It was writer-illustrator Gavin Bishop’s first trip to India last month, at Bookaroo, a children’s literature festival in Delhi, and he wasn’t surprised. “I’ve been to China many times and there are similarities in terms of the crowd, environment and traffic, like some of the big cities there,” he says. He can also recognise the colonial remnants in the city, for he hails from New Zealand. At Bookaroo, he steered several storytelling sessions and spoke about some of his books.
A children’s writer of international repute, Bishop has published 70 books that have been translated into 12 languages and won numerous awards. His latest book Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story (Puffin, 2017), has won several prestigious awards back home. Critics called it “a work of art” that can be read and reread by all ages. It charts the history and culture of New Zealand, from the times of the Maori to the time when the Dutch arrived in 1642, and when the British set up their colony.
The author says he took up the project of making the big book on the insistence of his publisher. “They wanted a 64-pager, which is twice the length of a normal picture book, with lots of illustrations and just brief snippets of information,” he says. It also talks of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, the subsequent loss of Maori land and also informs on the other cultural aspects such as food, clothing, sports and education.
Bishop is known for his distinctive ink and watercolour illustrations and retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories and nursery rhymes. He also had an award constituted in his honour, in 2009, by Penguin Random House, which recognises unpublished illustrators biannually and gives them a headstart in their career.
Another of his books that hit the shelf in 2018 was Cook’s Cook (Gecko Press) to mark the 250th anniversary of James Cook’s voyage to New Zealand. This got Bishop to sit with history books once again and he came across a man named John Thompson. The book follows the 1768 journey of Cook’s HMS Endeavour with his ship’s cook, the one-handed Thompson, as storyteller. Through real recipes from the ship’s galley — such as albatross stew, shark steaks and pease porridge, events on board and the places the ship travelled on its way to the Pacific, the book tells multiple stories.
Christchurch-based Bishop spent his childhood in the remote railway settlement of Kingston on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. He was introduced to illustrations for books at Canterbury University School of Fine Arts where his professor — artist Russell Clark, encouraged him to illustrate for books when it wasn’t fashionable. “In the ’60s, we were discouraged from drawing subject matter, everything had to be abstract. When I had spare money, I used to just buy picture books and collect them.” In 1981, he created his first picture book Bidibidi, about a high country sheep tired of her boring life and scanty diet of dry mountain grass, for Oxford University Press. They was looking for stories from New Zealand.
The author is known for retelling Maori mythological tales through picture books, with some of the notable ones being Taming the Sun: Four Maori Myths (2005), Kiwi Moon (2006) and Riding the Waves: Four Maori Myths (2007). “We’ve grown up listening to these stories, it’s a part of being a New Zealander, and they are important because they put South Pacific tales on the world map. It was interesting to see that many Indian children knew those Maori stories,” he says. The stories draw from natural phenomena, weather, stars and the moon, fish of the sea, birds of the forest, and the forests themselves.
His stories have been adapted for stage productions, and Bishop has written two libretti for the Royal New Zealand Ballet. The author’s next will be Aotearoa: Wildlife, which will be all the animals, birds and insects and fish that they have in New Zealand. “It starts from the life in the oceans, then we come to the coast and look at who all inhabit it. We slowly move to the estuaries, rivers, mountains, and the forests. Then with the arrival of European animals, goats, pigs and sheep come here, and so on,” he says.