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Interview: Maria Gill talks about New Zealand Disasters


Maria Gill has written over 60 children’s books for the trade and educational markets. Her books have been awarded 10 Storylines Notables and have been shortlisted for five LIANZA Elsie Locke Awards and two New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards. In 2016 Anzac Heroes won the Margaret Mahy Children’s Book of the Year supreme award.A former teacher at intermediate and primary school level, Maria then trained as a journalist and now writes full time from the seaside village of Point Wells. In 2020, Storylines awarded Maria Gill the prestigious Margaret Mahy Medal for services to children’s literature.




Tell us a little about New Zealand Disasters. It’s a children’s nonfiction book for 8-14 year olds featuring disasters that have occurred over the last 200 years in New Zealand and the courageous people who helped the nation get through them. Readers will learn about historical disasters such as the 1855 Wairarapa tsunami, the 1886 Tarawera eruption and the 1896 Brunner mine collapse. Also about disasters that have occurred in contemporary times such as the Tangiwai train disaster, the 1968 Wahine shipwreck, and the 1979 Mt Erebus plane crash. And the disasters that happened recently, including the Nelson wildfires, White Island eruption and the Covid19 pandemic, which we’re experiencing right now. But we’ve also included a positive outlook on what happened, to demonstrate the courage and resilience of survivors and first responders on New Zealanders’ road to recovery.

What inspired you to write this book? There has been some excellent disaster books written in the past but there have been many disasters since they were written – especially in the last two years! I knew schools and children needed an up-to-date book featuring these stories. But we wanted to put a positive slant on the disasters, explaining what we’ve learned from them and honouring those who helped us get through them. And disasters don’t just stop after they’ve happened, they have repercussions for the communities sometimes for years afterwards. We wanted to include information on the recovery process and tips how to survive the next disaster so people can be prepared.


What research was involved? I read lots of excellent nonfiction books, newspaper articles, and kept updating the text, as things changed. When I first started writing it, the mosque massacre happened. When Marco Ivancic started illustrating it, White Island erupted. While Penny Scown edited it, the smoke from the bush fires in Australia covered our skies. And while the Smartwork Creative team designed it – we went into lockdown during the Covid19 pandemic.


What was your routine or process when writing this book? I researched and wrote from 8.00 to 6.00pm five to six days a week. After the first lockdown, we had to revise the book quite a bit. Creative New Zealand kindly awarded us a grant to enable us to make the changes necessary. I was halfway through my AUT Master’s in Creative Writing course at the time, so I had to put aside my thesis project and just concentrate on updating the disaster book.


What do you hope people will take away from reading your book? For children, it will give a sense of yeah disasters happen, but we learn from them, and the next time we’re better prepared. The recovery and survival tips will help them feel more empowered when they experience a disaster of some kind in the future. For adults, it is a reminiscence of disasters that have happened in their lifetime and their parents’ lifetime.


If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include. ‘Survivor’ by Destiny’s Child and ‘A Disaster’ by Melissa Etheridge.


What did you enjoy the most about writing this book? Writing the stories in creative nonfiction style so that readers can feel the sights, sounds, smells and feels as if they were there at the time. But also putting the positives into the book. Especially honouring the first responders and essential workers who help us get through these tough times.


What did you do to celebrate finishing this book? Carried on working on my thesis. And was thankful for working with such a great team: illustrator Marco Ivancic, publishing team at Scholastic – Lynette Evans and Penny Scown, and the Smartwork Creative team.


What is the favourite book you have read recently, and why? ‘The King’s Nightingale’ by Sherryl Jordan. Sherryl always writes stories with strong female protagonists, who are severely disadvantaged at first but because of their strength of character survive against all odds.


What’s next on the agenda for you? I have a new book called ‘True Animal Tales’ coming out mid-year with Scholastic. It has all kinds of animals from Australia and New Zealand. For example, a cat that competed in a dog swimming race, a cheeky kangaroo who kept jumping into her carer’s dressing gown, a mischievous koala and her koala whisperer carer – an 11-year-old daughter of a vet, a talking kokako, an unlucky in love albatross, and a confused gannet plus lots more. Their stories were great fun to write and we have a new illustrator, Emma Huia Lovegrove, illustrating the book and it looks gorgeous.


Scholastic New Zealand