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06 May 2024

Author Q&A: Shelley Burne-Field

Author Shelley Burne-Field (Sāmoa, Ngati Mutunga, Ngati Rārua, Pākehā) is a kaituhituhi from Te Matau-a-Māui Hawke's Bay. We chatted with her about her children's debut, Brave Kahu and the Pōrangi Magpie, out now from Allen & Unwin NZ.

Kia ora Shelley! Thanks so much for being willing to chat about Brave Kāhu with us!

Thank you for being interested in my writing!

Firstly - why writing? Why is this mahi important to you?

I’ve always loved stories. I grew up with not many books in the house except some old Commando comics and Mum’s Mills & Boon books which I read from a young age. I began to read and write at Primary School. My teachers were amazing - especially a beautiful teacher called Mrs Golden. True story. She was golden! She read Charlotte’s Web by EB White when I was in Standard 3 or 4 and I loved it. I love that we can convey aroha, hope, and understanding in a story to those who need it.

You’ve published such a range of work, including non-fiction. What led you to write a children’s book this time?

I’ve told stories to kids for decades. My own nieces and nephews and also my son who is now a teen! Kid’s stories have always been a space where my imagination can go haywire! My favourite books of all time are Watership Down by Richard Adams and The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by Tolkien. You have everything in them - adventure, love, hope, danger, birth and death. Kids can handle that sort of information. It is part of their lives and so we should talk about it. The best authors who write the best books don’t dumb down their readers or take them for idiots. Kids are the best critics! They’ll tell you if they like your stories or not.

Where did the concept for Brave Kāhu come from?

I literally watched a kāhu being attacked by three magpies! I wondered what would happen if a bird who is meant to be in flying gets grounded. I did some research and came across an ornithological text which talked about finding swamp harrier hawks (kāhu) surviving with one wing on the ground! And even one with no feet! They lived because other kāhu brought them food, so I knew the story could be believable if an injured hawk had to survive for a few days. And of course I love animal adventure stories.

“I wanted to write something exciting with heart and with a good villain.”

Can you tell us a little about the use of reo Māori in the book, and your journey with te reo Māori?

The school system never taught me Te Reo when I was young. I was born in the 1970s and it never was a priority at mainstream schools. Having said that, we had a wonderful primary school Principal Koro Forbes Newton who taught us waiata and basic Te Reo which was really a rarity in the rural provinces at the time. So I thank him for that. At College I wasn’t allowed to learn Te Reo because I was in the top academic stream, I had to learn French - c’est la vie! As an adult student I’ve been trying to increase my Te Reo knowledge and I’m getting there but it is difficult. I wanted to write a pukapuka that normalises the use of kupu (words) for all those kids, teachers, parents and others who have never learned Te Reo but see the Māori language as an essential part of their lives each and every day. I’ve included a glossary so kids and adults who are not familiar with Te Reo get to experience a tiny taste of Te Reo. I’ve tried to incorporate Te Reo words into the context of an English sentence so that the meaning can still be picked up.

What’s your hope for this book?

I hope children, teachers, parents and other adults enjoy the story! I hope that anyone who doesn’t experience Te Reo can have a little taste of it and love it! I hope lots of teachers read it to their classes and for those kids who can read the words, I hope they have fun fun fun and feel some emotions and love the characters. I also hope one day it can be made into an audio book or a YouTube video or a movie so many others can enjoy a cool adventure story.

Why do you think it’s important for our tamariki to read?

I would love tamariki to read this book or have this pukapuka read to them because first of all - it’s fun and exciting! I want them to laugh and fly with Poto and Whetū and feel for Ari when he finds a new friend and get excited when they find a Quest Shell and get a little scared when they see Irirangi the taniwha for the first time! I want them to know to try for peace, that there are good friends and good family and good endings in life. Just keep trying hard and loving yourself and others. And most importantly, everyone deserves aroha, no matter how their feathers lay.