Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa: Samoan Picture Books

It’s Vaiaso o le Gagana Samoa / Samoan Language Week! Sisilia Etuati reviews three recent picture books that incorporate Samoan stories and culture and are great for reading in Samoan with your kids.

The struggle is real when you are trying to teach your children Samoan overseas. 

The number one book to do this, as almost any and every Samoan parent will tell you, is the Bible. Don’t worry, I won’t be reviewing that. Before there were many dedicated children’s books in Samoan, or in Samoan and English, a tried and true method of helping kids with their Samoan was to teach them a Salamo by heart and then to learn the same psalm by heart in English. This has a lot of benefits. But your four-year-old may not immediately agree. Especially if they live in Aotearoa and have had many books, wonderful children’s books, with bright and colourful pictures and stories that might just be slightly more accessible.

every week is Gagana Samoa week in our household

So, since every week is Gagana Samoa week in our household, I will be reviewing some of the books that have come out recently in Samoan and English.

Fatu and the Magic Crab, by David Riley, illustrated by Chad Robertson

With bright pictures, a hardcover, and a good size for shared reading, I like the physicality of this book. And it makes the most of technology. Use your phone to scan and you can listen to both the English and Samoan version. This is awesome because being able to read aloud to kids is a cornerstone of learning to love reading. And not all parents feel confident reading Samoan themselves. It’s great to see the use of technology assisting to bridge that gap. 

being able to read aloud to kids is a cornerstone of learning to love reading

As suggested by the title, there are two main characters. Fatu, a much longed-for daughter, is turned to stone when her parents fail to hand her over to a magician. And a little crab called Clicks or Kiliki who teaches 10 brothers that “Family is number one.” Is it strange that they have grown up in Samoa not knowing that? Definitely. Is it stranger that Fatu is immediately willing to forgive her 10 brothers who cast her in the ocean for some ie toga?  Selau pesene! Overall this book was surprisingly mundane for a book about magic and myth. And I can’t help wondering what is missed when our stories are retold by Palagi.

Fatu and the Magic Crab

Legend retold by David Riley

Illustrated by Chad Robertson

Published by Reading Warrior

RRP: $30.99

Buy now

Halu Bongo!, by Lani Young, illustrated by Nikki Mariner-Peseta, translated by Sisilia Etuati

I laughed. My brother laughed. My dad laughed. Out loud. Everyone I have given this book to (and I have given this book to a LOT of Samoan parents) has laughed. Pasifika powerhouse writer Lani Young’s first foray into children’s books is a delightful and charming story about a naughty dog Bongo who just won’t stop barking. I was convinced/conned by my children into getting a puppy in lockdown so this something I can #hardrelate to.

Bella loves Bongo anyway, as he barks at the children buying elegi, at the rugby boys jogging past, even when he barks at the Faletua, who is handy at throwing stones! But when a pisupo-stealing thief strikes, Bongo becomes a hero as his barking wakes the whole village and the robbery is foiled. What is really wonderful about this book is how Lani captures both a slice of Samoan life and Samoan humour.

What is really wonderful about this book is how Lani captures both a slice of Samoan life and Samoan humour.

The story is brought to life by the art of Nikki Mariner-Peseta, a Samoan artist living in Samoa, who uses oil on canvas to beautifully capture Samoan village life and the irrepressible Bongo. My nine-year-old cooed at Bongo and said he was “sooooo cute” which is her very highest praise. Your kids will love this book. And having the Samoan underneath the English text really helps children to learn in this engaging and warm story.

Of course I have to admit my own bias as I adore Lani (because she is hands down one of the very BEST people I know) and because Lani is always involving and promoting other Samoan artists and writers, I got to play a small part in Halu Bongo! by translating this book into Samoan. Which I was happy to do because I loved it so much. Have I mentioned you should go online and buy it immediately?

Halu Bongo!

Written by Lani Young

Illustrated by Nikki Mariner

Translated by Sisilia Etuati

RRP: $29.95

Buy now

Lei Loves / Petelo Peeks, by Dahlia Malaeulu, illustrated by Darcy Solia

My kids learnt the word rapscallion from Slinky Malinki. We all know context is a wonderful way to expand our vocabulary. And Lei Loves / Petelo Peeks (two books in one) is a perfect entry point for parents and kids who are beginning their journey with Gagana Samoa. Written primarily in English with Samoan phrases or words melded perfectly in – it is easy for a child to understand, both from the surrounding words and the bright and colourful illustrations, what the Samoan phrase means. Lei loves celebrating special times of the year with her aiga.

These are great books for those learning Samoan

We get to travel with her through the year with her and learn “Manuia le Tausaga Fou” for New Year, “Manuia le Eseta” for Easter, “Manuia le Aso o Tina” for Mother’s Day and so on all the way to Christmas. Her very favourite celebration is when her family say “Manuia lou aso fanau” when celebrating her birthday.  Petelo Peeks shows Petelo peeking out a car window and spotting a loli, a uila afi and other forms of transport. These are great books for those learning Samoan – they are super accessible and they are fun.

Lei Loves / Petelo Peeks

Written by Dahlia Malaeulu

Illustrated by Darcy Solia

Published by OneTree House\

RRP: $25.00

Buy now

Sisilia Eteuati

Sisilia is a writer and poet. She has a Masters of Creative Writing with Honours from the University of Auckland, where she was awarded the Sir James Wallace Master’s of Creative Writing Scholarship on the strength of her writing portfolio. She makes ends meet by practising law.