram, who ensure our i’s are dotted, our t’s crossed and our macrons are in place! We work with a very clever designer from kaupapa Māori design crew, Maui Studios. We have a brilliant and long-suffering printing partner in Everbest Printers in China – with whom we navigate some pretty gnarly language barriers. Nationwide Books manage our distribution for us now, after a crazy year of trying to do that ourselves. We do all our own marketing and publicity with lots of help from experienced publishing, literary and book trade experts who we shamelessly tap for information and secrets!

We were the recipients of start-up business funding from Te Pūtahitanga, an innovative South Island-based agent of change for whānau ora. Te Pūtahitanga has helped us stand up in a very fierce market!

The three books released this year

What are your backgrounds?

Kirsten is an artist; she studied at Dunedin School of Art. She is also a High School dance teacher, a great singer, plays guitar and is sharp as a tack … so she is multi-talented. I [Kitty] have an event management background, career-wise; I am an avid reader and I’m a people person.

In a way, having lots of other commitments worked in our favour. Reo Pēpi germinated slowly. We had very clear ideas about what we wished to do from the outset and we just stuck to our guns. Along the way we figured out how to materialise our imaginings.

Where have the books been selling? I know other new indie publishers and self-publishers find it hard to know where to start when trying to distribute their books. How have you done it?

We have a really busy online presence and have a shop attached to our website. That was a mind-warp to get up and running, but now it’s there it is very easy to manage.

We did our own distribution for the first year of business. We trawled the net for contacts, personally visited as many places as we could, made the most of organisations like the National Library, the NZ Book Council, Storylines Trust and Booksellers NZ. Many very clever and experienced people work in bookshops and libraries, so whenever we would hear from someone in the book trade we would call them and ask for any advice they could give.

In that first year, we ended up having to reprint (twice) and we were far too busy, really, while holding down day jobs, managing whānau and trying to produce a second series to release … We now work with Nationwide Books as our distribution partner.

Our advice for new publishers would be to factor-in costs of working with a professional distributor from the outset. They have great, strong networks you can draw on, know many (if not all) the answers to your questions, and can make your life so much easier and more creative!

What advice would you give to your past selves – before Reo P​ēpi – from your present selves?

Um – this will be very hard work! You will have to put yourselves further out there than you ever thought you might! It will take a long time. But do it! Your whānau will be better off, it will actually work, and you will have plenty of fun along the way!

What are some other books you’d recommend for wh​ānau wanting to learn and read together in te reo?

We love ourselves some classics, anything by Peter Gossage – the illustrations, concepts and stories are so timeless and cool, and many have Māori translations. Some of these we know, really, so we find some confidence in knowing the storyline while perfecting the reo. Robyn Kahukiwa has a catalogue of tales that address some deep kaupapa, told in authentic ways and beautifully illustrated. We have also really enjoyed using Sharon Holt’s Te Reo Singalong resources with our tamariki: the reo is super usable and the songs a bonus for the memory! And Kuwi? Āe, we love Kuwi!

And what’s next for Reo P​ēpi?

We tend to take our lead from our own tamariki’s interests and respond to them. We have started mahi on some pukapuka that have a more story/character-led focus. We’re investigating ways to extend the learning opportunities present in our current collection, too.

We’ll continue our own lifelong journey with learning te reo, reading aloud and learning with our whānau. We really enjoy working together and having a creative focus that enriches our lives. We have lots of fun with Reo Pēpi, so we will continue with that.

Jane Arthur
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Jane Arthur co-owns and manages GOOD BOOKS, a small independent bookshop in Pōneke Wellington. She twice judged the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, in 2019 and 2020. Her debut poetry collection, Craven (VUP) won the Jessie Mackay Prize for best first book of poetry at the 2020 Ockham NZ Book Awards, and her second collection, Calamities! (THWUP) was longlisted for the Mary and Peter Biggs Award for Poetry in the 2024 Ockham Awards. Her debut children's book, Brown Bird (PRH) is due for release in May 2024. Jane is also co-founder of The Sapling.