FROM THE OXFORD COMPANION TO NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE
MAHY, Margaret (1936–2012 ), the most acclaimed of New Zealand’s children’s writers, was born and raised in Whakatane, eldest of five children. Her father, a bridge builder, told stories and read to his children; his taste for adventure was to influence Mahy’s writing.
Her mother had been a teacher. With many relatives living in the same town, Mahy had a largely happy childhood, excelling at high school as a swimmer. Though regarded at primary school as academically ‘slow’, her first publications were at the age of 7, in the children’s page of the Bay of Plenty Beacon; she also entered Junior Digest competitions.
Mahy worked as a nurse’s aide for six months before going to Auckland University College 1952–54 and Canterbury University College 1955, graduating BA. In 1956 she entered the New Zealand Library School in Wellington, and with her Diploma (1958) went on to embrace librarianship with enthusiasm, taking a position at Petone Public Library.
For personal reasons she moved to Ohariu, near Wellington, and then to Governor’s Bay, Lyttelton Harbour, in 1965. In 1967 she began working for the School Library Service in Christchurch, and in 1976 was appointed Children’s Librarian at the Canterbury Public Library, a position she held until she resigned in 1980 to become a full-time writer. She lives in Governor’s Bay.
Working as a librarian and bringing up two daughters, Mahy continued to write stories and poems. Her work was rejected by commercial publishers in New Zealand (who were concentrating on explicitly New Zealand books for the local market), but many pieces were accepted by the School Journal. The Little Witch was the first to be accepted, and The Procession the first to be published (in 1961).
In 1968 an American editor, Sarah Chockla Gross, discovered A Lion in the Meadow and in 1969 Franklin Watts in America published five Mahy stories as picture books, launching her international career. ‘It was one of those romantic things that happen,’ Mahy has said, although she in fact received another independent enquiry from America a few months later. Watts went on to publish more stories, including many which had originally appeared in the School Journal, now adapted to their new picture book format.
By the mid-1970s Mahy had added junior fiction to her repertoire; by the early 1980s she was writing adolescent novels— at least one of which (Memory, 1987) could have been marketed for adults. She has published about 120 titles (including school readers), and has written and adapted for television.
Her work has been translated into fifteen languages. Awards include the New Zealand Library Association’s Esther Glen Medal (A Lion in the Meadow, 1969; The First Margaret Mahy Story Book, 1972; The Haunting, 1982; The Changeover, 1984; Underrunners, 1992); the Goodman Fielder Wattie Award for Junior Fiction (Underrunners); the British Library Association’s Carnegie Medal (The Haunting; The Changeover); the Young Observer Fiction Prize (The Tricksters, 1986); the Italian Premier Grafico Award (The Wind Between the Stars, 1976) and the Dutch Silver Pencil Award (The Boy Who Was Followed Home, 1977). In the United States her works have been included in prestige listings made by journal editors, librarians and educationalists; Memory, The Tricksters and Dangerous Spaces (1991) have all appeared on the Horn Book Fanfare list.
She has held writing fellowships in New Zealand and Australia, and in 1993 was awarded the Order of New Zealand and an honorary doctorate of the University of Canterbury. In the many accounts of her life written for children (the most substantial of which is Betty Gilderdale’s Introducing Margaret Mahy, 1987), the no doubt complicated contours of Mahy’s past and present existence have been simplified into the archetypal narrative of the hero who is despised at first, but who—thanks to persistence and good fortune—wins through.
Mahy does in fact live (with her pets, and visited by her grandchildren) in an Edenic garden by the sea. She is a remarkably generous person, replying to all of the many letters she receives, and frequently visiting schools and libraries (sometimes in fancy dress). One of the more substantial of many published interviews is Sue Kedgley’s (Our Own Country, 1989).
Mahy’s work until 1996 has been judiciously described by Gilderdale in A Sea Change (1982) and in OHNZLE (1991, 1998). Most of the picture books and junior novels are humorous. Mahy describes impossible scenarios in a matter-of-fact tone, she parodies literary conventions, she satirises human foibles, and her virtuosity with language is such that the English poet James Fenton, advocate of ‘the new recklessness’ in poetry, rose to applaud her poem ‘Bubble Trouble’ (1991) when she recited it during Writers and Readers Week in Wellington in 1990.
Humour may however be laid aside—as in the mystical picture books The Wind Between the Stars and Leaf Magic (1976). Mahy’s modes are primarily fantasy and adventure, but her witches, dragons, pirates and millionaires do engage with the ordinary world—indeed, she focuses on this engagement.
Her fabulous characters embody the liberating power of the imagination; ‘perhaps,’ Mahy has said, ‘when I write about witches, the person I am really writing about is myself.’ But the stories nevertheless deal with more universal fears and longings. By the mid-1970s Mahy had begun to write about what she has called ‘the sort of experience that really could happen’.
In the picture book Stepmother (1974), for example, the folk-tale archetype of the wicked stepmother exists merely as a figment of a resentful stepdaughter’s imagination; it is countered by a real—thoroughly kind—stepmother. The junior novel The Pirate Uncle (1977), despite its ‘adventure story’ title, is also notably realistic. Similarly, some of the adolescent novels (including The Catalogue of the Universe, 1985, Memory and The Other Side of Silence, 1996) are based in what Mahy has called ‘consensus reality’, where nothing technically impossible happens.
But even the realistic novels have fairy-tale analogues (which Mahy emphasises through allusion and metaphor): Tycho, the awkward young hero of Catalogue, is a frog prince figure; the elective mute who is the narrator-protagonist of The Other Side of Silence resembles the archetypal sulky princess; and the old woman with Alzheimer’s disease who befriends and is befriended by the young hero in Memory is as weird as any good fairy (even though Mahy apparently based her on an aunt).
Furthermore, Mahy has continued to write in an overtly supernatural tradition—with novels like Aliens in the Family and The Tricksters (both 1986), The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance and Dangerous Spaces (1991). The Changeover, one of Mahy’s personal favourites, features a female hero (Laura) who becomes a witch in order to save her younger brother from annihilation by a demon. Laura’s powers suggest the creative imagination, while those of the demon seem to project her fears, her insecurity which springs from the separation of her parents and her mother’s preoccupation with a new partner.
Mahy’s novels often develop in a sunny atmosphere, but her recurrent themes include marital infidelity, parental abandonment, jealousy, self-deception, lies, mental illness and brain damage, and death (the latter often tragically accidental). The novels have happy endings, however, and inspire faith in the capacity of the young to overcome quite serious difficulties.
Mahy is an astute commentator on her own work. Characteristic lectures include ‘On Building Houses that Face Towards the Sun’, published in A Track to Unknown Water (1987), and the Arbuthnot lecture for 1989, published by the American Library Association in 1990.
She is preoccupied with two topics—the relationship between the ‘truth’ of the imagination and factual truth; and her failure to depict New Zealand in her earlier work. The themes are connected, since—as Mahy has explained—both her predilection for fantasy and her typically European settings derive from the fact that the books available to her as a child were set elsewhere (chiefly in England).
Mahy did include some New Zealand details in her first Journal publications, and the tension between the New Zealand setting and European traditions is both pivotal and explicit in her 1968 poem ‘Christmas in New Zealand’. But it was not until The Changeover that Mahy began to incorporate New Zealand in her commercial fiction.
The New Zealand setting has become increasingly strong in the novels, and a pohutakawa tree adorns even the largely incredible landscape of Telephone, Tuckletubs and Tingleberries (1995). Mahy is interested in science; her belief that science and the imagination ultimately validate each other is evident in The Catalogue of the Universe. Some commentators have found Mahy’s fiction feminist.
It has been noted of the picture book Jam, A True Story (1985) that it is the father and not the mother who sets about jam-making in response to an oversupply of plums. Mahy herself (although she has described her younger self as a ‘tomboy’) rejects such readings; the subject of Jam, she has said, is the ‘prodigality of nature’. Claudia Marquis takes a sophisticated feminist approach to The Haunting in Landfall 162 (1987).
Mahy has been published by Franklin Watts (until 1979), Dent (until 1988) and Hamish Hamilton. Titles not listed in the 1998 OHNZLE (excluding those mentioned above) include: (picture books) Making Friends, The Pumpkin Man and the Crafty Creeper, The Seven Chinese Brothers (1990), The Dentist’s Promise, Keeping House, The Queen’s Goat (1991), The Horrendous Hullabaloo (1992), The Three-Legged Cat, A Busy Day for a Good Grandmother (1993), The Christmas Tree Tangle (1994) and The Big Black Bulging Bump (1995); (collections) A Tall Story and Other Tales, Bubble Trouble and Other Poems and Stories (1991) and Tick Tock Tales (1993); (junior novels) Cousins Quartet (1993).
The Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award was first presented in 1991 to Margaret Mahy in recognition of her marvellous contribution to the world of literature for children and young adults. The medal continues to be one of the most prestigious awards in New Zealand children's literature today.
Margaret Mahy is a six-time recipient of the Esther Glen Award, part of the LIANZA Children's Book Awards. The award-winners include: A Lion in the Meadow (1970), The First Margaret Mahy Storybook (1973), The Haunting (1983), The Changeover (1985), Underrunners (1993), and 24 Hours (2001).
Mahy’s early-reading book The Great White Man-Eating Shark (1989) is a cautionary tale about Norvin, a rather plain looking boy who just happens to look rather like a shark.
Mahy received the A W Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature in 1998.She also received the 1998/1999 Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellowship, which allowed her to visit the world-leading science centre in Antartica and to artistically explore the concept of the country through her literature.
A Summery Saturday Morning, written by Mahy and illustrated by Selina Young, won Book of the Year and Best Picture Book at the 1999 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
24 Hours (2000) was shortlisted in the senior fiction category and received an Honour Award at the 2001 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom (2001), was short listed in the juniot fiction category at the awards in the following year.
Mahy was the first recipient of the Auckland College of Education's Sylvia Ashton Fellowship in 2002.
Alchemy (2002) has won Best in Senior Fiction at the 2003 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults . 'This book,' said the judges, 'succeeds on several levels, incorporating some fairly erudite philosophical concepts, but Mahy, as usual, wears her intelligence lightly', and never loses sight of the characters' humanity. Alchemy was shortlisted for the LIANZA Esther Glen Award in 2003.
Notes of a Bag Lady (2003) is one of the Four Winds Press Montana Estates Essay Series titles, edited by Lloyd Jones.
Tragedy's Wild Twin: The Mixed Nature of Humour is the text of the public lecture Margaret Mahy gave when she was the Sylvia Ashton-Warner Fellow (Auckland College of Education, 2004).
In 2005, Mahy received a second honorary doctorate (University of Waikato) and the Phoenix Award from Canada's Children's Literature Association. In the same year, she was honoured as a living icon of New Zealand art as part of the second biennial Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Awards, in addition to having received the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement for fiction, for which she was awarded $60,000.
Mahy's Zerelda's Horses was published in the same year as part of the Kiwi Bites series (Penguin). Illustrated by Gabriella Klepatski, it is the story of a girl with a strange and wonderful secret - she can understand horse language.
Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life by Tessa Duder, and Maddigan's Fantasia were published in 2005 by HarperCollins.
Kaitangata Twitch, published by Allen & Unwin in 2005, won the Young Adult Fiction Honour Award at the 2006 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Margaret Mahy was announced as the winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006.
Portable Ghosts was published by HarperCollins in 2006, and Changeover was published by HarperCollins in 2007.
Roly-poly (McGraw-Hill), a collection of stories by Mahy, Joy Cowley and June Melser, was published in 2007; Sing to the Moon (McGraw-Hill, 2007) was published soon after, and was also the product of collaboration between Mahy and Cowley.
Down the Back of the Chair, written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar, received a Storylines Special Mention in 2007.
Magician of Hoad (HarperCollins, 2008) is a teen fantasy novel, described by the New Zealand Listener as having ‘an epic sweep and fascinating characters, and when … Mahy slips the leash on her descriptive powers, the effect of the sudden soaring lyricism is overpowering’.
A DVD documentary of Mahy’s life, The Magical World of Margaret Mahy, was released in 2008. The documentary was directed by Euan Frizzell, and produced by Gnome Productions.
Bubble Trouble (Frances Lincoln, 2008) is a stand-alone publication of one of Mahy’s previously-anthologised stories.
The Dark Blue 100 Ride Bus Ticket, a short novel for young adults, was published by HarperCollins in 2009. When Carlo and his mother, Jessica, accept a free bus ticket from a strange old woman in a supermarket, they are really only being polite. Secretly, they think she must be slightly batty, with her talk of one hundred free bus rides at the end of the world – but what begins as fun and laughter quickly morphs into something far more sinister.
Margaret Mahy's books have been continually shortlisted for or listed as Storylines Notable Books. They include: Down the Dragon's Tongue (2002), Alchemy (2002), The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom (2002), Dashing Dog (2003), Kaitanga Twitch (2006), Maddigan's Fantasia (2006), and most recently, The Dark Blue 100 Ride Bus Ticket (2010).
The Word Witch, written by Margaret Mahy and David Elliot and edited by Tessa Duder, was also released by HarperCollins in 2010. The work was a finalist in the picture book category of the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It was the Honour Award Recipient.
The Margaret Mahy Treasury: Eleven Favourite Stories from the Marvellous Margaret Mahy was published by Puffin in 2011.
Margaret Mahy passed away on 23 July 2012, at the age of 76. Though Mahy’s personality will be sadly missed in the New Zealand children's publishing world, her perennial work continues to delight future generations of young New Zealanders, with new editions of her classic works published each year.
Mister Whistler, written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Gavin Bishop, was published posthumously by Gecko Press in 2012. The work was awarded Best Picture Book at the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and in the same year, the top New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards prize was renamed in her honour, to become the New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year.
In December 2015, the Margaret Mahy playground was opened in Christchurch. The playground's design was inspired by by the characters and settings of Mahy’s best-known fantasy books.
Last updated March 2016.