Poet and children's author Dr Paula Green says receiving a Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement is all the more special because it will draw attention to the need for more local poetry for young New Zealanders.

Green, who earlier this year was admitted to the NZ Order of Merit for services to poetry and literature, is one of three writers to receive this year's awards. Internationally renowned Maori novelist Witi Ihimaera and literary historian and fine arts writer Peter Simpson also receive $60,000 each in recognition of their contribution to the country's literature.

"For me, the special aspect of it is that few authors involved in the children's book world get this honour and I feel it's quite special that I have been singled out for my work in children's poetry," says Green, who receives the poetry award. "It is a personal recognition but more importantly it recognises the importance of the arts at a time when the arts are threatened in so many quarters."

While NZ poetry for adults is flourishing, she finds it heart breaking that few, if any, home-grown collections for children are being published. Her work in schools has shown how poetry opens up new "worlds of possibilities and wonder" for children.


Green says it's important they get to read about places, people and situations they can recognise and relate to. She will use the award to finish a book about NZ women's poetry which, she says, has already opened her eyes to previously untold local stories.

Witi Ihimaera says NZ is full of wonderful writers. Photo / Doug Sherring
Witi Ihimaera says NZ is full of wonderful writers. Photo / Doug Sherring

Ihimaera, who is honoured for fiction writing, says the award is important to him because it will allow him to continue working on telling Maori and Pacific stories.

"I'm a New Zealand writer and I'm proud to have a country and people to belong to but I also belong to a tribe of some of the fiercest and determined people in the world which has given me a particular role in telling Maori and Pacific stories and that's what has been propelling me lately."

He most recently collaborated with fellow writer Tina Makereti on Black Marks on a White Page, described as a collection of Oceanic stories for the 21st century. Ihimaera says it is an attempt to address an imbalance where just 3 per cent of our published literature is written by Maori and Pacific writers.

"And only three per cent of all fiction bought in this country is by New Zealand writers so getting this award, I hope, brings attention to NZ literature where we have a fantastic and wonderful fraternity of writers with stories to tell that matter to us."

Ihimaera has also worked with AUT lecturer and writer Hemi Kelly on Sleeps Standing, out in September, which is a novel written in English and Maori and is writing a musical, Flowing Water, about the Waikato River.

"I think collaborations will be the way for me in future."

Simpson, who receives the non-fiction award, will work on a new book about Colin McCahon timed for release in 2019, the centenary of the artist's birth. He says while much has been written about McCahon, there is not a book which covers all facets of his life and work.

"I'm not the first literary historian or fine arts writer to receive this award, so I think it shows our culture does place value on people who work in this area," says Simpson. "It shows we value writers who investigate our own history and culture and tell us more about ourselves."

He says he has long sought to tell stories that show how interesting our history is and that offer alternative viewpoints to popular myths about our country and culture. Simpson says there are many other great characters, incidents and accounts to write about.

"When I wrote the Bloomsbury South book [Bloomsbury South: The Arts in Christchurch 1933 - 1953], each chapter could have been a book in itself because there was so much material there to explore."

Set up in 2003, the PM's Awards for Literary Achievement are held annually. New Zealanders get to nominate the writers they feel have made a significant contribution to local non-fiction, poetry and fiction. Nominations are then assessed by an expert literary panel and recommendations forwarded to Creative New Zealand for approval.

The awards will be presented at a ceremony at Premier House in Wellington on Wednesday where Dr Philip Norman, this year CNZ Michael King Writer's Fellowship winner, will also be honoured.