Myths and Legends of Aotearoa, Richard Smith

Myths and Legends of Aotearoa
Annie Rae Te Ake Ake, illustrated by New Zealand secondary school artists
Scholastic, $34.95,
ISBN 1 86943 388 2

The publication of Myths and Legends of Aotearoa is an interesting story in itself. This book began with a home-made recording of the author, Annie Rae Te Ake Ake, telling these stories to her grandchildren. Later the stories were re-recorded, transcribed, self-published, and subsequently 15 of them were republished by Scholastic New Zealand. Such a republication is a rare event in itself, but this collection has gone on to become Scholastic’s biggest earner of the year.

There’s more to the story. Nineteen students, aged 15 to 19, were selected from high schools across the country to provide artwork for the book’s cover and illustrations. Each was assigned a story to interpret in a single illustration – a challenge for any artist. The results are astonishing. Original and beautiful artwork, most of which successfully conveys key aspects of the stories’ action, setting, and mood, and the characters’ culture and personalities. The innovation and technical accomplishment evident in some of this work is outstanding.

An excellent glossary and some interesting biographical notes about the author and illustrators are both assets to the book. There is also a map of New Zealand featuring the various places referred to in the stories. To their credit, Scholastic have created a fine book of practical size with strong binding, a hard cover (featuring some beautiful artwork by Khan Ahokava), and attractive, spacious page design.

If you’re familiar with the publication’s first incarnation, don’t let it put you off. The original text has undergone a remarkable transformation. The narrative, once strongly reminiscent of the speech of Jedi Master Yoda from Star Wars, now only occasionally strays into inversions of syntax and often for dramatic effect: “Stones you will all be …”; “Still and quiet it lay.” Numerous sentences have been completely reworked, and the resulting stories are much more streamlined, captivating and readable.

Despite the significant improvements, isolated moments of laxity remain in the writing. The text still contains some unnecessary repetition (the eight titles given to Tanemahuta) and liberties with syntax, though these seldom detract from the stories’ vitality. Ironically, these editorial indulgences are very much part of Te Ake Ake’s distinctive voice and so contribute to the uniqueness of the “telling”. In most cases, repetition is employed very effectively, such as the description of Tanemahuta’s efforts to separate his parents: “he pushed, he pressed, he heaved and he struggled.” And though some of the dialogue remains a little stilted, this is counterbalanced by some wonderful utterances, such as the taniwha Mahu’s veiled threat to his only remaining daughter – “‘Once you had brothers and sisters,’ he hissed” – a threat which anticipates a violent attempted murder.

Te Ake Ake’s plot structures and pacing are usually very effective, but there are a couple of exceptions. The collection’s final story, in particular, slackens in pace and is nowhere near as compelling or engaging as the earlier pieces. “The Battle of the Mountains” follows the conflict between three male mountains over Pihanga, a “beautiful lady” mountain and, quite uncharacteristically, it reads like a rather flat fight commentary. The repetitive use of uniform and passive sentence structures, such as “gentle was the nature of this beautiful lady”, contributes to this effect, as does the complete absence of dialogue.

A few overworked descriptions still appear, such as “bush clad hills”, “twinkling stars”, and piwakawakas (fantails) “darting to and fro”. There is also a solitary page with a couple of annoying typos that managed to evade proofing. In general terms, however, the editing has been impressive. One of the central strengths of this publication is that despite substantial editing and rewriting there remains a strong sense that these wonderful stories have not been written by an author, but are being told by a gifted storyteller.

Richard Smith is a Wellington writer and editor.

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Posted in Children, Literature, Review
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