Riveting tale of children's favourite

By Rolland McKellar editorial@age.co.nz -
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Children's author Joy Cowley, with a Buzzy Bee, in her study in Featherston. PHOTO/MARK MITCHELL
Children's author Joy Cowley, with a Buzzy Bee, in her study in Featherston. PHOTO/MARK MITCHELL

Featherston's Booktown is on this weekend, with much-loved children's writer Joy Cowley contributing to all that is wonderful about books. Writer Rolland McKellar has a one-on-one with Cowley, who describes how 40 rejections from the Listener did not sway her determination to become a writer.

Upon meeting NZ writer Joy Cowley several things struck me.

Firstly, she is warm and friendly and secondly she is modest. When I met her about five years ago in New Plymouth for an earlier article (Opunake and Coastal News) I was curious to ascertain if she is our nation's biggest selling writer, as I suspected; Of her 600-plus book titles I was aware the Mrs Wishy Washy series alone had sales in the millions, partly because her books are cherished in the United States, a large market. She was reluctant to say anything, protesting, "I'm not into that kind of stuff", but eventually conceded that she had been told that her sales were upwards of 40 million.

She was born to Cassia and Peter Summers on August 7, 1936 in Levin. Much of her childhood was spent in Foxton.

When I emailed the draft of my first article she requested just one change; she didn't want her title of Dame mentioned. She was appointed Dame Commander of the NZ Order of Merit in 2005, after an OBE in 1992.

Although she is best known as a writer for children, alongside Margaret Mahy considered our most outstanding, this by no means tells the whole story. Initially she set out to be a short story writer, which leads to another of her qualities: persistence. Early in her writing career she considered that publication in the Listener would mean she could rightfully call herself a writer. I mentioned that I'd read that she had 40 rejections of the short stories she forwarded to editor Monte Holcroft and she replied: "More than 40 actually."

Eventually a story was accepted (1961) and soon after he looked forward to receiving her submissions, which were then published in the Listener.

"I began to think of her as one of our best writers, welcoming each new story as a prize for our columns," Holcroft said in his 1969 book, Reluctant Editor.

Ms Cowley has also written six novels for adults, the last one in 1999. Her prolific period was 1967 to 1975 when she wrote five novels, which were published by Doubleday.

The first one was Nest in a Falling Tree, which was later made into a film (Renamed The Road Digger) by Roald Dahl.

As regards her writing for children an uplifting story, again highlighting her persistence, involved her book The Silent One. Initially it was rejected by five publishers. One day, seven years later in 1978, Max Rogers of Whitcoulls Publishing was visiting her and suggested she write a children's novel. Cowley replied: "I did it once and it was a flop." The man asked to read it and deemed it outstanding.

It was published after laying unpublished for so long and it was awarded Best Children's Book of the Year in 1982 (Government Printer Awards, now the NZ Post Book Awards) and a film made featuring the late Dame Pat Evison.

She has won NZ Children's Book of the Year four times to date.

Joy Cowley has not always had it easy, starting with her childhood where her parents had raging rows with domestic violence, psychiatric illness and police visits to endure. In her 2010 memoirs titled Navigation: A Memoir, she described how at school she struggled to read.

At one stage, aged 9, she was the least able girl reader in her class. She mentions possible reasons as too many shifts meant too many schools, harsh teachers who physically punished errors and "... the phonics reading system had no meaning for a visual child".

She attributes her recovery to her father introducing her to the Otaki library, as well as gifted, inspirational teachers such as Ian Forsyth in Palmerston North. She became an avid reader, even while riding her bicycle.

Poetry was a passion, with Keats a favourite, and drawing absorbed much of her time.

Ms Cowley has had her low points in her life. When her first marriage to Ted Cowley ended in 1967, she was at very low ebb, with four children (Sharon, Edward, Judith and James) to look after. Her second marriage to Malcolm Mason ended with his death at the age of 74 in 1985.

She has been a major figure in creating graded books for children in schools, including such ones as Story Box, Story Basket and the Sunshine series.

Ms Cowley and her husband Terry Coles have lived in idyllic Fish Bay in the Marlborough Sounds for some years, but issues with his health dictated a shift to be nearer medical facilities. The couple now live in Featherston, but their beloved Fish Bay house is retained by the family.

She has won many awards, but one she prizes highly is the Flicker Award where her books were judged solely by children in the US.

She continues to write, but has many other interests such as her spiritual life (Roman Catholic), spinning, weaving, woodturning, piano playing and answering the letters of children, "... a task that I consider to be more play than work".

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