Debbie McCauley has a writer’s conundrum. Two people are murdered, eaten and their heads rolled down the aisle at a church service.
It’s not the dark side of her imagination at play, but a gruesome moment in local history which needs to be woven into her next book, a book for children.
Writes them, lends them and reads them: Author Debbie McCauley. Photo: Chris Callinan.
“I don’t believe in lying to children or hiding anything” says the author. But how does she sanitise the incident to make it palatable and understood for her young readers?
“I am battling with this one.”
Won’t that chapter get dog ears, don’t children have an innocent fascination for the bloody, gory details of history? They’ll naturally be drawn to it.
“They will be fascinated but because it’s a narrative non-fiction story about the journey of the Treaty of Waitangi in Tauranga, there will be descendants of those killed.”
So she will have to be sensitive and mindful of the language used and the way she explains things. “And while I am aware of all these issues, not everyone is going to be happy about what I do.”
Debbie is an author, an accomplished and respected one in her genre. She is the inaugural winner of the Creative Tauranga Writers’ Award, which was set up to support and encourage local writers. That’s $2000 towards the publication of her next book.
“Yes, that was a nice surprise.”
Not that she needs encouragement. She grew up in a house with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves. Her father was self-educated and books have been her life.
She write books, she publishes books – and as a city librarian she lends them too. She also reads them, devours them, four or five books a week when she has the time.
She presently has her nose in ‘Pennies for Hitler’, a young adult offering by Australian author Jackie French. “My tastes are eclectic – children’s, teens, adult.”
But her writing is not eclectic, just children’s picture books, really.
“I think there are local stories that need to be told but aren’t being told for the enjoyment, education and understanding of our children.”
Debbie’s books are filling that void, such as her ‘Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill’, a story about the Rena disaster.
“If it is a story that I am passionate about and I think children need to know, then I will write it.”
Motiti Blue was a little blue penguin, who was covered in oil from the Rena wreck. He was rescued, treated and released.
The Rena story, she says, is an extremely important local story for children, and ‘Motiti Blue and the Oil Spill’ is a children’s perspective.
“It was a huge event for children. It happened in their own backyard and they have a strong connection. They can see where it happened, they can walk the beach, and they are part of the story.”
“Unlike you and I,” says Debbie, “We grew up with stories from overseas and we didn’t have the same experience. We could only imagine.”
What about adults books on the Rena. Debbie almost yawns. “Adults are a bit jaded about the Rena, a bit tired of it.”
She believes children are much more passionate about the issues and more idealistic. And she’s not interested in writing for adults. “Children are so much more appreciative.”
Debbie believes children don’t have the same research skills, so if you can present a story with all the fascinating information it’s easier to learn.
“There is an adult book on the Rena but it’s not going to teach children anything because it’s so in depth.”
The author points to another of her books, ‘Taratoa and the Code of Conduct.’ “The fact this story wasn’t out there is amazing,” she says.
In the 1860s, before the Geneva Convention, people around the world were reviewing how wounded soldiers from both sides should be treated. Before the Battle of Gate Pa at Pukehinahina, a warrior Henare Taratoa wrote a code of conduct. Maori decided not to kill or mutilate wounded soldiers, but instead gave them water.
“This was the thinking in our little fishing village. It is quite significant and important.” Now it is out there for the understanding and enjoyment of children everywhere.
Debbie is currently working on distilling the complexities of The Treaty of Waitangi here in Tauranga for children.
“It takes a lot of rewrites. Just write because you are going to go back and rewrite it a 100 times. It doesn’t matter what you write down the first time because you will go back and work on it and work on it and work on it.”