McKinlay, Helen

McKinlay, Helen

In Brief

Helen McKinlay is a children’s book author and poet. Her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and she is a 'live' poetry enthusiast. Her children’s story, Grandma’s Week Off, was recorded on Storytime for National Radio in 1994, and was published as a children’s picture book in 2003, with illustrations by Australian illustrator Craig Smith. Grandma Joins the All Blacks, also a bestseller, was published in 2007. McKinlay is available to visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme.


McKinlay, Helen (1947) writes children’s picture books and poetry. She was born in Wellington, and graduated as a registered nurse at Auckland Hospital in 1970 and a registered midwife at St Helen’s Hospital in Wellington in 1975. She studied arts and nursing at Victoria University and mediation at Massey. In 2005, she studied for the Advanced Diploma of Writing at Aoraki Polytechnic in Dunedin.

McKinlay comments that she enjoys her ‘ability to entertain people by the use of humour’. Her first book, Grandma’s Week Off, was recorded on Storytime for National Radio in 1994. It was published as a bestselling children’s picture book in 2003, with illustrations by Craig Smith. When reviewing the book, Kate De Goldi commented, ‘It’s a week for grandmothers to dream about – before they return to knitting and making marmalade.’
(Booknotes, Summer 2003)

McKinlay was one of the first poets to perform at the Mussel Inn in Golden Bay, and she has performed her poetry from Dunedin to Auckland. Her poetry is published in various magazines and anthologies, including: Takahe, The Guardian UK Poetry Workshop 2005, NZ Poetry Society anthologies, 2008 to 2011, 'Boulder Writers’ 2008 and 2011, (Nelson), the Airing Cupboard Women Poets’ ‘Splash' (Christchurch 2009) 'Horizons' (NZSA Nelson), the New Zealand Nurses Organisation’s ‘Listening With My Heart’ (Steele Roberts, 2017) and Flash Frontier. Her poetry has also appeared in Nelson's Poem in the Window and she is a long time guest member and sometimes editor of The Tuesday Poem Blog and archive. In July 2019, she completed her Environmental Arts Poem on a Boulder project at Rototai Beach in Golden Bay. The poem, ‘Low Tide at Rototai’ was her gift of aroha to an area of ecological significance and fragile beauty which was once dominated by a ‘rubbish tip.’

Her other publications include National Radio Storytime recordings of The Best of Ears (1994) and The Flither Flothers’ Brand New Flying Feather Bed (2003).

Her bestselling book Grandma Joins the All Blacks was published by HarperCollins in 2007 and recorded by National Radio. Tessa Duder wrote in the Australian Women's Weekly, 'Please, Helen and Craig...more of this grandma.' and a reviewer for Parent and School Today wrote, 'This endearing story will delight young and old.'

Grandma's Kiwi Christmas
(HarperCollins) was published in 2008 and was a bestseller. It was also recorded by Radio NZ National. A reviewer for the Australian Women's Weekly wrote, 'The third book from McKinlay and Smith is a riot. Perfect for grandmas and grandchildren.'

Her fourth book, Grandma Meets the Queen (HarperCollins), was released in June 2010.

In 2013-14, Grandma's Kiwi Christmas featured in Smith and Caughey's Christmas window displays.

In February 2020, a collection of McKinlay's poetry, People of the Water, was published by Mohua Press.


Helen McKinlay is available to visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme.

KAPAI: Kids' Authors Pictures and Information

Where do you live?
At present I live in the top of the South Island. I have spent most of my adult life in the country and, lucky for me, close to the sea.

What books do you read?

I love to read at night in bed. I start with non-fiction; anything from magazines to self-help books or books about special places and events. All sorts. I have read a wide variety of fiction…adventure, mystery, travel and a touch of romance all appeal. I prefer happy endings! I am also a great fan of audio books. I love reading to my grandchildren from their favourite books and I often revisit books from my childhood including a series about a bear called Mary Plain and another about a family of moomintrolls.

Who is your favourite writer and why?

I have so many, it’s too hard to choose.

How do you think up your ideas?
I don’t do the thinking until I’ve captured the idea. My mind is quite pictorial. Snatches of conversation often provide possibilities. Sometimes they are quite funny. As regards poetry, I love the sounds and rhythms of words and so snatches of conversation often provide possibilities. I have often been inspired to write poems when travelling on buses!

Whats the best thing about being a writer?
Writing, and next comes sharing the results either through the medium of my own performance, radio or the written word. To know that someone shares an idea or is touched by mine is magic. I love entertaining people too.

Primary School students

What sort of pets do you have?
My pets have included cats, dogs, fish, a terrapin, caterpillars, snails, kunikuni pigs, guinea pigs, goats, ducks, rabbits and chooks. Of course, many of these were shared with my children!

What is your favourite colour?

Yellow – yellow with orange, purple or blue, and all those together. Also lime green and bright pink. I love colour!

What is your favourite food – why?
I love vegetables! They make me feel good. Steamed veges, vege pie, vege pancakes. Also chocolate (the dark sort), chilli sauce, basil pesto and wasabi. I love ‘hot’ food.

What is your favourite movie?

Like books, there are many. I’m not good at titles. The movie I remember most, I saw as a child: it was about the eruption of Krakatoa – a place that fascinates me!

What is your favourite game?

I like Scrabble and card games (simple ones). Cluedo was a favourite for a while. The game I remember best is Trains, which is a circle game played by a group of people who take turns at being trainspotters, tunnels and stations. It has lots of tooting, whistling and laughter. And lately I have learned to play Rummikub, a numbers game played with tiles. I also love word games such as Twenty Questions and making up a story where one person starts with a sentence and the others add one of their own.

How do you make books?
There are many people involved in making books – illustrators, designers, typesetters, printers and, of course, the writer and the publisher – but anyone can make a book. I once made one for my children about a big holiday we had. I wrote the story in an exercise book and inserted photos, postcards and other small mementos such as maps and pamphlets. It was very popular because it was about our own family! You could do that too.

Where do you go for your holidays?
Preferably somewhere by the sea. I like to holiday with my family.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
I remember getting the strap a few times for talking and once when I went back to my seat and said it didn’t hurt, I got it again – for talking!

Secondary students

How did you get started?
Slowly. I wrote the odd story and poem. It was easier if I had a goal to write for, such as a writers’ group meeting or Live Poets night.

Who inspired you when you were getting started?
I got lots of positive feedback from my audiences when I performed and read.

What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
Start now. Put your pen to the page and write – anything that comes into your head. Ask people you trust for constructive feedback.

Is it difficult to make a living writing in New Zealand?

Lots of writers joke about not giving up their day job. It depends what you write and who for. It is probably more difficult to make a living writing fiction and poetry than it is to be a journalist working for a newspaper for example.

What were you like as a teenager? Tell us a story!
Shy but determined. I wanted to be an actress and being in the school drama club was a highlight. I got lots of school detentions for not wearing my hat or gloves and had to write out Shakespearean sonnets, none of which I remember. I hated exams but I didn’t do as much homework as I should have, probably because I had too much piano practice!


Updated January 2017.