Book Awards: the non-fiction finalists

As part of our coverage of this year’s NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, we asked the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction finalist authors five quick questions about their books and how they wrote them, and asked for some reading recommendations. 



1. Describe your finalist book in exactly five sentences.

Gillian Candler: From Moa to Dinosaurs starts 1,000 years ago, before people arrived in New Zealand, when moa roamed the land and the giant Haast’s eagle ruled the skies. Stepping back in time, we explore this land of extraordinary birds. As we travel back millions of years, we discover tropical lakes, oceans populated with giant penguins and shark-toothed dolphins and dinosaurs roaming the beaches. We learn about how scientists use fossils and other evidence to explain what life was like in the past. We discover that the New Zealand we know today is part of the continent of Zealandia, which in turn was just a small part of the giant continent of Gondwana.


Josh Marcotte: Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush is an inspirational story for families to get out there and experience our great outdoors by camping, hunting and fishing, building huts and mucking about in the bush and on the beaches.


Kennedy Warne: The Cuckoo and the Warbler could be about a sneaky parasite taking advantage of a gullible host. It could about the manaakitanga shown by the host for its feathered interloper. It could be about the unpredictable paths evolution takes in bringing species together. It could be about the ties that bind all living things. It could be about all of these things.


Simon Pollard: My book, The Genius of Bugs, is about the amazing world of bugs. The startling stories they can tell us about their lives is because of how science and technology can peer into their world. It’s hard to believe that honey bees could cook a hornet or a jewel wasp could perform brain surgery on a cockroach and turn it into a zombie. But they can and scientists now have the tools to understand how they do these amazing feats. Truth really is stranger than fiction.


Jennifer Beck: Torty and the Soldier is the story of tough little tortoise who was injured during a bombing raid in Greece in WWI. After being run over by a gun carriage, she was rescued by Stewart Little, a Kiwi medical orderly on shore leave. He named her Torty, nursed her back to health and brought her back to New Zealand in 1917. After the war Stewart looked after Torty until he died. One hundred years later, Torty is still living, cared for by members of the Little family.


A spread from From Moa to Dinosaurs by Gillian Candler and illustrated by Ned Barraud 


2. Now describe it in five words!

GC: Amazing animals of ancient Aotearoa.


JM: Family, fun, adventure, inspiration, experience.


KW: Connections between creatures are mysterious.


SP: Bug stories beyond your imagination.


JB: Danger, kindness, survival, loyalty, longevity.


A spread from Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush by Jack & Josh Marcotte


3. How long did it take you to write the book?

GC: It took a year to create From Moa to Dinosaurs, once the concept had been agreed on. Ned and I had discussed the idea of depicting extinct or relict species a few years earlier, but we were busy on another book and it took a while to figure out how this idea fitted with our ‘explore and discover‘ series. I had to do a lot of research before I wrote up the concept and even more before I started writing. I ran the first draft past a scientist, and he also looked at the rough illustrations and the ‘final’ text and illustrations. The hardest part about writing a book like this is that much of the science is still developing; for example, at the time I started researching, articles described a small mammal (not a bat) among the fossils at Lake Manuherikia. This was exciting, as New Zealand had no history of native land mammals other than bats. Ned got as far as trying to illustrate this mammal when our expert told me there was now doubt around the mammal fossil! So I had to make the decision not to depict it.


JM: It took me about a week. The publisher got in touch after viewing my YouTube channel. The YouTube channel is me and my family and friends getting up to all sorts of adventures with a ‘hunting and fishing’ flavour. The publisher wanted to write it for us, but I wanted to write it with input from my son, who has a wild imagination and likes to write stories. There was one draft that was edited by the publisher, some friends from The Motion Sickness Studio came on a few missions and took some awesome photos, then it went to print. It would have been great to take photos throughout the entire year, as we only scratched the surface of our adventures as the photos were taken mid-winter. Jack, Charlie and I will be writing a sequel this summer and I have another book in the works as well.


KW: Text-wise, a few hours. Concept-wise, a few years. The shining cuckoo had been on my mind since I organised a ‘welcome back cuckoo’ event for my local river guardians group (Friends of Oakley Creek/Te Auaunga) in Auckland in 2012. We wanted to stage a spring ritual that would connect us humans to the seasonal flush of new life beside the creek. The shining cuckoo’s spring return to the shores of Aotearoa suggested a focus for the event. I asked my friend Heather Hunt, from Whangarei Heads, if she would draw a poster for the event. She did, and then topped that by producing cuckoo and warbler face-masks for participants to wear. I even co-wrote a song for the event. I invited Heather to attend the event, and she did. The story of pipiwhauroa and riroriro embedded itself in her mind, and, since she encounters both these birds in her daily walks in the hills beside her home at Urquharts Bay, she had ample opportunity to reflect on their relationship. It became a story she wanted to tell. Once she was a certain way down the track with illustrations, I offered to write some text.


SP: I was the external science advisor to Te Papa and Weta Workshop on a bug exhibition called Bug Lab and spent two days a week in Wellington in 2016 working with the team on developing the exhibition. Because I have written books for younger readers, I worked with Te Papa Press to develop a book which would complement the exhibition and would also be interesting to people who had not seen the show, but wanted to learn about the world of bugs. I worked closely with Te Papa Press and we decided the book would have four main themes: weapons, engineering, deception and teamwork. We used stories I and another scientist had developed for the exhibition and then added other bug stories that fitted in with the four main themes. When I am writing, I tend to think about the story I want to write for a while; I then get into a zone of the style of writing I need for the story, and just write. Writing and researching The Genius of Bugs took me a few months and it was a pleasure to write, especially with the help I got from the fantastic team at Te Papa Press.


JB: I approached Lynette Evans at Scholastic with the idea of writing the story of Torty and the Kiwi soldier as a picture book. Fortunately, Scholastic were looking for World War One stories at the time because of interest in the 100-year commemoration. The grandsons of Stewart Little helped me greatly when researching the story, which involved travelling around the North Island and meeting Torty herself in Palmerston North. It was a great feeling to finally hold her in my hands. As usual when I write a story, it involved many drafts before being ready for Illustration. Fifi Colston came up with sketches for each page and I was happy for her to go ahead with the illustrations. A special event was the launch of the book in March at Walton School near Morrinsville, where Helen Little (one of Torty’s caregivers) is a teacher. Torty was guest of honour at the event, and at times had to be rescued when crawling too close to the edge of the stage. Fifi generously presented me with one of the lovely original paintings from the book which I took to the launch that day. I am now delighted to have it displayed in our home.


A spread from The Cuckoo and the Warbler by Kennedy Warne and illustrated by Heather Hunt


4. How involved were you with the images/photos/illustrations? 

GC: I’m very involved in the illustration process. I gave Ned a brief which described what animals needed to be illustrated. I also told him what I knew about these animals and some clues scientists have uncovered about the environment the animals lived in. Ned is a real master of composition and rises to the challenge of, for example, depicting a tiny gecko in the same illustration as a large crocodilian. We have a bit of back and forth as he refines the pictures and comes back with suggestions. Sometimes I alter bits of the text to better fit the final illustrations. This was a great project to work on together, as Ned could use his imagination to conjure up what Ancient New Zealand might have looked like. Knowing about the likely interaction between animals enabled him to put some drama into the illustrations, too.


JM: We were lucky to have the very talented team from Motion Sickness Studios come and stay at our house for a week. I took them on adventures and they took photos of me and the boys adventuring.


KW: A lot! Heather and I both felt that we had been invited into the world of pipiwharauroa and riroriro to tell their story. We never thought of it as ‘our story’. So it seemed natural to collaborate intensively on how that story was unfolding in the illustrations (which, in a children’s book, do the main storytelling work). And since it was non-fiction, there was a sense that the illustrations should be accurate in what they were portraying. Finding a balance between evidence-based depiction and creative style wasn’t always easy. Heather and I joked about my obsession with ‘beaks and claws’—my desire for consistency across the entire suite of illustrations. We survived the process, and liked it enough to repeat it in our new kiwi book, due for release in spring: It’s My Egg (And You Can’t Have It!).


SP: While I have written books that have just used my own photographs, I did not have photographs of many of the bugs we used in the book. Again, the fantastic team at Te Papa Press sourced excellent photographs to use in the book and even found room for five of my photographs. I especially like the photograph of the spider on the cover.


JB: The combination of art and words is what I love about picture books. If I weren’t a writer, I’d like to be an illustrator. I did illustrate one of my own books, and as a result have even greater respect for the time and work that illustrators put into a book. I enjoy working with illustrators, and may make suggestions, but they have the last word on the illustrations. Together we aim to make words and pictures complement one another. I feel I have been very fortunate in having artists such as Fifi Colston, Robyn Belton, Lindy Fisher, Jenna Packer, Renee Haggo and Lisa Allen illustrate my stories.


A spread from The Genius of Bugs by Simon Pollard 


5. What are three excellent books you’d like to recommend to our captive audience?

GC: Show your children that learning isn’t restricted to school and that you are a life-long learner! Share your learning as you read. For adults who are serious about wanting to know more about this topic, I’d recommend reading Ghosts of Gondwana by George Gibbs. A revised edition has just been published with the most up-to-date science and it is fascinating to realise how much further science has progressed since we learned about ancient New Zealand at school. Quinn Berentson’s Moa is also a good read for adults and proves that there is an enduring fascination around moa. There are plenty of interesting facts and pictures that could be shared with children. Extinct Birds of New Zealand by Alan Tennyson and Paul Martinson has beautiful representations of what each bird might have looked like – this is one to share with children to expand their knowledge, as it includes many more birds than we were able to put in From Moa to Dinosaurs. It’s an eye-opener – who knew that so many birds could become extinct in such a short time!


JM: The Old Man and The Sea – a great story of fishing, of courage and of determination; ‘you cannot discover new oceans unless you have the courage to lose sight of the shore’ (a great quote that I read somewhere once). The Lizard Cage – a story about ingenuity, friendship, and not giving up in times of struggle. We must make the best of a bad situation and strive to be happy no matter what the weather. A Fine Balance – appreciation for all that we have here in New Zealand, where even the poorest of the poor live like kings compared to many other third-world countries.


KW: Bear Has a Story to Tell by Philip C. Stead; And Then It’s Spring by Julie Fogliano; and The Education of Little Tree by Forrest Carter. The first two for their way of touching delicately and with exquisite charm on anxieties and unexpected outcomes. The third because it is a doorway to wonder, sorrow and love.


SP: The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins – a wonderful book on the wonders of our world. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame – it may have been published 109 years ago, but it is a timeless read and one of my favourite books. Spiders of New Zealand by Cor Vink and Bryce McQuillan – excellent identification guide to our eight-legged friends.


JB: Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes by Mem Fox and Helen Oxenbury – I love board books, because they are a child’s introduction to a love of reading. What a great way to welcome a new baby – by reading a book to them the day they are born! War Boy: A Country Childhood by Michael Foreman – reminiscences of growing up in England, humorous, nostalgic and a loving tribute from a son to his mum. Illustrated with a combination of images such as posters and sketches of the time, and his own delightful illustrations in watercolour, my favourite medium. John Burningham – another wonderful autobiography: the celebration of his life writing and illustrating a wide range of much loved children’s books. Full of photos, colour illustrations and background stories. This book is extra special to me, as I bought it from Mary Sangster of The Children’s Bookshop in Christchurch. Even after the havoc wrought by the earthquake, Mary and her staff continued to support New Zealand writers such as myself. Thank you, Mary and Sheila, for signing my copy of this special book.


A spread from Torty and the Soldier by Jennifer Beck and illustrated by Fifi Colston 



From Moa to Dinosaurs

By Gillian Candler
Illustrated by Ned Barraud

Published by Potton & Burton

RRP $29.99 (hardback); $19.99 (paperback)






Jack and Charlie: Boys of the Bush

By Josh James Marcotte & Jack Marcotte
Published by Penguin Random House (Puffin)
RRP $37.00 




The Cuckoo and the Warbler

By Kennedy Warne
Illustrated by Heather Hunt
Published by Potton & Burton
RRP $29.99 (hardback), $19.99 (paperback)





The Genius of Bugs
By Simon Pollard

Published by Te Papa Press
RRP $24.99 




Torty and the Soldier
By Jennifer Beck

Illustrated by Fifi Colston
Published by Scholastic NZ
RRP $27.99 (hardback), $17.99 (paperback)