Kiwi Author Pen Pals: What is it all about?

A new initiative has come to Aotearoa, spearheaded by author and bookstore owner Kate B. Gordon. The Sapling puts a few questions to Kate to tell us what it’s all about.

What is the Kiwi Authors Pen Pal programme?

Kiwi Author Pen Pals is a new initiative to connect New Zealand authors and illustrators with New Zealand primary and intermediate school children as pen pals. The aim is to encourage the children’s love of reading and books. It’s inspired by the successful BookPenPals scheme in the United Kingdom and a similar scheme in Australia called Author Pen Pals which was launched earlier this year.

The simple premise is that authors and illustrators pair up with a class for Terms 2 and 3 of each school year, and commit to sending at least four postcards or letters across the two terms. At the end of the year, they can step back from the programme or switch to a new school for the following year. Classes pair up with an author or illustrator for Terms 2 and 3, and commit to replying to them at least twice during that period. The written communications between authors/illustrators and students are intended to encourage handwriting and drawing, as well as embrace the relative novelty of receiving mail via post.

Due to the timing of getting underway this year, the programme will run only for Term 3, so the commitment for authors and illustrators is a minimum of two postcards or letters, and participating classes respond only once.

Kiwi Author Pen Pals is designed to support those schools which rarely have the opportunity to host or meet authors due to a lack of funds or their location, fitting alongside other successful and highly popular local author-school initiatives such as the Read NZ Writers in Schools programme and the Storylines National Story Tours which have similar goals of encouraging a love of reading.

So far, more than 60 teachers across the country have registered their classes to participate and, with 26 authors and illustrators registered, organisers welcome more New Zealand authors and illustrators to join in for Term 3 from 17 July.

Who are the people behind it?

Three New Zealand authors have joined together to run Kiwi Author Pen Pals – Wānaka author and founder of the Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore Kate B. Gordon; Auckland poet, author and school librarian Jo van Dam; and Auckland comic artist, illustrator and writer Jenn Rackham.

Kate B. Gordon
Jenn Rackham
Jo van Dam

What prompted you to set it up?

I saw Australian author Kate Foster post on Instagram about setting up the Australian author pen pal programme with Dee White. I thought that’s a really cool idea because, as an author who hasn’t yet braved the idea of doing school visits, I’m always looking for more ways to connect with young readers. I also thought it could be a lot of fun for the authors, illustrators and students involved, based on what I saw Kate and Dee talking about in Australia.

How do you think it will benefit schools?

I can imagine, as a young reader, how it feels to meet a real-life author who wrote a book you enjoyed reading, or even to comprehend that all kinds of New Zealanders have written books that might be available in your own school library.

I follow the authors-in-schools programmes run by Read NZ and the Storylines Trust, and can see just how much the school children involved enjoy meeting and talking with authors. Both these programmes are amazing but there is much more demand from schools than can be accommodated.

As a relatively low-input initiative, Kiwi Author Pen Pals allows more schools to have some kind of connection to a real-life author, albeit via postcard or letter rather than in-person. Having said that, if author pen pals and their schools agree (and the author is compensated accordingly), they’re welcome to do virtual school visits or send video communications.

In terms of other benefits to schools, Jo, Jenn and I are encouraged by the comments submitted by teachers on their sign-up forms, which include:

  • “It will be a new and exciting experience to communicate with an author and illustrator from Aotearoa and have the opportunity for students to share and exchange their creativity and questions with them. We have some avid readers in these classes, and I think this engagement will be a ‘love of literature” shot in the arm for them.”
  • “We are working on boosting our writing, so that the kids can see the importance of writing for pleasure or writing for a purpose. We have recently had an author visit us and the kids absolutely loved it and asked so many questions. I think they would get so much out of a pen pal too.”
  • “I have reading ages of Level 3 (PM) to level 30 (PM). This is extremely challenging to teach. I am always looking for authentic writing/reading opportunities for my students.”

How do you think it will benefit authors/illustrators?

Just as the main authors-in-schools programmes have a limit on the number of schools that can be involved, there’s also a limit on the number of authors who can be involved.

Kiwi Author Pen Pals is open to traditionally-published and indie authors and illustrators, so we have a wide pool of creative New Zealanders to draw from. Some may want to do more work with school students, so this is a great opportunity contribute with a relatively low time input.

We hope authors and illustrators enjoy their involvement, being able to connect with young readers and have fun while they’re doing it.

I’ve seen some comments online about how this appears to be another thing asking authors/illustrators to do for free. What is your response to that?

We completely understand that many authors and illustrators feel they give enough free time to various initiatives, and we thank all of them for their contributions to the New Zealand children’s book sector.

This year, with Kiwi Author Pen Pals running for only Term 3, we expect it would take 3-6 hours to do two communications to your pen pal school. Anything extra agreed between the author/illustrator and the teacher is over to them and not expected (and would ideally be paid by mutual agreement).

For some of us, a time commitment of 3-6 hours feels acceptable in return for the opportunity to enjoy engaging with a class of Year 0 to 8 students. It’s entirely over to the individual author or illustrator whether they volunteer for this programme or not.

Having said that, we have applied for funding – and will apply for more. If successful, we’ll have a funding pool to be split between all participating authors and illustrators. This is very much part of our longer term objectives.

Is the programme connected to your bookshop, The Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore, in any way?

Yes, in a small way. The Kiwi Kids’ Bookstore has sponsored the creation of the Kiwi Author Pen Pals website and underwrites my time to launch the programme. Some schools have indicated they’d appreciate assistance with postage costs. We haven’t nutted out all the details, but the bookstore will contribute the funds needed to support those schools.

When does the programme start and how can schools/authors/illustrators sign up?

We get underway for Term 3 on 17 July, so sign-ups close Friday 23 June in order to have time to make the pen pal match-ups, and give authors and illustrators time to contact their pen pal class before the end of Term 2. Visit for all the details and sign-up forms.