The Reo Pēpi series is one of the real success stories in the Aotearoa world of publishing for littlies. The popularity of these labour-of-love board books can be credited as having a major role in kicking off a new wave of reorua/bilingual board books from publishers big and small. And now, these book babies have been scooped into the fold of a big-name publisher themselves – Allen & Unwin. We asked the dynamic duo behind the series, Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson, to share with us their journey so far, to mark the publication of Reo Pēpi: Toru.
It is a privilege to set this story down and as we look at its twists and turns, we feel as grateful now as we did when we were first time publishers (parents) of Reo Pēpi.
The whakapapa of Reo Pēpi can be traced to the source of many self-determining Māori iniatives: Whānau Ora. We come down through the southern line of this mighty organisation, Te Putahitanga. Our origin story is one steeped in aroha and is a beautiful examplar of Whanau Ora circulating its mana in Te Waipounamu.
The idea for Reo Pēpi was born when as a first time māmā, I went looking for beautiful books that would help our whānau learn te reo Māori together. I was underwhelmed by the number of books, the age and the quality available.
I went looking for beautiful books that would help our whānau learn te reo Māori together. I was underwhelmed by the number of books, the age and the quality available.
I knew it was not just me. There were undoubtedly other parents out there looking for these books. I talked to my cousin Kirsten, who had just had pēpi Mihiata. We decided then and there on a maternity leave project that would have an impact, far beyond our imaginings.
We brainstormed concepts: what we wanted to learn and useful daily language that could be interchanged between books. Vocabulary built page by page. We knew we wanted board books. We knew early how we wanted our pukapuka to look. Beautiful illustrations were central to our kaupapa. We wanted taonga for bookshelves.
The decision to create books with te Reo Māori when we ourselves were beginners in te reo, in hindsight seems pretty ambitious—possibly cheeky. However at the time it felt natural. There was a natural rhythm to the way it flowed from the little we had and all that we’d lost. We researched as far as we could and were fortunate to have the help of Fern Whitau (Senior Te Reo Advisor for Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu).
Each pukapuka began life at our kitchen table, visited between breastfeeds, embellished during naps. As our books grew, we saw their personalities come through. Gradually they established their own identity through story.
While our tamariki slept, we spent long nights tending our book babies! Somewhere deep in our nocturnal mahi we began to wonder how we would bring this to fruition as published work. We never thought about approaching a publisher, in fact we never even submitted a page for consideration. Much has changed over just a few years in our understanding of what might be acceptable, desirable and marketable in New Zealand.
While our tamariki slept, we spent long nights tending our book babies!
With photocopied paper versions we started asking our community if they would like these kinds of books. Our local Māori Women’s Welfare League (Ōtākou) supported our idea and suggested we find some funding for a print run.
Our Aunty Robyn put us in touch with Te Pūtahitanga, who were in the process of rolling out their very first wave of funding in Te Waipounamu. Inspired by their inspirational encouragement, we applied. Our Rūnanga Chair, Donna Matahaere, emboldened us to think of our work as a creative way to provide for our whānau, connect with our people and share our gifts. She helped us to think of the solution for our own question, as an answer to a question many in our own community might be share.
And that’s what Whānau Ora does. It empowers whānau to create their own futures, with their unique ideas, talents and solutions. Not prescribing answers but encouraging questioners.
The process of applying (and the gruelling rewrites) was robust and powerful. We were led through a method of clarification. A quest to ensure our idea would have the strength needed to take a place in the NZ publishing ecology. Eventually we were successful in gaining start-up funding. This was not just funding though. We were the recipients of an investment. One which carried the belief, backing and full support of our people. It was and is an honour to receive the collective trust Whānau Ora assigned to us.
We were wrapped in a korowai of supportive people throughout: Helen Leahy and Maania Fararr identified us as an initiative to gift additional marketing and brand support too. We worked closely with the mighty Maui Studio’s to develop our tohu, website, online shop and of course the books themselves.
We were wrapped in a korowai of supportive people throughout…
We launched Tahi, our first series of 3 pukapuka in 2015, three years after the initial idea. The Whānau ora support machine has hummed in the background and throughout our lives ever since.
Reo Pēpi has now published 6 titles and they are on constant reorder in beautiful bookshops all over Aotearoa. They are in every ECE, kōhanga and library in the country. And now we are adding a new layer to our whakapapa, by joining forces with Allen and Unwin to publish our third series: Toru.
We wonder whether a big publisher like Allen and Unwin would have considered our kauapapa five years ago when we started out. As newcomers it is pretty unlikely we would have had the story sovereignty that our independence has afforded us. What is clear is that the attention of many, including that of a large international publisher, was captured by an idea first recognised and championed by Whānau Ora.
And in these past five years we have all been witness to a phenomenal surge in te reo Māori children’s book publishing. We are writing, illustrating, publishing and winning awards with, te reo Māori books like never before. Our tamariki are hearing our stories and our language at home and at school or ECE centres. Which means we are on a positive course for change and it feels wonderful to be part of that wider whakapapa!
Our tamariki are hearing our stories and our language at home and at school or ECE centres.
The impacts of all this, reach into our lives in a myriad of ways. Reo Pēpi is a central financial, creative and identity system to our whānau.
The investment Whānau Ora enabled deeper effects and wider growth. Their belief in us was a great source of empowerment that reached out beyond our Reo Pēpi kaupapa to shape our lives in ways we didn’t expect. Their support gave us the sense that we are worthwhile, creative practitioners who can contribute to kaupapa Māori projects in our communities, the belief that we are woven into the fabric of something so much larger than ourselves. It’s instilled in us an intrinsic responsibility to our people that will continue to ensure return on investment.
[Whānau Ora’s] belief in us was a great source of empowerment that reached out beyond our Reo Pēpi kaupapa to shape our lives in ways we didn’t expect.
Ānei, this is a love letter, an origin story, a whakapapa….Aroha mai, aroha atu. Love received demands love returned.
Reo Pepi Toru 3
By Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson, Published by Allen & Unwin NZ
RRP: $49.99 (box set) or $17.99 (individually)
Kitty Brown & Kirsten Parkinson
Reo Pēpi is the book baby of Kitty Brown and Kirsten Parkinson.
The Dunedin cuzzies enjoy a thriving, creative collaboration which has so far produced six popular bilingual titles.
Recently a partnership with Allen and Unwin has given rise to a new Reo Pēpi series: Toru.