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  • Writer's pictureNZ Booklovers

Interview: Matthew Cunningham talks about Abigail and the Birth of the Sun

We want to introduce you to some of the finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Matthew Cunningham is nominated for the Picture Book Award for Abigail and the Birth of the Sun.

Matthew Cunningham wrote his first masterpiece in kindergarten. Unfortunately, as he had yet to grasp the concept of writing in straight lines from left to right, ‘The Clock’ (as it was so cleverly titled) read more like a bowl of alphabet soup than a book. Since then, he’s turned his hand to a number of different styles of writing. A passionate and dedicated historian with a Doctor of Philosophy, he has published oral histories, peer-reviewed articles, journalistic and encyclopedic pieces, and Waitangi Tribunal research commissions. Matthew's desire to communicate, explore and test complex ideas in a way that engages the reader, no matter what their age, has naturally brought him to the best and most challenging genre of all: children's fiction. Abigail and the Birth of the Sun is his first published picture book.

He lives in Porirua, New Zealand with his wife and daughter Abigail, who, like her namesake, also likes to ask big questions.

Tell us a little about your book.

It’s a story about a little girl with a big question – a question so big that she knows it will keep her awake if she doesn’t find the answer. And so, as her daddy tucks her into bed, she asks him – where did the sun and the planets come from? To answer her question, her daddy invents a story about an old, lonely star whose stardust gives birth to a whole new family of stars and planets. By morning, of course, Abigail has thought of another big question…

What inspired you to write this book?

My daughter, the real-life Abigail! Ever since she learnt to talk, she has loved to ask questions. Why is the sky blue? Where did the moon come from? One night before bed, when she was about two and a half, she asked me where the stars came from. While a lecture on how supernovae enrich the interstellar medium with heavy elements might have put her to sleep quicker, I decided a story about a lonely old star would be more compelling. This was the seed for what would become ‘Abigail and the birth of the Sun’.

More broadly, I am passionate about communicating complex ideas in a way that is clear and engaging – even relatable. I think this comes from my background as a historian. I’m a big fan of using metaphors and anecdotes to explain bigger ideas and theories.

I was also inspired by the thought that Abigail’s curiosity might encourage other young girls who have big questions of their own. I think it’s important for young girls to read about other young girls who have an interest in STEM subjects. Of course, my little contribution pales in comparison to the amazing work done by science communicators like Michelle Dickinson and Siouxsie Wiles.

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I actually knocked out the first draft pretty quickly, since I already had the bones of the story from my conversation with my daughter. I quickly realised that the story of the lonely old star needed a ‘wrapper’ – something for it to sit within to give it meaning. Fortunately, the answer was right in front of me – a precocious toddler who likes asking her father big questions!

Having never written a children’s book before, I asked my colleague (and amazing author) Lawry Patchett if he could cast his eye over it. I’m incredibly grateful for his generous and considered feedback (which was longer than the book itself!). He helped me realise that the heart of the story wasn’t the lonely old star and the supernova – it was Abigail and her insatiable curiosity, and her relationship with her daddy.

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

Oh goodness! I’ve never thought about that. Given the (literally) astronomical scale of the story, I think some kind of orchestral number would be in order. Sometimes that starts out light and whimsical while Abigail is getting ready for bed, and which sweeps you up into the heavens as the story of the lonely old star takes place. The final note would be a cheeky twinkle as Abigail thinks of her new big question. Does that song even exist?

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

I always intended ‘Abigail and the birth of the Sun’ to be the first book in a series, so it’s well-suited for adaptation to television (*hint hint* to any people in the television industry who are reading this). I personally couldn’t imagine it being anything other than an animated series, based off Sarah Wilkins’ wonderful illustrations.

Given that Abigail is my daughter, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone else playing her. Mara Wilson in Matilda comes close, but she’s grown up now. As for the daddy character, it’d have to be someone devastatingly handsome of course. My wife would want me to say Chris Evans, so she can at least be fictionally married to Captain America.

What did you enjoy the most about writing (or illustrating) this book?

How it’s made Abigail feel to know that her big questions are not only valued – they are published!

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I don’t think we celebrated when I finished the book, but we definitely did when Penguin Random House agreed to publish it. Nothing too flash – just a family dinner at our favourite restaurant. I’m a man of simple tastes.

The book launch was also a special event – quite a few family members and close friends came along to celebrate with us.

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

Picking a favourite book is like trying to pick a favourite star in the sky! There are so many great books to choose from, each with their own distinct charms. I read a lot of fantasy and science fiction, and I was recently completely blown away by Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name of the Wind. I’ve not come across such well-written characters since Robin Hobbs’ Realm of the Elderlings books. I also finally got around to reading Ranginui Walker’s Ka Whawhai Tonu Mātou, which was very illuminating – and particularly relevant given the current wave of protests across the United States.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

I have a few projects on the go at the moment. I am currently turning my PhD in History into a book, and I am working on a history of the radical right in New Zealand with several leading scholars in the field. In between these, I have written a few other children’s stories. I am also trying to find time to write a full-length fantasy fiction novel depicting the struggle between a colonising power and an indigenous people.

The second Abigail book, titled ‘Abigail and the restless raindrop’, is also due to be released on 2 July, so I’m counting down to that!

The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed via a virtual presentation on Wednesday 12 August. For a full list of the brilliant 2020 finalists click here:


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