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Announcing the Prime Minister’s Awards

Elizabeth Knox, Gavin Bishop and Fleur Adcock.
Pages from Gavin Bishop’s book, The House That Jack Built, 1999.
The House That Jack Built, 1999.
Illustration from 'Wildlife of Aotearoa'. 2019.
Pages from Aotearoa: The New Zealand story, 2017.
Andrea Rush has the line-up, and talks in-depth with one of the winners.


Children’s book author and illustrator, Gavin Bishop ONZM, has just been named the winner of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement - Non Fiction. 

The former art teacher, who has 70 books to his name, told The Big Idea that he gained much of his inspiration from his grandfather, who was born in 1843.  

Elizabeth Knox has won the 2019 Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement for Fiction, and Fleur Adcock CNZM, OBE (London) - for Poetry.

Awarding Aotearoa’s writers

Every year, New Zealanders are invited to nominate their choice of a New Zealand writer who has made a significant contribution to literature in the genres of non-fiction, poetry and fiction. Writers can also nominate themselves for the awards.

Nominations are assessed by a panel of external experts with recommendations forwarded to the Arts Council for approval. This year’s selection panel comprised David Eggleton, Lydia Wevers, John Huria, and Morrin Rout.

Arts Council Chair Michael Moynahan said, “Congratulations to Gavin, Elizabeth and Fleur. We are thrilled to acknowledge your significant contributions to New Zealand literature over the span of your remarkable careers. Your storytelling has enriched our literary history and has been an inspiration to many.” 

Pages from Gavin Bishop’s book, The House That Jack Built

The power of myth

Gavin Bishop’s work ranges from non-fiction to original stories, retellings of Māori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes.

“My maternal grandfather (who was Maori) was born in 1843. He was 70 when my mother was born. He’d been dead 10 years by the time I was born! But that knowledge, her family stories, have inspired me enormously throughout my career.”

“Family stories, have inspired me enormously throughout my career.”

Gavin has written a book about his grandfather’s sister - Great Aunt Catarina, who was of Tainui descent and moved from Waikato to Fort Rose in Southland in the 1860s after she married a Scotsman.

“I also made up a Māori myth about a woman who had red hair and green eyes and became an outcast in her tribe but saves the day after a volcanic eruption.” 

Impact of colonisation 

The children’s picture book entitled, The House that Jack Built is one of his proudest achievements. It looks at the effect of the colonisation of New Zealand and its impact on Māori. The structure and text is from the classic nursery rhyme of the same name. The book was originally published by Scholastic in 1999 and was picked up by Gecko.

“A lot of schools use the book to talk about the effect of colonisation – the book is heavily reliant on pictures to tell the story.” 

Gavin believes the recent announcement by the Government that New Zealand history will become a compulsory part of the school syllabus is fantastic news.

The House That Jack Built, 1999.

“I think it’s brilliant and I believe it will give my book, The House That Jack Built, a new life.” 

A rare win

He was very surprised to find out he’d won, especially given the kind of non-fiction work he writes. 

“My approach to non-fiction tends to be a hunter and gatherer, I gather things, then make a book ... I start with material that other people have already put together.”

“My approach to non-fiction tends to be a hunter and gatherer.”

Gavin sees the award as an acknowledgement of a lifetime of work, not just a specific book, and he says Māori legends are also regarded as non-fiction.

“This is because for some people they’re not myths and legends - they are creation stories and thus are regarded as being the basis of a belief system, so they are true.”

His books are widely used in schools, and many have been translated into Maori and used by Kurakaupapa schools. Some of his books have also been translated into other languages including Korean and Chinese.  

Exploring Aotearoa’s natural history

Gavin's most recent book, Wildlife of Aotearoa, is a companion piece to Aotearoa: The New Zealand Story, which explores Aotearoa’s history through expansive illustrated pages from the time of the dinosaurs through to today and beyond. 

Illustration from Wildlife of Aotearoa, 2019.

Aotearoa has been a continual bestseller on the children’s and adult non-fiction lists since it was released in 2017 and won the Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, and the Elsie Locke Award for Non-fiction at the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2018.

Pages from Aotearoa: The New Zealand story, 2017.

Surviving on a writer’s income 

When he resigned from teaching and began writing and illustrating full time, Gavin was 52. He’d made sure he’d paid off the mortgage and having paid into a superannuation fund since he was 18 had a small foundation income for bills. Ten years later, he got government super and these two base incomes allowed him to pay for the basics of living. Anything from writing was something on top. 

“This was important, as any kind of income from writing is unreliable, some years you can do well, and some years you can get nothing,” he explained.

“For me, writing has been very rewarding because I’ve been freed up from my very demanding teaching job and have been able to accept invitations to visit primary schools and talk about writing.  I have been free to go to book festivals in all sorts of places that I probably wouldn’t have been able to do that if I was teaching.” 

2019 Winners

  • Gavin Bishop, ONZM - Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement - for Non Fiction.  

  • Elizabeth Knox, ONZM - Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement -  Fiction - She is the author of 13 novels and three novellas, in genres ranging from autobiographical fiction to fantasy.In 2000, she was the recipient of the Arts Foundation’s  Laureate Award, and in 2002 was made an ONZM. Her book The Vintner’s Luck (first published by Victoria University Press 1998) won the Deutz Medal for Fiction, the Readers’ Choice and Booksellers’ Choice awards in the 1999 Montana New Zealand Book Awards, and the Tasmania Pacific Region Prize (2001). The Vintner’s Luck has been published in 10 languages. In 2014 she was the recipient of the Creative New Zealand Michael King Writers Fellowship. Her adult novels include Wake (Corsair, 2013), and The Absolute Book, which was published in September.

  • Fleur Adcock, CNZM, OBE (London) - Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement ­– Poetry. She is a New Zealand poet, editor and translator based in the United Kingdom. Her first book of poetry, The Eye of the Hurricane, was published in New Zealand by A.H & A.W Reed in 1964. In February 2019 Collected Poems was published by VUP. She has also published translations from Romanian and medieval Latin poetry, and edited several anthologies, Fleur has written libretti and texts for a number of musical works. Her collaborations with the composer Gillian Whitehead include Hotspur (1980), Eleanor of Aquitaine (1982), Out of this Nettle, Danger (1983), Alice (2002), and Iris Dreaming (2016). She was awarded the Queen's Gold Medal for Poetry in 2006, and in 2008 was named CNZM for services to literature.

    The awards will be presented at a ceremony at Premier House in Wellington, on Monday 14 October. The 2019 Creative New Zealand Michael King Writer’s Fellowship winner, historian, academic and translator, Dr Mere Whaanga, will also be honoured at the ceremony. 

 A full list of previous recipients can be found on the Creative New Zealand website.

Written by

Andrea Rush

7 Oct 2019

Andrea Rush is a writer for the Big Idea. An aspiring novelist, she has a background in journalism, broadcasting, television production and communications. She is passionate about social justice, environment and economics.