“It wasn’t just reading, I had this amazing adventure”: An interview with Joy Cowley

It’s lovely to be able to talk to you because I’ve been a fan of your books for a long time

Oh, I’ve been around for a long time, and you know it all comes from children. Certainly all the early reading books have been trialled in classrooms - if they don’t work they don’t get sent to the publisher! That really is true. I can remember once, I read some stories to 8 and 9 year olds, one of the stories which I particularly liked was one of those message books that writers like to put across, and kids were totally bored! They were fiddling with the Velcro on their shoes and nudging each other I asked them what was wrong with it and the boy in front of me didn’t even put up his hand, but said “It’s boring!”

So I thought maybe I could recycle it and edit it, and asked which part of it was boring.

 “All of it!” was the reply! So that one went into the trash. I owe a lot to the children I’ve worked with.

That’s a fabulous way to know which ones work! So can you tell me how you chose the stories for your new anthology The Gobbledegook Book? You’ve written so very many.

Ah, confession, I didn’t choose them! I sent a bundle of stuff to my publisher Julia because I trust her, she’s a great publisher, she’s got a really keen eye. I just sent her stuff for the right age group. It’s intended for preschool. But actually adults are buying it for each other, up here in Featherston!

I imagine the stories are nostalgic for many people.

I suppose so yes, and Giselle Clarkson’s illustrations work at every level. They don’t talk down to children.

Tell me, did you have much input into the illustrations?

None at all. Julia sent me a sample of Giselle’s work, and I said this is lovely, it’ll be so right. It’ll connect everything. Because I didn’t really want a different illustrator for every story, and it needed to be someone who could give unity to the book. Giselle said, “I illustrate by feeling,” and I said, “Oh good, because that’s how I write!”

Gecko is interested in doing another anthology because I’ve got so much stuff. I’ll probably call it The Tickety Boo Book. This time aimed at school-aged children. It’ll still be short pieces, rhymes and a lot of humour. I’m looking around my office and I’ve got bundles and bundles of early reading books, which went out to schools and various places around the world but have never been available in book shops or libraries.

I did wonder about that. Of course I haven’t read everything that you’ve written, but there are many stories in The Gobbledgook Book that were unfamiliar to me, I wondered are there many that were only published as early readers?

There are several that were published only in America, and one or two out of early reading books, and also some from other collections. There are several cat rhymes which were published in one book many years ago by Mallinson Rendel. I was very aware that when children draw a picture of a cat, it can be very autobiographical. I could work out which were boy’s cats - the grumpy cats, the sharp toothed fighting, adventurous cats - and the girl’s cats, which tend to be drawn with flowers and rather pretty and delicate. There’s a different energy in the cats that young children draw. So we put all these cats together, I wrote rhymes for them, and used the children’s illustrations.

The Gobbledegook Book

What a wonderful way to out a book together!

It was! It was called Pawprints in the Butter because of this rhyme:

Sly old robber fatty face has magnets on her paws

For opening kitchen cupboards and refrigerator doors

She robs a house and vanishes and all the owner sees

Are paw prints in the butter, and tooth marks in the cheese

So many wonderful cats! That leads us to Greedy Cat which is one of my favourites stories, it always has been.

Ah, look, I can now tell a wonderful story about Greedy Cat. A lot of the young, up and coming people in New Zealand grew up on Greedy Cat, and one of them is a woman working for an architectural firm who’ve got the tender to build the new Motueka library, and she is planning a Greedy Cat children’s library. It’ll be all Greedy Cat. Greedy Cat chairs, and Greedy Cat everywhere! I think that’ll be wonderful for children. And for their parents, who also read Greedy Cat.

That sounds just the perfect thing for a library! Were you happy with the way Greedy Cat looks in the new illustrations?

Oh yes! Have you noticed that over the years Robyn Belton made him larger and larger? If you go to the original Greedy Cat, he looks like most cats. And now he’s really saggy. Robyn and I have correspondence about Greedy Cat, it’s as though he’s very real to us, we write about his latest exploits.

One of the stories I hadn't read before was the Little Tractor? Can you tell me a bit about the story behind that one?

Oh, my chug, chug can’t go wrong little tractor. Yes, we had a very old tractor down in the Sounds to launch Terry’s boat, and often I was the one who had to drive the tractor while he was in the boat ready to cast off when we got into the water. But it was so old, it didn’t have any way of stopping it except leaning over and pulling the cord off the spark plug! one time we didn’t manage that and we sort of drowned the tractor, I went straight into the water! We were rather fond of that tractor, and as a result I’ve written several tractor books.

Thank you, I love hearing the stories behind stories.

Well I write what I know, I have to. I’m that sort of person. I write from experience, and then my imagination will deal with it.

The Little Tractor reminded me a little bit of one of my favourite books as a child, The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton, do you know it?

Was that a story about a house where a city grew up around it?

Yes that’s the one. I wondered about the books that you liked as a child, what were your favourites?

I didn’t start reading till I was nine, and when I was about nine and a half, my Dad took me to the library, and the librarian introduced me to Treasure Island, and the classics. I was reading Man in the Iron Mask when I was 10, and books like that, I would just skip the bits that were difficult. There was a girl at school who had a book called Snugglepot and Cuddlepie, the gumnut babies. That was an enchanting book! Although when I look at it now, it could do with a good editor, the author, May Gibbs, was someone who could write about magic. It’s still in print, it’s an Australian classic. So that was the first real, big children's book.

But my introduction to reading was the little duckling Ping, from The Story About Ping. That was fantastic! That was the first book that I actually read from beginning to end.

You said you didn’t learn to read until you were nine? I was similar, I was eight and struggled with reading too. I wondered if your experience with learning to read influenced what you write for children?

Oh, definitely. I became an avid reader when I discovered that reading accessed story. Everyone told me that when I started school I’d be able to read for myself, instead of someone reading stories for me. But it didn’t happen. I didn’t take to the old phonics system, it had no meaning for me. Letters, then a couple of letters together, short words and longer words. None of that had meaning.

Because it was just learning words, not learning a story?

Yes, they were just symbols. It was war time of course in New Zealand, 1942 when I started school. An overcrowded classroom, and an impatient teacher who probably didn’t want so many children in the class. I think in those days a lot of the younger women had to go and work on the land during war time, and that included teachers. Older teachers came about of retirement. It wasn’t a good situation for learning. I had this image of myself as a “bad reader.” There were three of us in the class who couldn’t read. We’d be last, and we’d stand up by the teacher’s chair. She had a ruler, and when we made a mistake, the ruler would come down over our legs. So that wasn’t a good experience. When I was about eight and nine, the National Library service used to bring books to schools. Some of the children got books like Alice in Wonderland or Robin Hood, real books, some got smaller books, and I got Ping. I must have had some skills, because I could read that. It wasn’t just reading, I had this amazing adventure -  I was that little duckling on the Yangtze River. I got into danger! Someone was going to catch me and eat me! And I managed to get back home safely to my own junk, and then I got a whack on the bottom with a stick! I was used to getting whacks on the bottom with a stick, myself, at home, too, so that was all very familiar. But I couldn’t bear for the book to finish! I went back and started reading it again, and I made this amazing discovery: The book was exactly the same with the second reading. I discovered the constancy of print. Before that people read or told me stories, usually my Aunts, and they would skip bits, or the story would change. But for a child who lived in a rather impermanent environment, where there was a lot of change and nothing could be predicted, to discover that print didn’t change was very important to me. I got my love of books from Ping.

May I tell you a story now? I wanted to tell you about Hush. See, I made up my own version of Hush Little Baby for my daughter when she was little, so I was very excited when I found Hush in the library, although my daughter was grown when I found it. But I love to read it at Babytimes at the library.

Oh, did you? Ah, thank you for that, because that was one thing that I didn’t want to write. Scholastic had that idea, they wanted me to write a New Zealand version, and I said “Look that’s a take-off.” I know that Craig Smith did a version of the old, traditional Wonky Donkey. He dressed it up and he made it come alive. Well I really didn’t think that I wanted to do that, but they thought it could be a good book and it was the illustrator they had chosen who really made me decide on it. They were very encouraging, and very helpful. But even when I finished writing it, I still wasn’t very happy with it, but when I saw those illustrations, oh! That’s when it really changed!

I get a lovely reaction from all the mums, dads, and grandmas when I read the last line, about the best baby in Aotearoa.

Oh that’s lovely! Thank you, that’s wonderful!

I recently interviewed Kimberly Andrews around your new edition of the Song of the River.

Oh Kimberley! Isn’t that a beautiful book? This last week I had an email to say that the book is being reprinted in Beijing, in simple Chinese. That’s lovely, isn’t it? They will see her beautiful illustrations. I don’t always know that it’s being sold in other countries, I just get these books that I can’t read!

My sight’s not good at the moment. I’ve got macular degeneration, so I’m writing in 36 point font, but I’m starting a novel for adults. I’m calling it Silence. It’s about a woman who’s been in an accident and her larynx is badly damaged. She can’t talk, but it’s now the other senses come alive. Because I’m losing my sight, my sense of touch has become very, very sensitive, I didn’t realise that would happen. The other senses become keener, the body compensates.

That sounds interesting, do you know when it will come out?

Oh, at the rate I’m writing, it’ll be another year!

Well, I’ll be sure to keep an eye out for it!

There’s one last question I wanted to ask, I heard you’ve always wanted to have a Winter Christmas. Have you been able to go somewhere where there is snow at Christmas time?

No, but when we lived in the Marlborough Sounds, our Christmas snow was the kanuka blossoms, it looks like a fall of snow on the dark trees.

What a beautiful image! I'll think of that next time I see kanuka trees! Thank you, and Merry Christmas.

Find books in our collection by Joy Cowley.