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Interview: June Pitman-Hayes talks about Kia Ora You Can Be Kiwi Too

Updated: Sep 18, 2018

June Pitman-Hayes is a creative writer, singer-songwriter, singing teacher to children, lyricist and poet of Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Wai, Ngāti Pūkenga and Ngāti Maniapoto descent. Raised largely by her maternal Māori grandmother in the tiny settlement of Tamaterau in the Whangarei Heads area, June is one of Aotearoa's well-known jazz singers, having performed at many events and festivals throughout the country. She talks to NZ Booklovers about Kia Ora You Can Be Kiwi Too, illustrated by Minky Stapleton.

Tell us a little about Kia Ora: You can be a Kiwi too.

‘Kia Ora: You can be a Kiwi too’ – is all about celebrating the widening cultural diversity of Aotearoa in a fun, playful way; an opening of windows and doors to new connections, experiences and learnings. A welcoming invitation to all Aotearoa has to offer people/children from other lands from a Kiwi child’s perspective, and similarly a respectful, fun acknowledgement and recognition of what we Kiwi’s stand to learn, understand and appreciate about other cultures and customs. A weaving and blending of manāakitanga, friendship and connectedness throughout Aotearoa’s global community.

What inspired you to write this book?

Actually credit for the idea behind ‘Kia Ora: You can be a Kiwi too’ must be given to my publisher Scholastic, who approached me to gauge what I thought, and whether I’d be interested in creating something! I thought it was a brilliant suggestion, and very quickly visions of how this could unfold began to occupy my mind. The inspiration for the storyline was as simple as allowing myself to slip into the childlike anticipation and excitement of making new friends, of playing, and wanting to show off! Equally though, I needed to place myself in the shoes of the ‘visitor’! How could they be made to feel welcome! Simple! Just invite them home, share food, show them around, have fun doing all those quintessential Kiwi things! I did draw on many of my own childhood experiences which seemed incredulously magical to me as a child, and yes I confess as an adult too! The climbing of pohutukawa; of camping, singing, and storytelling around a campfire near the sea, games of ‘spotlight’ and the nightsounds!

What research was involved?

Minimal research was needed actually. It was more a case of what was in my own creative ‘storage unit’. I’m one of those people who stores up detail in memory really rather easily. Having this research resource on tap 24/7 when the creative juices are flowing is awesome! And I love painting pictures with words!

What was the process working with the illustrator?

Scholastic’s search for an illustrator lead to Minky Stapleton, who had immigrated from South Africa; an ideal choice given the theme of the story. Thankfully Minky loved the storyline and set about bringing it to life visually. She ‘nailed it’ from the outset, with only a handful of suggested changes needing to be made along the way. Her illustration style really brings to the fore the lightness, fun, and magic!

So yes the words come first, then the drawings where we (The publisher, writer and illustrator) work collaboratively to ensure the drawings match the look, feel and tone of the story. I can’t wait to work with her again!

What are the key themes you would like readers to take away with them?

The key themes from my perspective are those of –

· Welcoming and embracing Aotearoa as a multi-cultural Nation, and regardless of race or creed we are all one, and have a wonderful opportunity to share and learn from each other about our lives, our countries, our world.

· The importance of showing respect, connectedness and caring for each other within our homes, communities and environments

· The joy and fun-filled coming together in celebration of who we are, and where we come from.

· The unique beauty and magic of Aotearoa’s natural world – from sea to shore, city to country.

Can you tell us a little about how you created the song that accompanies the book?

Kia Ora was written in song form first, developing as a set of lyrics based on the songwriter principles of lyrical, rhymable, singable! I started off with the simple line – ‘Kia ora, kia ora, welcome to our shores’, and then progressed from there with no particular tune in mind at that stage. Somewhere along the way the idea of a tune started to emerge, so I played around with that, and when I felt confident I had it sorted, I did a test-run playing it on my ukulele to my friend who really liked it! Simple yet catchy, it made her want to get up and dance!

What did you enjoy most about writing this delightful picture book?

I really enjoyed the visual challenge of where the story would possibly take me as it unfolded. What was around the corner, or rather what was over the page? I loved how it enabled me to see and think like a child again; the journeying back in time. The visual detail! I should explain that when I write, I can visually see each scene unfold, as if I’m sitting right amongst it! I love that feeling!

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

There have been many celebrations along the journey of this book, from sharing a nice glass of wine with my ‘test run’ friend who was privy to its creation from beginning to end, the official book launch at the Dorothy Butler Bookshop in Ponsonby, Auckland shared with many, and a post launch gathering at a local café to mark the moment!

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

My favourite book so far is ‘The Little Coffee Shop of Kabul’, written by Deborah Rodriguez. Set in Kabul (of course), it tells the story of five very brave and diverse women, who through a variety of circumstances find themselves connecting; their lives becoming entwined in the surrounds of this little coffee shop which for them an others is a haven from the constant and turbulent strains of war being played out not too far from the shops front door!

What’s next on the agenda for you?

Well I’ve recently completed the sequel to ‘Kia Ora: You can be a Kiwi too’, so I’m looking forward to entering the next phase of its creation – the illustrations, and then of course its launch in time for Spring 2019j. I’m developing another couple of ideas, so it is indeed very exciting times ahead!


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