Reviews: Six New Zealand Non-Fiction

Here is a great bundle of Aotearoa non-fiction, all covering our natural world. We’ve got photographic pukapuka, creative non-fiction, rhyme, and bucketloads of facts. Editor Linda Jane Keegan gives her two cents on these titles.

Family of Forest and Fungi | He Tukutuku Toiora, by Valetta Sówka & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, with Hana Park (Blue Hand Publications)

This is a beautifully produced and well-written information and activity book rooted in te ao Māori. I see a lot of self-published titles and this is one of the best designed ones I have seen. The typesetting and layout gives the text and illustrations (which are also excellent) the due credit they deserve. You may have read me waxing lyrically about Isobel Joy Te Aho-White’s illustrations before, and Family of Forest and Fungi is no exception. Lovely soft watercolour textures and palette, with kōwhaiwhai patterns swirling in the background.

Spread from Family of Forest and Fungi, by Valetta Sówka & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

The text gives a holistic view of the environment and invites the reader to connect with it using all their senses. Spaces are provided to write responses to sensory activities, and plenty of vocabulary in both English and te reo Māori are provided as prompts. The book then goes for a deeper dive into the science of fungi, with more activities including making a spore print, mushroom ink, and even growing your own.

Family of Forest and Fungi is a collaborative effort; although Valetta, Isobel and Hana are named on the cover, there are also two consultants (Mihau Sówka and Sean Delany) and two designers (Simon Owen and Emily Hingston) acknowledged in the back of the book. Together they have produced a fantastic resource that I can see having use in both classrooms and at home.

Family of Forest and Fungi

By Valetta Sówka & Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

Published by Blue Hand Publications

RRP: $34.99

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Kererū, by Glenda Kane & Lisa Allen (Bateman Books)

Kererū is a creative non-fiction telling of the life cycle of the kererū and the threats it faces today. The illustrations are attractive and colourful, and the reflective foil title on the hard cover makes it a pleasing object.

The story is told in rhyme which, unlike other non-fiction rhymers I’ve read, doesn’t detract from the narrative. It scans well with only a couple of places I felt there was a syllable too many, although I thought there were a few too many instances of slant rhyme (e.g. streets / trees). Overall I think it worked well and I wouldn’t hesitate to use this as a teaching resource. It neatly covers predation (without any gory scenes), trapping, seed dispersal, food sources and habitat in a digestible way.

Spread from Kererū by Glenda Kane & Lisa Allen

There is a nice sense of timing, especially with a wordless double spread between trapping a rat and a new chick being laid. I also really liked how the nest building phase for the third generation echoes the lines from the first nest being built:

some rickety twigs, some spindly brown sticks
and right in the middle, a strange-looking chick.

Larger text on some of the pages invites the reader to ‘come closer’ and ‘look further’, in much the same way that the book itself is an invitation to take action to help protect and support our native wildlife.


By Glenda Kane & Lisa Allen

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $24.99

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Around and About Aotearoa: New Zealand Facts, Figures & Fun!, by Dave Gunson (Bateman Books)

Around and About Aotearoa is an almanac and trivia book all about New Zealand. It sports a jam-packed 64 pages, filled with history, sports, environment, statistics, Kiwiana, and more. Both written and illustrated by Dave Gunson, it bears his signature style and sense of humour.

There is a lot of text in this book. In some ways this makes it feel quite visually busy, and possibly overwhelming for younger readers, but is well-suited for upper primary and intermediate aged kids. The text is also accompanied by plenty of illustrations, cartoons, maps and diagrams, and most of the writing is in text boxes, which makes for nice bite-sized chunks; readers could read the book from cover to cover or dip in and out of different sections and boxes. Some of the boxes could have done with having topic headings, particularly for the ones that weren’t accompanied by illustrations.

Spread from Around and About Aotearoa by Dave Gunson

I would say the book provides a snapshot into the background and culture of New Zealand. It’s light on Māori history, glosses somewhat over colonisation, and certainly has a more Pākehā-centric feel to it. However, I think this is Dave Gunson sticking to his wheelhouse, and I can’t argue with that (though a bit more detail on Māori history and its implications might have been nice). There’s a timeline at the end of the book, which is great but, even though there is limited space and scope in a book like this, it would have been nice to see a few other things included (e.g. invasion of Parihaka in 1888, the Save Manapouri campaign from 1969-1972, legalisation of gay marriage in 2013, creation of The Sapling in 2017 – okay maybe not that last one).

Overall it’s a fun and colourful presentation of facts and figures – I especially liked the size comparison of New Zealand with other countries – and would make a useful starting point for learning more about New Zealand’s European and geographic history.

Around and About Aotearoa

By Dave Gunson

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $30.00

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New Zealand Birds of the Week | Ngā Manu o te Wiki, by Darryl & Gillian Torckler (Bateman Books)

Birds of the Week is a bird-infused take on the nursery rhyme Monday’s Child. Told in rhyme, each day of the week introduces a different bird – with a mix of native and introduced species – and includes a brief fact on that bird. Accompanied by dynamic photography, it’s a delightfully simple book to share with the whānau. And the Sunday manu are all doing things together, with the idea that Sunday is whānau time.

Spread from New Zealand Birds of the Week by Darryl & Gillian Torckler

There isn’t really a lot to say about this book; the photography is excellent, and insets in each spread with the facts give another space to show a different image of the species, whether with its young, diving for food, or having what looks like a good ol’ squawk. The rhyme isn’t completely perfect, but I think we can get away with it because of the page turns between each rhyming couplet.

Gillian and Darryl wanted to showcase some of New Zealand’s bird species in their natural habitat in an engaging way, and I think they have done a good job of it.

New Zealand Birds of the Week

By Darryl & Gillian Torckler

Published by Bateman Books

RRP: $21.99

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Water | Wai, by Marie Munro, Hereriata Te Whata & Piripi Walker (Nana’s Shed Books)

Water | Wai Nana’s Simple Science – Te Pūtaiao Ngāwari o Kui. is slated as the first in a bilingual science series. Another rhymer in the same vein as Kererū, but this time about the water cycle. Each page has the text in both English and Māori, pleasingly in the same size, and in different colours which makes it easy to differentiate at a glance.

I think the water cycle is well conveyed through this narrative, and is supported by a diagram at the end of the book. The rhyme isn’t perfect, and in a few places the choice of words feels chosen for the rhyme, but reads well enough and keeps to the point along the way. The illustrations appear like stylised photos, which is not particularly to my tastes, but the colours are vibrant and the expressions on the people are captured well.

There is also a page of ‘Conversation Starters’ in the back, providing prompts for educational use. I can see this being used in primary classrooms as it gives scope to discuss not just the natural elements of the water cycle, but use of dams and hydro power, and people’s interactions with water. I look forward to seeing what other topics will be covered in this series!

Water | Wai

By Marie Munro & Heneriata Te Whata

Translated by Piripi Walker

Published by Nana’s Shed Books

RRP: $25.00

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This Land: Aotearoa | Ko Aotearoa te whenua nei, by Christine Dale, translated by Kiwa Hammond (OneTree House)

This Land Aotearoa reads like a poem and I love that about it. The words are simple and descriptive, accompanied by quintessential New Zealand photography. Each spread has both the English and Māori versions, with the full text reprinted all together in the back.

It’s a book that falls into that space of creative non-fiction; it’s not a strictly non-fiction book in that we don’t learn obvious facts, but that’s not to say it isn’t true. It’s a lyrical exploration of New Zealand’s landscapes, which passes between natural and human-created environments. My seven-year-old enjoyed it he read it to himself easily; his favourite part was the whirling mudpools, which he said look like tornadoes.

This Land: Aotearoa | Ko Aotearoa te whenua nei

By Christine Dale

Translated by Kiwa Hammond

Published by OneTree House

RRP: $25.00

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Linda Jane is the lead editor of The Sapling, a parent, and a writer of picture books, poetry, and other tidbits. Her background is varied, including work in ecology, environmental education, summer camps, and a community newspaper. She is Singaporean-Pākehā, queer, and loves leaping into cold bodies of water.