Interview: Sally Sutton talks about Takahē Trouble
Sally Sutton is a popular children’s book author of junior fiction and picture books, most recognised for her award-winning Roadworks, Demolition and Construction, published by Walker Books. Book 6 of Miniwings was nominated for Best Junior Fiction in the 2020 NZ Children’s Book Awards. She enjoys writing for different age groups, but tries to bring the same qualities to all her writing: a strong plot, lively language, and a big dose of fun. Sally talks to NZ Booklovers.
Tell us a little about Takahē Trouble.
Takahē Trouble is based on the real story of Walter and Manaaki, two takahē who escaped from their predator-free sanctuary in Auckland’s Tāwharanui Regional Park and went walkabout for ten days, before they were recaptured.
What inspired you to write this book?
I was actually invited to write Takahē Trouble by Scholastic. I was very happy to, because it’s not something I would have come up with on my own. The challenge when you’re writing about things based on fact is to make the story exciting and meaningful. Two birds going walkabout is not enough to make a good story on its own – there needs to be danger, there needs to be depth. And a touch of poetry!
What research was involved?
A trip to Tāwharanui Regional Park was essential! I’d been there before, but I’d never looked at it through the eyes of a runaway takahē… I wanted to get a feel for the place, to see the lie of the land and listen to the sound of the wind and the sea. And to check out the predator-free fence! Small details can be really important. For example, I’d imagined that Manaaki wanted to see cars for the first time during the Great Escape, but of course, cars are allowed inside the fence, so the takahē would have already been familiar with vehicles, albeit driven very slowly. Little things like that are important because if you get it wrong and a child realises, it will completely ruin the story for them. I also found out as much as I could about the real-life Walter and Manaaki – although when it came to their individual personalities, I had to make it up. That’s poetic licence!
Did you get to see any real life takahē when you were writing the book? Can you tell us a little about the real-life birds?
I didn’t spot any takahē on my trip to Tāwharanui, but I believe you can see them at Auckland Zoo now! And I’ve seen them before several times on Tiritiri Matangi Island. They are so beautiful, so big and so tame! They are native to Aotearoa and there are only around 400 left, so they are endangered. They can’t fly, which makes them very vulnerable to predators. They’re known as the birds who ‘came back from the dead,’ as they were thought to be extinct, but were rediscovered by Geoffrey Orbell and his team in Fiordland in 1948.
What was your routine or process when writing this book?
Routine? Process? Ha ha ha!
How did you work with Jenny Cooper, the illustrator?
Most people are surprised to learn that there is very little if any contact between authors and illustrators of picture books. Authors will usually see the roughs and be asked to comment on them, but the whole process is managed by the publishers. They like to keep it that way – fair enough!
If a soundtrack was made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.
I love this question! And it’s tricky! I think it would have to be a New Zealand song, and one about birds. Something from Aro’s album Manu! They didn’t do one about takahē, but ‘Tauhou’ about the silvereye seems like a good song for a book about friendship and unexpected adventure. And it’s hardly Kiwi, but it would be hard not to include ‘On the Road Again,’ just because….
What do you hope families will take away from reading this book?
I hope they’ll be able to identify with those mixed feelings we all have when it comes to taking risks versus staying in our comfort zone: the tug of adventure, the safety and pleasure of home… And that they’ll realise wherever you are and whatever you’re doing, a good friend by your side means the world! Hopefully, they’ll also gain a new respect for our cheeky and gorgeous New Zealand takahē! I know I did!
If you had to choose a favourite part of the book, what would you choose and why?
My favourite part (and my favourite illustration!) is when Walter and Manaaki huddle on a moonlit hillside at night, because that marks a turning point in the story. This is the moment when their two characters rub off on each other. Walter becomes braver and more adventurous, Manaaki more conservative but also more poetic. At its heart, Takahē Trouble is a story about friendship, and to see them there cuddled up in a feathery little ball on a hill under the Moon is super-cute!
What did you do to celebrate finishing this project?
Started on the next one! Yes. I’m an incurable nerd.
What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?
How could I pretend it’s not Takahē Trouble? I know, I know, narcissistic in the extreme! But who could resist seeing their words so beautifully brought to life? Very very hard not to be over-excited….
What’s next on the agenda for you?
During lockdown, a dancer friend and I started developing hiha.co.nz, a resource for primary schools which fuses story and dance fitness, while also embracing Māori language and culture. I’ve always liked plenty of action in my stories, but now I’m taking it literally: these are stories and plays you can actually move to! We’re having so much fun and we’re ready to launch, which just goes to show: you never know when you’re going to slip under the fence and set off on another adventure…. I think Walter and Manaaki would approve!
Scholastic New Zealand