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Children’s and young adult literature

by Kerryn Pollock

From picture books to novels to non-fiction, New Zealand literature for young people is diverse and original, with authors often working across several genres. Growing numbers of authors and illustrators in the field are achieving international success.

The 19th century: Māori, settlers and adventures

Twenty-nine books about New Zealand were written for children in the 19th century. Most were works of fiction about settlers, their adventures in a new land and their interactions with Māori. Most were published overseas, mainly in London, and most of the authors never lived in New Zealand.

New Zealand children also read fiction and non-fiction stories in magazines and newspapers from the late 19th century.

First books

The first children’s book about New Zealand was Stories about many things, founded on facts, published anonymously in London in 1833. Essentially a non-fiction book with a chapter on New Zealand and its inhabitants, the story is delivered by a fictional boy character asking his mother questions. This mixture of genres was repeated in the second New Zealand children’s book, Emily Bathurst (anonymous, 1847), which used a similar question-and-answer technique.

Jules Verne on New Zealand

French author Jules Verne, best known for his adventure novels Twenty thousand leagues under the sea and Around the world in eighty days, featured New Zealand in his 1867 novel Les enfants du Capitane Grant, released in English under the titles Among the cannibals and In search of the castaways. The protagonists’ ship is wrecked near Auckland and they are kidnapped by a Māori tribe with cannibalistic intentions, then escape and are rescued by a passing ship.

Settler stories

The third children’s book about New Zealand was Isabella Aylmer’s wholly fictional Distant homes, or the Graham family in New Zealand (1862). The pioneering-family genre was dominated by women writers, and Aylmer was the first to set one of these books in New Zealand.

The first such writer who had actually lived in New Zealand was Lady Mary Anne Barker. She was well known for her non-fiction accounts of settler life in Canterbury, and also wrote three collections of short stories for children: Stories about (1870), A Christmas cake in four quarters (1871) and Boys (1874). All are about farming in the backblocks.

By the 1870s colonial stories were becoming popular in England. The likes of Ernest Simeon Elwell’s The boy colonists; or eight years of colonial life in Otago (1878) provided audiences back home with an account of the rugged circumstances of life in New Zealand. These books typically ended with the protagonist leaving the wilds of New Zealand for civilised England.

Most 19th-century settler stories were set in the South Island, which had a higher European population than the North Island in the latter part of the century. A rare exception to this was H. A. Forde’s Across two seas, a New Zealand tale (1894), which followed the fortunes of the widowed Mrs Vaughan and her seven children after they settled near Auckland.

Encounters with Māori

The first children’s fictional books that featured Māori characters were evangelising in tone and focused on efforts to ‘civilise’ Māori through the introduction of Christianity. W. H. G. Kingston’s novels Holmwood; or, the New Zealand settler (1868) and Waihoura; or, the New Zealand girl (1872) reflected contemporary attitudes about the so-called savagery of traditional Māori communities and the transformation effected by conversion to Christianity.

The New Zealand wars of the 1860s and 1870s were an attractive fictional prospect for some writers, and it is within this context that Māori typically feature in books published later in the century. In George Henty’s Maori and settler, a story of the New Zealand war (1891), the Renshaw family settle in Hawke’s Bay after losing most of their money in a bank failure. They survive attacks by Te Kooti and his warriors and manage to resolve their money troubles and return to England.

Life imitates art

Edward Tregear’s early life could have been drawn from the pages of a 19th-century New Zealand settler novel. He was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in England in 1846, but the good life came to an end in 1858 when his father was bankrupted due to gambling debts, and died in Bombay, India, the following year. Edward, his mother and two sisters immigrated to New Zealand in 1863 in search of a better life.

Books published in New Zealand

Fairy tales and folk-lore of New Zealand and the South Seas (1891) by Edward Tregear was the first children’s book published in New Zealand. It signalled the beginning of a truly local literature aimed at New Zealand children, rather than an English audience. By the 1890s locally resident authors predominated.

The other children’s books published locally in the 19th century were The travels of a New Zealand feather and other stories (1892) by Hinemoa, and Tregurtha Abbey and other New Zealand tales (1898) by Thomas McDonnell and Hinemoa.

Fairies, families and adventures, 1900s–1960s

Fairy tales

The first New Zealand-authored fairy tales were written in the late 19th century, and the genre took off in the early 20th century. Some writers, like Dora Bright and Marie Alexander, tried to transport the folklore characters of the northern hemisphere and set them alongside Māori figures – a relationship that proved awkward. Others went in for indigenous tales. Ethnographer Johannes Andersen’s Maori fairy tales (1908) was the first children’s book published by Whitcombe and Tombs, which became an important publisher of children’s literature.

Edith Howes was the most prominent New Zealand children’s author in the early decades of the 20th century, and most of her work was located in a fairy world that was far removed from Māori mythology. She wrote around 30 books for children. Her best-known is The cradle ship (1916), a thinly disguised – and at the time novel – primer on human reproduction.

Facts of life

In The cradle ship, the child protagonists ask their mother where babies come from. The whole family takes a journey on the magical cradle ship and learns all about plant and animal reproduction. They are finally told that human babies grow in a silken baby bag under their mother’s heart. At one point the family is turned into flowers. The flowers the parents become are obviously symbolic – the father is a red-hot poker and the mother a pansy.


Alongside fairy tales, family stories became popular in the early 20th century. Pākehā communities were by then firmly established in New Zealand and most Pākehā lived in urban areas. The new books were about family relationships, in contrast to the pioneering stories of the 19th century which focused on families forging lives for themselves in a new land. Isabel Peacocke and Esther Glen were well-known New Zealand writers of family stories between the 1910s and 1930s.


School stories were a major genre in England, and New Zealand’s first home-grown example was published in 1929. Phillis Garrard’s Hilda at school: a New Zealand story was the first of four books which followed Hilda’s scholastic adventures at a school in Taihape. Winifred Constance McQuilkan Hall, who wrote under the pen name Clare Mallory, wrote further girls’ school stories in the 1940s and 1950s. However, these years were a quiet spell for children’s literature because the Second World War curtailed publishing activity.

Adventures and history

Adventure stories, popular in the 19th century, made a comeback in the late 1950s. Phyllis Wardell was a skilful writer in the adventure genre. In her first book, Gold at Kapai (1960), teenage campers stumble upon a murder mystery in a gold-mining area of the South Island.

Growing interest in New Zealand history and national identity meant that many stories were set in the 19th century, and in the bush and backblocks, a far cry from the suburbs that most young readers lived in. Elsie Locke’s The runaway settlers (1965) is the best-known of a host of books with historical settings published from the early 1960s. Adventure and history remained enduring themes into the 21st century.

Picture books

New Zealand picture books were unknown until the 1940s and it took two decades before they were published in significant numbers. Avis Acres’s Hutu and Kawa series, about cheeky pōhutukawa fairies, was popular in the 1950s.

Technological developments in the 1960s improved the quality of illustrations and a number of photographic picture books were published.

Mona Minim and the smell of the sun

In 1969 Janet Frame’s only children’s book, Mona Minim and the smell of the sun, was published. It is about a young house ant called Mona who leaves the nest for the first time. She is lured away by the smell of the sun and other new things, and gets lost. She makes friends with a garden ant called Barbara and learns to make her way in the world before returning home in old age.

School Journal

The School Journal, a free publication for schoolchildren, first appeared in 1907. It was not until the 1940s that it became a real powerhouse of children’s literature. Many notable writers had work published in it, including James K. Baxter, Janet Frame, Witi Ihimaera and Margaret Mahy. Artists such as Russell Clark were important illustrators for the publication.

Fantasy and social realism, 1970s–2000s


Until the 1970s books that took children into the realm of make-believe were mainly fairy stories. Daphne Goomes’ The laughing hours (1950) and Maurice Duggan’s Falter Tom and the water boy (1958) were outliers, works of fantasy unusual in the era of adventure stories.

Maurice Gee became well known for science fiction/fantasy books for older children and teenagers, starting with Under the mountain in 1979.

Sherryl Jordan’s first fantasy novel, Rocco (1990), began a successful career in this genre; and in the early 21st century internationally recognised fantasy writers for children and young adults included Barbara Else, David Hair and Elizabeth Knox.

Much loved

Gaelyn Gordon’s works for young people, often exploring myth and fantasy, were popular and influential, but won no awards. After Gordon’s death in 1997 Storylines established the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Loved Book, given annually to a New Zealand book that has become enduringly successful but never won a major award.

Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley

Celebrated and prolific children’s authors Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley both had their first books for children published in 1969.

Mahy was a leading exponent of fantasy fiction for all ages, and was New Zealand’s greatest children’s author. In 2005 she received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and the following year the Hans Christian Andersen award – the highest recognition in the world for a children’s author.

Cowley, known internationally for her educational books as well as her trade fiction, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2010.

Social realism

From the 1980s writers for teenagers tackled previously taboo topics. These books fitted into the ‘young adult’ category, which emerged in New Zealand that decade.

Jack Lasenby wrote about sexual abuse in The lake (1987), and the father in William Taylor’s Possum Perkins (1987) is a potential abuser. Taylor explored a romantic relationship between two teenage boys in The blue lawn (1994), and Paula Boock wrote about lesbian love in Dare, truth or promise (1997). Kate De Goldi looked at incest and suicide in Closed, stranger (1999).

Some books attracted controversy, especially if they won awards. Maurice Gee’s The fat man (1994) was criticised by some for its violent content and disturbing plot. The sex, drugs and swearing in Ted Dawe’s novel Into the river (2012) was also controversial. Judges argued that these books’ literary qualities and sensitive handling of delicate material made them appropriate winners.

In the 2000s two major writers of social realism for young adults were Bernard Beckett and Mandy Hager, both of whom, at times, explored dystopian themes.


Feminist writers and themes emerged in children’s literature as they did in work for adults, particularly in the 1980s. Tessa Duder’s Alex quartet (published between 1987 and 1992) follows champion swimmer and non-conformist Alex as she confronts sexism, racism and personal trauma in 1950s and 1960s New Zealand. The series became a standard-bearer for strong female characters overseas as well as in New Zealand.


Perhaps surprisingly, sport and recreation received little attention until the 1990s. Fleur Beale and David Hill were two important writers who wrote books that explored the adventure, competition and rivalry inherent in sporting endeavours.

Cats love boxes

My cat likes to hide in boxes was published in 1973. Eve Sutton wrote it at the suggestion of her cousin Lynley Dodd, who illustrated it. Sutton went on to write books for older children, and Dodd created Hairy Maclary.

Picture books

Picture-book publishing boomed from the 1980s. Until 1979 only 91 were published in New Zealand. Between 1980 and 1986, 141 were.

Māori subjects were popular. Peter Gossage retold myths and legends, and his bold, concise, colourful full-page illustrations had wide appeal. Patricia Grace collaborated with artist Robyn Kahukiwa on The kuia and the spider (1981) and Watercress tuna and the children of Champion Street (1984).

A number of picture books were published in both English and te reo Māori. Kāterina Mataira was a leading children’s author in te reo, and also translated other authors’ books.

Arguably New Zealand’s best-known picture-book character made his debut in 1983, in Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. He was still having new adventures in the early 2000s.

Some other important picture-book creators included authors Jennifer Beck, Dorothy Butler and Kyle Mewburn; illustrator Robyn Belton; and author-illustrators Pamela Allen, Gavin Bishop, David Elliott, Ruth Paul and Gwenda Turner.

Gavin Bishop won numerous awards, and from 2009 new illustrators could enter the Storylines Gavin Bishop Award, for the opportunity to be mentored by him.


Non-fiction writing for children became more prominent in the early 2000s, when non-fiction books first began winning the top prize at the national children’s book awards. Natural history books were particularly successful – Andrew Crowe and Janet Hunt were leading exponents. Gregory O’Brien won awards for books on New Zealand art.

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s and young adult literature', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 May 2024)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 October 2014, updated 1 August 2016