The Whale Rider

The Whale Rider

4.1 8
by Witi Ihimaera

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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

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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, it is Kahu who saves the tribe when she reveals that she has the whale rider's ancient gift of communicating with whales.
Now available in simultaneous hardcover and paperback editions.
Feature film in theaters in June 2003!

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
First published in 1987 in New Zealand-the author's homeland as well as the story's setting-this circuitous novel inspired a film of the same title, which is scheduled for U.S. release this summer. A rather dense prologue tells of the long-ago appearance of a gigantic whale with "a swirling tattoo imprinted on the forehead" and a spear-throwing man riding on its back. After the narrative shifts to contemporary times, readers learn that this "whale rider" was Kahutia Te Rangi, founder of the Maori tribe whose chief is now Koro Apirana, grandfather of the 24-year-old narrator, Rawiri. Hoping for a great-grandson to inherit his title, Koro Apirana is disgusted when the wife of Rawiri's older brother gives birth to a girl. The child, named Kahu in honor of the whale rider, adores her great-grandfather, yet he ignores her, continually dismissing her when she tries to listen in on his lessons to the boys on tribal traditions. But Kahu can communicate with whales and emits a "special radiance," and it becomes evident that she will play a crucial role within her tribe. Despite Kahu's prominence, this story is also very much the narrator's, and as such may be likelier to hold the attention of adults than children. Ihimaera is at his best in depicting the bonds among the family members, but his use of symbols can be heavy-handed and passages focusing on the now-ancient whale may seem slow-moving. Ages 10-up. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Written in 1987, this novel is one of the most popular of the Maori writer's books in New Zealand and Australia. A new movie based on the book will fuel interest in its American release. A lushly worded prologue describes how Kahutia Te Rangi rode to the coast of New Zealand on the back of a tattooed whale and became the ancestor of the Maori people. Rawiri, a young man of the tribe, takes up the tale a thousand years later. Rawiri's older brother is next in line for chief, but much to his grandfather's dismay, Porourangi's first-born child is a girl. "I will have nothing to do with her," he grumbles, "She has broken the male line of descent in our tribe." Clearly little Kahu is a special child, but her grandfather adheres stubbornly to the Maori traditions and refuses to give the girl the love for which she yearns. Kahu's destiny is integral to the survival of her tribe, however, and in a dramatic scene, she becomes the whale rider her grandfather and his people have sought. Although compelling, this novel includes some obstacles for young readers. The prologue, a Maori genealogical story, has complex poetic language that moves slowly. There are many Maori words intermingled, which might further deter readers, although a glossary is included. When Rawiri takes up the narrative, the pace quickens. The strengths of the story are the warm and lively picture of the family and village life and the appealing little girl, Kahu, who becomes a heroine. Rawiri's voice, too, is strong, and through his eyes, readers see the discrimination faced by a Maori in a white world. Glossary. VOYA Codes: 3Q 4P J S (Readable without serious defects; Broad general YA appeal; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2003 (orig. 1992), Harcourt, 152p,
— Lynn Rutan
From the day she was born, little Kahu was overlooked by most because she was a girl. Her grandfather, the chief of the village, was too blinded by tradition to see the power his little granddaughter possessed. The author takes us to a little village in New Zealand where history and tradition work together in keeping the tribe's strength. The story is told from the perspective of Kahu's teenaged uncle, who watches her unfold into the role that destiny has reserved for her. Kahu is a vibrant, young girl destined to be the chief of her people. However, due to the fact that she was born a girl, she is challenged to prove herself and regain the strength of her land. She is gifted with the ability to speak to whales, allies to her people for many generations. In addition to the description of this New Zealand village, the somewhat mythical stories of ancestry, as well as Kahu's ability to speak to sea dwellers, will capture young readers right away. Her innocence and determination carry the reader all the way to the very end. First published in 1987 in New Zealand. 2003, Harcourt, 152 pp. Ages young adult. Reviewer: Shannon Lederer
Witi Ihimaera spins a breathtaking tale of eight-year-old Kahu, a Maori girl in New Zealand whose destiny is to be a whale rider and the savior of her tribe. Moving between contemporary New Zealand and some ancient past time, the story of Kahu's life unfolds. Kahu is unloved by her great-grandfather, the main object of her affection, and shown that girls have no place of importance in Maori culture. Undeterred by this, Kahu learns all she can about her culture and her people, meanwhile developing a quiet and mysterious connection with the whales. The time for Kahu to fulfill her destiny comes when the whales strand themselves on the beach of Kahu's village. She rises to the challenge, proving to her great-grandfather that she is indeed worthy of being heir to the title of chief. Kahu is feisty and determined, a strong hero in a small package. While the passages on the ancient whales tend to drag a bit, the rest of Ihimaera's beautifully written story sparkles with life and will be hard for any reader, child or adult, to put down. (Editor's Note: This was first published in New Zealand and now has been made into a highly successful motion picture.) KLIATT Codes: JSA*-Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students, advanced students, and adults. 1987, Harcourt, 152p., Ages 12 to adult.
— Amanda MacGregor
Library Journal
The feature film version of Ihimaera's 1987 novel recently took the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival and is making the rounds at art houses throughout the country, which should make this popular. A young New Zealand tribal girl endeavors to break old traditions and be named chief, a role historically held only by males. Since the text contains numerous words in Maori, the book is capped with a glossary. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
School Library Journal
Gr 5-8-Witi Ihimaera blends New Zealand's Maori legends with a modern girl's struggle to have her special gifts recognized in this novel (Harcourt, 2003). Though Kahu is the first child born in her generation and she is well loved by her extended family, she seeks the approval of Koro, the stern man who is not only her great grandfather but also her clan's chief. Family lore is filled with stories of Koro's ancestor who rode a giant whale to bring his people to New Zealand. Their village continues to have a special relationship with the sea and its creatures. When a pod of whales is stranded on a nearby beach, everyone in the community works to save them. Many animals are lost and only one desperately weak whale is turned toward the sea when Kahu climbs onto his back. Both the whale and the girl feel their ancient connection, and when Kahu rides off, her great grandfather finally sees that she is the next leader for her clan. Though the eight-year-old girl is feared lost, her whale companion has left her where she can be found and reunited with her family. Narrator Jay Laga'aia handles the book's poetic rhythm and its Maori words and phrases with an easy tempo and honest emotion. Occasionally the sound quality seems too quiet, but it reflects the novel's introspective sections. Though the Maori language may be a challenge for some listeners, the universal theme of a child looking for acceptance makes this a good additional purchase for middle school and public libraries. It's worth noting that Whale Rider was made into an award-winning film a few years ago.-Barbara Wysocki, Cora J. Belden Library, Rocky Hill, CT Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An ancient whale and an eight-year-old Maori girl named Kahu are archetypal figures in this luminous joining of myth and contemporary culture. In an opening Eden-like scene, a man riding a whale gives the East Coast of New Zealand gifts that will make it flourish. The last gift, however, refuses to be given, flinging itself across a thousand years to wait for the time when it will be needed. That gift becomes Kahu, a contemporary child both regular and special. Kahu is cherished by everyone in the family except her grandfather, whom she reveres but who has no time for females. But when that ancestral relationship between human and whale reaches from the past and challenges the safety of her people, Kahu alone has the gift to confront the threat. The story is narrated by her uncle Rawiri and by the whales; dazzling ocean descriptions from the whales’ perspective highlight the poetic writing. (glossary) (Sundance and Toronto film festivals winner, national release June 2003) (Fiction. YA)
From the Publisher
Whale Rider, the movie—winner of the Sundance Film Festival World Cinema Audience Award, the Toronto International Film Festival People's Choice Award, and the Rotterdam International Film Festival Canal Plus Audience Award

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Product Details

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
6.64(w) x 8.05(h) x 0.43(d)
Age Range:
12 - 15 Years

Read an Excerpt


In the old days, in the years that have gone before us, the land and sea felt a great emptiness, a yearning. The mountains were like a stairway to heaven, and the lush green rainforest was a rippling cloak of many colors. The sky was iridescent, swirling with the patterns of wind and clouds; sometimes it reflected the prisms of rainbow or southern aurora. The sea was ever-changing, shimmering and seamless to the sky. This was the well at the bottom of the world, and when you looked into it you felt you could see to the end of forever.

This is not to say that the land and sea were without life, without vivacity. The tuatara, the ancient lizard with its third eye, was sentinel here, unblinking in the hot sun, watching and waiting to the east. The moa browsed in giant wingless herds across the southern island. Within the warm stomach of the rainforests, kiwi, weka, and the other birds foraged for huhu and similar succulent insects. The forests were loud with the clatter of tree bark, chatter of cicada, and murmur of fish-laden streams. Sometimes the forest grew suddenly quiet, and in wet bush could be heard the filigree of fairy laughter like a sparkling glissando.

The sea, too, teemed with fish, but they also seemed to be waiting. They swam in brilliant shoals, like rains of glittering dust, throughout the greenstone depths-hapuku, manga, kahawai, tamure, moki, and warehou-herded by shark or mango ururoa. Sometimes from far off a white shape would be seen flying through the sea, but it would only be the serene flight of the tarawhai, the stingray with the spike on its tail.

Waiting. Waiting for the seeding. Waiting for the gifting. Waiting for the blessing to come.

Suddenly, looking up at the surface, the fish began to see the dark bellies of the canoes from the east. The first of the Ancients were coming, journeying from their island kingdom beyond the horizon. Then, after a period, canoes were seen to be returning to the east, making long cracks on the surface sheen. The land and the sea sighed with gladness:

We have been found.
The news is being taken back to the place of the Ancients.
Our blessing will come soon.

In that waiting time, earth and sea began to feel the sharp pangs of need, for an end to the yearning. The forests sent sweet perfumes upon the eastern winds and garlands of pohutukawa upon the eastern tides. The sea flashed continuously with flying fish, leaping high to look beyond the horizon and to be the first to announce the coming; in the shallows, the chameleon sea horses pranced at attention. The only reluctant ones were the fairy people, who retreated with their silver laughter to caves in glistening waterfalls.

The sun rose and set, rose and set. Then one day, at its noon apex, the first sighting was made. A spume on the horizon. A dark shape rising from the greenstone depths of the ocean, awesome, leviathan, breaching through the surface and hurling itself skyward before falling seaward again. Underwater the muted thunder boomed like a great door opening far away, and both sea and land trembled from the impact of that downward plunging.

Suddenly the sea was filled with awesome singing, a song with eternity in it, a song to the land:

You have called and I have come,
bearing the gift of the Gods.

The dark shape rising, rising again. A whale, gigantic. A sea monster. Just as it burst through the sea, a flying fish leaping high in its ecstasy saw water and air streaming like thunderous foam from that noble beast and knew, ah yes, that the time had come. For the sacred sign was on the monster, a swirling tattoo imprinted on the forehead.

Then the flying fish saw that astride the head, as it broke skyward, was a man. He was wondrous to look upon, the whale rider. The water streamed away from him and he opened his mouth to gasp in the cold air. His eyes were shining with splendor. His body dazzled with diamond spray. Upon that beast he looked like a small tattooed figurine, dark brown, glistening, and erect. He seemed, with all his strength, to be pulling the whale into the sky.

Rising, rising. And the man felt the power of the whale as it propelled itself from the sea. He saw far off the land long sought and now found, and he began to fling small spears seaward and landward on his magnificent journey toward the land.

Some of the spears in midflight turned into pigeons, which flew into the forests. Others, on landing in the sea, changed into eels. And the song in the sea drenched the air with ageless music, and land and sea opened themselves to him, the gift long waited for: tangata, man. With great gladness and thanksgiving, the man cried out to the land,

Karanga mai, karanga mai, karanga mai.

Call me. But there was one spear, so it is told, the last, that, when the whale rider tried to throw it, refused to leave his hand. Try as he might, the spear would not fly.

So the whale rider uttered a prayer over the wooden spear, saying, "Let this spear be planted in the years to come, for there are sufficient spear already implanted. Let this be the one to flower when the people are troubled and it is most needed."

And the spear then leaped from his hands with gladness and soared through the sky. It flew across a thousand years. When it hit the earth, it did not change but waited for another hundred and fifty years to pass until it was needed.

The flukes of the whale stroked majestically at the sky.

Hui e, haumi e, taiki e.

Let it be done.

© 1987 Witi Ihimaera

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher.

Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.

First published in New Zealand in 1987 by Reed Books, a division of Reed Publishing (NZ) Ltd, 39 Rawene Rd, Birkenhead, Auckland
First U.S. edition 2003

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Meet the Author

WITI IHIMAERA, a prolific writer and editor in New Zealand, is the author of numerous short-story collections, novels, anthologies, and nonfiction titles. He teaches English and creative writing at the University of Auckland.

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