When I mention in an email to Joy Cowley how much my daughter, enjoys Cowley's Snake and Lizard books, a day later an email arrives, addressed to said daughter.

It is a personal letter, sharing news about the books and talking about how great books are. If we aren't already in love with Cowley's many children's stories - Snake and Lizard and The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate are favourites - then we are after the email, impressed by her kindness, empathy and the fact that in an extremely busy life she makes time to reach out to a young fan.

Recently awarded New Zealand's top honour, the Order of NZ, Cowley, 81, has now been nominated for the world's leading children's literature award, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, given by the global children's literature organisation IBBY (International Board on Books for Young People). She finds out on March 26 whether she's won, when the award is announced at the Bologna International Children's Book Fair.


In the meantime, the 10th anniversary edition of Snake and Lizard, illustrated by Gavin Bishop, has been released for a new generation to enjoy the story of an argumentative pair of friends who can't live without one another.


Auckland Fringe Festival director

Midway through the Auckland Fringe Festival, its director, Lydia Zanetti, turns 29.

It better be one helluva a party; Zanetti has earned it. Last year she pulled together the festival - 123 shows at 39 venues - with no funding but a heap of goodwill and support from Auckland's arts community who believed the show should and would go on. To acknowledge its success, Auckland Fringe won a new award for Community Spirit at the Auckland Theatre Awards in December. Now Auckland Council, its Waitemata Local Board and Foundation North (formerly the ASB Community Trust) have come to the party and put money towards it.

It means Auckland Fringe Festival will run every year.

It's an ideal scenario for Zanetti who, in a backstreet off Auckland's K Rd, works in a pocket-sized but ever-so-functional office perfect for someone at the heart of the city's performing arts scene. As well as the Fringe, she and fellow producer Helen Sheehan are fast becoming a force to be reckoned with. In the last year alone, they've worked with Rose Matafeo, Victor Rodger, Binge Culture Collective, Trick of the Light, Eleanor Bishop, Julia Croft, James Nokise and Donna Brookbanks.

Poet, writer and musician

Auckland-based Sina Meredith has many international fans. Her poetry and prose have been translated into Italian, German, Dutch, French, Spanish and Bahasa Indonesia; she's offered invitations to appear at literature festivals and writing programmes around the world.

That started in 2011 when, in her mid-20s, she became the first New Zealander, the first writer of Pacific descent and the youngest person to hold the LiteraturRaum Blebitreu Berlin residency. Since then, life has been a whirlwind but the signs were there that it was always going to be this way. Sina Meredith has been winning poetry slams since 2008 and penned a multi-award-winning play, Rushing Dolls in 2010.

Eight years on, she's the author of a critically acclaimed poetry collection, Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick, and short stories, Tales of the Taniwha. Her writing - she says it's an "ongoing discussion of contemporary urban life with an underlying Pacific politique" - once brought her an invite to speak at the House of Lords about Britain's role in the world.

Thank goodness for new voices and fresh thinking.

This weekend, Sina Meredith is at the Samesame but Different LGBTQI+ literary festival, part of Auckland Pride. She'll speak at two events, Pasifika Superstars of Tomorrow and It Gets Better, but is equally excited about fellow guests, Damian Barr and Dr Quinn Eades, and "chuffed" fellow poets Hera Lindsay Bird and Chris Tse are in the mix.


Classical music innovators

Anyone who went to Q Theatre late last year for possibly the most unusual concert of the year - a chamber music group covering Icelandic singer Bjork - would have left in love with Blackbird Ensemble.

Formed in 2010 by the indefatigable composer/musician Claire Cowan, Blackbird Ensemble performs shows which are part chamber music cabaret, part classical concert and part theatre. At its biggest, the group numbers around 25; when musicians - from a variety of backgrounds - get busy, it can be just five-strong. Whatever the number on stage, you're guaranteed to hear magical and inventive takes on everything from, well, Bjork to Beethoven.

The aim is to present music - classical and alternative - and ideas that are, to use Cowan's words, original, provocative, powerful and memorable. Next month, March 24, Blackbird Ensemble performs at Music in Parks as part of a new event on the Auckland Council calendar of free concerts, Open Air Orchestra. It's a night of old and new popular hits, a few traditional and classical pieces and some surprises - songs as you've never heard them before, with Blackbird Ensemble, Julia Deans, Bailey Wiley, Alex Farrell-Davey (Alae) and Jessie Cassin backed by a 20-piece orchestra.


Soul singer

His real name is Te Karehana Gardiner-Toi; his life's been filled with kapa haka, te reo Maori and music - a reggae band, at one point - but now he's better known as soul-singer Teeks. With a voice so warm it could melt a grapefruit Fruju, his EP Grapefruit Skies debuted at No 1 on the NZ Soul/R&B charts and won Teeks, from Northland, Best Maori Artist at the NZ Music Awards.

Of that occasion, the Herald's Chris Schulz wrote: "We got to see the start of something. It might have been a subtle shimmer, but look closer and you'll see a star who is getting ready to shine.

"That would be Teeks, the 23-year-old Maori soul singer who performed his single Never Be Apart with the poise and grace of someone who has woken up every single day of his life and eaten a combination of Motown and Frank Sinatra records for breakfast ..."

Teeks performs at the NZ Festival in Wellington on February 24 and at the Auckland Arts Festival on March 1. That performance is alongside Grammy Award-nominated New York native Emily King and New Orleans phenomenon Tank and the Bangas.



Rika has been part of the NZ music scene since she was 13 and released E Hine, a collection of traditional Maori songs which went double platinum and won Best Maori Language Album at the NZ Music Awards. Two years later, she was nominated for Best Female Vocalist and since has released two albums, toured NZ and the world, performing alongside the likes of Dave Dobbyn, Hinewehi Mohi, Anika Moa, Stan Walker and The Blind Boys of Alabama. She's continued to win awards, fans and challenge herself with making honest and thought-provoking music which mixes folk, acoustic, soul and early listening with the ancestral sounds of traditional Maori instruments.

Rika is taking on a new challenge with a role in the NZ Festival's opening night (February 23) spectacular Waka Odyssey Kupe. Inspired by the arrival in Aotearoa of great navigator and explorer Kupe, it pays homage to the shared voyaging history of all New Zealanders. Actor Te Koha Tuhaka plays Kupe; Rika portrays his wife Kuramarotini. They'll be joined by a cast of hundreds as a fleet of waka hourua (traditional double-hulled canoes) and their crews sail across Wellington Harbour to open the night. That's followed by a mass choir, a 1000-strong haka and a musical score by Warren Maxwell (Trinity Roots, Little Bushman).