PO Box 42
Featherston 5740
New Zealand

July 2016

Dear Friends,

It is nearly a year since the last web letter and Irma, my patient web master must be getting a little frustrated. I can't think of any excuses I haven't used before, so will move on with news.

I am more well than I deserve to be, still working, but enjoying time with Terry whose health is a little fragile. Age has not diminished some of his pleasures, especially food and appreciation of good movies, so extra effort goes into cooking new dishes, finding new restaurants and new films. We are still based in Featherston, about an hour north of Wellington, but go to the apartment in the city once a week. In either place, there are work commitments, which means the laptop is always at hand.

Some time in August, TVNZ will feature a Sunday programme linked with my 80th birthday. I mention this because the filming was a delightful experience. Generally, I'm not enthusiastic about interviews and publicity, accept them as obligation rather than something to be enjoyed, but three days with the Sunday team was almost like a visit from family. Producer Joanne, Interviewer Sonya and Cameraman Barrington became old friends after the first day of filming in Wellington. Then there was a day in Featherston, followed by a shoot at my old school Palmerston North Girls High. There were lots of delicious conversations between the interviews. In fact, I wish I had been recording the Sunday team.

The big event in August is the IBBY Congress in Auckland. The International Board of Books for Young People has this congress every second year in a different country. New Zealand has been waiting for years for its turn, and in three weeks I'll be in Auckland preparing for it. I have speeches as part of the opening and closing ceremonies. I'm too old to get butterflies about speaking in front of people. Experience has taught me that careful preparation is better than nervousness. I'm certainly looking forward to the farewell speech that consists of words sandwiched between songs from three children's choirs. It's wonderful that children are being included in a programme about children's books.

Our little town of Featherston becomes Booktown in May each year. Shop windows fill with book-related quotes, decorations, illustrations, and there is a weekend programme of speakers and workshops. This year I read to children on the Saturday, and on Sunday afternoon did a writing workshop for adults. Two very popular items were a Friday night fish and chip dinner with Richard Taylor of Weta Workshop and Weta Digital, talking to a sell-out group, and several sessions Saturday by the NZ String Quartet. They were playing and reciting "Scary Music" a story I wrote for them with music composed by Gareth Farr. The session extends to the way composers can build emotion into music, and it is all directed at children. But judging from the crowds attending, I gather one can be a child at any age.

What of new books? Earlier this year the junior fiction work "The Road to Ratenburg" was published and seems to be going well. Part thriller, part comedy, it's the story of a homeless family of rats who go on a long trek to the fabled city of Ratenburg. Like the 'Snake and Lizard' series, this anthropomorphic tale is really about human ideals and blunders. A new Snake and Lizard book is coming out next March. It's called 'Helper and Helper', another volume of tales about the well meaning couple who more often than not, are helpless. These characters are popular and children want more, more, more, but between books there needs to be an interval to create and gather fresh material.

For young children, especially those of pre-school age, the book "Hush" has become very popular. Scholastic NZ came up with the request for a New Zealand lullaby modelled on the old "Hush little baby don't say a word..." I admit I was doubtful about this and the resulting text, but then I didn't know how it would come to vibrant life with Andrew Burdan's beautiful illustrations. Who said you can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear? The book is a stunner, and is now being reprinted with a CD.

Upstart Press have published four board books to be read to the younger pre-schoolers, age 1 - 3. Freddy Bear is the toddler in these books and all stories are about the challenges that face children in this age group. Because children learning language often like to echo words in experimental rhyme - bready-weddy, cheesy weesy - I've put story dialogue in rhythmic rhyme, and the narrative in simple prose. It seems to be working well for young ears. Philip Webb's beautiful illustrations are endearing.

A very different book, newly launched is a collection of spiritual reflections for couples. It is called "Made for Love" is without gender and is especially for people whose love is outside tradition. I was asked to write this book by a man who produced some alarming figures. In 2012 over 350 gay men committed suicide in New Zealand, many of them young men who had experienced discrimination and bullying. At an early stage in the writing I realised this book wasn't just for gay people, but for all couples living a commitment of love. "Made for Love" has fine art work by Aucklander Miranda Brown and is being published by Pleroma Press in Otane, Hawkes Bay.

I am still surprised by people who see me either as a spiritual writer and retreat facilitator, or as a writer of children's books. At a recent retreat, a woman glanced at my name badge and said, "You've got the same name as that author."

I continue the retreat work and write a couple of pieces a month for online CathNews, plus occasional writing for Tui Motu and The Marist Messenger.
Then there is the school mail, wonderful letters from young people who expect a prompt answer. I can't keep children's letters but do save the special ones. Recently, a six years old girl told me her favourite character in the Mrs Wishy-Washy book. ""My favrit caricter is the pig becos it is luvly and it gives bacin." I also like the letter from a seven year old boy who wrote about his favourite book. He then said that his imaginary friend liked another book, but he didn't.

With all this activity, though, I don't get too much time for wood-turning and gardening, and confess I'm dependent on help for house and lawns. But life is good and rich in love. My wonderful daughters and sons now approaching their sixth decade, threaten to become my parents, while the great-grandchildren invite me to revisit the beautiful world of the young child.

A long time ago, Margaret Mahy and I were talking about getting old. At that stage Margaret was looking after her aunt Francie who had dementia. Margaret said of herself, "I'll probably turn into a tree." Sadly, she wasn't given an option, and we all still miss her. At 80 I am every age I've ever been, but when I do grow old, I'd like to sit in a chair with a bottle of Chardonnay and listen to an opera from beginning to end, without interruption.

My love to you all.

Joy Cowley

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last update 10 May 2011