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Interview: Donovan Bixley talks about Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua

Donovan Bixley is a household name for anyone with young children. He’s illustrated more than 100 books, published in 31 countries. His work has been awarded as a writer, illustrator and book designer.

The te reo edition of How Māui Fished Up the North Island (Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua) is nominated for the Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for books written completely in te reo Māori at this year’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua was written and illustrated by Donovan Bixley, translated by Darryn Joseph (cultural adviser) and Keri Opai (Upstart Press)

Did you hear the story about four brothers living in Hawaiki: Māui Roto, Māui Taha, Māui Mua and Māui Pae? They wanted to go fishing, but definitely did not want to tell their mischievous annoying younger brother, Māui Tikitiki-a-Taranga. Ka mau te wehi — traditional and modern reo are effortlessly combined, using repetition of sentence structures, and the story is positively supported by the illustrations.

Tell us a little about Te Hīnga Ake a Māui i Te Ika Whenua.

I’m always inspired by the thought of reinterpreting a subject for new audiences. A lot of my most successful books are bright and humorous stories for pre–schoolers and young readers, and I wanted bring the tale of Māui to these New Zealanders in a way they could connect with.

What inspired you to write this book?

Actually, I was asked by my publishers several times if I would retell Māui’s story, but I was really hesitant to take on this legendary figure. He’s such an important part of Pacific culture and I felt didn’t have the knowledge or the mana to take him on. But the more I thought about it, the more I was drawn to Māui. I envisaged a colourful and humorous interpretation for really young children. But I didn’t want to attempt it unless I had someone to help me. Luckily I bumped into Dr Darryn Joseph (Ngāti Maniapoto) at a children’s book hui. We got on well and I discovered that not only was Darryn an award–winning writer of teen sci–fi novels in te reo, but he’s also a Senior Lecturer of Māori at Massey University — who better to keep me on the right track?

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I’ve always had stories come out of my head as both words and pictures — the two have to work together and they often don’t work as separate elements. I worked with Darryn right from the start, over about 6 months, showing him my earliest scribbles and a rough story – and it really was rough. I didn’t want to go too far down one track and then find out that I’d gone completely off the path and fallen down some ravine.

Slowly those scribbles became a solid story. It was a wonderful way to iron out the problem of how I was going to bring my vision of Māui’s story to life — while still honouring his cultural significance. There were some pretty major elements I’d simply never considered from a pakeha perspective, but Darryn was straight-up with his feedback and he was able to open my eyes to some of the deeper layers and symbolism of the story.

It was certainly an odd experience for Darryn and Keri Opai (who worked with Darryn on the te reo translation) to take a Māori story, which has been retold by a pakeha and then translate that back into te reo. Keri most enjoyed recalling conversations with his kaumātua from 20-30 years ago that allowed him to contribute words and concepts that made the story and te reo used unique, such as the use of “I Te Ika Whenua” in the title.

Darryn and I had a great to and fro of ideas. One example saw my scribble of Māui tangled in his fishing line become Māui inventing Te whai–waewae–a–Māui — Māui’s string game.

Because of that collaborative style, we were able to keep tweaking and adjusting all sorts of minor elements in the illustrations and text right up until we sent the artwork off to the printers. At the last minute, Darryn had uncovered that a porcupine fish, featured in one of the illustrations, is called kōpūwaitōtara. The fish doesn’t even appear in the main body of the text, but we were able to add that little bit of learning to the inside cover of the te reo edition — just because we could.

What research was involved?

Darryn was fantastic at providing me with all sorts of leads and he was tremendous source of knowledge from all his work marking PHDs. I ended up doing so much research into Pacific voyagers, wave navigation, star–finding and the importance of frigate birds for navigation. It’s really important for me NOT to include everything that I research, but many of those elements are woven into the illustrations. I try to entertain my young readers first and foremost, and hopefully they will spot something in the detail that will make them want to go off on their own little voyages of discovery.

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

Definitely some Herbs eh! When I first started thinking about this book I had this really strong picture in my head — seems silly, but it was a Hawaiian shirt. That colour and attitude kinda sums up how I was trying to reinterpret Māui’s story of fishing up Aotearoa as a hilarious fishing trip with the whanau on a sunny East Coast day, and Herbs’ “Long Ago” would totally groove with that.

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

If it was an animated movie I reckon Julian Dennison would bring to Māui the type of pōtiki and tinihanga attitude I was trying to achieve. Troy Kingi and Jermaine Clement would be pretty cool as one of Māui’s laconic brothers too. But then we’d also want to honour the seriousness and mana of Māui so I’d probably need to cast Cliff Curtis and Temuera Morrison as two of the brothers well.

What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?

I absolutely adored writing and illustrating this book. Not only did I learn so much from Darryn and Keri, but every day on this project was like escaping to wonderful place and time when the world was fresh and colourful and new — especially since I was illustrating during the winter. I hope that it’s a world readers will want to return to again and again as well.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

Over the last few years I’ve had so many deadlines that each time I finished one book I had to leap straight into the next project the very next day. It was great after finishing Māui because I’d cut way back on deadlines … so I took some time to relax and reflect on what I wanted to do next … with a Hawaiian shirt and some refreshments in hand of course!

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

The Sentence Is Death is a follow–up to Anthony Horowitz’s The Word Is Murder. I love Anthony Horowitz – from his teen spy novels to his television series, and this book is particularly delicious because Horowitz puts himself into the story as the hapless re–teller. It’s a great Sherlockian device, and Horowitz makes himself the fall–guy, giving us all sorts of hilarious ‘real’(?) insights into the world of movies and publishing, wrapped around the shenanigans of a classic murder mystery.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I’ve always got quite a few things on the go – I’d get bored if I didn’t have a variety of different projects that kept my brain fired up! First I’ve got to write and illustrate the last two books in my Flying Furballs junior chapter book series. I absolutely adore getting lost in the world of pussycats in planes in Paris, and after several years work, it’s going be a fun challenge to bring the 9 books to a conclusion. On a different tack, I’m also illustrating the next instalment of my Looky Book series, but the big project on my horizon is my illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve been researching Leonardo since I was a teenager. He’s my great hero and after my Mozart and Shakespeare books I’ve saved Leonardo to last. Mainly I’ve been mulling how to tackle this incredible genius. You’ll be pleased hear that I’ve settled on how I’m going to reinterpret the world of Leonardo da Vinci — I just need a year or so to do it!

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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