Joy Cowley is a prolific, widely-published and much-celebrated writer of fiction for adults and children. Cowley began her career writing short stories and novels before moving into the realm of children’s literature. She has published numerous novels, as well as short stories that have featured in journals, anthologies and book-length collections. She has written a remarkable range of children’s books and stories, often illustrated by renowned artists. Cowley was made a Distinguished Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children's literature in 2005, and she was awarded a Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Fiction in 2010. In 2018, Cowley was made a member of the Order of New Zealand.
FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
Cowley, Joy (1936– ), fiction writer for children and adults, was born in Levin and educated at Palmerston North GHS and Pharmacy College. She has been published so widely and to such acclaim that she received a Commemoration Medal in 1990, the OBE in 1992 for her services to children’s literature, the Margaret Mahy Award Lecture in 1993 and an honorary doctorate from Massey University in 1993.
The publisher’s notice for Heart Attack and Other Stories (1985) states that ‘during her adult life she has had many occupations: artist, freelance photographer, builder’s labourer, farm worker, pharmaceutical apprentice, newspaper children’s page editor, housewife, mother and writer’. Elsewhere she has noted her ‘interests’ as ‘spinning, weaving, woodwork, sailing, fishing and an isolated farm on Marlborough Sounds’.
Married to Ted Cowley in 1956, she first tried to develop as a painter but then decided to begin writing seriously in 1960 when pregnant with her fourth child, sending two or three short stories to the NZ Listener each month. Although she sent in twenty-nine stories before one was accepted, she has always acknowledged that the editor, M.H. Holcroft, was her main mentor and early supporter.
When a short story from Landfall was republished in the USA, Doubleday, a major US publisher, wrote asking for a novel. She had none to send, but wrote Nest in a Falling Tree in six months. It was published by Doubleday in 1967 to enthusiastic reviews and was made into a film, scripted by Roald Dahl, with his wife, Patricia Neal, in the leading role. It is a story of passion, a love affair between a 17-year-old boy, Red, and Maura, an older woman. Maura’s mother, whom she is nursing, rejects Red, but dies of an overdose of medicine. Public opinion gradually turns against Maura, and when Red does too she finds herself alone.
To follow up this initial success Cowley wrote four more novels in the next decade before devoting herself entirely to writing for young people. Man of Straw (1972) tells of a summer in the life of a small-town family, seen mainly through the eyes of two daughters, Rosalind, aged 13, and Miranda, aged 22. Rosalind is puzzled by the passions that develop when her father is accused of seducing Miranda’s friend Julie-Ann and a sense of mystery is resolved when it is revealed that he has also had an affair with Julie-Ann’s mother. The people of the town throw stones at the house and kill the family dog. Rosalind runs away from home and collapses, wilfully or by accident, into the sea.
Passions are more restrained in Of Men and Angels (1972), which contrasts one woman, who pursues a career and has casual affairs, with another, who is unhappily married and looks for satisfaction in Catholicism and good causes. Their emotions focus on to a pregnant teenager, but it remains undecided which way of life is more satisfactory. It was followed by The Mandrake Root (1975), a study of a person who has recovered from mental illness, but lives on the verge between illness and health. The Growing Season (1979) contrasts family reactions to the coming death of James. Some are resigned, others upset, but he accepts his situation as a part of the natural order.
Heart Attack and Other Stories (1985) collects stories from various periods, the first twelve forming a loose sequence showing the journey from youth to middle age. Included is Cowley’s best-known story, the often anthologised ‘The Silk’. The Complete Short Stories was published in 1997.
Cowley began writing for children to help her son Edward who, like her, was slow to learn reading skills. Her first picture book, which uses humour to carry a serious anti-war statement, was The Duck and the Gun, illustrated by Edward Sorel and published in New York in 1969, the same year as the beginning of Margaret Mahy’s remarkable publishing career. It was republished in 1985 with new illustrations by Robyn Belton, which won the Russell Clark Award in 1985.
Other notable picture books include The Terrible Taniwha of Timberditch, illustrated by Rodney McRae (1982), which explores different cultural versions of dragons; Salmagundi, illustrated by Philip Webb (1985), which carries another, more sophisticated anti-war message; and The Screaming Mean Machine, illustrated by David Cox (1993), which looks at the difficulty of overcoming fear.
Cowley’s short stories have featured on radio and in Two of a Kind (1984) in collaboration with Mona Williams and in Beyond the River (1994); she has also had a play produced, ‘The Haunting of Frogwash Farm’ (1988). Like Mahy, Cowley has also become a prolific creator of entertaining and predominantly humorous readers, with a total of more than 400 books for the ‘Storybox’ series and for Wendy Pye Publishing.
She now spends about three months in every year overseas, working with teachers on early reading and children’s difficulties, and running writing workshops. But it is mainly for her children’s novels that Cowley has won awards. The Silent One, illustrated by Sherryl Jordan (1981), won the 1982 inaugural Children’s Book of the Year Award for its sensitive, poetic and mythic qualities.
It became a feature film, released in 1985 with notable music by Jenny McLeod. It tells the story of a deaf boy on a Pacific island who befriends a white turtle and struggles to survive his isolated tribe’s superstition and fears when the village is afflicted by a drought and a hurricane, brought on, so the tribe believes, because the turtle is an evil spirit from the depths of the sea.
In 1992 Bow Down Shadrach, illustrated by Robyn Belton (1991), won the AIM Book of the Year for its portrayal of twists and difficulties in family love concerning, in particular, an old horse at the end of its life. The sequel, Gladly, Here I Come, appeared in 1994.
Cowley now lives in the Marlborough Sounds, providing the hospitality of ‘Te Aroha’ to people suffering social difficulty. She contributed a statement of her view of life to What I Believe, edited by Allan Thomson (1993). DH/NW
The Joy Cowley Award for children’s writers – offering a monetary prize, the opportunity to work with Joy Cowley herself and the eventual publication of a picture book – was announced by the Children’s Literature Foundation and publisher Scholastic New Zealand in 2002.
In 1992, she received the prestigious Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award, awarded annually by the New Zealand Children's Book Foundation.
Cowley has won eight awards at the New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. These awards include: Best in Junior Fiction for Ticket to the Sky Dance (1998), Best in Junior Fiction for Starbright and the Dream Eater (1999), Best in Junior Fiction for Shadrach Girl (2001), Best Picture Book for Brodie (by Joy Cowley and Chris Mousdale, 2002), Book of the Year and Best in Junior Fiction for Hunter (2006), and Book of the Year and Best in Junior Fiction for Snake & Lizard (by Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop, 2008).
Three of her stories have been honoured with the Russell Clark Award for Illustration: George's Monster (1997, illustrations by Murray Grimsdale), The Cheese Trap (1996, illustrations by Linda McClelland), and The Duck in the Gun (1985).
In 2004, she received the A W Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature at the Montana New Zealand Book Awards. The award is presented biennially in recognition of an outstanding contribution to New Zealand literature and an involvement in activities which foster and promote literature to wider audiences.
She was made a Distinguished Companion of New Zealand Order of Merit for services to children's literature at the 2005 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Joy Cowley continues to be a prolific writer and win awards for her work.
Cowley's novel for adults, Classical Music, was a finalist in the fiction category of the 2000 Montana New Zealand Book Awards. Her children's non-fiction picture book Red-Eyed Tree Frog was nominated for an award in the 2000 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, and Shadrach Girl (2000) won the Junior Fiction category of the 2001 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards.
Other publications for children included Apple Banana Cherry, and Cricket's Storm.
Cowley's Brodie was written in response to teachers' requests for stories about the loss of a classmate. It tells the story of schoolboy Brodie and of how his classmates come to terms with his death from cancer. Brodie was the winner in the Picture Book category for the 2002 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards and was republished in 2013 as a Walker Classics.
Cowley's novel for adults, Holy Days, and two new books for children Pudding and Eating Plums in Bed were also published in 2001.
Brodie and The Wild Wests and the Haunted Fridge were listed as 2002 Storylines Notable Picture Books.
Cowley's titles published in 2002 were Pigeon Princess, A modern fantasy, the story of Lottie who lives in a tower who is about to discover that dreams really do come true; Weta: A Knight in Shining Armour (2002), which was shortlisted for the 2003 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards; Froghopper, the story of a family sailing around the Marlborough Sounds; The Sea Daughter, with the Māori language edition Te Tamahine a Te Moana and Tulevai and the Sea also with a Māori language edition, Ko Tulevai me te moana, and the picture book Duck Walk. Duck Walk, Froghopper and Weta: A Knight in Shining Armour were listed as 2003 Storylines Notable Books.
Cowley was also awarded the Roberta Long Medal in Alabama, USA, in 2002.
Mrs Wishy-Washy's Farm (2003) by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Elizabeth Fuller has sold more than 40 million copies worldwide. Mrs Wishy-Washy scrubs and rubs all the animals on the farm, until they decide to run away to the big smoke.
Froghopper and the Paua Poachers: More Adventures with the Fabulous Green Team, which continues the adventures of Flea, Pete and Libby Green, was also published in 2003.
Both works were listed as 2004 Storylines Notable Books.
The Little Tractor, written by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Gavin Bishop, is a book for 3 to 6 year olds. The little tractor starts its working life on a farm where it does a good job - but the family grows up and things change and the tractor is retired to sit in the local car yard. The tractor is sold to one interesting character after the other, until finally it arrives full circle.
In Greedy Cat and the School Pet Show, written by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Robyn Belton, Kate is determined to take Greedy Cat to the school pet show, but Greedy Cat doesn't want to go.
Two of Cowley's books were finalists in the LIANZA Children's Book Awards 2005. Tarakihana Pakupaku (Scholastic), translated by Katerina Mataira was a finalist for the Te Kura Pounamu Award and Wild West Hullabaloo (HarperCollins) was a finalist for The Esther Glen Award.
Hunter, also published in 2005, won Best in Junior Fiction and Book of the Year at the 2006 New Zealand Post Awards for Children and Young Adults. In this riveting book, Cowley brings together two very different worlds, providing a rare glimpse of the remarkable human spirit that connects us all. The work was also listed as a 2006 Storylines Notable Junior Fiction Book.
The Wishing of Biddy Malone, illustrated by Christopher Denise (Penguin), and Wild West Hullabaloo (HarperCollins) were listed as 2005 Storylines Notable Books, in picture books and junior fiction, respectively.
Tulevai and the Sea (2006), was published by Scholastic. Joy Cowley and Robyn Belton also released Greedy Cat and Sneeze (Scholastic). Chameleon, Chameleon (Scholastic New Zealand) was listed as a 2006 Storylines Notable Non-Fiction Book.
Snake and Lizard (Gecko Press, 2007), written by Joy Cowley and illustrated by Gavin Bishop won the Junior Fiction section as well as Book of the Year for the 2008 New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The work was also listed as a 2008 Storylines Notable Junior Fiction Book.
Titles published included Ticket to the Sky Dance (Puffin), a story of orphans who get drawn into a web of deceit in the modelling world, Chicken Feathers (Puffin), a fun chapter book for young readers, and Starbright and the Dream Eater (Puffin).
A new edition of A Duck in the Gun was released by Walker Books, with illustrations by Robyn Belton. A further 2005 publication for Cowley was Greedy Cat and the Goldfish (Scholastic, 2009) also illustrated by Robyn Belton, and a continuation of the long-running Greedy Cat series. Cowley's book Friends: Snake and Lizard (Gecko Press, 2009) was illustrated by Gavin Bishop, and nominated in the Junior Fiction section of the 2010 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards. Cowshed Christmas (Scholastic, 2009, also illustrated by Gavin Bishop, was nominated in the Picture Book section of the same awards.
This year saw Cowshed Christmas (illustrated by Gavin Bishop, Random House New Zealand), Greedy Cat and the Goldfish (illustrated by Robyn Belton, Scholastic New Zealand), and Friends: Snake & Lizard (illustrated by Gavin Bishop, Gecko Press) listed as Storylines Notable Books.
Gecko Press republished The Fierce Little Woman and the Wicked Pirate with new illustrations by Sarah Davis.
Fly Pie, illustrated by Philip Webb, was published by Scholastic New Zealand.
Roz Edwards published Too Many Cats!, a humorous story about what happens when Grandma & Grandad decide to get a pet. Illustrated by Amber Edwards.
Also in 2010, Cowley published the personal memoir Navigation, in which she injects autobiography with her familiar storytelling flair and originality.
Storylines Children's Literature Charitable Trust published Cowley's Writing from the Heart: How to Write for Children, a writer's guide covering topics such as developing a plot, dialogue, writers' discipline, humour, early reading, novels, picture books, plays, poetry, presentation and editing.
Joy Cowley was awarded the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in fiction in 2010.
Cowley's publications this year included Stories of the Wild West Gang and Just One More (illustrated by Gavin Bishop), both published by Gecko Press, and Robby and Hoot, illustrated by Phillip Fickling (Penguin NZ).
She was also the winner of the University of Alabama's Maryann Manning Award for Outstanding Literacy Scholar.
Manukura: The White Kiwi, about an albino kiwi hatched Pukaha Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre, was published with illustrations by Bruce Potter (Random House).
Cowley's book Just One More received a special mention in the Storylines Notable Books 2012 Junior Fiction list.
She also published Wishy-Washy World, illustrated by Philip Webb (Reading Alive 2012).
Dunger was published by Gecko Press (2013). The novel won the Junior Fiction award at the 2014 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
In May, Hush: A Kiwi Lullaby was released by Joy Cowley and illustrator Andrew Burdan. Hush is a children’s picture book in which a classic Kiwi lullaby is beautifully rewritten.
The Remarkable Cake Shop, written by Cowley and illustrated by Bruce Potter, was published in July of 2015, and presents the story of a mayor who gets his just desserts.
In July, Cowley’s latest book The Bakehouse was published. The novel, set in wartime New Zealand, portrays the life and psyche of young Bert, who wishes to serve as a soldier overseas. Little does Bert know that the actions he takes at home will be of international import.
In April 2016, Cowley and illustrator Gavin Bishop’s children’s book The Road to Ratenburg was released. The book follows the exploits of a group of rats who journey to find the blissful Ratenburg.
Cowley wrote and delivered the Book Council Lecture (now the Read NZ Te Pou Muramura Pānui) The Power of Story at Te Papa, Wellington.
Joy Cowley was made a member of the Order of New Zealand in the 2018 Honours List.
Also in 2018, a collection of Cowley's spiritual writing, Veil Over the Light, was released by Fitzbeck Publishing.
Cowley received an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award, limited to 20 living people.
Updated June 2022.