Saturday, 26 November 2011

Hutu and Kawa

I just ran into this interesting children's book: The Adventures of Hutu and Kawa (Avis Acres, Reed Books, 1990). Charmingly illustrated by the author, it tells of the adventures in a New Zealand forest of two "Pohutukawa Babies", fairies that live in the Pōhutukawa tree (Metrosideros excelsa); their hairstyles and skirts are styled after the Pōhutukawa's red flowers.

Pōhutukawa flowers
As described at New Zealand History Online - Hutu and Kawa - this is a modern reprint of a 1950s book that originated as a comic strip that ran from 1950-60 on the New Zealand Herald's children's page. Inspired by May Gibbs' "gumnut babies" (Australian botanical fairies), the Hutu and Kawa mythos was unusual for its time in its mix of fantasy and accurate research (for instance, into botany, ornithology and Maori tradition) in a New Zealand setting.

In the first story, Hutu and Kawa go on a canoe trip, advised by the friendly Grandpa Kiwi, meeting en route various birds and other plant fairies. It's full of attention to detail; with help from the nocturnal Grandpa Kiwi, they carve their canoe in the authentic manner, hollowing a totara twig with great time and labour using greenstone chisels, and smoothing it with mussel shells; the birds make them feather cloaks; and they encounter "Mr Kiwi" incubating an egg (as the male kiwi does with most species). The bird illustrations are very accurate; Avis Acres also wrote nature study guides.

The two sequels take an ecological/conservationist turn. In Hutu and Kawa Meet Tuatara, the two Pohutukawa Babies help a sad and lonely tuatara find a new home, throwing him a hundredth birthday party; and in Hutu and Kawa find an island, they sail to an island (again using authentic Maori boatbuilding techniques) and help its inhabitants (which, correctly, include a different species of Pohutukawa fairies) get rid of a greedy and selfish possum (a storyline reflecting the depredation to indigenous wildlife caused by the introduction of the Common Brushtail Possum from Australia in the 19th century).

It's a pleasant and interesting take on New Zealand wildlife, and I can see why these books were bestsellers.  But it seems they went out of vogue.

Her first three books sold extremely well, but sales of the fourth were disappointing. Although children loved the fairies, sections of the education and publishing worlds were ambivalent toward the mixture of fantastical narrative with accurate illustrations and information. Reeds decided against publishing further stories and her work was subsequently turned down by other publishers. However, in 1990 Heinemann Reed republished the Hutu and Kawa books.
- Acres, Thyra Avis Mary, Dictionary of New Zealand Biography

"We must be cousins" -
Hutu and Kawa meet
a related species
I do slightly wonder if it was more than the mix of the fantastic and accurate. The thing that slightly grates to a reader 50 years later is the complete absence of indigenous New Zealanders from the stories, even though all their tradition and technology is borrowed. All the New Zealand plant fairies are Caucasian, and that rather dates the Hutu and Kawa mythos, well-intentioned though it is. The trend hasn't gone unnoticed ...

In a period before it was pointed out by writers such as Patricia Wrightson (1979) that folklore and fantasy needs to spring from 'place' ... European fairies have always found an uneasy home in Australia ...
- page 568, Images of Australia: a history of Australian children's literature, 1941-1970, Henry Maurice Saxby, 2002

... and applies equally to New Zealand.

Nevertheless, they're still admirable and clever works; it must have been a great pleasure to Avis Acres, at 80, to see them return to print after half a century.

- Ray

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