Kids need books that are both mirrors and windows. They need to be able to read books that mirror their own life and experiences but also books that give them a view in to someone else’s life, someone different from them. It is so great to see more stories being published from the perspective of Māori kids, giving Māori kids the chance to see themselves in a story and for Pākēha kids to read a story from a Māori perspective. Shilo Kino’s new book, The Pōrangi Boy, tells the story of Niko, a Māori boy trying to prove he’s not pōrangi by carrying on the legacy of his Koro and standing up for what he believes in.
Like his Koro, many in his small town think Niko is pōrangi (crazy). Tū, Kaore and Hone call him pōrangi boy and bully him relentlessly. Niko loves his Koro and he seems to be the only one who doesn’t think his Koro is pōrangi. Niko’s Koro teaches him how to wield a taiaha to defend rather than attack, and he teaches him about Taukere, the taniwha that protects their town. There are plans for a new prison to be built in Pohe Bay and while many in the town are against the idea it is only Niko’s Koro who is prepared to do what he can to stop it happening. The prison would be built over sacred land, destroying Taukere’s home. When Koro dies the family gathers for the tangi and when Koro’s will is read out many of the family are unhappy. Niko decides that he must carry on his Koro’s legacy and fight for what he believes is right.
The Pōrangi Boy is an incredible story that I devoured in one sitting! The story reminded me of Taika Waititi’s best films (Boy and Hunt for the Wilderpeople) because Shilo gives you a snapshot of life in Aotearoa, with the gritty reality but also some humour and great characters that you route for. From the first lines Niko’s voice is so clear and you get so completely caught up in his life that you have to keep reading until the end. As a Pākēha I found Niko’s story eye-opening and confronting at times, from Niko’s home life to the horrible bullying that he’s subjected to. The racism that Niko and his Koro experience is pretty shocking too. Niko’s teacher, Mrs Wobberly, is blatantly racist, calling the kids she teaches Mowrees and calling Niko the Mowree Shakespeare. Nico and Koro experience racism when they go to buy Niko a bike and the shop owner calls Niko a ‘dirty little Mowree.’
There is much speculation about the taniwha of the story, Taukere. The reason that Niko’s Koro is against the prison is because he has met Taukere and knows that he protects the town. Niko isn’t so certain that Taukere exists but when he and his cousin Moki end up in the river they encounter something with red eyes that saves them from drowning.
This is a story about community and relationships. Niko’s mother has a drug addiction, so she is often passed out on the sofa, and Niko’s dad isn’t around, so Niko often has to fend for himself. He has a good relationship with his aunties, who look after him, and his Koro. I really loved Niko and Koro’s relationship as they both took care of each other. Niko sometimes doesn’t understand what his Koro is telling him but he always makes him his cup of tea just how he likes it. They may both be called pōrangi but they make it clear that they’re anything but. Niko’s community is divided about having the prison in their town but the wider community come together to support the protest, including family that Niko never knew he had.
Language is such an important part of this story, from the te reo Māori that is woven in to the story to the way that the characters talk. Most of the characters are Māori so te reo Māori is spoken throughout the story, and this was an aspect of the story that I really loved. Some words and their meanings were unfamiliar to me at the start of the story but the more they were used the more familiar they became. The character’s voices sound authentic, with slang like hungus (hungry) and angus (angry) being part of the conversation. There are also some swear words used in a couple of instances but these fit with the situation (although don’t make the story ideal as a read aloud).
The Pōrangi Boy is one of the best Aotearoa children’s books of the year. This should absolutely be on the shortlist for the 2021 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it win. Niko is 12 in the story but I think it is probably more suited to young adults (or mature Year 7/8 readers). I can’t recommend The Pōrangi Boy highly enough.