I caught up with Gavin Bishop (Ngāti Pukeko, Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Mahuta, Tainui) just before last week’s New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults, where his beautiful large-format picture book Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes won everything – the Margaret Mahy book of the year award, as well as the Elsie Locke award for non-fiction and the Russell Clark award for illustration. It’s a record fifth time that the Ōtautahi-based genius has won the prize, more than any other children’s author or illustrator in New Zealand, even Mahy herself, who won the supreme award twice.

Bishop is one of Aotearoa’s children’s literature greats. In a career of 40+ years, he has published over 70 books, such as Mrs McGinty and the Bizarre Plant, Bidibidi, The House that Jack Built, and Taming The Sun: Four Māori Myths, and more recently, the 2018 Margaret Mahy award-winning Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, the first of his current series of “big books” with Penguin Random House NZ.

Atua is epic in size, scale, and ambition. It deals with concepts of tikanga Māori and mātauranga Māori, while exploring the worlds of our Māori gods and goddesses. Bishop has published in this space for decades, but there is no denying he is now in his element, as the New Zealand publishing industry fully embraces the publication of books with a Māori perspective.

He says, “This current interest in Aotearoa, our country, our people, our stories, and the new history syllabus that is being introduced into school is really really great. I’m really delighted that that is happening, and is being reflected in the books being published for young children. I think that it’s really extraordinary, and exciting.

“There are haters. But I think those people will die. And they’ll be replaced with these young people that are learning about themselves. I think there’s some tremendous things going on.”

Atua is one of those tremendous things. It demanded intensive research, he says.

“With Atua, I read many many tribal versions of those stories, and every tribal version, for instance the one from Teona Taare Tikao from the Banks Peninsula—those stories about Māui were totally different to the stories in Antony Alpers’ collections, or the Reed collection, or the Governor Grey collection. I took a line down through the middle and chose things that seemed to be generally understood or believed by a majority of people.”

“I read many many tribal versions of those stories.”

Bishop studied at Canterbury University School of Fine Arts, then did a teaching diploma, leading him into an early career as an art teacher. When he started writing and publishing children’s books, he was working at Linwood High School. “I had to teach lots of different ways of creating art. I go back and look at the things I taught the kids to do, things I learned from Russell Clark and Bill Sutton, who were old-fashioned artists who made their art with hands and paintbrushes on canvas.

“I tend to think about the drawing style that will suit a specific story or theme. For my little books for Gecko Press—Mihi, Koro, E Hoa, for instance, I used collage because it was a way of keeping the image simple. You could cut a shape out and stick it on a painted background and you’ve got an image straight away. With Atua, it made sense to draw those things because I wanted to make smaller details.”

It took him 20 years of publishing regularly to be able to take the plunge and stop teaching—and this was even with some of his books selling well overseas.

“I was teaching full-time, and I applied for an Arts Council grant and got a grant to allow me to take most of the year off. I took most of 1998 off, and I worked on The House that Jack Built. Then that was published in 1999.

“By the time I was going to go back to school I thought I would take a big risk and send my resignation in and see if I could survive on my own. I also took out my superannuation that I had been paying into since I was 18. I took that out early, and that gave the family a bit of money to live off, then. I was only 52—it was scary.” 

Unlike many illustrators in Aotearoa, Bishop still draws his books by hand. That is not to say he isn’t jealous of those who have facility with digital technology. “It must be amazing to slosh in a background colour, then be able to just get rid of it. I can’t do that without actually starting again.”

Fortunately, there has been progress in ink technology. “In the past I used to use drafting pens that I filled with ink myself. Now I have discovered this huge range of fine felt pens you buy at an art shop – light proof, waterproof, ready to go the minute you take the lid off.”

If you look at his books over the years, you can see him falling in love with different styles of illustration. I recall vividly he showed kids at a school visit how to create scratch board and ink illustrations, like he used in Piano Rock, as well as for a couple of board books for Gecko. He is currently using scratch paper to create illustrations for his upcoming book The New Zealand Wars, which will be his next large-format book for Penguin Random House.

“I’ve always been committed to showing New Zealand children things about their own country.” Photo by Martin Hunter

He says of his early experience of children’s publishing in Aotearoa, “It was run by intellectuals, people with academic backgrounds, who knew a lot about literature and language. But not about design … so you would get some pretty clunky-looking books.

“Now, things have changed enormously. We have publishers now who are extremely professional with a really good eye for how a book should look, and they’ve also got an eye on the international market.”

Bishop’s first publisher was Oxford University Press, and he says because they required an international publishing partner to pay for printing, his determination to write books for New Zealand children almost undid him at the start. “They found it hard to get a publishing partner for Bidibidi because ‘sheep were boring’.” The tale of the sheep that followed the rainbow got made into a TV series and has never been out of print. 

He has had international success—and two international agents for his work in the US at various times—but he found they didn’t allow him freedom to create his own ideas. “I’ve always liked coming up with an idea of my own and working on it, putting my ideas into it. And I’ve always been committed to showing New Zealand children things about their own country and their own stories.”

One of the stories Bishop wrote for Wendy Pye Publishing led to a major lawsuit: The Secret lives of Mr and Mrs Smith.

“It was a story about this couple who left each morning, he pretended to go to tax office, she was pretending to stay at home and do housewifely things around the house, a bit of gardening. But they were both spies. And as soon as he left home, they’d go do their spy work.

“Every lunchtime, wherever they were, they would telephone each other to let them know what they are doing. And she would pretend she had been out watering their roses, he would say he was busy with taxes. Then they would just keep pretending to be an ordinary married couple.”

The book was published and three years later, he was on a layover in Los Angeles when his wife Vivien spotted a billboard for Mr and Mrs Smith, starring Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. Six months later, the film came out in Christchurch and his wife was adamant it was a film of his book—and despite Bishop’s doubts, he could see the similarities. A month or so later, a university professor from America emailed him and said, “I hope you got a good deal out of 20th Century Fox for that book of yours.”

“They would just keep pretending to be an ordinary married couple…”

Bishop was surprised, mentioned it to a journalist friend of his, and next minute he was all over the papers and on TV—it was worldwide news because of ‘Brangelina’. He had a lawyer from Auckland offer to help sue them. Ultimately though, he says, “There was something about it I didn’t like. It was when I got emails from people saying, ‘Yeah take them to the cleaners.’ Then I started getting hate mail, people saying ‘Who do you think you are.’ It was awful, I thought I don’t want anything to do with this. So I got the lawyer to drop it.”

Supporting others in the industry has always been more important to him than kicking up a fuss. In 2009, he founded the Storylines Gavin Bishop Prize, a biannual prize given to unpublished artists who want a career in illustration. It has been given five times so far.

He says, “Illustrating a children’s book – not everyone can do it. It takes a certain way of thinking. And we have to anticipate, when choosing the winners, the likelihood of the person to want a career in illustration for children. You can’t be patronising towards your audience, you have to think in a particular way to work well.”

Bishop’s career is a blazing example of thinking in particular ways that work very, very well.

Atua: Māori Gods and Heroes by Gavin Bishop (Penguin, $40) is available in bookstores nationwide, alongside many of his other great books.

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