UN SDGS: Through a New Zealand Lens

[Megan Lindsay, owner of Books For Kids, Hamilton, New Zealand]

New Zealand has recently been going through a redefining of “who we are” and “Māori people matter”; a resurgence of traditional landowners and how we meld together after generations of bad feeling over white colonial dominance.

Supporting this is a plethora of new titles and translations being published in Te Reo Māori (Māori language) and uplifting the importance on our Māori culture which has long been dominated by the white publishing world. Together with the fresh initiatives from the government to include a focus on Māori heritage, history and culture, new titles are being embraced, many of which are relevant for the Good Health and Wellbeing of New Zealanders as a more inclusive nation.

I could include so many titles here but would like to shine focus on these 3 titles for young people.

 Whakarongo Ki O Tupuna : Listen to Your Ancestors by Joseph Darryn, illustrated by Munro Te Whata (2019)

In Māori tradition all living things are linked through their whakapapa (ancestors).  This beautiful picture book Whakarongo ki ō Tūpuna : Listen to your Ancestors by Dr Joseph Joseph and illustrated by Munro Te Whata, demonstrates how Māori believe in a direct connection with the natural world, the earth, the sea, the land and the sky. It also shows the respect for those that have passed on their knowledge to the younger generation and the importance of doing this.  It is an important story that teaches children to be strong, kind, patient, brave, respectful and positive and which connects these traits to their ancestors.

A teacher tells her students,

Kia māia, e tama mā, e hine mā kia kaua rā koutou e murirere. Tūria te tū a tō koutou tupuna, a Tū-te-ihiihi”.

Be brave, boys and girls, there’s no need to panic. Stand tall like your ancestor. The most-awe-inspiring-of-them-all.

Eventually the teacher gets old and the roles are reversed. It is now her granddaughter who becomes the teacher. Because of this she can use her teaching to guide and comfort her grandmother.

“Ka nui taku aroha mōu, e kui. Kia kaua rā koe e mokemoke. Haere tāua ki tō tāua tupuna, ki a Tāne-whakapiripiri”.

I love you lots nan. You don’t have to be lonely. Let’s go to our ancestor, Tāne who keeps us close together.

Eventually her nan passes on and she is returned to the land.

Kia kaha e kui, e pai ana, kia kaua rā tāua e wehi. Nāu anō te kī, ki a tāua te Māori, ka hoki tatou katoa kit e poho o tō tatou tupuna, o Papatūānuku.

Be strong, Nan, it’s okay let’s not be scared. As you said, it’s our belief, we all return to the care of our ancestor, The Great Earth Mother.

In Māori tradition Papatūānuku is the land. After the earth emerged from water, it gave birth to all life. Trees, birds and humans emerge from the land and are nourished by it. Figuratively, humans are born from the womb of Papatūānuku, and return there after death. After the tangi (funeral) it is time for new beginnings. We see her granddaughter now taking over the mantle. She is ready to follow in the footsteps of her nan and start the teaching all over again.

Aroha’s Way: A Children’s Guide through Emotions by Rebekah Lipp and and Craig Phillips (2019)

This book has taken New Zealand families and schools by storm. 

Young Aroha is a brown skinned girl (nice to see!) who is very comfortable in her own skin. She loves to revel in the natural world around her but other times she can feel lonely which makes her feel anxious and nervous.  But Aroha has come to know that it is normal to feel this way sometimes and she models her strategies so that she knows that she is never alone. 

Written in gentle rhyme, it is a shining example of to share with parents and whanau (family) alike.

Let It Go: Emotions are energy in motion by Rebekah Lipp and Craig Philips (2020)

The second book in the “Aroha” series by Wilding Books.

Throughout this book, Aroha and her friends each experience an emotion and find a unique way to release that energy from their body which is represented by a golden line of energy moving throughout the pages. 

The Latin derivative for the word emotion, ‘emotere,’  literally means energy in motion.

The teacher/parent notes at the back give simple guidance to work through these emotions: e.g., Notice the emotion and where you can feel it in your body.  Label the emotion, “This is Sadness” or “This is fear.”

Both of these books are highly recommended and have been reprinted twice in the past year.

These two goals are thoroughly explored in New Zealand children’s literature and I could include many beautiful stories about our native wildlife.

The three titles I have chosen highlight cover our endangered species, showcase an amazing creature living in the depths of our surrounding seas and tell of a young girl embracing our natural heritage.

Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep by Victoria Cleal and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White (2020)

This beautifully illustrated non-fiction book dives into the mysterious world of the colossal squid. Through engaging text and glorious images on foldout pages, it tells the story of a colossal squid’s cycle, from hatching out of a tiny egg to escaping the jaws of a sperm whale and becoming the world’s biggest invertebrate.

Published by TePapa Press, the National Museum of New Zealand, it is an authoritative text which includes pieces on exhibit in the museum.  Read an interview with the author here.

I love how this book shows that all living things are connected – and how we too are part of the natural world.

Aroha Knows by Rebekah Lipp and Craig Phillips (2020)

The third book in the incredibly successful “Aroha” series by Wilding Books.

This time we see how Aroha appreciates our wonderful land here in New Zealand.  Aroha knows that the Earth provides her a home, food to eat, air to breathe, and water to drink.  It nourishes her in lots of other ways too.  Aroha knows that spending time in nature makes her feel all kinds of wonder emotions. 

The back of the book continues on to give lots of ways we can be part of nature too.

On the Brink: New Zealand’s Most Endangered Species by Maria Gill, illustrated by Terry Fitzgibbon (2019)

This is a very important book to have in our schools right now.  Maria Gill is a passionate and thorough researcher for all things New Zealand.

70% of New Zealand’s birds, 84% of our freshwater fish, and 100% of our reptiles, frogs and bats are found nowhere else on earth. On the Brink reveals the top five most endangered species in five different categories (Birds; marine mammals; reptiles, frogs and bats; fish; and insects) and what we can do to save them.

Each species has a section detailing its status, threats and conservation efforts as well as the population level and location. With fact boxes, a section on what the reader can do, a list of websites and great illustrations, this is an excellent resource and a fascinating read for anyone interested in our environment.

Click here for a Teaching Resource PDF.

Peace and strong institutions are held very dear to our New Zealand nation.  We have lost too many of our people in Maori Land wars and also fighting for other nations, whilst doing our Commonwealth “duty.”

This is a very clever flip book– one way the text is in English, turn it upside down and you have a Te Reo Māori version. It’s Morris’s graphic novel illustrations that bring the text to life. Starting with the cover, which depicts a wide variety of people from different eras, you know that what you’re about to read is about people, not about legal arguments. This makes the book accessible to anyone, regardless of their prior knowledge or attitude towards Te Tiriti.

The narrative is told in the author’s voice and is straight-forward, factual and non-emotive. It also lays out the timeline up to the Treaty being signed in 1840, and then what happened afterwards.

I have always found the Treaty of Waitangi a very complicated and controversial historical event. This simplified version cuts to the chase to help our history make sense. A valuable school and home resource.

The little Kiwi and the Treaty by Nikki Slade Robinson (2018)

This book is narrated by Little Kiwi’s Koro (grandfather) who tells the story of their ancestors coming from different lands.  Koro’s ancestors were the best food finders in the land and the ancestors of Kuia (grandmother) were known as the best nest builders. They settled on the same land and a fight broke out before the chiefs stepped forward to find a resolution to the conflict.  

The author talks through the tense negotiations, staying true to the high emotions we all feel when we need to compromise! Te reo Māori is woven throughout the text – and many words are quietly translated as you read along (perfect for introducing new vocabulary).

A very important book for children, not only for conflict resolution but for basic understanding of how the ideal of a treaty works.

Love the way Nikki Slade Robinson uses our well known kiwi bird to identify different tribes.  Always popular around Waitangi Day, our national day, Feb 6th.

Torty and the Soldier: A story of a true WWI survivor by Jennifer Beck, illustrated by Fifi Colston (2017)

The heart-warming story of one plucky tortoise’s incredible survival against all odds.

Kiwi soldiers brought a number of souvenirs home from World War One, but Torty was perhaps the most unique. Already estimated to be 100 years old at the time she was found injured in Greece, the little tortoise was rescued and looked after by Stewart Little, who brought her home to New Zealand on board a hospital ship. Towards the end of the voyage, she went into hibernation and was brought ashore in a kitbag.

Torty lived in Dunedin in Stewart’s care until his death 60 years later when her care passed on to Stewart’s family. And now, 100 years since her arrival in New Zealand, Torty remarkably still lives on in a tiny town in the south of the Waikato Region of the North Island! 

A positive story from a tragic era – children love to hear animal stories and this one is one of our national treasures.

Click here for teachers’ notes from Scholastic.

This is Where I Stand by Philippa Werry, illustrated by Kieran Rynhart (2021)

The front cover of this book poignantly shows a statue of a World War I soldier watching over a town square. The statue gives readers an insight into his memories of the war, as well as what he has seen from his pedestal as the years have passed.

Author and researcher Philippa Werry’s strong focus on New Zealand history and stories shines yet again in this picture book. Her text is lyrical and emotive, while still being age appropriate. Werry conveys the realities of war without glorifying it, nor dulling it down. The story includes Anzac Day, including the protests, and the impact of Covid-19 on 2020’s day of remembrance

As well as the important subject of the book, Werry uses lovely language, perfect to help inspire and capture young readers. Small creatures scuttle, shadows slide, there’s a cool moonlight. Unknown words like glint, clink, linger. These writing conventions, combined with the story, combine to make This Is Where I Stand a likely powerhouse in the classroom.

This is the perfect book for any school, or indeed any family, that will generate discussion between generations.

Click here for teachers’ notes from Scholastic.


  • Beck, Jennifer, and Fifi Colston. Torty and the Soldier: A Story of a True WW1 Survivor. Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2017
  • Cleal, Victoria and Isobel Joy Te Aho-White. Whiti: Colossal Squid of the Deep. Te Papa Press, Wellington, New Zealand, 2020.
  • Darryn, Joseph, Whata M. Te Whata. Whakarongo Ki O Tupuna : Listen to Your Ancestors. Oratia Books, New Zealand, 2019.
  • Gill, Maria and Terry Fitzgibbon. On the Brink : New Zealand’s Most Endangered Species. New Holland Publishers, Auckland. 2109.
  • Lipp, Rebekah and Craig Phillips. Aroha’s Way: A Children’s Guide through Emotions. Wilding Books, New Zealand. 2019
  • Lipp, Rebekah and Craig Phillips. Let it Go : Emotions are Energy in Motion. Wilding Books, New Zealand. 2020
  • Lipp, Rebekah and Craig Phillips. Aroha Knows. Wilding Books, New Zealand. 2020.
  • Morris, Toby with Ross Calman, Mark Derby and Piripi Walker. The Treaty of Waitangi\Te Tiriti o Waitangi. Lift Education, New Zealand, 2019
  • Robinson, Nikki Slade. The Little Kiwi and the Treaty. Duck Creek Press, New Zealand, 2018.
  • Werry, Philippa, and Kieran Rynhart. This Is Where I Stand. Scholastic New Zealand Limited, 2021.

I feel extremely honoured to be part of this internationally important blog for children’s literature.

Before owning my children’s bookshop, I worked for 17 years as a qualified teacher librarian in Queensland, Australia, and then in two international schools in Hong Kong, (Australian International School HK and then German Swiss International School) for a further 10 years. It was the most enriching and satisfying vocation of my life.

I repatriated back to New Zealand 4 years ago for family reasons, and I knew that I would have trouble gaining a similar job here. After such a great career, I have been very dismayed to see funding cuts to libraries and their resources that I am sure has affected our current literacy rates, when once upon a time New Zealand was a world leader in this area.

It is perhaps easy to dismiss the impact that a teacher librarian has in a school as their work is hard to measure. But every teacher/school librarian, we know, works passionately in the background, positively influencing our children and their school communities in so many, many ways.

I hope this trend is reversed one day very soon, meanwhile I am happily living every librarian’s dream, operating a children’s only bookshop!

Note: all the books highlighted during this month of SDGs can be found on this GLLI Goodreads shelf.

What are your favorite books that relate to the UN Sustainable Development Goals? Please share them in the comments. Let’s make this a conversation and work on the goals together.

2 thoughts on “UN SDGS: Through a New Zealand Lens

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