Margaret Mahy and the importance of childhood reading

There’s a painting of a lady on the wall at my work. She’s sitting in an armchair, with a big black dog at her side and a black cat on her lap. Behind her is a bookcase full of books and to her right side a window, opening up to a garden and a sea on the horizon. There is a lot on the painting I can relate to. Books, a dog, a lazy cat. But the woman in the painting remains a mystery. All I know is her name: Margaret Mahy.

Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson
Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson. Flickr CCL-2012-07-24

I am most likely the last person who should be writing a blog about Margaret Mahy. First time I heard of her was three years ago when I realized I might be moving to Christchurch. The only New Zealand author who I had found on the bookshelves of my school library at home was Witi Ihimaera. So I did a bit of homework before I set out for Aotearoa. To my surprise I realized I was moving to a city that used to be a home to the greatest New Zealand children’s author, someone who won the Hans Christian Andersen award – the most prestigious and highest recognition in the world of children’s fiction.

margaret-tale   mahy organ music   mahy kaitangata   aotearoa mahy

After I landed, further revelations followed. Everyone I talked to seemed to know Margaret Mahy’s work or at least know about her. Even more: I was very lucky to make an acquaintance with a lovely lady who used to be her neighbour and a close friend. I ended up working at the same library as Margaret did. A lot of my colleagues still remember her. Her eccentric personality and masterful storytelling. Her fiery wig and starry cloak. Sue, who used to work with her, recalls her immensely generous and extremely modest nature:

She was very hospitable and often entertained colleagues and hosted parties for the local Children’s Literature Association at her home and was a wonderful friend and a colleague. She was also immensely interested in EVERYTHING – she learnt to fly, she studied astronomy. She was also a keen gardener.

Even though I have heard so much about her as a writer, a storyteller, a librarian, a person and a friend, she still remains a mystery to me. I have a strange notion the reason for this might be in the absence of her books in my childhood. It feels like she has never become a part of my imaginative landscape. She never entered my literary homeland because I never got a chance to read her books as a child. When I read them now, I still feel like I missed that initial, formative reading – experienced through child’s eyes, mind and imagination.

The irreversibility of time is unavoidable and cruel. I am reminded of that every time I talk to a person who read a certain book or author as a child, which I haven’t. I find myself swallowed by the feeling of missing out. It is similar to regret, that comes along when a favourite music star passes away and you realize you will never ever be able to see them again.

This points to the importance of reading in childhood, creating an imaginative mental space mutual to all – every reader, no matter their origin and background, can enter it. With reading, authors and books become a part of our collective memory, collective culture and make us feel at home, connect us together. With every new reader, this memory gets stronger.

mahy old3  odl mahy   mahy mrs

Reading and nurturing readers is not the only way of strengthening this memory. There are other ways as well. Every morning on the way to my work I am reminded of that: Margaret Mahy’s name greets me from the stone wall of the new exciting playground on the Cambridge Terrace. When I visit my colleagues at Fendalton Library or go to library’s storage facilities, I can’t resist not to browse through Margaret Mahy’s collection: a treasury of old children’s books that (most likely) your grandparents used to read as kids. Some of them never made it to my shelves. But they maybe did to yours.

I am inviting you, to help me figure out the mystery of the lady on the painting and create another little piece of collective memory of Margaret Mahy. Have you read her books as a child? What was it like? Which one was your favourite? Did you read them to your children? Grandchildren? Do you remember her? Have you been to any of her storytelling sessions in the library? What was she like? I can’t wait to hear your stories about her – please post them as comments below!

As for myself I will persevere. Reading her books, listening to stories about her. I hope one day I might be granted a visa to enter that world of collective culture, of bountiful legacy, that Margaret so generously laid in front of her readers. Until then, I will salute that lady on the painting every morning I come to work: in my name, yours and most importantly – in the name of those to come.

Read:

7 thoughts on “Margaret Mahy and the importance of childhood reading

  1. Juliet 30 March 2016 / 2:54 pm

    What a lovely post about this brilliant writer. I first discovered Margaret Mahy through her book ‘The Lion in the Meadow’, which I read to my son. Now I’m reading this and many others of hers to my granddaughter. We love the pirate stories and chuckle at the language. Each unusual word is a gem to be turned over as it catches the light. Thank you for including the Glenda Randerson portrait, which I’ve never seen. It shows a much younger Margaret Mahy than I’ve seen in the photos and feels quite enigmatic.

    • mashaccl 21 April 2016 / 3:18 pm

      Kia ora Juliet, thank you so much for your comment. The great beauty of quality children’s books is that they last through generations and we can re-read them again and again! Yes, the portrait is very enigmatic and I hope it finds a good place in the new central library!

  2. Laraine 30 March 2016 / 4:11 pm

    Alas, when I was a child all Margaret Mahy’s work was still to come. Most books for children in the fifties, when I was growing up, were banal. Okay, I came across a few good books (the Anne Shirley series, for instance) but most of my reading came from Enid Blyton, the School Friend and Girl’s Crystal illustrated weeklies for girls (most of the stories in which were written by men!) and similar. There was never enough in the house for us to read so we simply turned to whatever our parents were reading: Dennis Wheatley (Mum) and Alistair McLean (Dad) for instance, and I remember our favourite as being the Wide World magazine to which our father subscribed. We waited impatiently for him to finish each edition. The only things I remember from the magazine were the With Alan in Africa series, a story in which a pet leopard turned on its owner, and one featuring snakes (The Seven Deadly Sentinels). My father stopped subscribing when he realised all the stories (supposedly true) were fiction.

    My fondest memory of Margaret Mahy was her generosity towards her fans, whatever their age. With a long line of people waiting behind me, she still went to a lot of trouble signing my copy of The Haunting. She wrote, “Happy reading Laraine” and signed it Margaret Mahy 1994, and even drew a cat for me. I went to quite a few of her readings (but not in Christchurch; I lived in Auckland). She recited Bubble Trouble at least twice at these readings. She must have gone home exhausted! A lovely lady who died far too young.

    • Jinnycc 3 April 2016 / 2:45 pm

      What a lovely piece of writing about the unforgettable and talented Margaret Mahy. It brought back to me many happy memories as I was lucky enough to attend some Children’s Literature conferences with library colleagues a few years ago. Some of these conferences were to honour the great lady herself, and others Margaret Mahy also attended in support of other authors.
      It always amazed me how she could write stories in such a wide range of genres. From the humour and rhythm in young children’s books such as A Summery Saturday Morning through to the serious and sensitive writings contained in many of her young adult novels.
      I know I will continue to share Margaret’s stories with my grandchildren, just as I did with my own children.
      Masha, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. You really captured the meaning, of the importance of childhood reading.

    • mashaccl 21 April 2016 / 3:25 pm

      Kia ora Laraine, some great memories of your childhood reading, thank you. I especially enjoyed reading the anecdote about your dad and the fact that he stopped the subscription when he realized the stories were fiction, while you were so hungry for them! I personally just can’t imagine how Margaret, before she quit the job at the library, could write in the evenings! She must have been so exhausted after all day’s work, yet so passionate!

  3. Jinnycc 3 April 2016 / 2:43 pm

    What a lovely piece of writing about the unforgettable and talented Margaret Mahy. It brought back to me many happy memories as I was lucky enough to attend some Children’s Literature conferences with library colleagues a few years ago. Some of these conferences were to honour the great lady herself, and others Margaret Mahy also attended in support of other authors.
    It always amazed me how she could write stories in such a wide range of genres. From the humour and rhythm in young children’s books such as A Summery Saturday Morning through to the serious and sensitive writings contained in many of her young adult novels.
    I know I will continue to share Margaret’s stories with my grandchildren, just as I did with my own children.
    Masha, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your blog. You really captured the meaning, of the importance of childhood reading.

    • mashaccl 22 April 2016 / 1:21 pm

      Kia ora Jinny, thank you very much! Yes, I guess only the best ones can write for different readers and throughout different genres. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and memories of Margaret. Sometimes it takes a bit of time, before we realize how lucky we were, having been gifted with such encounters!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s