Twenty-nine books about New Zealand were written for children in the 19th century. Most were works of fiction about settlers, their adventures in a new land and their interactions with Māori. Most were published overseas, mainly in London, and most of the authors never lived in New Zealand.
New Zealand children also read fiction and non-fiction stories in magazines and newspapers from the late 19th century.
The first children’s book about New Zealand was Stories about many things, founded on facts, published anonymously in London in 1833. Essentially a non-fiction book with a chapter on New Zealand and its inhabitants, the story is delivered by a fictional boy character asking his mother questions. This mixture of genres was repeated in the second New Zealand children’s book, Emily Bathurst (anonymous, 1847), which used a similar question-and-answer technique.
Jules Verne on New Zealand
French author Jules Verne, best known for his adventure novels Twenty thousand leagues under the sea and Around the world in eighty days, featured New Zealand in his 1867 novel Les enfants du Capitane Grant, released in English under the titles Among the cannibals and In search of the castaways. The protagonists’ ship is wrecked near Auckland and they are kidnapped by a Māori tribe with cannibalistic intentions, then escape and are rescued by a passing ship.
The third children’s book about New Zealand was Isabella Aylmer’s wholly fictional Distant homes, or the Graham family in New Zealand (1862). The pioneering-family genre was dominated by women writers, and Aylmer was the first to set one of these books in New Zealand.
The first such writer who had actually lived in New Zealand was Lady Mary Anne Barker. She was well known for her non-fiction accounts of settler life in Canterbury, and also wrote three collections of short stories for children: Stories about (1870), A Christmas cake in four quarters (1871) and Boys (1874). All are about farming in the backblocks.
By the 1870s colonial stories were becoming popular in England. The likes of Ernest Simeon Elwell’s The boy colonists; or eight years of colonial life in Otago (1878) provided audiences back home with an account of the rugged circumstances of life in New Zealand. These books typically ended with the protagonist leaving the wilds of New Zealand for civilised England.
Most 19th-century settler stories were set in the South Island, which had a higher European population than the North Island in the latter part of the century. A rare exception to this was H. A. Forde’s Across two seas, a New Zealand tale (1894), which followed the fortunes of the widowed Mrs Vaughan and her seven children after they settled near Auckland.
Encounters with Māori
The first children’s fictional books that featured Māori characters were evangelising in tone and focused on efforts to ‘civilise’ Māori through the introduction of Christianity. W. H. G. Kingston’s novels Holmwood; or, the New Zealand settler (1868) and Waihoura; or, the New Zealand girl (1872) reflected contemporary attitudes about the so-called savagery of traditional Māori communities and the transformation effected by conversion to Christianity.
The New Zealand wars of the 1860s and 1870s were an attractive fictional prospect for some writers, and it is within this context that Māori typically feature in books published later in the century. In George Henty’s Maori and settler, a story of the New Zealand war (1891), the Renshaw family settle in Hawke’s Bay after losing most of their money in a bank failure. They survive attacks by Te Kooti and his warriors and manage to resolve their money troubles and return to England.
Life imitates art
Edward Tregear’s early life could have been drawn from the pages of a 19th-century New Zealand settler novel. He was born into a comfortable, middle-class family in England in 1846, but the good life came to an end in 1858 when his father was bankrupted due to gambling debts, and died in Bombay, India, the following year. Edward, his mother and two sisters immigrated to New Zealand in 1863 in search of a better life.
Books published in New Zealand
Fairy tales and folk-lore of New Zealand and the South Seas (1891) by Edward Tregear was the first children’s book published in New Zealand. It signalled the beginning of a truly local literature aimed at New Zealand children, rather than an English audience. By the 1890s locally resident authors predominated.
The other children’s books published locally in the 19th century were The travels of a New Zealand feather and other stories (1892) by Hinemoa, and Tregurtha Abbey and other New Zealand tales (1898) by Thomas McDonnell and Hinemoa.