Joy Cowley - Order of New Zealand

Joy Cowley is loved by generations of Kiwi kids for her children's books which introduced them to the delights of reading.

Her treasured contribution to Aotearoa is being recognised with her appointment to the Order of New Zealand, the highest award in the New Year Honours list.

Cowley's appointment, for services to New Zealand, acknowledges the tremendous impact she has had on literature and literacy. One of this country's most successful and prolific authors, she has produced more than 1100 works.

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But she recalls her own introduction to reading as a difficult and at times hurtful one.

Her early primary years were ones of upheaval. It was World War II, and her parents, both with ill health, moved frequently. By age seven she had been to five different schools.

A "visual learner" she struggled with the phonics reading system of the day, and says she was smacked with a ruler by a teacher when she made mistakes.

"Unfortunately once – I can remember vividly - I knew the ruler was going to come down, I [had] made a mistake. And when it did whack me I wet my pants," said Cowley, 81.

"And I had to go and get some sand in a bucket and put sand over it on the floor. The kids were screaming with laughter – that kind of hysterical… laughter that children have."

At eight, however, she was given children's classic The Story about Ping, which opened her eyes to the wonders of reading.

The picture book tells the tale of a domesticated duck lost on the Yangtze river after hiding to avoid being spanked for being late to return from feeding on the riverbank. A boy captures Ping for his family's dinner but later releases him.

"I had that scary adventure in the safety of my own chair and desk, and I didn't want the story to end," Cowley said.

"When I got to the finish, I started again and I discovered it was exactly the same with the second reading. I discovered the constancy of print.

"It was wartime, we moved around a lot, both my parents didn't manage very well.

"The world was unpredictable, but books had stability".

Her experiences have endowed her with an empathy she has demonstrated in her around 1100 children's reading books. She has also emphasised the need for children to see themselves in the books they read.

Helping children with reading difficulties, she discovered they had "switched off. They had met failure too many times to put themselves at risk again.

"You put a book in front of them and the body language was explicit, they'd just freeze up. So we used to do story talk – If you could have any birthday party you'd like, what would it be like?

"And then [I'd] find a story that was theirs, and write it out.

"And no child was ever reluctant to read something or to try and read something that had meaning and that they owned."

Humour was also a vital ingredient in helping children relax when reading. "I learned that very early - in fact just about everything I put into books, I've learnt from children themselves.

"And I also learnt to put a little twist or a joke at the end of a book – and that was to encourage them to read to the end. It was like having pudding after vegetables."

Cowley, who delights in seeing "the light come on in children's eyes" when reading her books, says being appointed to the Order of New Zealand was "a wonderful surprise".

"When the envelope came, I had to read it twice.

"It's a lovely feeling - I just love this country."

The Order of New Zealand is the country's highest honour and ordinary membership is limited to 20 living persons at any time.

When it was pointed out other appointees include Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, Richie McCaw, Helen Clark and Sir Bob Charles, Cowley said: "Wow! Goodness gracious."

Delivering on a promise to a 6th form teacher never to give up writing, she started her career in her early 20s.

She has written around 1100 reading books, about 50 picture books and 20 children's novels, seven adult novels and two collections of short stories.

Her favourites include Bow Down Shadrach, about three siblings' heroic rescue of a pet Clydesdale horse sold to a dog food factory, and The Silent One – made into a movie – about the friendship between an unspeaking boy in an isolated Pacific village and a huge white turtle.

Cowley says she was passionate about the works, both of which won national children's books awards. "Passion creates huge energy, and some of that energy comes through into a book."

Her verve is not confined to her literary endeavours. She rode a motorcycle in her teens and learned to fly a Tiger Moth at 19.

The grandmother of 13 also bungy jumped at 65. "I thought that if something went wrong, I didn't lose too many years," she laughed. "You can do more daring things when you get older."

Cowley's works are internationally acclaimed and cherished. At one time she received around 1000 letters a week from fans.

It has been estimated her books are in 70 percent of American schools. She remembers a newspaper article about her there, headlined 'The Elvis Presley of the kindergarteners'.

She recalls filling out a form for a lecture she gave in the US which asked for listings of academic achievements. Running lines through universities attended and degrees acquired, she says "with great pleasure" she listed her only tertiary qualification – a diploma in wood turning which she earned at 70.

Cowley, working on an older children's novel plus an annual stories collection, says writing is as much a part of her as breathing.

Secrets to being a successful writer include "having a thick hide - keeping at it.

"It was a long, long time before I got into print".

"It's addictive and it's a hard road."