Catherine Chidgey has won the country's richest fiction prize.

At tonight's Ockham New Zealand Book Awards, Chidgey was named the winner of the $50,000 Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize for her fourth novel, The Wish Child.

The Ngaruawahia resident is no stranger to literary success. Her latest award comes 13 years after her last work, Transformation, was published to critical acclaim while Chidgey's previous novel, Golden Deeds, was chosen as a Book of the Year by Time Out (London), a Best Book by the LA Times Book Review and a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times. Her debut novel, In a Fishbone Church, won a Commonwealth Writers Prize (South East Asia and South Pacific).

Judges Bronwyn Wylie Gibb, Peter Wells, Jill Rawnsley and Canadian writer Madeleine Thien say The Wish Child, set in Nazi Germany during World War II, exposes and celebrates the power of words. It is the first time an international judge has helped chose an Ockham award winner.

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Emerging Wellington writer Ashleigh Young was once again a winner, taking the Royal Society Te Aparangi Award for General Non-Fiction for her collection of personal essays, Can You Tolerate This?

It follows Young's triumph earlier this year when she was propelled to international recognition when she won the Yale University US$165,000 Windham-Campbell Prize.

Ockham awards' general non-fiction judges' convener Susanna Andrew says Young's writing sets a high bar for style and originality in a form that has little precedent in this country.

"Always an acute observer, it is in Young's commitment to writing as an art that the true miracle occurs; she tells us her story and somehow we get our own."

Dunedin writer and historian Barbara Brookes won the Illustrated Non-Fiction category for A History of New Zealand Women.

"Putting women at the centre of our history, this sweeping servery shows exactly when, how and why gender mattered," says category judges' convener, Linda Tyler.

Paris-based Andrew Johnston won the Poetry category for his collection Fits & Starts, described by poetry judges' convener Harry Ricketts as a slow burning tour de force.

Four best first book awards were also presented to Ngarino Ellis for A Whakapapa of Tradition: 100 Years of Ngati Porou Carving 1830-1930 (illustrated non-fiction); Hera Lindsay Bird for Hera Lindsay Bird (poetry); Adam Dudding for My Father's Island: A Memoir (general non fiction) and Gina Cole for Black Ice Matters (fiction).

The winning authors were from a shortlist of 16 books by four panels of specialist judges. The shortlist was, in turn, drawn from 40 longlisted titles from 150 entries. The Ockham NZ Book Awards are the first official event of the Auckland Writers Festival which runs until Sunday.

This year's four category award winners will appear at a ticketed event at AWF: The State We're In on Friday, May 19 at 5.30pm in the Heartland Festival Room, Aotea Square.

The winners:

Acorn Foundation Fiction Prize - Catherine Chidgey The Wish Child
Royal Society Te Aparangi Award for General Non-Fiction - Ashleigh Young Can You Tolerate This?
Illustrated Non-Fiction category - Barbara Brookes A History of New Zealand Women
Poetry - Andrew Johnston - Fits & Starts