Myths and legends play a huge part in the construction of a community’s narrative, the oral tradition vital to understanding origins and giving a focus to storytelling. Maori culture has some amazing fables and I highly recommend Rotorua Museum for incredible visuals, very similar to the ones found in this graphic book, that tell of the first settlers’ journey across the sea and their ideas of how Aotearoa was formed. The Heading Dog Who Split In Half takes its inspiration from more modern folk narratives, tales spun since Maori and European settlers have had contact. It includes classic local legends, lore from way back when given a Kiwi twist and the famous “Phantom Canoe” apparition spotted just before Mount Tarawera erupted in 1886, all with a comic book-style makeover.
The book itself is a work of art; black and white illustrations (sometimes with so much black you wonder if they bought shares in the ink trade before going to print) tell the stories beautifully. The tall tales are brought to life: just imagine them being told by a charming old yarn-spinner down the pub for the shades of colour. They’re fun without being frivolous and give the whole book character. The graphics are clever and knowing without being annoying – the authors have talent.
Each of the seven stories has been carefully curated and crafted with much research and there’s a Notes section at the back giving more detail for them all, including questions, history, website links and further references for those who want to explore further. The thing about folklore is that there’s so much variation in the telling – Brown and Tait have given us leeway to say their version, while researched, may not be its “truest” self (and what is truth in a fairy tale but an insight into humanity?).
This book makes the myths accessible to all and would make a great discussion starter for families interested in Aotearoa’s rich and fascinating culture, packed with modern legends and tall tales that sing thanks to the artwork. Recommended.