She may have just turned 80 but one of our most acclaimed authors has no plans to put down her pen.

Joy Cowley, the award-winning author of close to 1200 novels for adults and children, picture books, early readers and spiritual reflections, is in the midst of one of the busiest months of her year.

Best known for her Mrs Wishy Washy stories, Cowley celebrated her 80th birthday with family and friends on Sunday, August 7, and is now preparing to make guest appearances at the Storylines-hosted IBBY Congress, the world's largest children's literature festival, at Auckland's Aotea Centre this week.

IBBY - the International Board of Books for Young People - was founded in Switzerland in 1952 and holds a conference every second year. This is the first time New Zealand has hosted the event, which attracts representatives from 76 countries.


The conference, themed Literature in a multi-literate world, will see a who's who of NZ authors and storytellers - Witi Ihimaera, Kate De Goldi, Martin Baynton and Weta Workshop's Sir Richard Taylor among them - join international guests. These include Markus Zusak, author of The Book Thief, Australian Children's Laureate Leigh Hobbs and Cao Wanxuan, the first Chinese author to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award for Writing.

Asked if she ever imagined her 80th birthday celebrations would include appearing at a prestigious literary event, Cowley admits she never expected to make it to 80.

"We were always taught three score years and 10 was the limit but life has changed," she says.

Believing children should be involved in an international congress about literature for them, Cowley will make a keynote speech with four children's choirs singing between each section of her talk.

"Most meetings about children's books are dominated by adults so it felt right there should be some children there," she says.

Then, at the free Storylines Auckland Family Day on Sunday afternoon, Cowley will celebrate her 80th birthday with a giant cake, a performance of one of her books by South Auckland schoolchildren and music.

When she returns home to Featherston, she will resume writing a libretto for a new children's opera - friend and acclaimed NZ composer Gareth Farr is writing the score - and readying herself for the launch of the third book in the much-loved Snake and Lizard series. Cowley is also about to start a two-year course in Ignatian Spirituality.

In a candid interview with TVNZ's Sunday, she spoke of the importance of spirituality in her life. Cowley also talked about her sometimes fraught childhood, and a suicide attempt when her first husband left her and took their four children with him. But Cowley says the toughest times in her life have been the most important because they have taught her valuable life lessons.


• IBBY starts on Thursday and ends with the Storylines Auckland Family Day on Sunday. Storylines, an annual event, also includes a South Auckland Family Day on Saturday, August 20 at the Mangere Arts Centre.