Christmas Reads from The Sapling

We interrupt this hiatus to bring you a list of Top Recommendations for the 2021 Holiday Season, created for you, our dear readers, as well as those of Newsroom’s ReadingRoom. Compiled by Editor Sarah with a bit of help from Editor Briar.

Picture books

Moon and Sun. For kids who need a boost.

Everybody has had that friend in their lives—or sibling—who just seems to effortlessly shine that little bit brighter than them. The one that everybody gathers around, who doesn’t seem to struggle with people. This is what this thoughtful picture book is about. It’s a gorgeously illustrated exploration of difference by one of our most gifted picture-book authors.

Moon and Sun

By Melinda Szymanik

Illustrated by Malene Laugesen

Upstart Press

RRP $19.99

Buy now


What Colour Is The Sky? For kids who ask why.

This picture book is a simple yet clever take on the question of what we all see when we look to the sky. Pīhoihoi asks the seminal question during sunrise, and as hedgehog goes to sleep he says, ‘the sky is brown’. Ruru, frog, mouse, hare, snail—all have a different answer. Without being too heavy-handed, Shallcrass makes the point that everybody can see the same thing in a different way.

What Colour Is The Sky?

By Laura Shallcrass

Beatnik Publishing

RRP $30.00

Buy now


The Tiny Woman’s Coat. For kids who like whimsy.

This beautifully published book is a new edition of a classic Joy Cowley tale. Giselle’s tiny woman is a joy, as she trots along, gathering gifts from her friends to stitch herself a warm coat from autumn leaves. Her pet snail can be found in some surprising places along the way, which is a great way to keep younger kids’ attention when reading aloud.

The Tiny Woman’s Coat

By Joy Cowley

Illustrated by Giselle Clarkson

Gecko Press

RRP $24.99

Buy now

Bumblebee Grumblebee. For kids who wriggle.

Bumblebee Grumblebee reminds me delightfully of the writing of Eric Veillé, but of course illustrated in a uniquely Elliot-ish style. It is a nonsense rhyme book perfect for reading to a squirmy toddler when they need a book to help them dream wonderful nonsense dreams.

Bumblebee Grumblebee

By David Elliot

Gecko Press

RRP $16.99

Buy now


The Greatest Haka Festival On Earth. For kids who like festivals.

This book made me grin all the way through. Kapa haka tragic Nan takes her whānau to Te Matatini, the biennial kapa haka festival, where they see the biggest stars in the kapa haka world strut their stuff. The illustrations are exuberant and the story is simple and affirming. A total win, and an essential book for every school in Aotearoa. Also available in te reo Māori: Mokopuna Matatini.

The Greatest Haka Festival On Earth

By Pania Tahau-Hodges

Illustrated by Story Hemi-Morehouse


RRP $22.00

Buy now

A Stick And A Stone. For littlies who go on bush walks.

This story has a lovely rhythm and is a great read-aloud. A family group are wandering through the bush, when a kea steals one of their hats! They find that tricky kea and come together again.

A Stick and a Stone

By Sarina Dickson

Illustrated by Hilary Jean Tapper

Hachette NZ

RRP $24.99

Buy now


Atua. For every whānau and whare.

Like Peter Gossage’s retellings of the exploits of Māui, or Stacey Morrison’s My First Words in Māori, Atua is an essential book that happens to be targeted at tamariki… but should actually be grabbed and cherished and learned from by everyone who lives in Aotearoa. Gavin’s really the torchbearer for New Zealand’s entries into the ever-growing field of Big Beautiful Illustrated Books For Kids, and Atua’s magical combination of words and watercolours bring all the big names from pūrākau Māori to life.


By Gavin Bishop


RRP $40.00

Buy now


Blimmin’ Koro! | Kātahi Rā, E Koro E! For kids whose granddads aren’t how they remember.

This is a well-told story of a koro who is sadly declining in health. He’s forgetting things, hiding things, and his grandkids are starting to get a bit worried. Nana is the hero, helping the rangatahi to understand that koro is still there, he’s just different, as his health declines. Gentle yet meaningful.

Blimmin’ Koro! | Kātahi Rā, E Koro E!

By Jill Bevan-Brown

Illustrated by Trish Bowles


RRP $25.99

Buy now


This Is Where I Stand. For kids who want to understand more about the Anzacs.

Philippa Werry has a deft hand at bringing history to life for young people, whether it’s novels or picture books. This is a real treat from the latter category, ruminating on war from the perspective of a statue of a soldier who things back to his experiences while watching the world around him change. Beaut illustrations from Kieran Rynhart.

This Is Where I Stand

By Philippa Werry

Illustrated by Kieran Rynhart

Scholastic NZ

RRP $27.99

Buy now



Protest! Shaping Aotearoa. For young activists.

The best non-fiction books for children also teach adults a thing or two, and this book from Mandy Hager certainly fits the bill. Covering protests through history, from Parihaka, to land marches, to apartheid protests, to the climate strikes, Mandy ably takes us through the history of protest for change in Aotearoa. The cover is eye-catching and the selections of photos excellent. A fantastic resource.

Protest! Shaping Aotearoa

By Mandy Hager

OneTree House

RRP $40.00

Buy now


How Do I Feel? A Dictionary Of Emotions. For kids who pay attention to their minds.

This is perfect as a parenting tool or as a beautiful book for your kids to leaf through and learn more about what may be going on for themselves and others around them. The illustrations of the diverse peoples of Aotearoa show everything from misery to optimism, in a gentle swooshing colour palette, ideal for soothing troubles away.

How Do I Feel? A Dictionary Of Emotions

By Rebekah Lipp

Illustrated by Craig Phillips

Wildling Books

RRP $39.95

Buy now


Incredible Journeys: New Zealand Wildlife On The Move. For kids who love to travel—with animals.

Ned shows his skills from the front cover to the back in this non-fiction picture book from Potton & Burton. In this, he tells us about the animals who travel, and why. The kuaka (bar-tailed godwit) may be the most notorious traveler, but the toroa (southern royal albatross) gets around the Southern Ocean, as does the tohorā. A good primer to kick off a love of our native animals, many of which have their own non-fiction titles.

Incredible Journeys: New Zealand Wildlife On The Move

By Ned Barraud

Potton & Burton

RRP $21.99 (pb) $29.99 (hb)

Buy now


Kia Kaha. For kids who like to know about society.

The key to an excellent biographical anthology is choosing the right people, and Stacey and Jeremy have got this absolutely spot on. The choices range from Māui (demigod) to the Upper Hutt Posse, chief justice Sir Joe Williams to fashion designer Kiri Nathan, and suffragist Meri Te Tai Mangakāhia to the Māori All Blacks. Illustrations from Josh Morgan, Xoë Hall and a variety of other fabulous Māori artists bring it to life.

Kia Kaha

By Stacey Morrison and Jeremy Sherlock

Illustrated by a variety of Māori illustrators


RRP $45.00

Buy now


Draw Some Awesome. For kids who love to draw.

Donovan Bixley takes budding young artists through tricks of the illustration trade, from taking inspiration from unlikely sources (a lively toaster), simple ways to draw animals, how to draw expressions, and the essential—how to draw a unicorn. This is set to become The Drawing Book for the Zoomer generation. Keep an eye out next year for Donovan’s book on Leonardo Da Vinci, it’s going to be incredible.

Draw Some Awesome

By Donovan Bixley

Upstart Press

RRP $29.99

Buy now


Why is that spider dancing? The amazing arachnids of Aotearoa. For kids who like creepy-crawlies.

Simon Pollard is a spider expert, and in this book he explains what there is to love about spiders. Perfect to encourage littlies into the garden—and into the rafters, in my house anyway—to see how many spiders they can find.

Why is that spider dancing? The amazing arachnids of Aotearoa

By Simon Pollard

Te Papa Press

RRP $29.99

Buy now


Remarkable Animal Stories from New Zealand and Australia. For kids who like tales with a happy ending.

The indefatigable and marvellous Maria Gill has done it again with this cool title gathering up several local animal legends from here and Australia in this bright and beautiful book.

Remarkable Animal Stories from New Zealand and Australia

by Maria Gill, illustrated by Emma Huia LovegroveScholastic NZ

RRP $25.00

Buy now


Junior And Middle Fiction

Hine and the Tohunga Portal. For kids who love magic and mythology.

Hōhepa and Hine are heading home from kapa haka practise when after a fight, Hōhepa runs into the bush in Manaia, followed by his sister Hine. They have fallen into a portal to an earlier period of history, with patupairarehe, giant eagles and warrior kea. I really enjoyed the fact that while both kids had magic powers, they didn’t come easy—they had to practise for them, using the taiaha and the poi.

Hine and the Tohunga Portal

By Ataria Sharman


RRP $25.00

Buy now


The Memory Thief. For kids who like to disappear into a good story.

This tale is fairytale-ish and perfect. A statue/boy that feeds on memories, meets a girl late at night as she searches for her cat. This girl wants to forget. The Memory Thief is a twilit tale of friendship and manipulation—something all 11-year-old girls are experts at. It has a beautiful tone and a surprise twist at the end. One of my favourite reads of the year.

The Memory Thief

By Leonie Agnew


RRP $19.99

Buy now


The Uprising: The Mapmakers in Crucxia. For kids who like to go on an adventure.

This fabulous book reintroduces us to the Santanders, united with their mum after winning the mapmaker’s race in the first adventure. We join them as they go to the last place their dad was seen—Cruxcia, a community being wrecked by the interests of the Granian Trading Company. The author gives kids plenty to consider while bringing in a range of new characters, including wheelchair-using and whip-smart Vivi, who needs the kids’ skills to help her townspeople prove they own their land.

The Uprising: The Mapmakers in Crucxia

By Eirlys Hunter

Illustrated by Kirsten Slade

Gecko Press

RRP $22.99

Buy now


Whetū Toa and the Hunt for Ramses. For kids who like to dream on the stars.

This is one of two books I’m recommending by Steph, who this year has also put out a fantastic picture book. Whetū and her mum look after the house and animals of a bona fine magician, who spends a lot of his time touring. One morning, Whetū realises Ramses—the golden fleeced, diamond-horned sheep is missing. Cue an adventure involving a ginger cat and multiple starbeams.

Whetū Toa and the Hunt for Ramses

By Steph Matuku


RRP $25.00

Buy now


Skinny Dip. For kids who like poetry, and for those who just haven’t realised that they might be able to see themselves in it.

This is poetry written with the kids of Aotearoa in mind – without ever coming across cloying as children’s poetry can sometimes be. It’s a love letter to New Zealand childhood, with the most incredible poetic glossary. You just have to look back at Briar’s rave review to get the full picture of its magic.

Skinny Dip

Edited by Susan Paris and Kate De Goldi

Massey University Press

RRP $29.99

Buy now


The Last Fallen Star. For kids who wish upon a star.

For kids who wish upon a star. This book brings the magic in spades, as Korean-American Riley works with her sister Hattie to become part of the Gom healer witch clan. Graci is an incredibly skilful writer, bringing you straight into the drama, in a way that reminded me of the fabulous Nevermoor. Family secrets! Fabulous powers! And a magical library accessed via a washing-machine!

The Last Fallen Star

By Graci Kim

Rick Riordan Presents

RRP $29.99

Buy now


Young Adult

Falling Into Rarohenga. For kids who want to journey.

Tui and Kae are twins. And they do not get along. But when they fall into Rarohenga and realise their mum is trapped there, they have to reluctantly work together—or at least mostly together—to free her from the clutches of their evil, selfish father. Steph spins a tale of magic and mayhem, and Hinekōruru gets the last word. I think I have a new favourite genre: modern teens meet Māori magic.

Falling Into Rarohenga

By Steph Matuku


RRP $25.00

Buy now


The Calling. For kids who wonder what it was like back then.

The Calling tells the story of 15-year-old Molly, who has grown up knowing she wants to become a nun. While she is Catholic because her mum (who died when Molly was 12) raised her so, her brothers and father are Protestant. When her father marries a new woman, Molly finds her hand forced and runs away to Hirohanga / Jerusalem to join Sister Mary Joseph. Wonderful historical fiction.

The Calling

By Fleur Beale

Penguin NZ

RRP $19.99

Buy now


The Tomo. For farm kids and reluctant teen readers.

The Tomo is the story of a boy and his family’s dog Blue, set against the backdrop of a family illness. Phil is sent to work reluctantly at Chopper’s farm over the Christmas break. When he is finally allowed to help with the muster, he is plunged into adventure when Blue disappears into a tomo, which sees he and his whānau and friend Emara scrambling to mount a rescue mission.

The Tomo

By Mary-Anne Scott

OneTree House

RRP $24.00

Buy now


Displaced. For kids looking to understand the bleak realities of nineteenth century migration.

Let’s be honest—teens do enjoy a spot of grim. Displaced is the story of a family who came to New Zealand not in pursuit of their own happily ever after—but by being pushed into it by circumstances out of their control. At times traumatic, at other times hopeful, it’s a must for history buffs.


By Cristina Sanders

Walker Books Australia

RRP $21.99

Buy now


These Violent Delights. For those who have an appetite for gore and romance.

These Violent Delights is set in 1926 Shanghai, where local gangs and international interests are vying for a piece of the black market. Juliette and Roma are heirs to the thrones of the Scarlet Gang and the White Flowers, in this reset of Shakespeare’s most famous tragedy. Despite their rocky past, the two must work together to defeat a monster that rises from the river, leaving people pulling their own throats out, before it ruins their city. Chloe cleverly weaves names and key elements of the original story into a blood-soaked new story.

These Violent Delights

by Chloe Gong

Published by Hachette

RRP: $20.00

Buy now

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Sarah Forster has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 15 years, in roles promoting Aotearoa’s best authors and books. She has a Diploma in Publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic, and a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy from the University of Otago. She was born in Winton, grew up in Westport, and lives in Wellington. She was a judge of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2017. Her day job is as a Senior Communications Advisor—Content for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.

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Briar Lawry is an English teacher and writer from Tāmaki Makaurau. She worked in bookshops for years, most notably Little Unity, and judged the NZCYA Awards in 2020. She was also one of the editors of The Sapling between 2019 and 2023.