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Interview: Victoria Cleal talks about Lost in the Museum

Photo: Victoria Cleal (right) and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White

Victoria Cleal works as a writer and editor at Te Papa. She worked on Nature | Te Taiao and several stories for the children’s TV series He Paki Taonga and its associated book. Her first book, also based on a treasure at Te Papa, and illustrated by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, was Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep, winner of the Best Children’s Book at the 2021 Whitley Awards for zoological literature.

Illustrator Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (Ngāti Kahungungu ki te Wairoa, Rongomaiwahine, Ngāi Tahu, Ngāti Irakehu) is a graphic artist with a diploma in Visual Arts (UCOL) and a Bachelor of Design (Hons) majoring in illustration from Massey University. She has illustrated for Huia Publishers and the School Journal (Lift Education), as well as several of the stories for the children’s TV series He Paki Taonga and its associated book.

Tell us a little about your latest book, Lost in the Museum

Lost in the Museum is a fictional book for young readers. A dad goes missing at Te Papa, and as his whānau search for him, they have magical encounters with taonga and ancestors.

What was the inspiration behind the project?

Nicola Legat, the publisher at Te Papa Press, talked to me about writing a story in which kids have an adventure within the museum. Family members do sometimes go astray in such a big, busy place. I wondered, what would happen if they didn’t get lost in the museum, but inside a taonga?

What research was involved?

I work at Te Papa, so I was privileged to have access to curators and other experts specialising in natural history, art, and history. They generously suggested taonga and connected me to families and communities connected to these taonga. They also fact-checked the text and illustrations. It was a collaborative process.

This is your second book for children situated within Te Papa, following Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep. How was this a different writing experience?

Whiti was fact-based. Izzy and I sometimes had to use our imaginations to create the world of a colossal squid, as so little is known about them. But we always checked with scientists that our scenarios were possible. Lost in the Museum is a fantasy and is more plot-driven. But the taonga are real, and the stories connected to them are based on real places or people.

What do you hope young readers will learn from the book in terms of their relationship to taonga they encounter in a museum?

I hope they’ll learn that museum taonga aren’t just static objects. They have stories, and they connect us to real families, communities, and places.

This is the second time you’ve collaborated with illustrator Isobel Joy Te Aho-White. What was it like working closely with her to bring the story alive?

I knew that Izzy would bring meticulous detail and a lot of humour to the book. Even though we’ve worked together before, I was impressed by how realistic her characters were – they would look totally at home strolling around Te Papa on a Saturday afternoon.

Your first book together received a highly respected prize last year. Tell us about that.

Whiti won the Best Children’s Book Category at the Whitley Awards. These Australasian awards are for zoological literature. I was very excited to share that news with all the scientists who had given me their expertise. I must have tried their patience with all my questions, but it was worth it!

What did you enjoy the most about this project?

I met many inspiring people and communities connected to the objects I’d chosen. I read an early draft to a class at Randwick School, and then the students told me what their most precious taonga were – these ranged from trainers to a baby sister! Mark Kairua of the Manuhiki and Rakahanga community in Wellington gifted me a necklace and fan made by his mother, which I will always treasure. I made many wonderful connections – just like the taonga do in the book.

What is the favourite book you have read in the past year and why?

Recently I re-read Maurice Gee’s children’s book Under the Mountain. I was almost as terrified as when I read it as a kid, and I couldn’t put it down. Gee has boundless imagination, but he is also brilliant at capturing the way New Zealanders talk and think. I’m sure I’ve met Uncle Clarry!

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