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Family composition as depicted in the New Zealand Picture Book Collection

Nicola Daly

Families are central to the lives of children, and in New Zealand there is a great diversity of family configurations. Bishop (1990) has described children’s literature as having a dual purpose. It may provide a window into another world and it may also act as a mirror for the lives of the reader. The importance of children seeing themselves in the books being read to them was the premise behind the creation of the New Zealand Picture Book Collection, He Kohinga Pukapuka Pikitia, a set of 22 picture books selected to reflect diversity in New Zealand society. This article will explore the ways in which New Zealand families are represented in a selection of 15 books from the collection, and discuss the implications for the children and educators reading these books in early childhood settings.

Family composition

as depicted in the New Zealand Picture Book Collection

Nicola Daly

Families are central to the lives of children, and in New Zealand there is a great diversity of family configurations (Hardie, 2014). Bishop (1990) has described children’s literature as having a dual purpose. It may provide a window into another world and it may also act as a mirror for the lives of the reader. The importance of children seeing themselves in the books being read to them (Cullinan & Galda, 2002) was the premise behind the creation of the New Zealand Picture Book Collection, He Kohinga Pukapuka Pikitia, a set of 22 picture books selected to reflect diversity in New Zealand society (Daly & McKoy, 2013). This article will explore the ways in which New Zealand families are represented in a selection of 15 books from the collection, and discuss the implications for the children and educators reading these books in early childhood settings.


Children’s books, in particular picture books, have a prominent role in New Zealand early childhood contexts, and indeed in many junior educational settings in Western countries throughout the world. It is well established that reading books aloud to children contributes strongly to the development of reading and writing skills, as well as developing knowledge of the self and the world around us (Johnson, 2012; Reynolds, 2011; Short, Lynch-Brown, & Tomlinson, 2014). This process of reading aloud is not one in which children sit and passively listen to an adults; rather it is an active process in which the teacher pauses to ask questions, discusses the illustrations, asks for predictions, and thinks aloud (Johnson, 2012).

Aside from the literacy affordances provided by reading books aloud to children, a critical multicultural approach to children’s literature sees multicultural literature (books which “break the monopoly of the mainstream culture and make the curriculum pluralistic” (Cai, 2002, cited in Johnson, 2012, p. 302)) as a “vehicle to fight the hegemony of the dominant culture in the publication of children’s literature” (Botelho & Rudman, 2009, p. 279). Indeed, studies show that authentic multicultural literature improves the literacy achievement of minority students “by increasing the motivation to read, their appreciation and understanding of their own language and cultural heritage, their respect for their own life as a topic for writing and cross-cultural understanding” (Johnson, 2012, p. 309).

The notion of developing self-awareness is often linked to the reading of children’s literature. With regard to picture books, Cotton (2000) notes that “within the picture books’ textual and visual imagery there is an opportunity for children to absorb and consider a range of cultural beliefs and expectations on which to lay the foundations of their own personal and cultural identity” (p. 19). Thus it seems clear that children can and do learn a great deal about themselves and the world around them through children’s picture books. This article examines what children might learn about families from picture books in the New Zealand Picture Book Collection, He Kohinga Pukapuka Pikitia o Aotearoa (NZPBC).

The pedagogical potential of multicultural children’s literature was the motivating force behind the development of the NZPBC (Daly & McKoy, 2013, A panel of six children’s literature experts (teachers, librarians, and authors) were asked to nominate picture books which reflected diversity in New Zealand, and a set comprising 22 picture books was selected. These picture books have been analysed in a number of ways (see Cotton & Daly, 2014; 2015); for this article, 15 of the 22 books were analysed in terms of how family is depicted in the New Zealand context. This was done using visual analysis (Braid, 2005) and a critical multicultural lens (Botelho & Rudman, 2011), which allows an examination of both text and illustrations to analyse how families are presented, who is present, who is absent, who is under-represented, and who is over-represented.

The composition of families in New Zealand, as in many Western countries in the world, has been changing over the past half century. These changes have been directly influenced by a rise in the number of divorces, a decrease in the number of marriages, a small but steady number of civil unions between same sex couples, and a younger demographic profile of Māori, Pasifika,1 and Asian communities as compared with the Pākehā2 majority (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). In a study of family composition represented in 57 award-winning English-language children’s picture books in the International Youth Library in Munich, Germany, Skrlac Lo (2015) found a very narrow range of family composition present, mostly being white, middle-class two-parent families. Several studies of the composition of families in picture books conducted in the New Zealand context have focused on families with same sex parents. Hardie (2014), for example, examined the picture books available to New Zealand schools representing sexually diverse families through city and school libraries in Wellington and Porirua and found that very few picture books were available. Only three titles were found in the 58 school libraries surveyed. She suggests that this paucity makes the jobs of teachers difficult when discussing the concept of family in an inclusive way to meet the non-discriminatory requirements of the New Zealand curriculum. Kelly (2012) examined the use of picture books featuring same-gender parented families in a kindergarten setting. While her study showed that children were open to discussing non-traditional families, teachers were not confident in exploring these issues.

Thus it would appear that picture books featuring same-gender parented families are not highly visible in New Zealand educational contexts, and even when they are made available, teachers are not confident to discuss issues arising from such stories. But how are families in general portrayed in New Zealand picture books? This question does not appear to have been broached and so in this article I will explore how families are represented in picture books from the NZPBC, both visually and textually.

The books

Fifteen books from the 22 in the collection were selected for analysis, based on whether they depicted children3 (see reference list for titles). These books were published between 1983 and 2009 and were written by 12 different authors. Apart from one book published in London (Every Second Friday), all were published in New Zealand. These 15 books were analysed with regard to how family is represented in both text and illustration.


The textual and illustrative depiction of families in New Zealand through these picture books includes many configurations, including the single mother in The Trolley (Grace & Gemmil, 1993) and the single father in Every Second Friday (Lightfoot & Galbraith, 2008), the blended families of Dad’s Takeaways (Drewery & White, 2007) and The House that Grew (Strathdee & Wallace, 1979), the male and female parents of a single child in The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch (Cowley & McRae, 2009), and extended families in Kimi and the Watermelon (Smith & Armitage, 1983), Haere: Farewell, Jack, Farewell (Tīpene & Smith, 2006), Taming the Taniwha (Tīpene & Campbell, 2005) and After the War (Kerr, 1999). There were no books included of same sex parents, nor were any Asian families featured; however, a distinctive aspect of many books in the collection in the inclusion of extended family, in particular grandparents, and the representation of Māori and Pasifika ethnicity within families. The different aspects of family configurations depicted will now be discussed in turn.

Single parents

Single parents are evident in two of the 15 books. The Trolley (Grace & Gemmill, 1993) features a single mother who does not have enough money to buy Christmas presents and so she decides to make a trolley from bits and pieces she has around her house. She is represented in all but three illustrations, and is shown to be an active problem solver who sources material and builds a trolley for her children to play with. She experiences doubt about how her children will feel about having a home-made trolley for Christmas: “Other kids will get new bikes and skateboards for Christmas,” she thought. “Miria and Hoani might not like having a trolley for a Christmas present” (no page), but her fears are unfounded, and many neighbourhood children want to ride on the trolley on Christmas day.

Every Second Friday (Lightfoot & Galbraith, 2009) is a story of two children who visit their father every second Friday. The story tells of the fun things the two children do with their imaginative and unconventional father who wears a bow tie, and who “just loves collecting stuff—from books and bicycles to clocks and clarinets, from pictures and pans to ties and tea towels” (no page). His home is a chaotic and crowded place, and the children know his house is their house too because his favourite collection is of photos of the children and their drawings.

Blended families

In two titles it is clear that the children are living in blended families. In both The House that Grew (Strathdee & Wallace, 1979) and Dad’s Takeways (Drewery & White, 2007), one parent is known by their first name, indicating that they are a new partner. Dad’s Takeways is the story is of a family who decide to have takeaways for dinner. The children wonder what kind of takeaways, imagining fish and chips, or pizzas or hamburgers, but the father takes the family to the beach to collect seafood which they cook and eat together around a campfire. The importance of the family unit is indicated by the fact that all three children (two boys and a girl) and the family dog are depicted in each illustration, including the cover and the title page. Even in the one illustration which shows three sets of legs in rippling water as the family dig for pipi in the sand with their feet, the reflections of the torsos of the remaining two family members can be seen reflected in the water. And the family grouping is often in a curved cluster, around the dining table when they are preparing to go out for takeaways and they are in the same curved configuration around the camp fire cooking the seafood in the last two pages.

The text indicates that the parents are central to this story. They are named (as Dad and Ngaio), whereas as the narrators of the story, the children’s voice is always indicated in the plural first person “we”. The text show us that Ngaio, who is probably not the mother of the children due to her first name being used rather than “Mum”, is an established part of the family. This is backed up by many of the illustrations. At first Ngaio is at the edge of the family group while Dad is central; for example, on the first page she is lying on a couch on the verandah of the house, reading a newspaper, a little to the side of the rest of the family. However, in later illustrations she is central to the depictions of the family.

Grandparents in families

Of the 15 books examined from the NZPBC, seven books (asterisked in the reference list) include grandparents. In Taming the Taniwha (Tipene & Campbell, 2005) a young boy, Tama, is being bullied by a classmate, and he goes to his mother, his aunt, his uncle, and then his grandfather to ask for advice. The closeness of the relationship between Tama and his grandfather, Papa, is indicated in the illustrations by physical connection between the two. In three of the four illustrations of Tama and Papa, they are touching, and in all four illustrations, Papa is looking down at Tama, indicating focused listening. The colour of their clothing also reflects their close connection, with both wearing a turquoise blue (one pants, the other shirt) in one illustration in which Papa is giving advice with his hand on Tama’s bed where Tama lies glumly with his eyes cast down. In a second picture they both wear a fresh spring green (Papa shirt, Tama shorts) as Tama joyfully hugs his Papa when he has had some success with his approach to the bully; and lastly they both wear a royal blue shirt when Papa gives Tama a pounamu to acknowledge his solving the problem with the bully.

In After the War (Kerr, 2000), a little girl tells the story of her father coming home from the war in 1945. And through the detailed illustrations we see from one of two perspectives (an interior of the family home and a view from outside the house) the changing social and economic conditions of society as 54 years pass, ending in the year 1999. The little girl grows up and brings her boyfriend home and they build a house next to her parents’ house. The text is very spare and focuses on the story of an apple tree that is planted by the family after the war when the narrator’s father first arrives home. At the end of the story, this apple tree is brought down by a storm at the same time as the narrator’s father dies. What is evident from the detailed illustrations rather than the text is that the little girl who narrates the story lives in a house next to her parents after she has started her own family, and that her son grows up with his grandparents around. The narrator and her mother and father are presented in primary colours: the father always in the mustard yellow of an old army uniform, the mother in blue, and the little girl in a cherry (or maybe an apple) red. When the narrator brings home her boyfriend and then has a baby, the two generations of the family is included in every illustration afterwards, inside or outside the house. The grandson is shown first in a pram, then later helping to make hay, and then refitting his grandfather’s old car.

In Kimi and the Watermelon (Smith & Armitage, 1983), the story is of a rural family consisting of a little girl, her grandmother, and her uncle Tau. Uncle Tau must leave to work in the city, and while he is away he asks Kimi to look after a watermelon they planted together. The growing of the watermelon helps Kimi mark time while she misses her uncle. Kimi is nearly always pictured with an adult, and when an adult is not in picture she has her arms around or is gazing at her pet dog or the watermelon as it grows. As many New Zealanders know, the practice of whāngai (literally to nourish or feed), sometimes inadequately translated as “fostering”, is an accepted practice in Māori communities; if birth parents are unable to raise their child, it is a customary for the child to be raised by family members other than their birth parents, thus ensuring a continuity of cultural knowledge, values, and genealogy (McRae & Nikora, 2006). In Whale Rider (Ihimaera & Potter, 2005), the main character is a young girl called Kahu who lives with her grandparents because her mother has died giving birth to her and her twin brother.

In Haere: Farewell Jack, Farewell (Tīpene & Smith, 2006), the young girl who is the first person narrator of the story tells of the death and then tangi of her koro (Koro Jack), and then the birth of her nephew (Young Jack). It is clear from the illustrations that the little girl (not named) lives with her parents and grandparents, and her special relationship with her Nana is indicated by the illustrator’s use of the same candy floss pink for her t-shirt and her Nana’s scarf, and when they take flowers to koro’s grave at the end of the story, the pink colour is echoed in the colour of the flowers being taken to the grave.


Diversity in families is also evident in the ethnicity of family members depicted in the picture books. In eleven of the 15 books the families featured are clearly Māori or Pasifika as denoted by illustrations, skin colour, and the storylines. This is an almost inverse proportion in comparison with the population statistics of the 2013 New Zealand census (Statistics New Zealand, 2013) in which Pākehā represent 74 percent of the population, 15 percent are Māori, and 7 percent Pasifika. This is probably a reflection of the premise behind the collection, which was to select books which reflected diversity in New Zealand society. Only one book features a character of Asian ethnicity, although according to the 2013 census, 11 percent of the New Zealand population identify as Asian (Statistics New Zealand, 2013). In The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch (Cowley & McRae, 2009), when Josephine asks around her community to find out more about taniwha, Mr Chen the greengrocer tells her about the Chinese dragon; however, no family members or any other characters in the NZPBC books appear to have Asian heritage.

In Haere: Farewell, Jack, Farewell (Tipene & Smith, 2006), the story of a tangi and then a birth of a new family member is clearly set in a Māori family. In Whale Rider (Ihimaera & Potter, 2005), the story is set in a small seaside marae-based community and around the Māori legend of Paikea, a legendary ancestor who arrived in New Zealand from Hawaiiki riding a whale. In The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch (Cowley & McRae, 2009), the illustrated appearance of the family and the use of the concept of a taniwha by the main character’s father to keep her away from a dangerous lake indicate that this is a Māori family. In Tāne Steals the Show (Nelisi, 1997) it is clear from the nature of the cultural performance and rehearsals leading up to them, as shown in the illustrations, that this is a Cook Island family. Tāne wants to be included in a big cultural performance that everyone else is rehearsing for, but every group he approaches sends him away. In the end he practices alone and in the final wedding celebrations for his uncle, he gives a much-appreciated performance.

Two of the picture books present Pākehā families, including Nobody’s Dog (Beck & Fisher, 2005), where the illustrations indicate a Pākehā boy and his Pākehā grandfather as the grandfather relates the story of a dog he befriended as a boy but which his family would not allow him to keep. The family in Bob Kerr’s After the War (1999) are also patently Pākehā in appearance.

Several books illustrate family groups of several ethnicities, such as Mahy’s A Summery Saturday Morning (Mahy & Young, 1999) where a fair-skinned and fair-haired woman is taking a group of children with both fair and brown skin down to the beach. There is no indication of ethnicity in text, only in the illustration. The illustrations of the three-person family in The House that Grew (Strathdee & Wallace, 1979) indicate that the mother is Pākehā and her friend Nick is Māori. In The Kuia and the Spider (Grace & Kahukiwa, 1983), the grandchildren of the kuia come to stay with her, and the illustrations show great diversity of hair colour and skin colour, although it is clear from the coastal marae setting, and their kuia, that all have Māori heritage.

Discussion and conclusion

So what do these books tell the child readers, indeed all readers, about families in New Zealand? Linking back to the critical multicultural lens (Botelho & Rudman, 2011) used throughout this analysis, it is interesting to recap the portrayal of New Zealand families through the notions of presence and absence. Single parent families (The Trolley; Every Second Friday) and blended families (Dad’s Takeaways; The House that Grew), as well as extended families (Haere: Farewell, Jack, Farewell; Taming the Taniwha; Kimi and the Watermelon) and nuclear families (The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch) are present, reflecting the reality of diversity in New Zealand family structure (Cook, 2007). The special place of grandparents in children’s lives is also visible in seven of the 15 books, and follows similar trends to analyses of English children’s literature in which the extended family has growing prominence (Alston, 2008). Ethnic diversity is present in the makeup of families featured in the 15 books, although this is limited to Māori, Pasifika, and Pākehā. What is absent from the family configurations as depicted in the New Zealand picture books analysed are those children living with same-sex parents and characters of ethnicities other than Pākehā, Māori, or Pasifika. The proportion of New Zealanders who identify as Asian has a young age demographic, indicating its likely increase in proportion in the New Zealand population of the future (Statistics New Zealand, 2015) and so their relative absence in the NZPBC books is not helpful for our current early childhood context and certainly not for our future. However, this lack of representation is perhaps a reflection of the publication dates (1983–2009) of the books surveyed. It is hoped that more recent and future publications may redress this imbalance.

What relevance do these findings have for a teacher in an early childhood setting? Firstly, it is important to be aware of the importance of the books which are being read to and discussed with children in terms of how they reflect the multiple family realities of the children in the early childhood environment. As our young children learn more about themselves, and learn about the society they are a part of, picture books are a powerful, and often underestimated, tool (Reynolds, 2011). As discussed earlier, children are known to engage more fully when they feel a connection with books (Johnson, 2012) and so ensuring diversity in family configurations reflecting the family reality of children in ECE settings is an important aspect of early literacy. It is hoped that the visual and textual analyses of the books presented in this article give the readers some awareness of family diversity in the range of books selected for an early childhood setting. It is clear that no one book will present everyone’s family reality, and so having access to a range of New Zealand books through collections such as the NPZPC is an advantage.

Bishop (1990) suggested that children’s literature can be seen as mirrors through which children have their reality validated and windows through which they are able to see the reality of others. Cullinan and Galda (2002) also discuss the importance of children seeing themselves in books, especially when it comes to developing early literacy skills. Given the absence of same-sex families and Asian characters in the picture-book collection, what can early childhood teachers do to ensure that children with same same-sex families or Asian heritage have their identity reflected in picturebooks or that other children are able to see the full range of family compositions present in society? For such books, it seems ECE teachers and parents will have to go beyond New Zealand picture books to publications such as And Tango Makes Three (Parnell, Richardson, & Cole, 2005) and Maggie’s Chopsticks (Woo & Malefant, 2012). But even without access to these books, teachers can develop critical discussions based on the images and text that are present in books, making observations such as “My family is different to the one in this book. Is your family?” and so develop confidence in discussion of topics which are often avoided because they challenge the status quo (Evans, 2015). We can only hope that future New Zealand picture books will continue to feature families of a range of compositions, and that future authors will contribute stories in which some families have Asian heritage and some parents are the same sex. As our tamariki grow and their identity develops, it is important that they are able to see their own families and the families of their classmates in the stories being read to them.


1Pasifika is an umbrella term for several Pacific Island nations who have significant populations present in the New Zealand population.

2Pākehā is a Māori term used to label New Zealanders of European descent.

3The remaining seven picture books either featured animals as their characters, such as Kyle Mewburn’s Old Hu-Hu, or were Māori myths, such as Peter Gossage’s Battle of the Mountains.


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New Zealand Picture Book Collection, He Kohinga Pukapuka Pikitia

(Note: Asterisk indicates that book includes grandparents.)

*Beck, J. (2005). Nobody’s Dog. Auckland: Scholastic. Illustrator: L. Fisher

Cowley, J. (2009). The terrible taniwha of Timberditch. Auckland: Puffin. Illustrator: R. McRae. Previously published 1982.

Drewery, M. (2007). Dad’s takeaways. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel. Illustrator: C. White.

Drewery, M. (2007). Tahi, one lucky kiwi. Auckland: Random. Illustrators: J. O’Reilly & A. Teo.

*Grace, P. (1983). The kuia and the spider. Auckland: Puffin. Illustrator: Robyn Kahukiwa.

Grace, P. (1993). The trolley. Auckland: Viking. Illustrator: K. Gemmill.

*Ihimaera, W. (2005). The whale rider. Auckland: Reed. Illustrator: B. Potter.

*Kerr, B. (2000). After the war. Wellington: Mallinson Rendel. Illustrator: Author.

Lightfoot, K. (2008). Every second Friday. London: Hodder. Illustrator: B. Galbraith.

Mahy, M. (1999). A summery Saturday morning. Auckland: Puffin Books. Illustrator: S. Young.

Nelisi, L. (1997). Tane steals the show. Auckland: Scholastic. Illustrator: G. Hunter.

*Smith, M. (1983). Kimi and the watermelon. Auckland: Puffin. Illustrator: D. Armitage.

Strathdee, J. (1979). The house that grew. Wellington: Oxford University Press. Illustrator: J. Wallace.

*Tipene, T. (2006). Haere: Farewell, Jack, farewell. Wellington: Huia. Illustrator: H. Smith.

*Tipene, T. (2005). Taming the taniwha. Wellington: Huia. Illustrator: H. Campbell.

Nicola Daly is a senior lecturer at Te Hononga—School of Curriculum and Pedagogy, Te Toi Tangata—Faculty of Education, University of Waikato.