Grandma Sela and her granddaughter Mele head to the reef to go fishing. While her grandmother gathers shellfish, Mele collects cowrie shells to make necklaces for the tourists off the cruise ships.
This lovely longer-style picture book really does immerse the reader in Pacific Island life. A young girl, Mele, goes fishing with her grandmother, but fishing in this instance involves walking out to a reef and turning over rocks to look for shellfish. Mele is searching for cowrie shells to make into necklaces for the tourists off the cruise ships; her grandmother is looking for shellfish for their dinner.
The story is sprinkled with Tongan words, such as pule’oto, ‘oa, kaloa’a, but explanations are cleverly woven into the text. So, we learn that pule’oto are cowrie shell necklaces and that kaloa’a are a type of edible shellfish. And I managed to figure out what an ‘oa is from the beautiful accompanying illustration; it’s a woven basket for carrying shellfish! There’s no need for guesswork though: a short glossary in the back matter provides definitions for those terms not explained in the text.
I particularly appreciated the role of the grandmother figure in this story. Grandma Sela knows that coral can hurt bare feet, which is why Mele scampers off to find some shoes. She also instructs her granddaughter on what shells to look for, and how to fish responsibly:
“You can look for cowries Mele, but make sure they are not too small. And don’t forget to turn the rocks back or the baby shellfish might dry up and die.”
Mele shows great respect for her grandmother; she looks up to her, listens to her and follows her guidance – well, most of the time. Sometimes, we learn that she is too lazy to turn the rocks back over again, but “she knew her grandmother was right.”
I am no expert on Pacific Island culture, but I have read of the importance of elders in Pacific Island families. They are respected and valued for their knowledge and experience, and act as mentors to the younger generations. And it is this important theme, I think, that runs throughout the story in Grandma Sela and Mele’s interactions.
As in the previous Tongan title I reviewed, One Day, Lu’isa Veakovi Fonua Nau’s illustrations are alive with colour and detail. The illustration of Mele fishing, in particular, is stunning in its simplicity. The backdrop is the ocean in various shades of blue and dotted with the occasional rock in muted grey/brown tones. Mele is centre page as she bends down, no doubt to pluck a cowrie shell from the water, and her bright yellow top sings out loud amongst the sea of blue (the illustration is used on the book cover, shown above). Apart from a glorious rainbow-coloured spread of coral and fish, the characters in the story are centre stage in the illustrations, and the numerous details – clothing, appearance, accessories and vegetation – taken together, set the story firmly in a Pacific Island context.
I would happily go fishing with Grandma Sela and Mele next time they head to the reef! Inspired by the colours, traditions and values of the Pacific Islands, Reef Walking is a beautiful story for adults and children alike.
Reef Walking by Konai Helu Thaman, illustrated by Lu’isa Veakovi Fonua Nau, edited by Ruth Toumu’a (Waka Story Books, Institute of Education, The University of the South Pacific, 2015)
Professor Konai Helu Thaman holds a Personal Chair in Pacific Education and Culture at the University of the South Pacific. She has also published five collections of poetry, which have been translated into multiple languages. Reef Walking is inspired by her poem of the same name.
Dr Ruth Toumu’a is a Fellow in Curriculum and Literacy at the Institute of Education, The University of the South Pacific (Tonga campus). She is actively involved in revitalising the Institute’s Waka Story Book collection, with a continuing focus on culturally and linguistically relevant books for the Pacific.
Lu’isa Veakovi Fonua Nau is a Tongan-based artist. As well as illustrating children’s books, she also works in the traditional art of Tongan Ngatu (painted tapa cloth). An exhibition of her work was recently held in Auckland, New Zealand.