Acclaimed author returning to where it began

Children’s book author Gavin Bishop at a book signing. Photo: supplied
Children’s book author Gavin Bishop at a book signing. Photo: supplied
A celebrated author is returning to Dunedin, the place where his multi-award-winning career began.

Children’s book author and illustrator Gavin Bishop (Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui and Ngāti Pūkeko, Ngāti Awa) is speaking in the city for World Book Day next week. 

He said he planned to speak on his early career and how he used his whakapapa and experiences to create his books.

Mr Bishop has authored and illustrated 80 books with a range of themes, often relating to Māori history and legends.

"It’s something that I’ve always tried to do right from the very first book I ever wrote — I've always tried to make them as indigenous as possible.

"Not always in a Māori way but in a way that relates them to this part of the world," Mr Bishop said.

When he was visiting a Dunedin high school as an art adviser in 1978, a teacher at the school told him the Oxford University Press, in Wellington, was looking for books that had a "strong New Zealand flavour", he said.

At the time, there were very few books published in New Zealand or written by New Zealanders, especially children’s books.

"I just sort of jumped in the deep end and started writing something and eventually I had enough material to send it to Oxford University Press in Wellington."

His most recent book, Patu: The New Zealand Wars, took Mr Bishop three years to complete.

While writing the book, his research taught him many new things about New Zealand and Māori history.

"When I was at primary school in the 1950s, we were told nothing about any of that stuff.

"In fact, a lot of the material we were told about New Zealand history had all been written by British writers, and it was all very biased."

In his 45 years of practice, he said he found it easier translating serious topics into stories for children.

He felt it was "absolutely vital" not to shy away from those topics, and said it was important for children to understand the country’s history.

"What we're left with today is still to be patched up."

Mr Bishop also wrote and illustrated baby books, made popular worldwide due to his use of mixed-race characters.

"There's a few of my books being translated in Taiwan, in mainland China and also South Korea — quite a few of my picture books have done well in those countries."

He has had many successes, winning Best New Zealand Children's Book of the Year five times, Best Illustrated Children's Book of the Year five times and Best Non-Fiction Children's Book of the Year three times.

He also received the Te Tohu a Ta Kingi Ihaka for a lifetime contribution to Māori art and culture in 2018, and the Prime Minister’s Award for  Literary Achievement in 2019.

Recently, Mr Bishop was nominated for the 2024 Hans Christian Andersen Award, said to be the highest award for children's literature in the world.

His free event will take place on Thursday from 5.30pm-6.30pm at the Archway Theatre at the University of Otago campus.