From Beijing to Los Angeles, books from New Zealand are helping children learn English.

A straw poll of journalists to nominate New Zealand literature's most internationally famous character threw up two candidates: Mr Pip, from Lloyd Jones' Booker Prize-nominated triumph; and Roderick Alleyn, whom older readers will recognise as the detective hero of 32 crime novels penned by Dame Ngaio Marsh.

But the journalists are wrong: neither character can hold a candle to Mrs Wishy-Washy, the star of Joy Cowley's series of early education books. More than 40 million copies of Mrs Wishy-Washy's adventures have been sold worldwide.

One can see the attraction: "Oh, lovely mud," said the duck, and she paddled in it. Along came Mrs Wishy-Washy. "Just look at you," she screamed.

Who said "Run, Spot, run" couldn't be bettered?


"In the US, Mrs Wishy-Washy is kind of like Mickey Mouse," explains Sandy Roydhouse, co-founder and business director of publisher Clean Slate Press.

Roydhouse means that the fictional cleaner is as ubiquitous among a select age group - 5 to 7 - as the beloved Disney rodent. Across the US and Canada, children learn to read using Clean Slate titles such as the Smarty Pants and Hungry Giant series.

But Mrs Wishy-Washy is the shining jewel in the Clean Slate crown. American teachers worship Cowley, says Roydhouse, with only a hint of hyberbole. Given that another 15 new Wishy-Washy titles are about to hit the market, the mind boggles at what sales figures might be achieved.

Roydhouse and co-founder Frances McBeath established the business in 2005, a decision that surely attests to their fortitude, given that global publishing houses were being routed by digital media and other market forces.

"The digital issue is huge; it's changing things completely," Roydhouse comments.

The pair were determined to be exporters because the New Zealand market could not support the ambitious numbers they hoped to sell.

An early meeting with potential Australian buyers saw them asked about contingency plans to cope with the publishing recession, McBeath recalls: "We left the meeting and I said to [Sandy], 'Did you know there was a publishing recession?"' She did not and neither did McBeath. But then, early education publishing depends on government and state budgets; adult publishing is completely exposed to market forces.

"Initially, for the first two or three years, the recession benefited us because the large companies, instead of producing their own materials, started jobbing more work out to packagers such as ourselves," McBeath says.

Almost everything they showed to buyers in the US, but particularly Canada, was bought, "which was unheard of," she says. "They were looking for exciting new product to grab a diminishing market."

Clean Slate is now a multimillion-dollar business, having quadrupled turnover between 2007-2011, selling titles primarily to early education markets in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

But the US national deficit and financial crises afflicting numerous states has put the cat among the publishing pigeons.

"One of our US customers, just before Christmas, fired 550 people from their education department," Roydhouse says. "In the education market, everything is government-funded, and the government funding has been cut," she says. "In California, teachers are made redundant and they are using trainee staff and the education budget has been slashed."

They retained their US clients, including their largest and "very lucrative" American client, Scholastic in New York (which is also the backdoor entry into the New Zealand market).

To counter the threat to future revenue, Clean Slate has developed markets in Hong Kong, Singapore, Korea and Britain. They have gone to the Frankfurt book fair for the past two years and "we're building our contacts".

Europe is an obvious target but so is the Middle East, particularly Abu Dhabi. "There's a lot of money and they want their children to learn English, so they're interested in our books that teach kids," McBeath says. Apparently, Anglo expatriates have also spread the word about Mrs Wishy-Washy in the Middle East.

Then there's China and "China knows who Joy Cowley is - she is very famous, they tell us," she says. Mrs Wishy-Washy is the one character they all know, whether it be in Beijing, Abu Dhabi, Seoul, Calgary or Los Angeles. Everywhere you go, children will be able to pronounce the cleaner's signature phrase: "In the tub you go."

Cowley chose Clean Slate because of negative experiences with larger publishers, she says, and the partnership is built on a strong personal relationship.

Clean Slate may not be the publishing house that Joy Cowley built but the author provided a pretty solid foundation for this ambitious and fast-growing exporter.

"Oh, lovely mud", Roydhouse and McBeath might have said, and they rolled in it.