Best Picture Books for New New Zealanders

Hearing the wonderful news that six more towns are going to be Refugee Resettlement centres, we got thinking about what books might provide the best and friendliest introduction to a new life in Aotearoa New Zealand. Here’s our starting list of picture books for newly arrived former refugees. What favourites would you add?

Detail from Kia ora, You can be a Kiwi too, by June Pitman-Hayes, translated by Ngaere Roberts, illlustrated by Minky Stapleton

The books that form our childhood can be powerfully comforting. They stay with us for decades. We pass them on to our children.

The books on our list are not just among the very best books New Zealand children’s literature has to offer. We looked for books that can serve as a friendly welcome that shows not just what kind of country we are, but the place that a former refugee child can find in it – so none of these books has an all-Pākehā cast of characters. Knowing that few refugee children arrive speaking much English, we also steered towards simpler language than some of our tongue-twisting classics.

We’d love to hear your additions for the list. And if you’d like to provide a pack of these – or other welcoming help – for a newly-arrived child, get in touch with your local Red Cross Service Centre.

Oh, So Many Kisses, by Maura Finn, illustrated by Jenny Cooper

This joyful cuddle of a book was one of our best picture books of 2018 with fresh, bouncy rhyming in simple English that’s pleasantly catchy.

The illustrations are beautiful watercolour portraits of a diverse range of real families. There’s a māmā with moko kauae, another in hijab, babes with disabilities, and a variety of clothing from different cultures and religions, so not only does it reflect Aotearoa, but newly-arrived refugee kids will see evidence that they have a place here.

Oh, So Many Kisses

By Maura Finn

Illustrated by Jenny Cooper

Published by Scholastic New Zealand

RRP $18.00

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The Looky Book, by Donovan Bixley

Donovan Bixley’s visual activity book is a kiwiana affair in the best way. There are beach, farm and bush scenes, funny matching puzzles, and All Black lambs playing rugby. Try and spot the tūī and garden gnome on each page, and find the hokey pokey ice-cream, swan made out of a tyre, and dozens of other reference items on the inside covers.

There’s a lot of bureaucracy involved in moving countries. Many children who arrive here will spend a lot of time in waiting rooms while adults talk, and this is an ideal companion.

The Looky Book

By Donovan Bixley

Published by Hachette New Zealand

RRP $20.00

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Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy, by Lynley Dodd

We’re mostly focusing on books with humans, but an exception of course has to be made for this classic. Having dogs as pets can be surprising for some new arrivals, so this does count as a cultural education tool, as well as giving kids the codes for in-jokes with their peers – because surely every kid in New Zealand calls all sausage dogs ‘Schnitzel von Krumm’, right?

Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy

By Lynley Dodd

Published by Picture Puffin

RRP $17.00

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Things in the Sea are Touching Me! by Linda Jane Keegan, illustrated by Minky Stapleton

This brand-new book from first-time author Linda Jane Keegan serves as a fun introduction to New Zealand beach routines and underwater inhabitants, and also happens to centre on a family of Mum, Ma, and the child telling the story.

Members of the family have a variety of skin tones – illustrator Minky Stapleton is developing a strong reputation for great representation in her picture books – so lots of different kids will see themselves reflected in the pages. And it’s gorgeously produced, in both English and te reo Māori editions.

Things in the Sea are Touching Me!

By Linda Jane Keegan

Illustrated by Minky Stapleton

Published by Scholastic New Zealand

RRP $19.00

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Whose Beak is This? by Gillian Candler, illustrated by Ned Barraud

There’s nothing we do better, in the world of picture books, than birds. We could have chosen any of about 50 stunning bird books for kids. And of course, most of our native fauna will be completely weird and new for immigrant children.

This one made the cut because it’s an accessible, interactive puzzle book that introduces 12 birds with their Māori and English names, and just one or two facts about how they live and what they eat. It’s beautifully produced, and nice and small. Another good one to take to appointments and meetings.

Whose Beak is This?

By Gillian Candler

Illustrated by Ned Barraud

Published by Potton & Burton

RRP $15.00

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Maui and Other Legends, by Peter Gossage

Two or three generations of Kiwi kids have grown up with Peter Gossage’s illustrations of the Atua in their minds whenever they hear stories of Māui or Hine-Nui-te-Pō.

Pick any one of the series, or this collection of eight: How Maui Found his Mother, How Maui Found his Father and the Magic Jawbone, The Fish of Maui, How Maui Slowed the Sun, How Maui Found the Secret of Fire, How Maui Defied the Goddess of Death, Battle of the Mountains, Pania of the Reef.

These texts lack macrons, sadly, but the storytelling is otherwise an excellent introduction.

Maui and Other Legends

By Peter Gossage

Published by Penguin

RRP $40.00

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Ngā Atua, by Robyn Kahukiwa

Robyn Kahukiwa introduces the Atua with awe-inspiring portraits, rather than stories, in this vibrant book. Each Atua is painted, and paired with a sentence or two explaining who they are and what their role in the world is.

Ngā Atua

By Robyn Kahukiwa

Published by Oratia Media

RRP $25.00

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Kia Ora: You Can Be a Kiwi Too, by June Pitman-Hayes and Ngaere Roberts, illustrated by Minky Stapleton

Here’s a bright, cheerful book that’s specifically designed to welcome new New Zealanders: perfect for our list!

Full of every kind of face, clothing and language, this warmly inclusive rhyming book should be given to every child as they get off the plane. It includes a CD for singing along, and the text appears first in English, then in the second half, in te reo Māori.

Kia Ora: You Can Be a Kiwi Too

By June Pitman-Hayes and Ngaere Roberts

Illustrated by Minky Stapleton

Published by Scholastic New Zealand

RRP $20.00

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Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird, by Melanie Drewery, illustrated by Tracy Duncan

Meet Nanny Mihi and her grandchildren, in this series of gentle stories set in rural New Zealand. In this most recent release, Nanny and her moko sing with a bellbird in the garden, until one day it’s not there. Where has it gone?

One helpful feature for new arrivals is the extensive use of reo Māori in the English text, with the kupu Māori glossed on the page (as in the example above).

Nanny Mihi and the Bellbird

By Melanie Drewery

Illustrated by Tracy Duncan

Published by Oratia Media

RRP $20.00

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William’s Waitangi Day, by David Ling, illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson

Families born elsewhere can learn, along with Chinese New Zealander William, what people do on Waitangi Day, in this low-key introduction to New Zealand family life, with a little bit of history. It’s also available in a bilingual Mandarin-English edition.

William’s Waitangi Day

By David Ling

Illustrated by Nikki Slade Robinson

Published by David Ling Publishing

RRP $20.00

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Daniel’s Matariki Feast, by Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington, illustrated by Christine Ross

There’s now a growing range of Matariki picture books available for kids (and adults) to read as part of their annual celebrations.

This book is set in a kindergarten, and follows Daniel, who is a bit nervous as he starts kindy. As well as explaining a bit about Matariki, the story includes food growing and preparation, and finally, the feast.

Daniel’s Matariki Feast

By Rebecca Beyer and Linley Wellington

Illustrated by Christine Ross

Published by David Ling Publishing

RRP $20.00

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A Summery Saturday Morning, by Margaret Mahy, illustrated by Selina Young

Any number of Margaret Mahy books would delight any child you could find. We chose this one for its relatively simple English, repetitive chanting rhymes, and the multicultural party of kids, adults and animals that have adventures on a walk to the beach.

A Summery Saturday Morning

By Margaret Mahy

Illustrated by Selina Young

Published by Puffin

RRP $16.00

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That’s not a Hippopotamus! by Juliette MacIver, illustrated by Sarah Davis

Juliette MacIver and Sarah Davis’ latest award-winning collaboration is a comic romp through a safari park, as a multicultural class of eager but clueless kids and their harried teacher try to find a missing hippopotamus.

You’ll be astonished at the number of things MacIver has found to rhyme with the word hippopotamus, and you’ll snort at the wrong turns the kids take, before they finally listen to Liam, who has been following the clues all the way.

The rhyming and vocabulary in this book, and the next couple, are a bit more sophisticated than the earlier titles in our list. When it comes to children whose English is just getting started, these three are more suitable for slightly older kids who are going to school in New Zealand already.

That’s not a Hippopotamus!

By Juliette MacIver

Published by Gecko Press

RRP $20.00

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The Bomb, by Sacha Cotter, illustrated by Joshua Morgan

One of the best picture books of 2018, this is the third collaboration from Cotter and Morgan, and they just keep getting better. In The Bomb, our hero is desperate to be a star bomber (of the jumping-in-the-water variety). He is coached by his wonderful Nan, who was a champion in her youth, and gets advice from half the town, before finding his own path to glory.

This is a superb introduction to summer rural life for older readers, and if younger ones don’t quite follow all the social trials, they will be enthralled by the visual details, and will be chanting the hero’s mantra by the end.

The Bomb

By Sacha Cotter

Illustrated by Joshua Morgan

Published by Huia Publishers

RRP $23.00

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Clubs, by Kate De Goldi, illustrated by Jacqui Colley

Another sophisticated picture book for older children, this is a quirky, fun window into a New Zealand primary school class.

Follow Lolly Leopold and her charismatic teacher and classmates as she navigates the bewildering proliferation of clubs at her school. The collage-like illustrations are jam-packed with details to pore over.


By Kate De Goldi

Illustrated by Jacqui Colley

Published by Trapeze Publishing

RRP $19.99

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Thalia Kehoe Rowden

Thalia Kehoe Rowden is a former co-editor of The Sapling, and a Wellington writer and human rights worker. She is passing on a family inheritance of book dependency to her two small children, and is delighted to be part of The Sapling, as it gives her even more excuses to read excellent children's books. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and ​at ​her parenting, spirituality and social justice website, Sacraparental.