The best NZ books for young readers

In an age of screens, digital devices, and on-tap visual entertainment for kids, it’s heartening to know that there are still brilliant books being written for young readers to explore and immerse themselves in the written word. It’s also good to know that New Zealand is continuing a legacy of quality writing, pioneered by the likes of Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley, and Maurice Gee.

New Zealand’s best books of 2018

On the 8th of August, the winners of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults for 2018 were announced at a colourful event at Te Marae, Te Papa in Wellington. The passion that the authors and illustrators hold for their work was obvious, matched by the judges’ fervour for the titles they were tasked with whittling down to nominees and eventual winners.

Giggle of the night went to the CEO of the Wright Family Foundation, supporters of the NZ Book Awards, who quoted political satirist P.J. O’Rourke …

Always read stuff that will make you look good if you die in the middle of it. ~P.J. O’Rourke

Supreme winner

Eight awards were handed out on the night with the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award being taken out by a visually stunning non-fiction title, Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, written and illustrated by Gavin Bishop. The judges describe it as a book for every home, school and library.

“It’s masterful in its execution – a work of art that bears repeated and thoughtful reading and viewing of its vibrant and informative illustrations, a book of enduring significance in the canon of New Zealand children’s literature. We’ve seen nothing quite like it in New Zealand children’s publishing,” said convener of judges, Jeannie Skinner.

Books for every reader

Each award category offered up a feast of New Zealand talent. Picture Book Award winner, I Am Jellyfish, is beautifully written and illustrated by Ruth Paul, with fun luminous illustrations.

Invoking a touch of de ja vu, Bren MacDibble’s thought-provoking novel about a future without bees, How to Bee, won the Junior Fiction Award and then the author reappeared as the winner of the Young Adult Fiction. Written under the pseudonym Cally Black, In the Dark Spaces, is a science fiction thriller – a genre not that easy to find in local literature.

The Illustration Award winner is a cross between a comic book and a fairytale tome – Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts, written and illustrated by Craig Phillips, is the kind of book that may just help my pop-cultured, video-game-obsessed tween fall in love with reading again.

The best book in Te Reo Māori was awarded to Tu Meke Tūī! written by Malcolm Clarke and translated by Evelyn Tobin. The panel of judges praised the expertise of the translator in capturing “the breath and spirit of the story skilfully, locating it within a Māori viewpoint.”

The Best First Book Award winner, My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, tackles the not so simple topic of immigration, as viewed by a 13 year old girl in 70s New Zealand.

All the winners from the 2018 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

Margaret Mahy Book of the Year Award and Elsie Locke Award for Non-Fiction

Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, Written and illustrated by Gavin Bishop of Christchurch (Penguin Random House) – BUY HERE

Picture Book Award


I Am Jellyfish, Written and illustrated by Ruth Paul, Wellington (Penguin Random House) – BUY HERE

Wright Family Foundation Esther Glen Award for Junior Fiction

How to bee

How to Bee, by Bren MacDibble, Australia (Allen & Unwin) – BUY HERE

Copyright Licencing Award for Young Adult Fiction

In the dark spaces

In the Dark Spaces, by Cally Black, Australia (Hardie Grant Egmont) – BUY HERE

Wright Family Foundation Te Kura Pounamu Award for the best book in te reo Māori


Tu Meke Tūī!, by Malcolm Clarke, translated Evelyn Tobin, illustrated by FLOX (aka Hayley King), all of Auckland (Mary Egan Publishing) – BUY HERE

Russell Clark Award for Illustration

Giants Trolls

Giants, Trolls, Witches, Beasts Written and illustrated by Craig Phillips, Taupo (Allen & Unwin) – BUY HERE

Best First Book Award

Dawn raid

My New Zealand Story: Dawn Raid, by Pauline (Vaeluaga) Smith, Invercargill (Scholastic New Zealand) – BUY HERE


The New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults are a unique celebration of the contribution that New Zealand’s children’s authors and illustrators make to building national identity and cultural heritage. The awards are made possible through the generosity, commitment and vision of funders and sponsors: Creative New Zealand, HELL Pizza, the Wright Family Foundation, Book Tokens (NZ) Ltd, Copyright Licensing NZ, LIANZA, Wellington City Council, Nielsen Book and Te Papa. They are administered by the New Zealand Book Awards Trust.

This article was written by Julie Scanlon, Editor for Kidspot NZ.

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  1. kymmage 30/08/2018 at 5:51 pm

    Well deserved for Gavin Bishop. His book is stunning. I will definitely be buying it as I think it’s heirloom worthy. Ruth Paul is another my kids and I love. So many talented children’s authors and illustrators on NZ.

  2. Jen_Wiig 27/08/2018 at 2:28 pm

    I actually really want every single one of these books they all look amazing!!! my 2 older boys are real little book worms when not on devices thats probably why i dont mind them liking technology and my youngest loves to have books read to him…son each book here is perfect for each of us and wonderful gift ideas with birthdays and Christmas not too far off. Must admit been awhile sinc ei read a good book so none better than a NZ book about a subject quite close to my heart Dawn raids…it looks like a goody that one.

  3. dawnblyth 27/08/2018 at 12:48 pm

    Reading is one of my most treasured past times, growing up and as an adult, and it is one that I am always passing on to my two boys. We sit each night and read together – before bed – it is a great bonding exercise and something that also helps to relax and to learn at the same time. To find some new, fun looking, reading material is always on my list of things to do and so to have these books be award winning, it gives me the inspiration to go out and find these to read to my boys. Thanks!

  4. Mands1980 23/08/2018 at 7:27 pm

    I am always on the look out for new books for the kids to read that are interesting and they remember. Books are so important for children’s development and variety as well. Our children struggle with reading but positive encouragement helps them lots.

  5. Bevik1971 21/08/2018 at 2:31 pm

    Awesome! 🙂 My 5 & a half year old has just been moved up to the next classroom as she is advanced in her schoolwork <3 She reads so well after only 2 terms she even surprises me! These books look great, we go to the library every weekend and take back books and get a new selection as we read together every night before bed, she loves reading 🙂

  6. MuddledUpMolly 20/08/2018 at 10:09 pm

    Great to see some fresh and acclaimed books that would be perfect to expose to our 8 year old son 🙂 We try to encourage him to read a broad range of literature.

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