Kōrero: Children’s and young adult literature

Whārangi 3. Fantasy and social realism, 1970s–2000s

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Until the 1970s books that took children into the realm of make-believe were mainly fairy stories. Daphne Goomes’ The laughing hours (1950) and Maurice Duggan’s Falter Tom and the water boy (1958) were outliers, works of fantasy unusual in the era of adventure stories.

Maurice Gee became well known for science fiction/fantasy books for older children and teenagers, starting with Under the mountain in 1979.

Sherryl Jordan’s first fantasy novel, Rocco (1990), began a successful career in this genre; and in the early 21st century internationally recognised fantasy writers for children and young adults included Barbara Else, David Hair and Elizabeth Knox.

Much loved

Gaelyn Gordon’s works for young people, often exploring myth and fantasy, were popular and influential, but won no awards. After Gordon’s death in 1997 Storylines established the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Loved Book, given annually to a New Zealand book that has become enduringly successful but never won a major award.

Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley

Celebrated and prolific children’s authors Margaret Mahy and Joy Cowley both had their first books for children published in 1969.

Mahy was a leading exponent of fantasy fiction for all ages, and was New Zealand’s greatest children’s author. In 2005 she received the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, and the following year the Hans Christian Andersen award – the highest recognition in the world for a children’s author.

Cowley, known internationally for her educational books as well as her trade fiction, received the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction in 2010.

Social realism

From the 1980s writers for teenagers tackled previously taboo topics. These books fitted into the ‘young adult’ category, which emerged in New Zealand that decade.

Jack Lasenby wrote about sexual abuse in The lake (1987), and the father in William Taylor’s Possum Perkins (1987) is a potential abuser. Taylor explored a romantic relationship between two teenage boys in The blue lawn (1994), and Paula Boock wrote about lesbian love in Dare, truth or promise (1997). Kate De Goldi looked at incest and suicide in Closed, stranger (1999).

Some books attracted controversy, especially if they won awards. Maurice Gee’s The fat man (1994) was criticised by some for its violent content and disturbing plot. The sex, drugs and swearing in Ted Dawe’s novel Into the river (2012) was also controversial. Judges argued that these books’ literary qualities and sensitive handling of delicate material made them appropriate winners.

In the 2000s two major writers of social realism for young adults were Bernard Beckett and Mandy Hager, both of whom, at times, explored dystopian themes.


Feminist writers and themes emerged in children’s literature as they did in work for adults, particularly in the 1980s. Tessa Duder’s Alex quartet (published between 1987 and 1992) follows champion swimmer and non-conformist Alex as she confronts sexism, racism and personal trauma in 1950s and 1960s New Zealand. The series became a standard-bearer for strong female characters overseas as well as in New Zealand.


Perhaps surprisingly, sport and recreation received little attention until the 1990s. Fleur Beale and David Hill were two important writers who wrote books that explored the adventure, competition and rivalry inherent in sporting endeavours.

Cats love boxes

My cat likes to hide in boxes was published in 1973. Eve Sutton wrote it at the suggestion of her cousin Lynley Dodd, who illustrated it. Sutton went on to write books for older children, and Dodd created Hairy Maclary.

Picture books

Picture-book publishing boomed from the 1980s. Until 1979 only 91 were published in New Zealand. Between 1980 and 1986, 141 were.

Māori subjects were popular. Peter Gossage retold myths and legends, and his bold, concise, colourful full-page illustrations had wide appeal. Patricia Grace collaborated with artist Robyn Kahukiwa on The kuia and the spider (1981) and Watercress tuna and the children of Champion Street (1984).

A number of picture books were published in both English and te reo Māori. Kāterina Mataira was a leading children’s author in te reo, and also translated other authors’ books.

Arguably New Zealand’s best-known picture-book character made his debut in 1983, in Lynley Dodd’s Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. He was still having new adventures in the early 2000s.

Some other important picture-book creators included authors Jennifer Beck, Dorothy Butler and Kyle Mewburn; illustrator Robyn Belton; and author-illustrators Pamela Allen, Gavin Bishop, David Elliott, Ruth Paul and Gwenda Turner.

Gavin Bishop won numerous awards, and from 2009 new illustrators could enter the Storylines Gavin Bishop Award, for the opportunity to be mentored by him.


Non-fiction writing for children became more prominent in the early 2000s, when non-fiction books first began winning the top prize at the national children’s book awards. Natural history books were particularly successful – Andrew Crowe and Janet Hunt were leading exponents. Gregory O’Brien won awards for books on New Zealand art.

Me pēnei te tohu i te whārangi:

Kerryn Pollock, 'Children’s and young adult literature - Fantasy and social realism, 1970s–2000s', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/childrens-and-young-adult-literature/page-3 (accessed 16 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Kerryn Pollock, i tāngia i te 22 Oct 2014, updated 1 Aug 2016