Review: Kia Kaha: A storybook of Māori who changed the world

Reviewed by Dione Joseph

Kia Kaha celebrates 100 individuals whose journeys can be shared with our tamariki — in a small but significant way we are changing the way we as a nation remember our heroes.

In the introduction to this pukapuka, author Stacey Morrison shares how growing up she had access to books that chronicled the many incredible and aspiring people who changed the world. Yet few of those books ever showcased the rich and diverse gamechangers who were indigenous to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Together with Jeremy Sherlock, the two have curated a vibrant collection of 100 Māori who changed the world. Ranging from advocates for Te Ao Māori to performers and famous sports figures, there’s also favourite comedians, film-makers, storytellers, political figures and more included. Every person has four pages dedicated to their short biography and these focus on the defining aspects of their childhood and the catalysts that spurred them to carve their path - often in a world that wasn’t embracing of difference.

Readers will find household names like Billy T James and Patricia Grace as well as increasingly popular figures like the unflinching Georgina Beyer and Carmen Rupe, international icons including Merata Mita and Witi Ihimaera and ground-breaking visual artists such as Robyn Kahukiwa and Ralph Hotere. The collection also features landmark rōpū such as the Māori Women’s Welfare League and Upper Hutt Posse and it’s to the authors’ credit that the biographies also acknowledge the roles of these collectives. It’s also heartening to see in this collection prophet and healer Rua Kēnana, astronomer Rangi Mātāmua, taonga puoro revivalist Hirini Melbourne and politician and pou of Whānau Ora, Dame Tariana Turia.

The way the contents are laid out might suggest a timeline but there’s no chronological order to the different people featured. The book draws the reader in with the story of the 28th Māori Battalion and we weave our way through history touching on a wide array of different lives and personalities that have in some way touched ours today.

It would have been a challenge to curate this collection of biographies, but Morrison and Sherlock have done well to bring a broad range of individuals together and not segregate people based on modern day constructed categories. In fact, many profiles are accompanied by titles that include ‘artist and academic’ or ‘advocate and political figure’ that showcase the diversity of roles.

Of course, there are the likes of Buck Shelford and Stan Walker who have made careers for themselves in their chosen fields (rugby and music), but the often less-celebrated but equally deserving national treasures such as navigator Sir Hekenukumai Busby and activist and leader Dame Whina Cooper are also given place and space as icons in their own right. Everyone has a someone (or a few someones) who could and should be included in this list but that’s just a testament to how hungry we are for stories such as these.

Each profile opens with a thoughtful whakataukī that immediately connects reader with the person. It’s not only a very personal way to open the story but also offers any youngster and their parents an opportunity to embrace the reo. The narrative itself is written in an easy-to-understand manner that will ensure parents enjoy some snuggle time with their littlies as well as some independent reading for the bigger ones.

The pages dedicated to each person are also accompanied by contemporary illustrations that stand out with their vibrant colours and bold strokes. The artwork has been undertaken by 12 talented illustrators, including Isobel Joy Te Aho-White, Josh Morgan, Ngaumutane Jones aka Ms Meemo, Miriama Grace-Smith and Xoë Hall, and their collective contributions make the book a keepsake for the kōrero but also for the mahi toi.

As a mum to a young pēpi Māori, I opened the pages of Kia Kaha with delight but also gratitude. My child is only 18-months-old but between the pages he has already been able to make so many connections to these Māori. The bonus is that as parents both his father and I have enjoyed sharing these stories and learning more with him about our local and ancestral trailblazers.

This book offers any child growing up in Aotearoa an opportunity to connect with our oft-unacknowledged history and those who were willing to shape it in ways that went against the grain. One of the chief delights is that while many of the biographies reflect on those who have passed, there are so many who continue to be living legends and that gives us all hope.

Here are 100 individuals whose journeys can be shared with our tamariki and in a small but significant way we are changing the way we as a nation remember our heroes.

Reviewed by Dione Joseph