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Story: Children’s and young adult literature

From picture books to novels to non-fiction, New Zealand literature for young people is diverse and original, with authors often working across several genres. Growing numbers of authors and illustrators in the field are achieving international success.

Story by Kerryn Pollock
Main image: Children reading one of Lynley Dodd's celebrated Hairy Maclary books

Story Summary

All images & media in this story

The 19th century

In the mid-19th century young readers in England enjoyed books of facts – and adventurous tales – about New Zealand and its people. Some books were written by colonial settlers and sent back to England to be published, but most were by authors who had never been to New Zealand.

Fairy tales and folk-lore of New Zealand and the South Seas by Edward Tregear was the first children’s book published in New Zealand – in 1891. This was the start of locally written literature aimed at New Zealand children.

1900s–1960s

The fairy tale genre took off in the early 20th century. Stories about families and relationships also became popular with young Pākehā readers.

School stories were a major genre in England, and New Zealand’s first home-grown example appeared in 1929 – Phillis Garrard’s Hilda at school: a New Zealand story set in Taihape.

During the Second World War, few books were published in New Zealand. Adventure stories made a comeback in the late 1950s, and a growing interest in New Zealand history saw many stories set in the 19th century.

The School Journal, a free publication for school children, appeared in 1907. From the 1940s to the 21st century it was a powerhouse of children’s literature. It published work by both emerging and established writers and illustrators.

1970s–2000s

The 1970s saw an increase in fantasy fiction. From the 1980s writers of social realism tackled previously taboo areas, especially in works for teenagers. Some – controversially – won awards for doing so. Feminism also made its way into children’s literature, notably in Tessa Duder’s Alex books, about a young swimmer battling to succeed in her sport.

Picture-book publishing boomed from the 1980s. Internationally New Zealand’s best-known picture-book character may be Hairy Maclary, the creation of Lynley Dodd.

Non-fiction writing for children became more prominent in the early 2000s, when works of non-fiction first began winning the supreme award at the children's book awards. Natural history author Andrew Crowe was a leader in the field.

Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop

Margaret Mahy was New Zealand’s greatest children’s author. In 2006 she won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal – considered the most prestigious children’s literature prize in the world. Joy Cowley is known internationally for a large body of award-winning fiction for all ages, as well as for her many school reading books. Author-illustrator Gavin Bishop won numerous awards, and from 2009 new illustrators could enter the Gavin Bishop Award. The winner had the opportunity to be mentored by him.

How to cite this page:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s and young adult literature', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/childrens-and-young-adult-literature (accessed 17 January 2018)

Story by Kerryn Pollock, published 22 Oct 2014, updated 9 Aug 2016