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2014 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards: Auckland Town Hall. Monday 23 June 2014.  Photo: Mark Tantrum / Booksellers New Zealand.If you have grown up, or just got older, in New Zea­l­and any­time in the last four dec­ades, then you have prob­ably been influ­enced in some way by Joy Cowley.

She has writ­ten — at last count — more than 40 pic­ture books, nine nov­els for adults and young adults, and a mem­oir. She is the author of over 600 short stor­ies that are used through­out the world by read­ing teach­ers. Cow­ley is pub­lished in dozens of lan­guages and has received lit­er­ary awards by the score. In New Zea­l­and, she holds an hon­or­ary doc­tor­ate from Mas­sey Uni­ver­sity and has been awar­ded — in no par­tic­u­lar order — the New Zea­l­and Suf­frage Centen­ni­al Medal and the Prime Minister’s Award for Lit­er­ary Achieve­ment. In 2005, she was made a Dame Com­pan­ion of the New Zea­l­and Order of Mer­it, and in June this year she won yet anoth­er New Zea­l­and Post Book Award, this time the Juni­or Fic­tion Prize in the Children’s sec­tion for Dun­ger (pub­lished by Gecko Press). Even by New Zea­l­and stand­ards, Cow­ley is a marvel.


Some years ago I was at Grand Rap­ids Uni­ver­sity. I’d been doing a talk there to the edu­ca­tion fac­ulty, and a pro­fess­or spoke to me after the talk and said he wanted to come to New Zea­l­and. He wanted to see what made New Zea­l­and so different. 

            And I said, ‘What do you mean different?’

            And he Copyright Mark Tantrumsaid, ‘Well, if you take any endeav­our in the world, wheth­er it’s music, art, sports, whatever, and take the top ten names in the world, one of them will be a New Zealander.’

            Now my reac­tion was deni­al. I thought, ‘Nah.’ But then I went away and thought about it some more. It’s prob­ably near enough to true — there won’t be too many omis­sions. Medi­cine, opera, music… sports, obvi­ously. And y’know what, he’s right. Sev­en bil­lion people in the world, and yet this little gang of four-and-a-half mil­lion are con­sist­ently pro­du­cing world-beat­ers. And he wanted to know what we were doing dif­fer­ently down here.

Do you have an answer?

            “Hah! Not really. It’s good to think about though, eh?”

We both laugh at this. And then, as she is wont to do, Cow­ley tires of the lev­ity, and has a ser­i­ous crack at an answer.

            “It’s to do with the pion­eer spir­it def­in­itely though, eh? I know that ‘num­ber 8 wire’ thing is over­used, but we are still a nation of people who like to have a go them­selves, who like to build their own lives. I’d hate to see us lose that.”

We talk for a while here about New Zealand’s own ima­gin­ing of itself. Of how the fullest flower­ing of the pion­eer spir­it and the icon of the ‘good keen man’ were surely in the 1940s, 1950s and the early 1960s, and yet this was the exact time when our nation of alleged rugged indi­vidu­al­ists was at its most utterly depend­ent on the lar­gesse and the pur­chas­ing power of moth­er Eng­land. From this dis­tance, those dec­ades also look like a time when any New Zeal­ander who wanted to write a book or paint a pic­ture that did any­thing oth­er than buy into and exult the nation­al myth was bet­ter off get­ting on a boat and sail­ing to London.

If you don’t know this already, Cow­ley is a won­der­fully good writer, easy to read, hugely strong on char­ac­ter, events and place. Before set­ting out to meet her, I made sure to go back and reac­quaint myself with a couple of her children’s books — Snake and Liz­ard espe­cially — but since driv­ing back over the hill from her home in Feath­er­ston last week, I’ve had my nose bur­ied in a couple of her young adult and grown-up nov­els. Speed of Light is sit­ting next to me as I scrawl this down.


The School Journ­als had writers who were mainly men. James K. Bax­ter was a fre­quent con­trib­ut­or. In fact, he was an edit­or at one stage… the School Journ­al was almost a hot­house for writers.”

Cow­ley pub­lished her first children’s book after years of con­trib­ut­ing stor­ies to the journ­als. The Duck in the Gun was pub­lished in Amer­ica, in 1969. It is writ­ten for chil­dren, but is a regarded as an anti-war clas­sic, inspired by the hor­rors of Vietnam.

            “I had a cous­in who did two terms over in Viet­nam and he used to write let­ters of what was hap­pen­ing and I thought he was mak­ing up the stor­ies. The fact that they couldn’t take pris­on­ers in the jungle so they used to cut off their ears to prove their kills. I thought he made that up, and it wasn’t — it was true. When I dis­covered it was true, that’s when I wrote The Duck in the Gun. It’s a light-hearted anti-war book but it’s still got a ser­i­ous mes­sage in it, it’s a pic­ture book.”

Profile of children's book author Joy Cowley at her home in Featherston. Thursday 12 June, 2014. Photo by Mark Tantrum |

Cowley’s Feath­er­ston house is so non­des­cript as to defy descrip­tion. Sit­ting in my car out­side, I called to double-check the address. I’d been expect­ing — I don’t know — a twee little cot­tage with a rose arch and a gnome per­haps. But not this res­ol­utely ordin­ary alu­mini­um-join­er­ied work­ing-class bungalow.

At the door, Cow­ley beamed at Mark, the pho­to­graph­er, and me. She seemed genu­inely delighted to see us, as though we weren’t tak­ing her away from her work, as though she doesn’t get enough media atten­tion, as though she really wants or needs anoth­er brace of men traipsing through her lounge with their record­ers and their cam­er­as and their questions.

We sat down over — home-made — cakes and tea, and for the next hour I had to con­tinu­ally remind myself that this kind, funny, gra­cious woman is also a world-renowned children’s author, writer of young adult and adult nov­els, cam­paign­er for lit­er­acy and gen­er­al thorn in the side of any­one — author­ity fig­ures espe­cially — who doesn’t under­stand the import­ance of read­ing, and of con­tinu­ally, cease­lessly impart­ing the import­ance of good writ­ing and act­ive read­ing as an abso­lute found­a­tion of civilisation.

            “I star­ted writ­ing for my old­est son, Edward, who wasn’t read­ing what the oth­er three chil­dren were read­ing, so I wrote stor­ies for him and his teach­er. You know they had the old Janet and John books in those days, and all this oth­er Eng­lish stuff. Some of it very good, A.A. Mil­ne and Ken­neth Gra­ham… but there was noth­ing about bush and pad­docks. It was all woods and spin­nies and copses — you know, those unfa­mil­i­ar landscapes.

            “[His teach­er] said there’s no reas­on why any child should want to read these, and she advised me to write for him. Well I wrote for him, for oth­er chil­dren, worked one to one, and teach­ers wanted some of these stor­ies pub­lished. But no one had ever heard of little 16-page books in New Zea­l­and, so we couldn’t get a pub­lish­er. We (my late hus­band Mal­colm and I) were going to pub­lish them ourselves. But then my edit­or, June Mal­cer, she said, ‘I’ve got some retold folk tales with a young pub­lish­er in Auck­land.’ And that was Wendy Pye.”

It’s unlikely that there is any­one in New Zea­l­and who knows more about writ­ing for chil­dren than Joy Cowley:

            “My own rule is I write for chil­dren as I write for adults. I do my best, but I stay with­in the child’s exper­i­ence of life, the child’s exper­i­ence of lan­guage. But writ­ing for chil­dren is prob­ably more dif­fi­cult than writ­ing for adults, in that you have to meet a cer­tain age level. For example, humour is quite import­ant in early read­ing. It’s a very simple for­mula, but five-year-olds laugh at dif­fer­ent things from sev­en-year-olds. You know they like slap­stick humour but when you’re sev­en you want some­thing more soph­ist­ic­ated — puns and jokes. You need to write for a spe­cif­ic age level and that, for new writers, is some­thing they some­times miss. They’ve got this idea of writ­ing a story for chil­dren, and I say what age? And they say, oh um, from five to twelve. [Laughs] No, that doesn’t work, it’s got to be spe­cif­ic. I tell them to write for one child you know very well and you’ll prob­ably get the level right.

            “I work with chil­dren all the time, so I know the ages and levels. But I still listen to their con­ver­sa­tions though, because that changes. The world of child­hood doesn’t ever change, it’s the same from coun­try to coun­try, but the cul­tur­al fads and fash­ions, or whatever you like, do change.

            “I tell chil­dren that ever since the begin­ning of the uni­verse there’s nev­er been anoth­er per­son exactly like you and there nev­er will be again. And just give chil­dren a sense of self-worth and then you can add on fam­ily val­ues and extend them, and then social val­ues, but you can’t put social val­ues onto a child who is still unformed, or a child who is still strictly under par­ent­al con­trol — they have no meaning.

            “In New Zea­l­and I see chil­dren becom­ing con­fid­ent speak­ers; in oth­er words, they’re stand­ing on their own feet. But y’know, in my gen­er­a­tion it was still chil­dren should be seen and not heard. And we expec­ted adults to speak for us, and very few chil­dren had their own opin­ions. But chil­dren do, and I’m so pleased to see that.

            “I get lots of let­ters from chil­dren, of course, and have con­ver­sa­tions with chil­dren, and they hold their own. They’ve got their own ideas, their own opin­ions, and that has to be encouraged.”

Profile of children's book author Joy Cowley at her home in Featherston. Thursday 12 June, 2014. Photo by Mark Tantrum |

After we have talked for per­haps an hour and have covered Cowley’s career, her fam­ily (four adult chil­dren, 13 grand­chil­dren) and the move to Feath­er­ston —(Cow­ley and her hus­band Terry Coles moved here after liv­ing in the Marl­bor­ough Sounds and in Wel­ling­ton; Terry’s health isn’t the best and Feath­er­ston is the right mix of quiet­ness and prox­im­ity), she invites us to see her workshop.

About four years ago, at the age of 73, Cow­ley took up woodturn­ing as a hobby. Her gar­age is equipped with a ser­i­ous-look­ing lathe, shelves and walls full of won­der­ful tra­di­tion­al tools, and the floor is stacked with off-cuts of mac­ro­carpa. Without wait­ing to be asked, she fires up the lathe and gets to work. Mark the pho­to­graph­er prac­tic­ally beams. So do I. I ask Joy about reli­gion, because it seems to me to be the actu­al under­ly­ing theme of so much of her work, and much of our con­ver­sa­tion today.

            “Well, I just think that we’re spir­itu­al beings on a human jour­ney rather than the oth­er way round, and reli­gion gives us maps for a jour­ney. But that’s just one set of maps. There are lots of dif­fer­ent maps. And I think the jour­ney is about being fully human. I quite like the Juda­ic view, that we live in only 10 per­cent of real­ity: know­ing whatever we can see, hear, taste, touch, smell… that’s only 10 per­cent and the oth­er 90 per­cent is a spir­itu­al realm which is all around us. And the older we get and the more we ful­fil our lives in unafraid liv­ing, the more we come in touch with that oth­er­ness. In Juda­ism they say you come very close to that 90 per­cent when you see and hear with the eyes of the heart. And I think that any­one in cre­at­ive pur­suits does come across some­thing they might call amaz­ing coin­cid­ence in their lives, that there is a feel­ing of being a part of some­thing much lar­ger. And I don’t think that any of the maps we’re giv­en for the jour­ney, actu­ally are the jour­ney. Life is the exper­i­ence of the journey.”

Graeme Tuckett

Graeme lives on the Kapiti Coast. He fits bouts of writing, broadcasting and business ownership between his many and varied leisure activities.

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