By Juliet C. Bond
Joy Cowley was born on a chicken farm in Levin, New Zealand, at 6:00 p.m. on August 7, 1936. This sounds like the beginning to a great story, because it is! Like her own life story, Joy’s prose weaves together tantalizing tales with a hint of whimsy and a dash of wacky.
But her work stretches beyond the “joy” she injects into her magnificent tales. It’s the twinkle in her New Zealand eyes, her pitch-perfect humor, and her generosity of spirit that have drawn readers and writers to her for almost fifty years.
Since the 1960s, Joy has entertained the world with over 650 early reading books, 50 picture books, 80 short chapter books, and a dozen novels.
My personal favorite is the jaunty Red-Eyed Tree Frog, in which a hungry amphibian makes his way through tempting jungle delicacies, finally leaping to a tasty lunch.
But she’s probably best known for her picture book series “Mrs. Wishy Washy.”
Joy’s new book, Writing from the Heart: How to Write for Children, is a treasure for those of us who genuflect at the feet of a great story—or storyteller.
She opens by explaining that the content is not meant to be instructional but rather offers a shared experience. She states that writers “can only take on new information if we are ready for it.”
Still, the short, eighty-page book is certainly informative. She plants tips, gentle reminders, and caveats throughout. It’s also uniquely organized. The eleven chapters cover some expected topics (plot, dialogue, etc.), but there are some surprises too. Joy includes plays, poetry, and humor as chapters. She insists that “our first duty to children is to entertain. The key ingredients for young children are affirmation and humor.”
Joy carries this commitment to affirmation and humor throughout by providing the adult reader distilled wisdom dotted with cartoon drawings and witty observations. Her “playful sage” persona is evident in the book, but it’s also truly a part of who she is.
When I met Joy, in 2007, her easy smile and head-thrown-back laugh left their impression. Then the last night of the weeklong workshop, Joy auctioned off a hand-knit shawl to the highest bidder. This shawl, she promised, would both warm and inspire the writer who wore it. I marveled at the long hours of labor and love she’d woven between the strands of soft yarn.
“That’s beautiful,” I said to the woman sitting next to me.
She nodded. “Joy does one every year. The money raised goes to scholarships so new writers can attend the workshop.”
Joy’s commitment to writers stayed with me, and I had a hunch that when I reviewed her book for this article, Joy would graciously allow me to interview her. I was right!
An Interview with Joy Cowley
I started the interview by asking how Joy’s shared experiences could assist writers in improving their craft. She said,
I suggest that a writer go through the book and mark the passages that have meaning for her or him. A year later, the writer may want to read the book again. This time different sections will probably be meaningful.
Peppered throughout the book were gentle warnings for writers. These seemed like tiny street signs, placed carefully to remind the reader of the most important aspect of writing for children, the child.
The counsel she repeated most was “keep your adult voice under control.” Joy explained,
The serious adult voice is usually dictatorial. It is the voice of the instructive parent or teacher. All books contain messages, but if the message is the purpose of the book, it will probably fail to interest a reader. Adult values are not necessarily a child’s values. Write for the child experience of life and language.
She also cautioned the reader away from “therapy writing,” the kind of writing we do “not to rescue the child out there but the one inside us.”
I started writing adult novels and I think they were nearly all “therapy” writing. Writing is a form of meditation: we go to a deeper place of awareness, and in the early stages, the negative stuff will surface. Beyond that there is healing or wholeness, a balance of light and shade. New writers almost always have to unload trauma before they come to this balance. The place for therapy writing is a journal, not a children’s book that projects pain and pity.
Her own childhood was certainly trauma-filled. The daughter of a schizophrenic mother and a seriously physically ill father, Joy hints at a wounded past.
My dear parents struggled. We lived on a pension. There were five children and life wasn’t easy . . .
But she also reminds us that the traumatized (or not) child inside of us is essential because he or she is ultimately our best audience. Joy encourages writers to create stories that “speak to” their inner child because “your childhood is not behind you. It is within you.”
And Joy spends a lot of time with kids. She has thirteen grandchildren and two great-grandchildren! I asked Joy if being a grandmother gives her a different perspective on childhood or children’s literature.
Young people will tell grandparents more than they tell their parents. For an older writer, these insights are a valuable resource.
After adapting a play myself, I was particularly interested in Joy’s chapter on playwriting, so I asked if she thought plays were child-centered in a way that books can sometimes fail to be. She said,
Children find a certain freedom in pretending to be someone else, and shy readers will often show confidence when reading a part in a play. Confidence is reinforced by the shared story and the fact that a reader has only small chunks to read, not a whole book.
I also enjoyed the description on her website that states, “Joy sees herself as wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. This is who she is; writing is what she does.”
It made me wonder if this was a sort of reminder to herself to balance the way she navigates rejection letters, mixed reviews, or unsupportive comments from those who believe writing for children is simple. I asked Joy how she manages to keep the “gremlins of self-doubt” away. In return, I got an inspiring story:
I thought of rejection slips in a different way after my first novel, Nest in a Falling Tree, was published by Doubleday in 1967. I kept three scrapbooks full of reviews, and no two reviews were exactly alike. I thought that was amazing. But it did teach me that individuals read and evaluate our writing.
I decided that a rejection slip came for one of three reasons: the story was substandard; the story had gone to the wrong publishing house; an editor had reacted in a personal way to the story. Whatever, it was up to me to decide which of these applied.
As an example, a junior fiction novel, The Silent One, was sent to three publishers in 1971, and all said it was neither a children’s book nor an adult novel and would not find a market. In 1978, another publisher asked if I had a children’s novel. I said I had written one that was a failure, and he asked to see it. He published it in 1979, it was NZ Children’s Book of the Year 1980, was made into a film that still shows on the Disney channel, was published in thirteen languages, and is still in print in South Pacific countries!
For the armchair critics, the people who think writing for children is not “real’ writing, I could usually manage a smile and an enthusiastic “I’d love to read your books!”
Take THAT, armchair critic!
While Joy can deliver a well-aimed retort to her adult critics, she lavishes the utmost care on writers and on child readers. In fact, each week she gets between two hundred and a thousand letters from children, and most of her writing time is spent replying to these letters.
I wondered if the content of the letters she receives has changed over the years or if there are new issues on kids’ minds today.
Children write about the same things: Mom, Dad, grandparents, that pain of a brother or sister, pets, their favorite hobbies, films, sports, food, family news, and the ups and downs of being small.
With playful insight, she zeroed in on the child’s voice, sharing a few verbatim excerpts from children’s letters:
“I broke my leg and it was hard going to the toilet in the night.”
“I clean out the bird cage because normally I have a blocked nose.”
“The only person in our family who doesn’t have eyeglasses is our cat Emily.”
At the end of our interview, I asked Joy about her goals for the future and what she is working on now.
I am still writing early reading material for beginner readers, but I have also other interests that have developed over the last two decades. I facilitate spiritual retreats. The demand for this has grown and 2012 is now booked out.
There is another children’s novel on the back burner, waiting for space for the writing. But I am now in my seventy-sixth year and energy is not what it was. I’d like to be less busy—to listen to the flowers and smell the rain!
The pleasure in spending a bit of time with Joy Cowley is indeed a bit like listening to the flowers and smelling the rain. Her joy (pun intended) and enthusiasm for stories is contagious.
Maybe this is best illustrated by Joy’s response during an on-camera interview.
The basics of reading almost missed me until I was nine and discovered that reading acts as story. I loved stories! I found that as often as I opened a book I could enter new lives!
Her merry eyes lifted at the corners as she laughed.
Whoever said you could only live once wasn’t a reader!
As a reader and a writer, I am grateful to Ms. Cowley. The gift of her wisdom left me feeling as though I’d donned one of her shawls, settled in front of a campfire, and readied myself to enter a new life, as a skilled storyteller welcomed me into the flickering orange lights ahead.
Juliet C. Bond is a college professor and children’s book author from Evanston, Illinois. She began writing after working in social services for many years and realizing that, as the poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote, “The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.”