Real-life Stories Behind Mia & Leo Go Wild!

9th July 2024|5 min

On an overcast but nice-enough winter’s day in July, award-winning children’s author Gillian Candler was tramping in the Akatarawa Forest Park, near Upper Hutt, with a good friend and regular adventuring companion.

Gillian has tackled many tracks over the years. This track, while not easy, was one she’d done many times before. So it was in a stroke of bad luck that Gillian slipped on wet leaves, catching her right foot underneath her as she fell and breaking her ankle. With about three hours’ hike to their car, the pair had to use all their collective tramping knowledge and decision-making skills to make it home.

Ironically, their misadventure happened just after Gillian had been approached by NZ Mountain Safety Council (MSC) about the idea of writing a children’s book that would weave together practical tips and advice on getting out and exploring the outdoors safely, while fostering future generations of trampers.

Mia & Leo Go Wild! is the resulting collaboration with Gillian, illustrator Gavin Mouldey and award-winning publishers Potton & Burton. The children’s book centres on sister and brother duo Mia and Leo’s hike to the imagined Whiowhio Hut, with their mum and uncle. Along the way, the family meets an assortment of fellow adventurers – grandma and grandpa botanists, a pest trapper and a group of teenagers – each facing an outdoor obstacle of their own.

Spoiler alert – there are no broken bones in the book like Gillian’s broken ankle, but in writing the story, Gillian did draw on many of her other rich and varied outdoor experiences, plus advice and suggestions from the MSC team.

I’ve been the trapper checking traps, the amateur botanist stopping to look closely at tiny plants, the mum tramping with kids, as well as a teacher tramping with teenagers, and now a grandma walking with young grandchildren. It helped to consider all these different perspectives when I was creating the book,
– explains Gillian.

Even the children’s conflicting motivations reflect the different pulls Gillian herself feels when she’s out tramping. “Like Leo, I have the desire to stop and look at every awesome insect, bird and flower, but like Mia, I also want to stride strongly on and get to the destination in good time, put down my pack and immerse myself in the wilderness.”

In fact, Gillian’s love of the outdoors was sparked when she was about the same age as Mia and Leo. “I have a very strong memory of my dad taking my brother and I for a walk in the stunning bluebell woods in England where I was born. I was enraptured from then on. Shortly after that, we moved to New Zealand, so it didn’t take much to transfer my interest in the outdoors to Aotearoa New Zealand.”

Many of the events described in the book have happened to Gillian or her friends and family – forgetting gloves and needing to wear socks to keep hands warm, boots falling apart, planning a tramp that was far too long to complete in daylight and the perennial tramper’s nightmare – blisters.

In the book, the hut is called Whiowhio Hut, because Mia and Leo see whio (blue duck) there, but there’s also a real-life version. “The name must have been somewhere in my subconscious,” explains Gillian. “I was reminded by [seasoned tramper] Anthony Behrens that he and his partner built a hut called Whiowhio Hut in their back garden for Te Araroa trampers.”

The Ōrongorongo Track in the Remutaka Forest Park, near Wellington, was the setting that came to mind when Gillian was writing Mia & Leo Go Wild!. Not only is it the best family tramp in New Zealand, according to MSC Operations Manager Nathan Watson, being an easy two-hour walk to a number of huts, it holds sentimental value for Gillian, as it’s where she took her son (then 4-years-old, now aged 34) on his first overnight tramp. The rare butterfly that Uncle Joe is so keen to photograph in the book is like Gillian’s one-and-only sighting of a rare forest ringlet butterfly near the Ōrongorongo River.

Gillian suggested to illustrator Gavin Mouldey that he experience the Ōrongorongo Track for inspiration. And so, Gavin went on a “reference mission” with his wife, Rosie; and their two children, Lyla and Jasper.

“Coincidentally, our real adventure mimicked the fictional adventure in many ways,” says Gavin. “Including when and where we stopped, and even Rosie’s boot falling apart!”

In the book, the sole of the trapper’s boot is coming off, and Uncle Joe provides a temporary fix with some tape.

On their excursion, Gavin’s “very patient and obliging” whānau posed for different scenes from the book while he took hundreds of reference photos, including of trees, undergrowth, birds, light and shadows.

The hut in the book is loosely based on the real hut Gavin and his family reached that day, with borrowed details of other Kiwi huts he’s visited – plus some creative license. 

The illustrations of Mia and Leo’s home are based on details from Gavin’s own home, and the car that features at the end of the track is based on the family’s yellow Nissan Leaf.

“A lot of the details are sketchy versions of our belongings. I wanted the settings in the book to feel real and familiar to any reader, while also sneaking in some visual ‘easter eggs’ for my own kids to look back on.”

To give an added homely touch, Gavin included a family dog in the book. And then life imitated art, again. As Gavin explains: “We didn’t have a dog while I was illustrating the book. However, Bowie came after it was published and has grown to look like he came to life straight off the pages. Right down to dominating our long grey couch!” 

The characters Gavin drew are also close to home: Gavin’s children, Lyla and Jasper, were the same ages that he imagined for Mia and Leo; and Mia and Leo were partly dressed in hand-me-downs from his kids, including his daughter’s first, yellow school bag.

“My kids have a similar relationship to Mia and Leo – sometimes besties, sometimes sibling rivals. The opening scene of the kids playing in their yard and envisioning a fantasy landscape is very reminiscent of the way my own kids play in our back garden.”

And did he use himself as a model? “The mum is, for me, inspired by my wife Rosie, which I guess makes me Uncle Joe!” 

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