Moana #MyWritingInspirations

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Moana and Grandma Tala

As I get closer to releasing Janet’s Yellow Butterflies, I have been reflecting on some of the literature, media and memories that inspired ideas for it.

Today’s inspiration is the movie Moana, one of my favourite children’s movies to watch with my daughters. Although it is a classic tale of a ‘Disney princess’ going on a quest to save the day, there are many rich cultural and family history themes that I really enjoyed.

*Spoiler alert*
Moana lives on the Polynesian island of Montanui, and is the daughter of the island’s Chief. She has spent her whole life preparing to step up as the next leader, and she knows this is the path set out for her life. However, she has always had an unexplained desire to voyage the seas. Chief Tui is very against this, as he knows the dangers of the ocean, but Moana can’t shake the feeling.

As a young adult, she secretly connects with her grandmother Tala about this calling. Tala enlightens her with ancient cultural stories of their ancestors. To Moana’s surprise, their people were not always settled on the island, but were once voyagers, sailing across the oceans. Tala shows Moana a cave where the ancestors’ canoes are still hidden. She also learns that her father is aware of this, but shuns its existence. 

Legend has it that a thousand years before, the demi god Maui stole the heart of the goddess Te Fiti. The heart was said to be lost to the ocean, but when Chief Tui was a boy, the ocean chose him to restore it. He was not successful. 

The necklace worn by different ancestors in Moana

When Moana was a toddler, the ocean then chose her to restore the heart. Tala was present when the ocean parted and bestowed the heart upon Moana. Tala kept it inside a necklace for Moana, until the time was right – see the white and blue necklace in image 2.

The story takes a dramatic turn when the island comes under threat from Te Fiti’s growing powers, and Tala becomes gravely ill. Her dying wish to Moana is for her to save the island and its people by journeying across the seas to restore Te Fiti’s heart. She gives the heart in the necklace to Moana just before she dies, and Moana leaves on her quest immediately without hesitation, against her father’s wishes. 

Moana - Grandma Tala as a manta ray

On her arduous journey, Moana feels the presence of a manta ray many times (see image 3). She knows it is Tala with her, as Tala had once said she wanted to be reincarnated as a manta ray. 

Through the many challenges she encounters, Moana uses the strength passed on through her grandmother, and the knowledge that her ancestors were voyagers too, to endure the difficult journey and successfully save the island and its people.

Moana leading the islanders as voyagers

After safety has been restored, Moana leads the islanders to become voyagers again, just like their ancestors (see image 4).

Although Polynesian culture is very different to Scottish and Australian culture, I found many parallels to draw upon in Moana as inspiration for Janet’s Yellow Butterflies. 

For example, I found Tala’s character fascinating, as the bearer of the ancestral knowledge, wisdom and secrets which she passed down to her granddaughter so they were not lost to time. In Janet’s Yellow Butterflies, the healing rose, which was outlawed in the 1500’s, had secretly remained in the family and been passed down by the mothers to their daughters on the eve of their wedding, through many generations.  

The necklace that Tala gave Moana just before she died was also very significant. She had used it to keep Te Fiti’s heart safe, but the necklace itself was clearly an important family heirloom. As shown in image 2 above, it is worn by two of the ancestors at the bottom, by Tala in the top right, and by Moana in the middle. The symbolism of passing down family heirlooms through the generations comes through strongly in Janet’s Yellow Butterflies. Such artefacts are tangible evidence of generational stories which can otherwise be difficult to substantiate. 

The hidden canoes which the islanders decided to reinstate to become voyagers at the end of Moana were also an influence on Janet’s Yellow Butterflies. Finding things purposefully placed by people from the past is a strong theme. 

In the same way that Tala is reincarnated as a manta ray, Janet is reincarnated as a yellow butterfly. She also makes several appearances in this form, guiding her daughter and descendents along their journeys. 

Moana’s quest is inspired by her grandmother and her calling to sail the open seas. In a similar way, in Janet’s Yellow Butterflies Tahlia and Annie feel drawn to uncover the story of Janet Horne. There are many parallels with their motivations to connect with their family’s past to discover their roots. 

Janet’s Yellow Butterflies will be released soon. Find out about the upcoming novel and sign up for publishing announcements here:



  1. Grandma Tala and Moana 
  2. The ancestors, Moana and Tala wearing the necklace
  3. Grandma Tala reincarnated as a manta ray 
  4. Moana leading the islanders to become voyagers