Sharing a lifetime’s experience of reading and writing

Issue: Volume 97, Number 19

Posted: 29 October 2018
Reference #: 1H9n5U

Packed with tips and advice, author Joy Cowley’s recent Book Council Lecture, ‘The Power of Story’ is now available for all teachers and parents. Melissa Wastney reports.

The year was 1986. The carpet was brown and scratchy. I was wearing a red tracksuit and learning to read with Miss Johnston at Clifton Terrace School.

The book? Along Came Greedy Cat by Joy Cowley, its pages soft in the corners where they’d been turned by small fingers.

The mum in this book wears jeans, boots and a headscarf and looked a bit like my mum. As the story progresses, she buys delicious food: sausages, sticky buns, potato chips. I liked saying those words and I liked seeing them on the pages. I liked reading.

Early experiences of reading need to tap into something that is meaningful and enjoyable to the one holding the book, says Joy Cowley, who delivered the New Zealand Book Council Annual Lecture at Te Marae, Te Papa Tongarewa, in October.

“Reading has to have meaning for a child. Confidence in reading comes from empowerment and pleasure, and humour is a great tool. Children aren’t tense when they’re laughing.”

The New Zealand Book Council’s mission is to ‘help more New Zealanders read more’. This year a particular focus of its work has been on reluctant readers: who are the Kiwis least likely to pick up a book, and why?

Joy Cowley has devoted her writing career to encouraging young children to read. Her books, of which there are more than 600, are in every school in New Zealand and many others around the world.

In her talk ‘The Power of Story’, Cowley remembers her own experiences learning to read at school, and the feeling of failure when she struggled to make sense of the marks on the page.

As a young mother of four children, she started writing stories for early readers, in particular her son, who also struggled to learn to read with the prescribed books on offer.

Realising that Edward enjoyed reading stories about himself, she wrote Edward Puts Out the Fire in the Cowshed, Edward Saves his Father from the Shark, and Edward Fixes the Tractor.

Similar stories were typed up into booklets and personalised to suit other reluctant or struggling young readers within the school community. A friend sent some of these stories to a Wellington publisher and the rest is history.

Cowley has written many novels, scripts, short stories and spiritual essays, but most of her books are for children.

“In a lifetime of writing, I’ve created stories for adults and children of all ages, but my heart remains with the young children who are struggling readers; the children for whom the book remains a closed secret; the children who see other children in a book, but never themselves.”

For Cowley, it’s not just about teaching children how to read, but rather helping them to find themselves in stories, and fostering a love of books.

“Whoever said we only live once was not a reader. Books allow us to live new lives in new landscapes. This is what I want for all our children.” 

What makes a great book for children?

Cowley says a great book should:

  • be child-friendly, empowering and entertaining
  • have action and a defined plot
  • include dialogue. If there is too much narrative, children say, “There isn’t enough talking in it.”
  • have humour, quirky language, rhythm and rhyme.
  • Not all children relate to make-believe, she says. Some children enjoy factual stories – tales of heroes, shipwrecks, volcanic eruptions, car races, marathons and extraordinary feats.

Cowley advises parents to:

  • create a ‘story place’, such as a corner with cushions, away from screens
  • be an actor when reading books to children; make up different voices for the characters and emphasise the dramatic parts
  • consider buying a subscription to a magazine on a child’s hobby (sport, horses, planes, etc).
  • Ultimately, she says, it is the reader who will make the book great with the telling.

‘The Power of Story’ (external link)is available from the New Zealand Book Council for download in PDF format and as a recording.

BY Education Gazette editors
Education Gazette | Tukutuku Kōrero,

Posted: 9:08 am, 29 October 2018

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