Born in London, England, on 29 August 1872, Edith Annie Howes was one of the five surviving children of Cecilia Brown and her husband, William Howes, a post office clerk who later became an accountant. The family emigrated to New Zealand when Edith was a child. She was educated at Kaiapoi Borough School, where she became a pupil-teacher, and in 1893 she completed her formal teacher training at Christchurch. She taught at Ashburton, Wanganui and Makarewa before being appointed infant mistress at Gore School in 1899. From 1914 until 1917 she was headmistress, and in 1917 she became head of the junior department at Wellington Girls' College, a position she held until 1919, when she retired from teaching.
While at Gore, Howes introduced reforms which had nationwide implications. She was dismayed by the unsatisfactory conditions she had observed in New Zealand schools: harassed teachers coping with huge classes in poorly ventilated, dirty rooms. In these circumstances there was heavy reliance on the rote method of learning, and the cane. As an early convert to Montessori methods and the kindergarten philosophy, Howes created a more humane learning environment. She reduced class size, advocated open-air rooms with noiseless floors, and replaced desks with small tables and chairs. Pupils learned by seeing, touching and experimenting for themselves.
Believing that facts were easier to learn when woven into a story or song, Howes began writing books for children. There was a dearth of material on scientific subjects for New Zealand children, so with the assistance of her brother, the entomologist William George Howes, she learned to observe and record natural phenomena, which she then described in the context of imaginative writing. Her first book, The Sun's babies, was published in 1910 to critical acclaim; as a result she was made a life member of the Otago Institute in 1911.
In all she wrote about 30 books for children, some of which were reprinted many times. The most famous were Fairy rings (1911), published in London with fine illustrations, and The cradle ship (1916), which ran to 18 reprints with translations into French, Italian and Danish. A landmark attempt to provide children with sex education, it conceded that babies grew within the mother's body (although the site was only hinted at: a 'silken baby-bag' beneath the heart), and that a birth process took place. While much of Howes's writing centres on a mythical fairy world which today seems naïve, her best work shows a delicacy of touch and a fine eye for detail.
After her early retirement from teaching, Edith Howes settled in Dunedin where she lived for a time before shifting to Christchurch to care for her elderly mother. She continued to produce books for children, but had also begun to write for an adult audience. Two articles published in 1914 revealed her feminist vision: she emphasised the importance of higher education for girls and the need for women to participate in public life. Noting that a commission set up to inquire into the education of girls had only one woman on it, she remarked that 'the astounding egoism of the men who take it upon themselves to command the future of all the women of this country is only equalled by the astounding apathy of the women who will submit to the imposition'.
In 1919 she published Tales out of school, in which she frankly criticised the demoralising conditions in New Zealand schools and explained her own educational philosophy. This book was based on articles which first appeared in the New Zealand Herald. In The great experiment (1932) Howes reflected on the family and society. She maintained that life should evolve ever onwards and upwards; that children should be nurtured by educated parents who in turn should be supported by a caring community.
Edith Howes was a member of the League of New Zealand Penwomen, the New Zealand Women Writers' and Artists' Society, and the New Zealand centre of PEN. In later years, perhaps emboldened by the example and encouragement of other writers, she wrote plays and the libretto for a comic opera, and gave radio broadcasts. During New Zealand Authors' Week in 1936, Rose Lane, her three-act play set in the Otago goldfields (and which had won a British Drama League prize), was performed. In 1935 she was appointed an MBE and in 1937 was awarded King George VI's Coronation Medal for her services to literature. When her mother died in 1941 she returned to Dunedin, where she died on 9 July 1954. She had never married.
Edith Howes was much loved by pupils, friends and relations and had a special empathy with young people. Her home in Dunedin was a focus for literary and musical groups. She had a strongly practical streak, designing her own houses and building furniture. Perhaps from necessity – despite her prolific output of books she received few royalties – she wove her old stockings into floormats, made her own coffee substitute, gardened and preserved. And, ignoring the prevailing taste for white bed linen, she dyed her sheets pink. Above all, Edith Howes was an individual in a conforming age.