When it comes to children’s literature writers in New Zealand – three people are legendary in their contributions and encouragement of others. One was Margaret Mahy, one is Maurice Gee and one is Joy Cowley. Read NZ wrote an article about the 50 books all New Zealand Children must read and couldn’t decide on just which book for each of these three writers. In the end, they cheated by adding all of their works so I guess this reading assignment for kiwi kids got to more than 100 books.
Joy Cowley is a champion of children reading for fun. She was a founder of “Storylines” the organisation which exists simply to promote children’s literature and encourage a love of reading. She struggled to read herself as a child and as a mother seeing her own child experiencing the same difficulties she began to write stories just for him. His teachers recognised how marvellous these stories were and encouraged her to get them published. Over the next two decades, Joy Cowley dedicated herself to writing educational readers. Our own book room at this international School has still has readers written by Joy Cowley. She worked on the Story Box reading programme, published by Wendy Pye. Since Story Box, Joy has written more than 600 titles.
Joy Cowley has written several successful adult fiction books and numerous short stories. My favourite is “The Silk” which was first published in 1965 is the beautiful story of Mr and Mrs Blackie, an elderly couple who both are very aware that Mr Blackie is terminally ill. Mrs Blackie takes the silk fabric that her husband brought back from the war and begins to make him some pyjamas from it. It is available in several anthologies of New Zeland writing including, “Women’s Work” published in 1985. It was made into a short movie by Nathalie Boltt and Clare Burgess. Joy is quoted as saying this about the movie “I am stunned by the beauty of “The Silk”. Every detail is perfect, the acting, directing, pacing, music, and that is not all: the transition to screen has given the story a depth that goes beyond words.”
Another personal favourite of mine was “The Silent One” also made into a movie. Published in 1981 and illustrated by Sherryl Jordan it won the 1982 inaugural Children’s Book of the Year Award. It is a beautiful story of Jonasi, a deaf child who was washed up by the sea and adopted by a family in a village on an unnamed Pacific Island. Jonasi’s deafness makes him an outsider and he is treated with suspicion by the villagers. Their suspicions deepen when Jonasi befriends an albino turtle and the island is hit by a hurricane. The movie, directed by Yvonne MacKay, was released in 1985. I remember arranging for all of our year 10 students at Tokoroa High School to go to see it when it came to our town of Tokoroa. It had a huge impact as many of our students were from the Pacific Islands. It was so powerful for these students to see themselves on the big screen. One of Joy’s philosophies is for readers to see themselves in her stories.
Of course, there are many more books and stories that are worthy of mention. There is a bibliography of her works in this bio on the Storylines page. Joy Cowley’s contribution to children’s literature is global and this was recognised in 2018 when she was shortlisted for the Hans Christian Anderson Award. In this article about her nomination, there is a video clip of her talking about her book “Pawprints in the butter” which children were invited to help illustrate and about the nomination. Further down in the same article is an interview with Joy Cowley about receiving the honour of Member of the Order of New Zealand (ONZ) in the 2018 New Year’s honours list. She says she sees it as a great honour, like some sort of religious order. She sees New Zealand as sacred land and she loves it and loves the people in it. We love her too.
Amanda Bond is a New Zealand ex-pat currently working as Teacher Librarian in an international school in Istanbul, Turkey. Her twitter handle is @kiwionthego