Howick teacher Leonie Agnew was so convinced she didn't stand a chance of winning in last week's NZ Post Children's Book Awards she hadn't prepared a speech.

"I had to use visual cues from the audience - my mum and dad were there, and Maria Gill who runs the writing critique groups for Write4Kidz, so they got a mention but I was sorry that I didn't mention a few other people."

You can understand why the first-time children's book author felt that way. Her book "Super Finn" was a finalist in two categories, Best First Book and Best Junior Fiction Book, and in the latter group sat names like Barbara Else ("The Travelling Restaurant") and James Norcliffe ("The Loblolly Boy and Sorcerer").

Else is well established as an author for adults, and has several children's titles to her name including "Skitterfoot Leaper" and "Tricky Situations". She has also edited a number of children's collections. Well-published poet James Norcliffe has also edited a collection for young people before his first young adult book "The Loblolly Boy" in 2009 and his finalist follow-up to that.


Agnew says if she'd had even a glimmer of hope she could win the junior fiction award, she may have written down to thanks Barbara Else in her speech.

"She actually gave me a break a few years ago when she published my short story in her collection of children's stories called Showtime! "

She would also have thanked the judges the Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon award in 2010. Winning that, gave her the opportunity to have Super Finn published through Scholastic.

"Without that competition there wouldn't have been a book," she says.

She might even have thanked the librarians at Howick library.

In 2010 when she was making the edits to Super Finn, she decided she worked best in the library environment.

"It was away from all the distractions and I liked being surrounded by books. I was at school working during the day, and editing the book at night. But because I'd get there quite late in the day and often the seats would be taken up by secondary school students doing work.

"I was desperate for a seat so they let me sit in one of the corners, and removed a keyboard from there so I could set up my laptop and work on the book."

She said she took it as a sign that the seat she ended up with was in the teen fiction section. She was surrounded by books about super heroes, the very subject of Super Finn.

Her winning book is the story of Finn Marsh, a boy who when asked by his teacher to do a project on what he'd like to be chooses "super hero", then sets about doing just that with his best friend Brain.

It was published last year and this week's NZ Post Children's Book Awards judge Gillian Candler said: "The characters in Super Finn are incredibly funny and thoroughly believable. This book touches the heart and the funny bone. The judges couldn't ask for more."

Agnew couldn't have asked for more than to win first time round. A former advertising copywriter, she opted for a career change a few years ago, and also hoped it might give her some time to write for children.

"I did enjoy my time in advertising but there came a point when I wanted to add some value... to make a difference and say I at least counted for something. I hope that I can actually do that with teaching."

She's been teaching at Sancta Maria Primary School since 2010 and was given time off this year to work on another book. She also has a picture book in the pipeline that she's hoping will be out next April.

"I read bits of Super Finn to the children when I was doing the editing; it was helpful to hear it read out loud, just a chapter or two.

"The children also helped decide the Super Finn cover. I'd been given a choice of five and they helped pick the one it's ended up with, which I really like."

Agnew, 35, is the daughter of a retired sports journalist, and says her mother is a big reader, so writing was probably in the blood. She dedicated the book to "mum who loves to read, and dad who loves to write".

She grew up in Howick attending Baradene College for four years, then Howick for a year. Throughout her childhood, her mother frequented school galas for second-hand books to make sure there were plenty at home.

"Mum also used to make sure we were fully supplied with library books ... I think that's really played a big part in how I started, by reading a lot."

Now it's back to reality from the awards win and Agnew says she's in catch-up mode back at school. We talked to her over the weekend while she was preparing for the school after having two days off to go to Wellington for the award ceremony last week.

And no, she's not considering departing from teaching despite the literary feather in her cap. Agnew won $2000 for first book award, and $7500 for the Best Junior Fiction Awards.

"I had to laugh when I did an interview on awards night and they asked me that. I said, 'no I'm not like the Lotto winner, I will actually be back at work next week'."

Full list of winners at: 

The Kiwi Write4Kidz group fosters budding children's authors. Leonie Agnew says her South Auckland Critique Group was invaluable during the editing process for Super Finn.

"You can't underestimate the value of a group like that. They are so good for fine tuning. Dawn Grant was great for looking at the flow and pace in the book, pointing out where it might be a bit slow, or the structure wasn't quite right.

"Clare Scott is great with language and gave me tips there, basically going through it with her red pen. It's just so worthwhile having feedback from experienced editors and authors."

She was put onto the group by another experience author, Maria Gill who runs KiwiWrite4Kidz 09 422 9456.

A list of writing groups is here.