Book Awards: The Non-fiction Finalists

As part of our coverage of this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, we’ve asked the publishers of the non-fiction finalists to explain why that manuscript, that idea caught their imaginations. Their responses are compelling and passionate, and you may need to get your wallet ready … 

The Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story story

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story was inspired by a recent international publishing trend for large-format, high-spec, lavishly illustrated children’s non-fiction. We’d been eyeing these imported books enviously and turning over in our minds the possibility of producing our own gorgeous volume for New Zealand children, with inspiring, visually beautiful New Zealand-specific content.

The actual book was conceived as the story of New Zealand told entirely through the illustrations — a series of maps depicting New Zealand through time. It would chart the earliest land formation and its unique environment and creatures, through to human population – the arrival of Māori and pre-European existence, then on to European arrival and settlement. It would explore various themes before going on to the diverse population and issues facing the nation today.

The beauty of this book would be in its incredible illustrative detail — the illustrations would be what drew a child to pick it up and spend the next hour poring over each page. Text would be limited to the title of each map, with brief captions accompanying the individual pictures and features. Such a book wouldn’t need an adult to decode or explain it (though an adults would also enjoy reading it with their kids and discussions would naturally arise); but children of a range of ages would be empowered to look, read and learn by themselves. That much was our idea.

But, and this is a big but, an idea is only as good as the person (or people) who can make that vision a reality. This book was going to be a project of such complexity and scale – the critical question was WHO could author it? Who would be well-placed and willing, with the necessary knowledge and skill, to tackle such an enormous job? This person would need to be able to research and curate 64 very large and detailed pages of information led first and foremost by illustration – no small challenge!

When I approached Gavin Bishop, I half-expected that he’d shout, ‘Are you crazy? Do you know how much you’re asking for here?’

But to our lasting delight, his response was, ‘Ooh, I’m really interested in this sort of thing. I’m fascinated with New Zealand history. And did you know that I’m obsessed with maps of all kinds? The book could have this, and it could do that, and it would be even better if it included . . .’ And with that, he was underway.

Gavin brought mana to the book. He took in our initial concept, pondered it, developed it, upended it and made it entirely his own. From the very first pages he wove a Māori spirituality and a perspective that could never have been imported from overseas. He drew on his ancestry and his roots in the land, and illustrated the story of his own family as well as that of all New Zealanders.

Our aspiration was always that Aotearoa would be a landmark New Zealand children’s title – a lasting taonga and go-to resource for families, schools and libraries. In Gavin Bishop’s hands, we saw an incredibly special book taking shape before our eyes, and the result is even more than we’d hoped for.

Catherine O’Loughlin, Children’s Publisher, Penguin Random House NZ 


Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story

By Gavin Bishop

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP $40.00

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How Explore! Aotearoa was born

Bronwen Wall worked as an editor and writer in Wellington and was a regular contributor to the Ministry of Education’s School Journal and Connected journals for children. One day, she decided to write an article about a famous explorer called Thomas Brunner, but then an education editor advised her to turn the 2,000-word article into a book.

After sketching out a manuscript, Bronwen visited John McIntyre at The Children’s Bookshop to seek his thoughts on the concept. To paraphrase, his feedback was: ‘This is a great idea Bronwen, but it’s not enough. You need to write about several explorers, and you must include Edmund Hillary!’ 

So Bronwen slunk into our office half an hour later, feeling somewhat bruised, declaring that John had suggested a much bigger book, which would take years to research, etc, etc. And I sat back and thought, ‘What a great idea!’ This could be a book to celebrate New Zealand discoveries across time and terrain, highlighting the amazing adventures along the way. From Polynesian voyaging eight centuries ago to modern-day explorers. Across the waves, through the forests, up the mountains, under the seas and into the massive cave systems that remain a mystery. It could touch on courage and desperation, technology and equipment, discovery both physical and cultural. And it could inspire the young readers of today. I liked it. I liked it a lot!

This could be a book to celebrate New Zealand discoveries across time and terrain, highlighting the amazing adventures along the way. 

 Of course, it did result in a massive amount of research and writing for our poor author, but I always delighted in reading the drafts, and getting carried away in the multiple stories, comparing the adventurers being described, and the equipment they used, and how that all these things changed over time. I had no doubt that kids, both young and old, would be enthralled.

The other major breakthrough was finding an illustrator who could create watercolour images to complement the wonderful artworks generated in the 1800s by the likes of Charles Heaphy and who was prepared to do a lot of research herself. Kimberley Andrews has a background in natural history and a commitment to creating images that are as accurate as possible. She loves the outdoors, and helped transmit the essence of the adventure in all her drawings. Kim’s work was the icing on the cake.

The final joy has been hearing our author’s excitement after she’s talked about Explore to school groups. I even joined her as an assistant at the Auckland Writers Festival in May, and thoroughly enjoyed the experience, especially the wonderful questions asked by young explorers in waiting.

Jonathan Kennett, Publisher, Kennett Brothers Publishing

explore aotearoa

Explore! Aotearoa

By Bronwen Wall

Published by Kennett Brothers Publishing

RRP $29.99

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The story behind New Zealand’s Great White Sharks

Many years ago I was lucky enough to spend a night at NorthWest Bay on the subantarctic Campbell Island. I will never forget that bleak, moody evening, watching gusts of wind sweep out across the water while our companion from the Metservice station recounted the chilling story of how his friend had been attacked and nearly killed by a great white shark in the bay below. This real-life horror story, and the wild setting, did nothing but deepen my fascination forthese mysterious apex predators.

So when Alison Ballance came to me with a proposal to write a book on great white sharks, it didn’t take much to win me over. I was even keener when I realised that the book was to be based on a ground-breaking research project, in which two New Zealand scientists spent many years tagging and tracking great whites off the coast of Stewart Island, establishing that these nomadic sharks travel huge distances around our oceans.

It’s a cliché, but it does seem so important to try and demonstrate to young people how fascinating the natural world can be. With its combination of science and adventure, this book seemed perfect on that score.

…it does seem so important to try and demonstrate to young people how fascinating the natural world can be.

Alison has had a career presenting and interpreting scientific information for a popular audience, and it shows with this book as she skilfully knits a narrative together with hard information. It made for a book that was enormous fun to put together, with a range of elements to play with: interesting main text, sidebars packed full of fascinating information, copies of emails, maps, diagrams, and fantastic photos.

These creatures are extremely photogenic (in a distinctly creepy way), and I was amazed at the high standard of imagery that we unearthed. Some of the best photographs came from a Canadian paediatrician, whose hobby is photographing sharks in his spare time. Hmmm.

I learnt many things publishing this book, but I do have one tip I feel bound to pass on – don’t go swimming around a seal colony.

Robbie Burton, Publisher, Potton & Burton


New Zealand’s Great White Sharks

By Alison Ballance

Published by Potton & Burton

RRP $29.99

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The story behind The New Zealand Wars

Philippa Werry is an established author at New Holland and had already written three authoritative non-fiction books for us examining pivotal periods in New Zealand history and putting them in context for a target readership of 9-14 year-olds. These titles – Anzac Day, Armistice Day and Waitangi Day – were very successful publications which conveyed the essence of complex events without dumbing down information.

Philippa became increasingly aware while writing about offshore wars that Kiwis were involved in that there was surprisingly little available for a younger audience about the wars that occurred within New Zealand.

Philippa became increasingly aware… that there was surprisingly little available for a younger audience about the wars that occurred within New Zealand.

She originally proposed the concept for a book about the New Zealand Wars early in 2016 and discussions followed. She felt a bit daunted by the task of writing about a subject she did not know a lot about and the challenge of conveying an authentic Maori voice in the subject matter.

However when she eventually presented a formal proposal for the book in September 2016, the publishing team responded with unanimous support. New Holland felt that this was subject matter that deserved attention and, importantly, that Philippa was the author who could do it justice.

We had confidence in her meticulous research, ability to pull together many strands of information into a comprehensive narrative and sensitivity to reflect a holistic view of history by consulting relevant iwi and whanau.New Holland author and historian Buddy Mikaere, among others, provided a useful sounding board but it was Philippa’s tenacious attention to detail and ability to capture the background of such a complex series of events that gave the publishing team the faith that we could rely on her to not only interpret the historical subject matter but make it accessible to a wide readership.

New Holland sees The New Zealand Wars as an example of committing to challenging publishing content because of the confidence that comes from a long-term relationship that has been established with a valued author. As publisher we are proud to be involved with the book and look forward to working with Philippa on more projects in the future.

Sarah Beresford, Publisher, New Holland Publishing 

The New Zealand Wars

By Philippa Werry

Published by New Holland Publishing

RRP $24.99

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The story behind Sky High

Biographies for young children are an interesting challenge. How do you make the past seem real and relatable to them? How do you show that this person and the things they did matter today? How do you create a window into a different time and way of thinking without screeds of explanation? If a child is going to read a biography willingly, its primary objective has to be to entertain and inspire — not to be earnest or dull. And a biography should never be in any case. New Zealanders have done dramatic, daring and admirable things.

All this was the thinking behind the biographical series about famous and heroic New Zealanders that we’ve developed with author David Hill and illustrator Phoebe Morris. Sky High is their third collaboration. Envisioned as a blend of picture book and biography, their books aim to combine the best of the two genres – an exciting narrative that is highly visual to the point of cinematic, with facts and historical detail made memorable and readily digestible.

Kids love record-breakers. They adore trailblazers. They take heart from stories of success against the odds and are captivated by feats of speed and danger. Jean Batten’s story has all these elements and more. What she achieved was so daring and dramatic, so record-breaking and ahead of her time, that eighty years on she continues to fascinate and inspire us. She was unconventional, determined and courageous. She was an exceptionally skilled navigator, and to the end, she was her own captain. But her story also includes setbacks, failures and disappointments, and doors slammed shut in her face.

What she achieved was so daring and dramatic, so record-breaking and ahead of her time, that eighty years on she continues to fascinate and inspire us.

David Hill weaves all these things into the text so adeptly. It’s an enormous challenge to craft a 32-page text, let alone one that curates 70-plus years into a coherent story. Each word is working three times as hard to carry the story forward, while revealing something else about Jean Batten and building more of the world she moved in. He never oversimplifies for his readers, and his few words are powerful and evocative: ‘The aircraft is tossed around like a leaf’ … ‘Jean had an axe with her. If she crashed in the sea, she would chop up her plane’s wings to make a raft.’

The illustrator’s task is also just as much about what doesn’t go in as what does, and Phoebe Morris’s beautiful, restrained and focused compositions hide a wealth of research and consideration given to the story’s mood, pace, characterisation, scene, historical accuracy and overall artistry. Like David with his text, Phoebe doesn’t clutter up the illustrations with too much information. Neither does she just reflect David’s text. Each of the illustrations in Sky High has a different ambience and reveals something new about Jean’s spirit, or another wonder of the world, whether it’s the young girl walking primly behind her mother, her eyes and head just slightly turned skywards, or the Gipsy Moth pelting towards land and casting the shadow of a bird on the clouds below.

We’re terribly proud of Sky High. David and Phoebe have brought to it all the best elements of a great true story – Jean Batten’s highs and lows, her dream and her reality – and offer the readers space to dream for themselves too.

Catherine O’Loughlin, Children’s Publisher, Penguin Random House NZ

sky high

Sky High: Jean Batten’s Incredible Flying Adventures

by David Hill

Illustrated by Phoebe Morris

Published by Penguin Random House NZ

RRP $25.00

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Check out our coverage of the other Book Awards for Children & Young Adults categories:

The Copyright Licensing Award for YA Finalists ask each other some probing questions

The Wright Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction finalists answer some Sapling questions

The Russell Clark Award for Illustration finalist titles give us some samplings

Quiz: The 2018 Book Award for Children & Young Adults