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The Astromancer: The Rising of Matariki by Witi Ihimaera

The Astromancer. The Rising of Matariki, a new children’s book by Witi Ihimaera, one of New Zealand’s most acclaimed authors, is a spellbinding tale inspired by pūrākau, legendary Māori stories from ancient times.

Te Kōkōrangi, a skilled astromancer, chooses Ariā, to be one of four new apprentices to teach about the stars. Ariā is only willing to follow her if her dog can come too. But will this homeless orphan girl, with a stinky dog and a mind of her own, really prove to be a good choice?

On the way to her home, Pekerangi Mountain (the leaping place to the heavens), a lookout post during the day, but an observatory at night, Te Kōkōrangi tells the apprentices about the origin of the Matariki cluster. She tells how Tāwhirimātea, angry at the separation of Ranginui and Papatūānuku, tore out his own eyes. He threw them up to the Sky Father where they were transformed into the cluster of nine stars called Matariki, the Eyes of the God. Its appearance signals the beginning of the New Year in Maramataka (the Māori calendar).

‘If the stars are clear and bright, a favourable season is coming. If they are closely bunched together, the winter will be long and the planting should be delayed. “ she tells them.

On Pekerangi Mountain, Ariā is quick to learn the karanga, the ancient chants (mōteatea) and geneaology for many star clusters. When she has to wait for the boys to catch up she gets bored and plays silly tricks. Te Kōkōkorangi cautions her that these are not just empty words, she must praise the stars and to seek their blessings properly so that the Maramataka will let the people prosper through the year. But Ariā takes no notice.

When winter arrives the tribes prepare for the descent of Te Waka o Rangi, the great Star Canoe of the Sky Father captained by Taramainuku with Matariki at the prow.

When it comes sailing through the night sky Ariā recklessly breaks an important rule.This has a terrible consequence for both her and Te Kōkōrangi.

Then Ruatatapu the Ravenous, and his 200 fearsome warriors, succeed in a daring raid on the observatory and take Te Kōkōrangi and her priests captive.

This creates a desperate situation with Matariki only 3 days away. With the experts gone who can now sing the Matariki stars into the sky and clear the way for the waka’s ascent?

Only the four children have been taught how. But will they have the courage to attempt to do it ? Have they learnt enough to succeed? And will the Matariki Gods be willing to listen to these children?

Witi Ihimaera is a great storyteller. Te Kōkōrangi is based on an astromancer who lived long ago. But the children and Ariā’s dog have come out of his own creative imagination. They make this story very relatable for children who will also be entranced by Isobel Joy Te Aho-White’s brilliant illustrations.

Central to the story is the continuing battle of wills between Te Kōkōrangi and Ariā who has suffered the trauma of being an orphan and having to fend for herself. It is only love and a sense of belonging that can heal her.

At the beginning the boys stay in the background, but their strength and courage eventually shine through.

The Astromancer: The Rising of Matariki is a great way for children to learn about Matariki, and how it is about so much more than simply gazing at the nine Matariki stars in the night sky.

These ancient stories still have relevance for us today. They teach us about the need to respect and live in harmony with the spiritual and natural world.

Friday June 24 will be a very special occasion, the first time Matariki will be a public holiday in New Zealand. The Astromancer. The Rising of Matariki would be a great book for families to read together as part of their Matariki celebrations.

Reviewer: Lyn Potter

The Astromancer. The Rising of Matariki by Witi Ihimaera is a Picture Puffin Imprint. Also available in Te Reo Māori as Te Kōkōrangi. Te Aranga o Matariki.


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