McKinlay, Helen

McKinlay, Helen

In Brief

Helen McKinlay is a children’s book author and poet. Her writing has appeared in a range of anthologies and she is a 'live' poetry enthusiast. Her children’s story, Grandma’s Week Off, was recorded on Storytime for National Radio in 1994, and was published as a children’s picture book in 2003, with illustrations by Craig Smith. Grandma Joins the All Blacks, also a bestseller, was published in 2007. McKinlay is available to visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme.


McKinlay, Helen (1947 – ) writes children’s picture books and poetry. She was born in Wellington, and graduated as a registered nurse at Auckland Hospital in 1970 and a registered midwife at St Helen’s Hospital in Wellington in 1975. In 2005, she studied for the Advanced Diploma of Writing at Aoraki Polytechnic in Dunedin.

McKinlay comments that she enjoys her ‘ability to entertain people by the use of humour’. Her first book, Grandma’s Week Off, was recorded on Storytime for National Radio in 1994. It was published as a bestselling children’s picture book in 2003, with illustrations by Craig Smith. When reviewing the book, Kate De Goldi commented, ‘It’s a week for grandmothers to dream about – before they return to knitting and making marmalade.’
(Booknotes, Summer 2003)

McKinlay was one of the first poets to perform at the Mussel Inn in Golden Bay, and she has performed her poetry throughout the South Island. Her poetry is published in various anthologies, including Sleepy Hollow Stirs (Nucleus Publications, 2006), Before the Sirocco (NZ Poetry Society, 2008), Boulder Writers Two (Nelson, 2008), the Airing Cupboard Women's Poetry Groups fourth anthology Splash (Christchurch, early 2009), and Moments in the Whirlwind (NZ Poetry Society, 2009). Her poetry has also been published in various magazines and websites, in New Zealand and overseas.

Her other publications include National Radio Storytime recordings of The Best of Ears (1994) and The Flither Flothers’ Brand New Flying Feather Bed (2003).

Her bestselling book Grandma Joins the All Blacks was published by HarperCollins in 2007 and recorded by National Radio. Tessa Duder wrote in the Australian Women's Weekly, 'Please, Helen and Craig...more of this grandma.' and a reviewer for Parent and School Today wrote, 'This endearing story will delight young and old.'

Grandma's Kiwi Christmas
(HarperCollins) was published in 2008 and was a bestseller. It was also recorded by Radio NZ National. A reviewer for the Australian Women's Weekly wrote, 'The third book from McKinlay and Smith is a riot. Perfect for grandmas and grandchildren.'

Her fourth book, Grandma Meets the Queen (HarperCollins), was released in June 2010.

The final two pictures in the sidebar to the right are of Helen McKinlay during a Writers in Schools visit to Shirley Primary School.


Helen McKinlay lives in Christchurch. She is available to visit schools as part of the Writers in Schools programme.

KAPAI: Kids' Authors Pictures and Information

Where do you live?
At present I live in Christchurch but have spent most of my adult life in the country and, lucky for me, close to the sea.

What books do you read?
I love to read at night in bed. I start with non-fiction; anything from magazines to self-help books or books about special places and events. All sorts. For fiction I choose mainly adventure stories or mystery stories. I prefer happy endings! All sorts. For fiction I choose mainly, historical fiction, adventure stories or mysteries. Recently I reread some of my favourite childhood books, including a series about a bear called Mary Plain and another about a family of moomintrolls.

Who is your favourite writer and why?
I have many. This year I discovered Kerry Greenwood, who writes mysteries that feature a female detective in 1920s Australia. There is always lots of excitement and nice food. I also enjoy Dick Francis and John Francome, who write mysteries based on horse-racing but usually have lots of interesting subplots. Claire Francis is another and Barbara Erskine and Diana Gabaldon whose stories are a mixture of history and mystery with supernatural touches. And sometimes when I really need to relax I’m happy with a paperback romance! I like the hospital ones.

How do you think up your ideas?
I don’t do the thinking until I’ve captured the idea. My mind is quite pictorial. Snatches of conversation often provide possibilities. Sometimes they are quite funny. As regards poetry, I love the sounds and rhythms of words and so snatches of conversation often provide possibilities. I have often been inspired to write poems when travelling on buses!

Whats the best thing about being a writer?
Writing, and next comes sharing the results either through the medium of my own performance, radio or the written word. To know that someone shares an idea or is touched by mine is magic. I love entertaining people too.

Primary School students

What sort of pets do you have?
My pets have included cats, dogs, fish, a terrapin, caterpillars, snails, kunikuni pigs, guinea pigs, goats, ducks, rabbits and chooks. Of course, many of these were shared with my children!

What is your favourite colour?
Yellow – yellow with orange, purple or blue, and all those together.

What is your favourite food – why?
I love vegetables! They make me feel good. Steamed veges, vege pie, vege pancakes. Also chocolate (the dark sort), chilli sauce, basil pesto and wasabi. I love ‘hot’ food.

What is your favourite movie?
Like books, there are many. I’m not good at titles. Usually I talk about what they were about. I enjoy a wide range of ‘art films’ The Rocket Post and Letters to Juliet, for example and I like going to a chick flick with my daughters. I think 3D is amazing and have seen Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. Am looking forward to seeing the 3D Shrek. The movie I remember most, I saw as a child: it was about the eruption of Krakatoa – a place that fascinates me!

What is your favourite game?

I like Scrabble and card games (simple ones). Cluedo was a favourite for a while. The game I remember best is Trains, which is a circle game played by a group of people who take turns at being trainspotters, tunnels and stations. It has lots of tooting, whistling and laughter. And lately I have learned to play Rummikub, a numbers game played with tiles. I also love word games such as Twenty Questions and making up a story where one person starts with a sentence and the others add one of their own.

How do you make books?
There are many people involved in making books – illustrators, designers, typesetters, printers and, of course, the writer and the publisher – but anyone can make a book. I once made one for my children about a big holiday we had. I wrote the story in an exercise book and inserted photos, postcards and other small mementos such as maps and pamphlets. It was very popular because it was about our own family! You could do that too.

Where do you go for your holidays?
Preferably somewhere by the sea, such as Golden Bay but have had some great visits to Central Otago in the last few years.

What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
I remember getting the strap a few times for talking and once when I went back to my seat and said it didn’t hurt, I got it again – for talking!

Secondary School students

How did you get started?
Slowly. I wrote the odd story and poem. It was easier if I had a goal to write for, such as a writers’ group meeting or Live Poets night.

Who inspired you when you were getting started?
I got lots of positive feedback from my audiences when I performed and read.

What advice would you give an aspiring young writer?
Start now. Put your pen to the page and write – anything that comes into your head. Ask people you trust for constructive feedback.

Is it difficult to make a living writing in New Zealand?

Lots of writers joke about not giving up their day job. It depends what you write and who for. It is probably more difficult to make a living writing fiction and poetry than it is to be a journalist working for a newspaper for example.

What were you like as a teenager? Tell us a story!
Shy but determined. I wanted to be an actress and being in the school drama club was a highlight. I got lots of school detentions for not wearing my hat or gloves and had to write out Shakespearean sonnets, none of which I remember. I hated exams but I didn’t do as much homework as I should have, probably because I had too much piano practice!


Updated January 2017.