Joy Cowley ONZ DCNZM OBE is a prolific and much-celebrated writer of fiction for adults and children. Born in Levin and educated at Palmerston North GHS and Pharmacy College, her formidable writing career began with an after-school job in 1953 when she was 16, editing the children's page of The Manawatu Daily Times.
Since those days, she has gone on to write more than 600 titles, capturing the hearts and minds of children and adults all over the world. Her first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree, was published in 1967, and was adapted for the screen by literary legend Roald Dahl. Following this success she published a series of novels for adults over the course of a decade, before turning to children’s writing to help her son Edward with his reading.
Initially, many of her children’s stories were published in the New Zealand School Journals. By the late 1970s, Cowley and editor June Melser were working on the Story Box reading programme, published by Wendy Pye. Since Story Box, Joy has published hundreds more titles, in the process receiving 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.
Throughout her life Cowley has travelled extensively, attending conferences, visiting schools, and running writing workshops for young people. She firmly believes that children need to see themselves and their own culture in the things they read.
Now, in her seventies, Cowley still enjoys contact with children through hundreds of letters each month. "The day I'm no longer in touch with young people, is the day I stop writing for them, because the energy flows from them and goes back to them."
What does it mean to me to be an Icon of the Arts Foundation?
"It gives me a rich feeling of belonging. Writing is a form of communication done in solitude. This would be so for most of the arts. That sense of being owned by the Arts Foundation and our country, is significant beyond words.
As I see it, art comes from practise and then presence. We work to acquire the skills until they are automatic and then we make room for the presence. I cannot name the ineffable. I find it in the spaces of religion, my own Catholic faith, in mosques, temples, churches, synagogues, abundant in nature and strong in children. Artists know this… So often I write something and then read it, seeing it for the first time."