National Portrait: Author Joy Cowley, the Storyteller

Author Joy Cowley at her Featherston home.

Author Joy Cowley at her Featherston home.

As far as national treasures go, they don't get much more precious than writer Joy Cowley.

Though she's not just ours.

Despite generations of kiwi kids learning to read from her early learning books, the rest of the world remains pretty enamoured with her too. Her books are in more than 70 per cent of American schools. She's been nicknamed the "Elvis Presley" of children's books over there.

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else." - Joy Cowley.

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else." - Joy Cowley.

At the height of her writing career she would receive 1000 letters a week. They still roll in. She replies to them all.

"There is a lovely feeling of being loved by kids. It's worth more than anything else - reviews, cheques - to have that love of children," says Cowley, now 79.

One of her favourite fan letters was from a little girl who wrote asking all the usual questions with the addition of 'Are you still alive?'

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing." - Joy Cowley.

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing." - Joy Cowley.

She was once stopped on the street in Blenheim outside Whitcoulls. A woman rushed out with her kids and said 'Who do you think this is?' The children were perplexed with one offering Margaret Mahy and the other Quentin Blake.

Cowley laughs at that. She laughs a lot. The fact is, she's a household name, if not a face, for young readers.

Cowley was not a natural reader in childhood. By the age of seven she had been to five different schools. She was labelled a bad reader and recalls vividly but not bitterly - she is a forgiving person - getting whacked by a ruler whenever she made a mistake. One day she wet her pants when she was punished and was ridiculed by her classmates. Reading, she says, was a great source of humiliation.

The first book she recalls reading that turned things around was The Story About Ping. She was eight.

Ad Feedback

"I couldn't bear for the book to end so I started it all over again. When I got to the end for the second time I made an amazing discovery: It was exactly the same story. My aunts told me stories but they were always different when retold orally.

"I discovered the constancy of print and that was important to me, to find something permanent in the world."

In light of her chaotic family life, this was a significant discovery.

Cowley was born in Levin during the winter of 1936. Both parents had poor health. Her mother suffered with schizophrenia and her father was often bedridden with bouts of rheumatic fever.

As the eldest of five children, the young Joy played the role of both parents cooking, cleaning and providing income (she slaughtered chickens on a nearby farm) as well as attending to her parents and siblings.

She was apprenticed to the local pharmacy. That was a disappointment to Cowley who had been working after school as children's editor at the Manawatu Daily Times. They had offered her a cadetship but her parents didn't approve. 

She didn't rebel. In fact, she learned a discipline without which she doesn't think she would have become a writer.

She was 20 when she fell pregnant to Ted Cowley, a dairy farmer in Palmerston North.

"He didn't want to marry me but his mother made him. He was very honest and told me he didn't love me. I tend to be a little impractical in terms of optimism. I thought I'd be able to make him love me.

They were married for 12 years and had four children before he fell in love with someone else.

"I'd come home and find the bed unmade and her lipstick on my side table. We battled on for two years before it ended."

When they split Cowley's lawyer told her Ted would get the boys and she would get the girls. She couldn't split the incredibly close children up and so let Ted take them all.

The grief she felt at losing her children was unbearable and led her to take an overdose of sleeping pills. "I wanted to sleep for a long time."

She woke up three days later in hospital temporarily blind and paralysed.

Her near-death experience had a profound affect on Cowley, who later converted to Catholicism.

"From being a shy and rather timid person, someone who was anxious to please, I came out feeling emotionally strong. When you lose the fear of death there is no fear of anything."

Within two years she had met and married Malcolm Mason, a Wellington writer and accountant, and got all of her children back.

Her writing career began in her early 20s.

"I began thinking about a promise I had made to my sixth form teacher: to never give up writing. When you grow up in a household where a promise means nothing it actually becomes quite valuable and that sat on my conscience."

She submitted over 40 short stories before one was published.

When The Silk was published by Short Story International in America it was spotted by an editor from Doubleday who asked if she had a novel to submit.

It was another six months before she wrote Nest in a Falling Tree, which was adapted by Roald Dahl and made into the film The Night Digger. She's never been paid as much before or since. She can't recall the amount but it was enough to buy her Marlborough Sounds property in Fish Bay.

Cowley would go on to pen more than 1000 books for a children's early reading programme, dozens of picture books, a number of adult novels, spiritual books and a memoir. She has a clutch of awards.

As a young woman Cowley had gumption. She learned to fly a Tiger Moth at 19. She rode a motorcycle in her teens - she wanted a 650 Gold Flash; her father bought her a second-hand run about.

She's no slouch in her later years either. Rafting, parasailing, and one photo on the wall shows her bungy jumping at 65.

"I thought if this goes wrong I don't lose too many years."

Her only qualification, she says proudly, is a diploma in wood turning earned at 70 and hung on her studio wall. Wood lines the walls here. Books line the walls of her three homes.

She works every morning from her office in the Featherston bungalow she shares with Terry Cole, whom she married in 1989, four years after the death of Malcolm. 

There are no more children's books on the horizon. But she's working with composer Gareth Farr on a New Zealand opera.

The storyteller begins a new chapter.

 - Stuff


Ad Feedback
special offers

Victory parade - but which day?

Emirates Team New Zealand helmed by Peter Burling celebrate after winning the America's Cup.

Exact day for homecoming parade for Team NZ is still being worked out, but Thursday next week looks a good bet.

Police hunting escaped prisoner

Police are hunting for Lusitino Selesele an inmate who was granted leave to attend a funeral, and his partner, Jacinta Sale.

Police are hunting a prisoner who escaped while attending a funeral.

Boy refuses to get in car

The boy was walking home from Vauxhall School, in Narrow Neck on Auckland's North Shore.

A boy refuses to get into the car of stranger claiming to be sent by the his father.

Ex-Breaker 'pulled beard'

Corey Webster is on trial at the North Shore District Court.

Former Breakers star Corey Webster is facing charges over a fracas in an Auckland bar.


A Wellington thriller video

Wing Tommy Seymour dives over for the first of the British and Irish Lions' tries against the Hurricanes.

Draws rarely come more exciting than this one between the Hurricanes and Lions.

Police probe death

James Whenauroa died in hospital after suffering critical head injuries.

James Whenauroa was found with critical head injuries at notorious Wellington apartment block. A week later, he died in hospital.

Coles takes the field at last

Hurricane Dane Coles and Lions skipper Sam Warburton hongi after the treasured korowai is presented at Wellington Stadium.

But it was just a ceremonial role, as he presented Lions captain with a korowai.

Capital wants cup victory parade

From left, Team NZ chief operating officer Kevin Shoebridge, chief executive Grant Dalton, helmsman Peter Burling, team ...

And it also wants to be part of the action in the next America's Cup.


Fight with ex-wife continues

Earl Hagaman died on May 25 at the age of 92.

Earl Hagaman's will instructs trustees to fight any claim by his ex-wife "to the fullest extent".

Secret tyre mountain

A tyre mountain on a suburban Christchurch property is being slowly dismantled after complaints and environmental concerns.

In a green pocket of Christchurch hides a tyre pile so vast it can be seen via satellite.

Boy's battle after fatal crash

Leeston crash victims Sam Drost, Lily Moore and Cole Christensen-Hull, all aged 15.

He thought his son was in bed. Instead he was in hospital with a 50 per cent chance of survival and three of his friends were dead.

Fill trolley, walk out

A woman put a lawn mower, curtains and curtain rails in a trolley and walked out the door without paying for them. (File ...

A shoplifter's brazen approach almost worked, until she tried it again.


Dairy axe attack fight back video

Hamilton police are asking for help to identify two offenders who entered a superette armed with tomahawks.

Footage shows owners attack and scare off masked intruders with bottle of soy sauce.

Human chain protest

Mick Elley, a pianist from Te Aroha came down to support the cause.

Protesters say Waikato Uni's Conservatorium of Music is a 'national jewel' damaged by imminent staff cuts.

Baby died while mum bought pizza

The case is being heard in the High Court at Tauranga.

The 14-week-old had head injuries when his mum came back from buying dinner.

Toss the carpark vistas Hamilton

Ludo Campbell-Reid says NZ cities are designed for rush hour traffic, not people.

Forget the ugly carparks and Maccas, focus on the river and mountains, designer tells city.


Surprises pulled from the water

Robert Hinton was on his morning walk as lake levels dropped in Pukekura Park.

If Pukekura Park does have a Lady of the Lake, she won't be happy...

Assault defence opens

A trial involving three men is likely  to extend into next week at the New Plymouth District Court (FILE PHOTO).

 Violence accused claims complainant was "sweet as" with deal to hand over property to settle drug debt.

When your computer talks back

Gene Gibson has recently qualified as the country's expert on NVDA, a voice programme for blind people to use computers.

Talking computers aren't just a thing of sci-fi for Gene Gibson.

An early brush with yachting royalty

A 16-year-old Peter Burling off the water at Port Taranaki in 2007.

OPINION: An interview with a young Peter Burling, on the cusp of yachting greatness.


Manawatu muscle behind cup win

Olympic medalist cyclist Simon van Velthooven was to the fore as Team New Zealand chose pedal power instead of ...

Simon van Velthooven is exhausted and excited after the long, successful America's Cup campaign.

Gorge costs mount

Workers clear one of the slips that have kept the Manawatu Gorge closed since late April.

More slips plague the Manawatu Gorge hillside, as cleanup costs surge towards $1 million.

Son claims share of dad's fortune

Paul Van Moeseke made a will about six weeks before he died (File photo)

An eminent economist had wanted to leave his millions to animal rights groups.

Self-defence claims

Joseph Kurene.

Man suffered fractured skull and was in hospital for a month.


King Salmon predicts $20m profit

JOHN ANTHONY/FAIRFAX NZ New Zealand King Salmon chief executive Grant Rosewarne celebrates following the company's debut ...

Less than a year after listing on the stock exchange, NZ King Salmon is raking in the profits.

Blazing a trail

Munro Hotel Group general manager Garry Munro outside Trailways in Trafalgar St.

Trailways Hotel has been recognised as one of the best sustainable tourism businesses in New Zealand.

Fistfight sparks gun threat 'bravado'

Victor Baskiville-Braithwaite pulled an air rifle on a group of people at Anzac Park after getting in a fight.

A man who pulled out an air rifle after being punched in the face has appeared in court.

Sold on property

Nelson Auctioneer John Walker.

Vanessa Phillips meets some top of the south businessmen with a passion for property.


'We are the champions'

"The pride of Picton", Joseph Sullivan, heads to the boat at this year's America's Cup.

Joseph Sullivan's parents have Queen karaoke classic ready for when he calls.

Time to repay kindness

Always on hand to help others, from left, Dontae, Gina and Maddie Anderson are well known in Blenheim for their charity ...

Gina Anderson is first to help those in need but her family is facing a serious set back of their own.

No stops for sick cow

Farmer Alan McConachie was stopped by police on State Highway 63 in Wairau Valley, Marlborough. (File photo)

A farmer who drove more than seven hours without a break says one of his cows looked sick.

Fill trolley, walk out

A woman put a lawn mower, curtains and curtain rails in a trolley and walked out the door without paying for them. (File ...

Shoplifter's brazen approach almost worked, until she tried it again.

South Canterbury

Tears, relief on Grasmere St video

Grasmere St resident Don Boot gives one of the remaining condemned pin oaks a final hug before it is cut down on Tuesday.

Some residents watched in horror as condemned pin oaks were cut down on Grasmere St.

Sugar policy difficult

A national policy on sugary drinks in council workplaces would be difficult to regulate and pose problems when ...

Councillors unimpressed by proposed national sweet drinks policy.

Gearing up for Jump Jam

Timaru South School Jump Jam Extravaganza team The South Stars at Tuesday's dress rehearsal.
Back row, from left, Zoe ...

More than 500 South Canterbury pupils are preparing to show off their moves on the big stage.

Police morale high

Senior Sergeant Dylan Murray, of Timaru, said police were often involved in community organisations and were genuinely ...

Despite reports of stress, Senior Sergeant says police culture in SC is "excellent".


Police re-open Barclay probe

Clutha Southland MP Todd Barclay - back under police investigation.

Police have reopened their investigation into allegations embattled National MP Todd Barclay illegally recorded his electorate staff. 

House's future divides

Some councillors have said they want the Anderson House to be returned to its old use, as a home for the Invercargill ...

"I don't think that we should play with money."

Two murder accused named

The cordon at Stadium Southland following the alleged incident on June 7.

Man, woman, both 18, named among seven charged with murder after alleged incident at Stadium Southland.

Singer crowd funding album

Arrowtown singer-songwriter Holly Arrowsmith is crowd funding her latest album.

TUI Award-winning queen of folk Holly Arrowsmith turns to crowdfunding for her second album due out later this year.

Ad Feedback