Joy Cowley: Autobiographical Notes








I was born in Levin, New Zealand, 7 August 1936, the eldest daughter of Peter Summers (Scottish/Irish) and Cassia Gedge (mainly Swedish/Danish). I was the eldest of 5 children, four girls and a boy, and because both parents suffered chronic ill health, we were raised on a sickness benefit. This meant that we were financially poor but very rich in family experience.

In the early years at school, I was a slow and struggling student and I could have added to the country's illiteracy statistics. The experience of trying to learn to read with a meaningless system of fragmented language, has made me a passionate advocate for the beginner reader, the slow reader, the reader who has English as a second language. I believe that learning to read must be a pleasurable and meaningful exercise. If it isn't, then we teach children to read and to hate reading at the same time.

When I discovered that reading accessed story, I forgot that I "couldn't read" and delighted in the adventures that could be found in books. By the age of 11, I was a book addict who haunted the local library and like all children who over-dose on reading, I penned the overflow. Writing too, became an addiction.

My chosen career would have been in art or journalism but my parents apprenticed me to the local pharmacist when I left school. At the age of 20 I married farmer Ted Cowley, lived on a dairy farm and had four children in almost as many years - Sharon, Edward, Judith and James. In these years I milked cows, changed diapers, made puppets and play dough and wrote short stories in the evenings. One of these stories, reprinted in "Short Story International" was read in New York by Doubleday editor Anne Hutchens who wrote to ask if I had a novel. That query led to five novels published by Doubleday, between 1967 and 1978.

While this was going on, I was also writing stories for my son Edward who was a slow reader. These little stories extended to other children, other schools and by the early 1970s, teachers were making "big books" from them to use with their students. "Can you get these stories published?" they asked.

In 1978 I decided to take 5 years leave from adult novels, to write a children's reading programme with teacher/editor June Melser. We did the Story Box Reading Programme which was published by Shortland Publications, Auckland, NZ and then The Wright Group, USA. I became deeply involved in early reading and the five years of commitment became twenty years. It was in 1999 that my 6th adult novel was published.

There was much life experience in those years. My marriage to Ted Cowley ended in 1967. In 1970 I married Malcolm Mason, a Wellington writer and accountant who died in 1985. My third marriage in 1989 was to Terry Coles. For many years, Terry and I lived in the Marlborough Sounds in New Zealand's South Island, with an assortment of animals - sheep, chickens, ducks, 8 cats and a dog - and visits from 13 grandchildren.

In 2004 we moved to Wellington so that Terry could be nearer medical services and for a while lived in an apartment on the wharf, just a stone's throw from the Beehive (Parliament Buildings). This suited us for a while but Terry’s heath deteriorated further, strokes leaving him with diminished sight, hearing and mobility. Wellington’s stairs and traffic became too much of a challenge and it was necessary to move out of the city. We are now in a cottage in the township of Featherston, about fifty minutes north of Wellington. Here I have a garden once more, and a shed with a lathe and woodturning tools.

I am still writing full-time. These days the creative hours are divided between adult writing - articles, spiritual reflection material, stories and novels - and books for children. I still write graded reading material for schools but I also do picture books and novels, trade titles which children can own. Most weeks, the bulk of writing time is spent answering letters from young friends all over the world, a task that I consider to be more play than work.


Awards and Honours
Commemoration Medal for services to New Zealand 1990
OBE (Order of the British Empire) for services to children's literature 1992
Margaret Mahy Lecture Award 1993
NZ Women's Suffrage Centennial Medal 1993
Hon. D.Litt Massey University 1993
Award Best TV Drama Script 1994
Patron NZ Children's Book Foundation 1994
Roberta Long medal for multicultural writing (USA) 2002
A.W. Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature 2004
Dame Commander of the New Zealand order of Merit (DCMNZ) 2005
Prime Minister's Award for Fiction 2010
University of Alabama, Birmingham, Maryann Manning Award for Outstanding Literacy Scholar 2011
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© copyright 2001 Joy Cowley
last update 10 May 2011