Featherston woman Joy Cowley joind the elite ranks of the Order of New Zealand. PHOTO/FILE

CHELSEA BOYLE

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One of New Zealand’s favourite authors has claimed a top honour but says it belongs to the people of Featherston Booktown and the children who read her books.

Featherston Booktown patron Joy Cowley has joined the Order of New Zealand, which is the highest award in the country’s honours system, with membership limited to 20 living people.

But the top accolade caught the prolific author, who counts her only qualification as a diploma in wood turning, by surprise.

“I thought why me? But I was also absolutely thrilled because it was a genuinely New Zealand award,” she said.

“It doesn’t belong anywhere else.

“I’ve travelled so much overseas in my work and always coming back, coming home to this country, is coming home to myself.”

The hardest part had been keeping the secret from family, especially keeping them out of the room during a long line-up of interviews which would have been “a dead giveaway”.

In one day alone, the author – who is in her 80s – completed six interviews with each person telling her they had read one of her books growing up.

Cowley is best known for her children’s fiction, which includes the books ‘The Silent One’ (1981), ‘Bow Down Shadrach’ (1991) and its sequel ‘Gladly, Here I Come’ (1994).

Before she published her debut book ‘Nest in a Falling Tree’ (1967), Cowley never dreamed of being such a success in print.

“I didn’t identify as being a writer until about 20 years ago… because writing was just something I did like breathing – it’s like saying I’m a breather.”

But after a lifetime of writing there was one book that stood out.

“Bow Down Shadrach was a very important book to me,” she said.

The inspiration behind the story was sparked by some of her family’s adventures in the Marlborough Sounds.

“When we used to drive into the sounds this draft horse used to stand on the road, which was a gravel road in those days, because that was the warmest place to stand. It had bad arthritis.

“We’d have to stop the car and then the children would have to get out and push the draft horse off the road.

“Now old horses have a habit, when they are walking somewhere, of farting.

“And my children used to argue as to who was going to stand behind this horse while it walked across the road.”

There were elements in the story that were true, she said.

She credited her teachers for playing a huge role in her life.

“My parents didn’t believe too much in educating girls,” she said.

“Life at home was hard.

“I went to Palmerston North High School where there were some great teachers who saw through the untidiness and the lack of parental support and they fostered the talents that I had which were mainly art and writing.”

Cowley is still writing and every now and again still finds time to clear her desk to paint.

“I like spinning and knitting,” she said.

“My only qualification in life is a diploma in wood turning.”

Cowley is patron of Featherston Booktown and a huge supporter of the St Teresa’s school and church.

Featherston was an incredibly friendly town, she said.

“I walk past the school and the kids all lean over the fence and yell out ‘gidday Joy’.

“I love that.”

Over the years Cowley has gained numerous national and international literary awards, including the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in fiction in 2010 and the University of Alabama’s Maryann Manning Award for Outstanding Literacy Scholar in 2011.