Whetū Toa and the Magician by Steph Matuku
A finalist in the NZ Book Awards for Children and Young Adult 2019.
When Whetū’s mother takes a job organising a magician’s house and farm, Whetū becomes the animal keeper. She must look after a golden ram, three lazy pigs, talking horses, a cowardly bull and the magician’s stage assistant – an arrogant white rabbit called Errant.
Errant has been playing around with magic and created a carnivorous lamb, which he can’t change back. Rather than face the magician, Errant disappears, leaving Whetū with the job of magician’s assistant. It all seems to be going well, that is until Errant returns to seek his revenge.
First-time author Steph Matuku has made an impressive debut but released two novels simultaneously. As well as Whetū Toa, Matuku released Flight of The Fantail, a science fiction young adult novel about a group of high school students’ survival in remote Aotearoa bush following a bus crash.
Releasing two books at once might seem like one would suffer, but both books are extraordinary.
Whetū Toa is a fantasy chapter book aimed at middle primary. However, it makes a great read-aloud for children of a younger age too, with the magic and tension not too scary for little readers.
Matuku has said that she wants “more kids to be able to read stories set in Aotearoa, in a world they live in”. While we all don’t live on a magical farm, this sentiment goes much, much deeper.
The main protagonist in Whetū Toa is a Māori girl – Whetū. She is a strong and spirited character, who gives things a go even if she doesn’t think she can do them. It was lovely too to see a solo parent in a book. Whetū’s mother is a strong, working mother and together the pair navigate the situation they find themselves in.
By including these characters, Matuku gives children, and indeed families that differ from the nuclear family, validation. As she said in an interview with E-Tangata, “it is so important for me to get Māori kids on the page...because when I was growing up, you just didn’t see yourself”.
Illustrated by Katharine Hall, the book contains little vignettes of the book to aid readers. They are quirky and delightful.
With short chapters, it is easy enough for a newly independent reader while also manageable as a read aloud. It is at times laugh out loud, while being rich in language and a setting that is both familiar and unknown.
Whetū Toa and the Magician is a stellar debut from an author who pours her heart into her stories. It is full of fun and fantasy, and is an important addition to our literary landscape.
Reviewer: Rebekah Fraser
Huia Publishers, RRP $25