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Interview: Debbie McCauley talks about Ko Mauao te Maunga: Legend of Mauao

Award-winning author and indie publisher Debbie McCauley (Ngāti Kirimā) lives near the site of the 1864 Battle of Gate Pā with her husband, two young adults, 89-year-old mother-in-law, 76-year-old mother, three goldfish, two rabbits and, she suspects, a field mouse. She works full-time as a heritage librarian, and writes whenever she can find the time, but is often waylaid by a cup of tea and a good book. A lazy gardener, her garden beds are edged with colourful plates, her trees littered with hanging ‘treasures’ and her lawn full of ankle-twisting holes courtesy of the rabbits. She has published five books for children though her independent publishing company, Mauao Publishing.

Her picture book Ko Mauao te Maunga: Legend of Mauao, (illustrated by Debbie Tipuna and translated by Tamati Waaka) is nominated for the Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.

A story of a sacred mountain, revealing the powerful connections between Māori myth, landscape and history. The judges found it to be a legend of heartbreak and compassion, with bold illustrations that express the personality of the landforms. Bilingual text and an in-depth appendix add further layers to the mythology, making this a valuable resource for schools. A rewarding tribute to one of our most notable cultural and environmental sites.

Tell us a little about your book.

Well essentially the Legend of Mauao is a story of attempted suicide. Mauao is a nameless mountain in love with another mountain, Puwhenua. She loves the chiefly mountain Otanewainuku. Mauao is heartbroken when he finds out,and asks his friends the patupaiarehe to drag him to the ocean where he can drown himself. During the journey the sun comes up and he is stuck in a new place while the patupaiarehe flee from the burning rays. He is named Mauao, meaning ‘caught by the dawn’.

A children’s book about suicide?

Yes, absolutely. The challenge was to retell the traditional legend in a sensitive way and so in my version Mauao says, “please take me far away, out into the ocean where I can no longer see the land.” I do believe that underneath it is a story about mental health, which is incredibly relevant today. For me, the heroes of the story are the patupaiarehe. They responded when their friend cried out for help. They wove him ropes of aroha (love and compassion), and wound those around him like a massive hug. Then they pulled him from a dark place, allowing him his tears while they supported and sung to him during the journey. They helped him get to a place in the sun with a new outlook. In my heart I believe that the patupaiarehe knew exactly what they were doing, and that reflects back on what we could to be doing for those around us who need our support.

What inspired you to retell the story?

I believe telling children stories from their own backyard enriches their lives through a sense of place and belonging. I had rewritten the legend as a two-minute read aloud when working as a children’s librarian in 2012. It was printed out with colour images, then stapled together so we had something to read aloud to children during school visits to the library. People often asked for a library lending version, and I always intended to publish it one day. However, life and other stories got in the way, and it wasn’t until July 2017 when I received a $4,000 grant from Creative Bay of Plenty that I could go ahead with the project, the total cost of which was $14,515.55.

What research was involved?

The acknowledgements in the book are testament to how it takes a community to create a book. It was crucial to consult with kaumātua from Tauranga Moana iwi; Ngāti Ranginui, Ngāi Te Rangi and Ngāti Pūkenga. Special mention must go to Des Tata, kaumātua of Ngāi Tamarāwaho hapū. Mauao the tipuna and sacred taonga was the subject of much kōrero (conversation) between us. In addition I read Mauao historical reports, researched patupaiarehe and oral traditions, and poured over maps plotting the exact route Mauao took down from the hills. Our Māori Services Librarian looked at me with a raised eyebrow and said, “you really believe he made this journey don’t you?” “Absolutely” I replied. The undulations of the land clearly show that he did.

How did you and illustrator Debbie Tipuna work together?

Deb was amazing. In August 2017 she created a three dimensional sculpture of Mauao out of modelling clay in order to ‘find’ his character. We climbed Mauao together and took lots of photographs, then my friend Peter Arts took us out in his boat for another perspective. Deb then developed a storyboard of sketches that fitted the text for each page. We went back and forth a bit, and then once it felt right she weaved her magic using watercolour and gouache to finish the stunning illustrations which fit the story so well. Designer Sarah Elworthy then brought all the elements together beautifully. I must admit to a few tears of happiness along the way!

Are all your children’s books bilingual?

Yes! New Zealand has three ‘official’ languages: English; Māori and New Zealand Sign Language. I produce narrative non-fiction picture books for children and believe that in order to tell a ‘whole’ story from Aotearoa, they should be bilingual. I am incredibly lucky to have my books beautifully translated by Tamati Waaka (Ngāti Pūkeko, Te Whānau ā Apanui, Tūhoe), a native speaker of Te Reo Māori and a certified interpreter and translator. Those who have enough funding (not me!) can afford to produce two versions of a story which is great, the Te Reo Māori version being more use to those in kura kaupapa (Māori-language schools).

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Deb Tipuna and I were in hysterics when I phoned her about this tricky question! We’ve made our judgement calls though, so after careful consideration here goes:

· Mauao: Stan Walker

· Puwhenua: Miriama Smith or Kanoa Lloyd

· Otanewainuku: Cliff Curtis, with Jason Momoa on standby if Cliff is too busy!

· Patupaiarehe: Ed Sheeran, Dai Henwood, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly etc...

We would also insist on Taika Waititi to direct and Weta Workshop for special effects :)

If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

Another tricky question! There is already a Mauao karakia (E hika tū ake) which I’ve heard the students at Te Wharekura o Mauao sing beautifully several times, so they would definitely have to be part of it. Other than that, I think that an original score composed by Ria Hall would be perfect. If Stan Walker is on board to play Mauao in the movie, he might just have time to collaborate with Ria.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Got married! The book was blessed by kaumātua Sonny Ranapia and launched on 28 June 2018 during Matariki Tauranga Moana to commemorate the return of Mauao to Tauranga iwi in 2008, the creation of joint management under Ngā Poutiriao ō Mauao in 2013, the recognition of Mauao as wāhi tapu in 2014, and the signing of the Mauao Historic Reserve Management Plan on 11 June 2018. Then on 13th October I married my partner of 24 years at The Elms in Tauranga, so you could say that was the big celebration! With the launch of four books in 2018, working full-time, looking after whānau, running Mauao Publishing and organising the wedding, it was a big year!

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

Sam Bourne’s ‘To Kill the Truth’. As a heritage specialist I probably found this scarier than most! Someone wants to destroy the history of humankind, along with evidence of history's greatest crimes such as slavery, genocide and the Holocaust. To do this they start to burn museums and libraries to the ground and destroy any digital copies and backups along with the institutional websites and Google. One of the questions raised is, is it better to forget history when so many seek to rectify past injustices by declaring new wars? Thought-provoking and frightening with a strong female protagonist. Be prepared to go into mourning at the thought of all those magnificent libraries and their irreplaceable collections burning to the ground. I wonder if the author wrote this to give us librarians nightmares?

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’m a few weeks into a Te Ara Reo Māori course at Te Wānanga o Aotearoa - I’m finding learning as a adult really difficult, but we have very kind kaiako (tutors). I’d also like to produce a hard-cover version of ‘Māia the Brave: A type 2 diabetes story’ so that the information is available to the public. Also, I should really try and get on top of the mess that is my writing space...

For more information follow this link:

The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed at a ceremony in Wellington on 7 August. Full details of all the nominated books are available here (


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