The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera
The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera is the story of a young girl in New Zealand who longs to make her grandfather proud. Ihimaera is a New Zealander and of Maori and Anglo-Saxon descent.
Eight-year-old Kahu, a member of the Maori tribe of Whangara, New Zealand, fights to prove her love, her leadership, and her destiny. Her people claim descent from Kahutia Te Rangi, the legendary ‘whale rider.’ In every generation since Kahutia, a male heir has inherited the title of chief. But now there is no male heir, and the aging chief is desperate to find a successor. Kahu is his only great-grandchild—and Maori tradition has no use for a girl. But when hundreds of whales beach themselves and threaten the future of the Maori tribe, Kahu will do anything to save them—even the impossible.
For me, this book was an introduction into a culture I know next to nothing about. Yeah, I’ve seen Moana and I know a handful of things about Maori culture, but not much outside of the tattooing and haka stuff. This book brings to the fore Maori myth and binds it to a contemporary story. Though this story is framed around Kahu and her life as the granddaughter of a Maori chief, the book is told from her Uncle’s perspective, and much of the book focuses on his own life as well. In mine and other library systems, this book is cataloged for juvenile readers, but much of what happens in the story and the way it is told, for me, makes it more of an adult read.
For one thing, Rawiri, Kahu’s uncle, is the narrator and much of the story follows his own life, his journeys with his motorcycle gang, and his brief stay in Australia and Papua New Guinea. These portions of the novel don’t involve Kahu at all. As an adult reading this book, these parts of the story made sense to me and I was familiar with the circumstances that Rawiri speaks of. But if I were reading this book as a child, I would definitely have struggled, because these parts of the story would be asking me to connected with aspects of life I would not have experienced yet. For a children’s story, this book spends a lot of time following the adults, rather than Kahu, and that made me question the sens of marketing this book to children.
Outside of that, I found the book to be quite interesting. I liked reading about the Maori creation story, the whales, and how the Maori people are connected to the sea. Some of the story is told from the whales’ perspective, which was interesting and added a touch of magic to the narrative. I enjoyed the gentle blend of mythology with realism, as it made a really magical backdrop to the story. I really enjoyed it.
Literary Value: 3/5
The writing was okay. I wasn’t wowed by Ihimaera’s writing, but it was good. I felt immersed in the story and, particularly the myth parts of the book had that mystic feel to them. These were my favorite moments of the book. I also liked how much Maori language was included in the story. Ihimaera includes a glossary in the back, as well, which was very helpful. Having that language really helped with the overall immersion feel. This book would definitely do well in a school unit on Maori or Pacific Islander culture. It’s got the mythology, the language, and the general life style of the people of these islands. I think the writing is just fine for a children’s book.
Entertainment Factor: 3/5
I enjoyed this story, particularly the mythology portions. I found the culture that Ihimaera brings to life in this story very fascinating and I was compelled to keep reading. There were moments where the story was a bit slow and the plot was a bit wandering, but since the book is short, there wasn’t much time to be bored. I don’t know if I’d recommend this book to a young reader. As an adult, I found the pacing to be okay, but this book might not appeal younger readers who need more of an action-driven plot.
Cover Art: 2/5
So, I’m basing this off of its original cover (1987). I gotta say, not a fan. I think, though, that this is down to the time period this was published. I think older book covers are less appealing (that’s just me, personally). Objectively, I can say that I don’t really like the abstractness of this cover, nor do I feel this cover accurately represents the overall feel of the novel. The whale tale is not very well rendered, and I can’t really understand what the lines that are arching over it are there to represent or even what they are. I think the color is a bit drab and the overall look is just very dull and not at all interesting to look at, which is a shame, since the story is really cool. Not a good representation of the book!
Overall Rating: 2.75/5 Whales
This book was enjoyable, but not one of my favorites. I liked the story, especially the Maori mythology that’s included in it, but I found the story pacing to be slower than I would have liked. The story itself is quite short and I would have found it a bit more interesting if more of the story was told from Kahu’s perspective, rather than her uncle’s. I don’t really know why this is cataloged as a children’s book when the narrator is an adult and much of the story revolves around the adults of the story. However, I think this book is a great look at Maori culture and I learned a lot while reading it.
Thoughts & Thanks
Thank you so much for reading my review! I hope I’ve helped aid you in your decision to read this book. If you have read it or if you’re thinking about reading it, let me know what you thought in the comments! And as always, happy reading!