It might not seem an important task in 21st-century New Zealand, but helping young people read is at the heart of the project set up by a team of young Māori entrepreneurs at St Thomas College in Christchurch.
Josh Toohey is the managing director of Urban Warriors, a Young Enterprise Scheme project at the school. The national competition has a Māori category, and there has never been a south Island Māori team - until now.
“We decided that we wanted to have a Māori Young Enterprise team, so the three of us who were Māori, and were keen on it decided to give it a go,” Josh said.
“We went a long to the E-Day at the University - brainstorming ideas for the product - and eventually we came up with the idea of writing a book to highlight illiteracy. Our mentor was Tony Sewell, from Ngai Tahu Property.”
The team was put together towards the end of 2006 - the project started at the beginning of 2007 and came to completion some seven months later. While some schools take on the competition as a class project, at St Thomas it is entirely extra-curricular.
“I suppose I started writing the actual book halfway through term one,” Josh says.
I wrote the text, and then Jordan, Tyrone and myself sorted out all the photos and stuff and the layout and the printing, and all the exciting stuff like that.”
There was more work involved in the project than they thought: “It’s not just making a book - it’s finding publishers and photographers and (using) the actual computer programs and stuff.”
Most of the young enterprise students are year 12 and 13. In this team, Tyrone is Year 13, Josh Year 11 and Jordan is year 10 - a younger group and a mix of ages.
Having younger people involved helped the product Josh, says, because the product was targeted at young readers.
“You get more of a view from people from different age groups. Little wee Jordan is so close to the intermediate kids that we’re aiming it at,” Josh jokes.
Media coverage of low literacy levels in Christchurch, as well as research from the Department of Statistics and ERO reports confirmed that the book would reach a receptive audience. Hornby Primary School pupils were asked to pose for photographs to illustrate the book, but also ended up as product testers.
“The kids checked out the book to make sure it was for the right age groups - so that they could understand it and read it.”
The students were excited to be involved and made a huge storyboard of the journey of the book, Jordan says. The main difficulty they had was that the kids were too keen. “They all wanted to be in the photos and have their bit in the book.”
The book is aimed at Year 6 to Year 8 students, and also highlights the issue of child labour overseas.
“We originally wanted an ethical product and whatever we were going to do it ethically and not make it using the sweatshop child labour sort of thing. So as well as the book highlighting a social issue, we decided to put that - we’d already researched it.”
The team went through the entire process of making a book - writing, editing, page layout and preparation for printing - but drew on specialist help along the way.
They used InDesign for the layout, but enlisted a professional photographer.
“It feels really good. I’d started to get sick of it - thinking ‘oh, this book! - trying to get it off, but now that we’ve got the actual product it feels really good and we’re really happy with it.”
The cover art was a representation of the two main characters in traditional Māori artwork.
“The design was relevant to the book, but not actually to do with the book if you know what I mean - it’s a bit more abstract.”
“It stands out a lot - there’s not a lot of black (covered) books for that age group,” Jordan adds.
Connections with the community and established writers were an important part of the project. Chaucer Press helped publish the book and children’s author Margaret Mahy met with the team to give them some advice for their project.
“She helped us out. It was meeting with the real thing - even though we have done this as a group, we don’t feel like authors - meeting with Margaret Mahy was really good.”
Mahy liked that the book carried an important message, Josh said. She showed the students some of her original scripts and the first story she wrote when she was seven, in the original writing.
As well as mentoring from Ngai Tahu, The Engineering Printing and Manufacturing Union and Chaucer Print were also supportive of the students efforts.
Josh was grateful that the wider community were willing to back his team. “People were helping us as a gamble rather than actually taking it seriously originally, but as it progressed people were helping us because they could see something decent was going to come out at the other end. People are very supportive now there’s an actual book out there.”
“You need their support before you can finish it - but they want to know that it’s going to be a decent finished product.”
A deal with the Children’s Bookshop to retail the book in Christchurch and Auckland was the icing on the cake for the group’s business project. “A nice big display” would help promote the book in the Christchurch store, Josh said.
The book will also be distributed to schools in Australia.
“Other teams from our school have done really well (in the YES competition) but being a three-person team, with a range of age groups was different. We’re really happy with where it’s at now.”
A launch ceremony was held at the school on Monday, July 23, the beginning of Māori Language Week. The same day every primary and intermediate school in the country received an email with a taster version of the book and an order form. Christchurch City Libraries have ordered copies of the book for every community library in the city.
A whole school haka would launch the book.
“It’s pretty cool everyone is getting out there and doing that for us - it’s a good way to welcome all the guests. It’s sort of a challenge haka - so the challenge is there to highlight illiteracy.”
Jordan, the youngest group member, said it had been a “big learning curve” experience. “Obviously being the youngest it was ‘do this, do that’,” he laughs.
“You helped as much as anyone,” Josh says.
“But I got to have my say in it and do my part and then finally seeing what the Year 13 students are doing making products and then making our own, it’s been really good. We are pleased with it.”
“It’s good now that the book's finished,” Josh said.
Profits from the book will go to the school’s charity initiatives.