Donovan Bixley and Darryn Joseph have produced a fresh bilingual retelling of the favourite story How Maui Slowed the Sun, just in time for Te Wiki o te Reo Māori.
We talked to Donovan about the project and what he's reading these days.
Kia ora Donovan! Tell us about the Tales of Aotearoa series. How did you get started on them?
My publisher Upstart Press had been thinking that I could bring my colourful and humourous spin to some of the Māori legends. Initially I said, “no way Hone!”. As a Pākehā, I felt that I didn’t have the mana or knowledge to take on these beloved stories. But at the same time, I had a really great vision of how I’d like to re-tell them. Soon after, I bumped in to Dr Darryn Joseph at a children’s book hui. We got on well, and he agreed to work alongside me.
How Māui Slowed the Sun was advised and translated by Dr Darryn Joseph and Keri Opai. Why is it important to you that this book be bilingual, and what was this process like?
Out of the many books I’ve done, the Tales of Aotearoa series is the first time I’ve done a book that was simultaneously released in English and te reo Māori. Upstart Press have really got in behind that, with a substantial first print run in Māori. The great thing about this series is that Darryn and Keri are not just translators, they’re involved right from my first scribbles and my jotted lines on scrap paper. It’s a really collaborative effort, that evolves in a lovely to and fro of ideas. As advisors, Darryn and Keri don’t tell me how or what to do, but their guidance allows me to have a have a lot of fun with the story, whilst also honouring the huge importance of Māui. With their help there are some cool layers of information woven into my illustrations. When it comes to translation, Darryn and Keri really bring something extra, because they know what we’ve been trying to achieve right from the start, and they’re not just brought in as translators at the end.
Your illustrations are distinctively you – stylish and friendly at the same time! Can you tell us a bit about your inspiration and how you got started in illustration?
I think it takes a long time to find your own style. I love the classic illustrators from Norman Rockwell and Edmund Dulac to bright colourful illustrators like Dr Seuss and Graham Oakley and modern geniuses like Dave McKean. The thing I admire about all these illustrators, is that they are story-tellers first and foremost. The brilliant artist Degas claimed to have copied every painting in the Louvre, twice! Like Degas, I had to take all my favourite influences and swirl them about inside me, until I came out with my own distinct style. It’s nothing like my heroes, but there are touches of their influence everywhere. I think humour is a massive part of my work and I’ve always had a strong eye for colours. I don’t know whether that’s been influenced by our bright New Zealand atmosphere. Funnily enough, I got started because I wanted to draw amazing things. The first book I ever attempted was my illustrated biography Faithfully Mozart. I was this nobody from small town Taupō and I was really trying to show off what I could do on an international scale … I’m still trying.
What does ‘Read NZ’ mean to you – how important is it that we read books from this place?
I was recently on the Storylines tour of schools throughout Auckland and it was fantastic to see kids respond so enthusiastically to New Zealand stories they could relate to. I visited Waatea Marae school in South Auckland, and one of the teachers told her students that she had never seen a face that looked like hers in the picture books she’d read as a child. It’s important for all of us, but for Māori and Pacific Island kids, to see a familiar face in my version of Māui, is especially important, as he’s such a great role model — as well as being a cheeky trickster, Māui is a resilient problem solver, a leader who shares his knowledge with the whole iwi, and a clever ideas guy. What a great Māori hero to read about!
Is there anything about NZ picture books that sets them apart do you think?
I think our picture books are quite different from many overseas picture books. I’ve done many books that I thought would be huge hits internationally, but they didn’t fit with overseas markets. We seem to have our own unique style. As I said above, our country is bright and colourful — young and humourous – and no one else is telling the stories of our unique place in the world. Sasha Cotter and Josh Morgan’s awesome The Bomb is a classic example.
Which NZ books/writers have been special to you in your life?
I’ve mentioned this in interviews a few times over the years, but as a kid I was obsessed with Footrot Flats. They were just so uniquely New Zealand, and I felt that this was my world … a place that was possibly just down the road and round the corner. For a while I thought I wanted to be a farmer like Wal, but I eventually realised that I wanted to be an author and illustrator like Murray Ball.
What are you reading at the moment, and have you got any book recommendations for us?
Goodness, I’ve basically been reading nothing but Leonardo da Vinci books for the last 2 years … I did read Peter FitzSimon’s Mutiny on the Bounty, earlier in the year, which gets my top rating. It’s an unbelievably crazy, romantic and dramatic piece of history, told in a colloquial engaging manner. It gets my “I wish I’d written this book” rating.
What’s next in store for you, Donovan?
Well, I always have a lot of different projects on the go … next up I’ve got a new Looky Book coming out. The Looky Book is my 3rd most successful title, and this new one is a super gorgeous and hilarious look at Aotearoa from the time of dinosaurs to the Pink and White terraces. It’s nothing serious – but a lot of funny pictures to engage kids (and adults). The Good Old Looky Book comes out next March. I’m currently doing roughs for the penultimate in my Flying Furballs, pussycats in planes series. All the plot points are coming to an explosive conclusion. My next huge project is my illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci. I’ve literally been working on this for decades. It’s a ginormous amount of work and it’ll show off Leonardo in way he’d never been seen before. I’m hoping to get that completed by the end of 2020.
How Māui Slowed the Sun / Te Whakatautōnga A Māui I Te Rā $19.99 RRP (Upstart Press) on sale 12 September.