Kōrero: Children’s and young adult literature

Whārangi 2. Fairies, families and adventures, 1900s–1960s

Ngā whakaahua me ngā rauemi katoa o tēnei kōrero

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.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s and young adult literature - Fairies, families and adventures, 1900s–1960s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/childrens-and-young-adult-literature/page-2 (accessed 24 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014, updated 1 Aug 2016