Gilderdale, Betty

Gilderdale, Betty

In Brief

Betty Gilderdale is a scholar, educator, and an expert on New Zealand children’s literature. She has worked as a lecturer, and her pioneering study, A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982), won the PEN Award for best first book of prose. She has written numerous research papers, reviews of children’s books, as well as entries in reference publications. Gilderdale’s major biography, The Seven Lives of Lady Barker, was published in 1996. The Betty Gilderdale Award has been named in her honour.


Gilderdale, Betty ( - ) was born in London and now lives on Auckland's North Shore. She graduated with a B.A. (Hons) in English from the University of London in 1949 and moved to New Zealand in 1967.

Gilderdale was a lecturer at North Shore Teachers’ College from 1969-1981 and then at the Auckland College of Education from 1981-1985. She worked as a Lecturer in the Department of Continuing Education at the University of Auckland.

Gilderdale is a ground-breaking scholar of New Zealand children’s literature. Her pioneering study, A Sea Change: 145 Years of New Zealand Junior Fiction (1982), won the PEN Award for best first book of prose, and her chapter in the Oxford History of New Zealand Literature in English is highly regarded. She has also written extensively on New Zealand children’s authors for such major international reference sources as the Routledge Encyclopaedia of Post-Colonial Literatures (1994), the St James’ Press Twentieth Century Children’s Writers (1995), and Oxford University Press’s Children’s Literature: An Illustrated History (1995).

The author of many research papers and a regular reviewer of children’s books and a columnist for the New Zealand Herald from 1973 to 1998, she has also written introductions to children’s texts and authors for children (including the award-winning Introducing Margaret Mahy, 1987) and, with Alan Gilderdale, The Little Yellow Digger (1992); she compiled Under the Rainbow: A Treasury of New Zealand Stories (1990); and translated and wrote an opera libretto, Sir Gawayn and the Green Knight, for composer John Rimmer. In 1991, Gilderdale published Introducing 21 New Zealand Childrens Writers.

In 1994, Gilderdale received the prestigius Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award, given annually by the New Zealand Children's Book Foundation. The award recognizes significant and distinguished contribution to children's literature.

Her major biography, The Seven Lives of Lady Barker, was published in 1996.

Gilderdale is a past president and life member of the Children’s Literature Association of New Zealand, and is founder and past president of the Children’s Media Watch group.

In 2000, she donated her extensive collection of New Zealand children’s books as a research collection to the University of Auckland Library. The CLA Award for Services to Children’s Literature was renamed the Betty Gilderdale Award in her honour.

In 2003, Betty and Alan Gilderdale received the Gaelyn Gordon Award for a Much-Loved Book for The Little Yellow Digger.

Gilderdale is the author of The Little Digger and the Bones (Scholastic, 2009), illustrated by her husband Alan, and part of the series which includes The Little Yellow Digger at the Zoo (Scholastic, 1999), The Little Yellow Digger Stories (Scholastic, 2001), The Little Yellow Digger Saves the Whale (Scholastic, 2001) and The Little Yellow Digger Goes to School (Scholastic, 2005).


Betty Gilderdale participates in the Writers in Schools programme.

KAPAI: Kids' Authors Pictures and Information

Where do you live?
On the North Shore of Auckland

What books do you like to read?
I like biographies, stories about real people. I like detective stories, ‘whodunits’. I like stories about the past. I like books that are funny. I love poetry. I read at least three books at a time, one in the bedroom, one in the sitting room and one in the kitchen!

Who is your favourite author?

Difficult to say, those from the past include Jane Austen and Anthony Trollope, those from the present include Jane Gardam, Penelope Fitzgerald, Dr McCall Smith and John Mortimer. My favourite children’s authors include Margaret Mahy, Rosemary Sutcliff, Dick King Smith and Michael Morpurgo.

How do you think up your ideas?
I don’t. They come to me and I work on them.

What is the best thing about being an author?
You can work in your own time. If it’s a sunny day you can take off for a picnic. If you can’t sleep you can work into the night. My children’s books bring me into contact with schools and I enjoy that.

Primary School students

What sort of pets do you have?
We don’t have any at the moment, because we go overseas often and it wouldn’t be fair to them. In the past we have had dogs (spaniel and labrador), cats (siamese and moggies), rabbits and goldfish.

What is your favourite colour?

What is your favourite food?


What is your favourite game?
I have several – chess and Cluedo

What is your favourite movie?

What is the most fun thing about being an author?
Being able to organise your own time and meeting other people.

How do you make books?
There are many different sorts of books. Each one is different. Picture books have to have 32 pages and that makes quite a difference to how you tell the stories.

Where do you like to go on your holidays?
Mostly to Europe, especially England, where our family live, and until recently one of our sons was there.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
I was usually in trouble for talking in class – if I’d finished my work or found the lesson boring!

Secondary School students

How did you get started as a writer?

Most of my writing is non-fiction, and that involves a lot of research. It took six years to research A Sea Change, and ten years for Lady Barker. The challenge was to write up research in an entertaining way. I also reviewed children’s books for the Herald for 25 years. Trying to review three books in 500 words was a challenge.

What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
Read, read and read. Read different kinds of writing, good non-fiction, articles in The Listener, fiction of all types and poetry.

Is it difficult to make a living as a writer in New Zealand?
Almost impossible unless you are lucky enough to have several bestsellers or you become a fulltime journalist.

What were you like as a teenager?

Busy! I was at a very academic school in England where I took nine subjects for what was School Certificate including French, German, Latin, Maths, Science, English, History, etc. We had three hours of homework a night, five hours at weekends and I had an hour’s piano practice a day. There wasn’t time to get into mischief.

Is there anything else you would like to tell us about yourself?
I never intended to write a picture book for children, but when we were babysitting our two little grandsons, a little yellow digger got stuck in the mud and had to be rescued by a bigger digger.

I made up a poem about it and the boys liked it so much I persuaded my husband, who is an artist, to illustrate the story. All The Little Yellow Digger books started from a true episode. We really did go to the zoo and thought the hippo pool was much too small (they’ve enlarged it since) and a young whale really did get stranded on a beach up north. When we were teaching in Wanganui a digger really did hit the water main and cut off the town water. We used this episode in The Little Yellow Digger Goes to School.

I think it is best to start writing about something you know, then move it on by using the imagination, ask yourself ‘what might happen next?’.

Updated January 2017.