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Gavin Bishop. Photo/Martin Hunter/Listener

The family inspiration behind children's writer Gavin Bishop

One of New Zealand’s most prolific authors and illustrators opens up on Cook, his own whanau and winning a big award. 

James Cook – gifted navigator and heroic adventurer, or imperialist, racist coloniser? The Tuia 250 commemorations are provoking fresh assessments of the Royal Navy commander who arrived in New Zealand in 1769. Christchurch author and illustrator Gavin Bishop, (Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāti Awa, Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui) read widely on Cook during research for his award-winning 2017 children’s history Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story. In early October, he was the recipient of the 2019 Prime Minister’s Literary Achievement Award for non-fiction. It’s one of many awards received for books that range from non-fiction to original stories, including retellings of Māori myths, European fairy stories and nursery rhymes.

From the dinosaur era to the present day, Bishop’s trademark watercolour drawings bring history alive for a new generation of New Zealand children. It’s a stark contrast with Bishop’s own upbringing and education in the 1950s, when books were scarce and children learnt that New Zealand history started only with the arrival of the famous British sailor and other Pākehā.

Bishop and his brother, Russell, were raised in Invercargill and Kingston. Their parents, Doris and Alan, were both working class: Doris worked in a hotel and Alan served in World War II before joining the New Zealand Railways Department.

Bishop's great-grandmother Irihapeti Hahou. Photo/Supplied

Both boys followed academic paths – Gavin taught art for 30 years and, in a distinguished career, has written and illustrated 70 books of his own. He’s illustrated books for other authors, too, including Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley.

Russell became professor of Māori education at Waikato University and both brothers have been made officers of the New Zealand Order of Merit. A long-time Christchurch resident, Gavin has three adult daughters with his wife, Vivien.

You’ve read a lot about James Cook – do you see him as a villain or a great explorer?

I don’t see him as a villain at all; he was a man of his time. He was actually a very kind and careful person. Some of the terrible things that took place were unfortunate, but, generally, Cook took tremendous care to treat well the people of the various places he visited. Any bad or unfortunate events can be traced to misunderstanding or ignorance, really. For example, when Endeavour arrived in Tahiti to observe the transit of Venus and stayed for about three months they didn’t realise they were going to virtually eat the Tahitians out of house and home. There was a limited food supply and the plants they helped themselves to – they didn’t realise that they were actually being cultivated by the Tahitians. They inadvertently put huge pressure on the locals by doing that.

Bishop’s grandfather and great-aunt in the 1920s. Photo/Gavin Bishop collection/Supplied

Is Tuia 250 an appropriate way of helping New Zealanders to come to terms with our history?

It’s part of a continuum. The next time we have a similar event it’ll be different. We’ll reshape it. We should be looking back beyond Cook to some of the other earlier people who came to New Zealand. I love the idea of telling our children about those early Polynesian visitors and explorers and discoverers who came to Aotearoa New Zealand.

How important is your Māori heritage?

Mum’s dad was Tainui, from Waikato. It’s enormously important and it’s been a source of inspiration and ideas, thinking about what life must have been like for my grandfather and his siblings. He was one of 12. I have met a lot of the descendants of his siblings. We had a family reunion in the early 90s at Port Waikato.

An illustration for  Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story. Image/Supplied

Do you recall your favourite book from childhood?

I didn’t have many picture books when I was a kid and most of them came from either England or America. I remember reading the School Journal and that was enormously instrumental in introducing me to longer books. That is where I came across The Hobbit. I read a chapter of it and was fired up to read the book. I’ve always been thankful for those School Journals. In the 1950s, everybody read all the time. I listened to radio serials but my parents, grandmother and my aunts and uncles all read. Most towns had a kind of dairy that was also a bookshop and a library and you had to pay to borrow books. There was a very limited range in categories, such as romance, western and thriller. They weren’t usually great works of literature and I know some people of my mother’s age had a little insignia that they put on a certain page in a book so they could check to see whether they had read it or not. That’s how similar the books were in those days.

Your parents and other relatives feature in Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story – you obviously hold them in high regard.

As you get older, you look back and you realise what your parents did for you. They were just working-class people but they were prepared to give me enough space when I said I wanted to take art as my main subject at high school. Then, when one of the teachers at the high school suggested that I should go to art school at the university in Christchurch, Mum supported me doing that. It was quite extraordinary, really – my mother had left school when she was 13 and worked in the kitchen of a hotel even though she was dux of her primary school. She saw that I had a dream and wanted to do something else.

As a young art teacher, far right, at Lincoln High School, Christchurch. Photo/Gavin Bishop family collection/Supplied

And now you’ve received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in non-fiction – what does that mean to you?

It’s one of the big awards and I don’t think it often goes to children’s writers, so that’s another reason I’m really pleased about it.

Are children’s writers and children’s books generally under-recognised?

Absolutely. Don’t get me started.

Can you elaborate anyway?

There’s a very strict hierarchy in the literary world and you could probably find the same thing in Britain and Australia; I don’t know about other countries. There seems to be a belief that if writing is aimed at children, it must be of a lesser literary value than a piece of writing for adults. I come across this again and again. Fiction and poetry are at the top of the list and away down near the bottom is literature for children, alongside self-help books. It’s almost at the same level as self-published books.

Bishop in his studio. Photo/Martin Hunter/Listener

Why is that the case?

There’s a lack of understanding of what actually goes into writing a book for children. If you’re writing for an adult you can write anything you like and say anything you want to. But if you’re writing for, say, a five-year-old child, it’s quite different to something you might write for an eight-year-old or a 10- or 12-year-old. All of those ages require different kinds of language, story ideas and so on. Some of our best children’s writers, such as Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley, are able to pitch their writing specifically at an age group and write perfectly for them.

Isn’t it also a factor that your books, for example, are so easily digestible that it belies the work that goes into them?

A lot of children’s books are deceptively simple. A really good children’s book can have lots of layers and lots of levels. That’s what I aim for when I’m writing even a quite simple story. I like to think that the text is quite straightforward and simple, but the illustrations might add other layers of complexity or introduce other ideas that are not stated in the text. Writing for children with the use of illustrations is very sophisticated and demanding, and it can be quite difficult.

What sort of books do you enjoy reading?

When I’m doing a book such as Aotearoa or Wildlife of Aotearoa, I read a lot of non-fiction as research. But, generally, I read a lot of fiction and the book I’m reading at the moment is Patricia Grace’s Potiki. I first read it years ago and it’s fabulous to re-read things again after many years. It had been lying beside the bed for a while, and now I’m reading it, I’m reminded that it is terrific.

This article was first published in the October 26, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.