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.


Remembering a wonderfully wacky Word Witch

Margaret Mahy 1936-2012

Three years ago today Margaret Mahy our favourite award winning author, writer, librarian, mother and grandmother died.

Take time to remember.

Read MM picture books – here’s a few to get started with …

Down the back of the chairBoom, Baby Boom BoomDashing DogBubble TroubleA Lion in the MeadowLeaf Magic

Young Adult reads

The changeoverKaitangata Twitch24 HoursThe Tricksters

Get to know MM

Margaret MahyMarvellous CodeNotes of a Bag LadyMy Mysterious World

Do what Margaret enjoyed – read, walk around the garden and have a sleep (apparently she could do this quite easily). Don’t walk down Cambridge Terrace though, or at least make sure your trousers stay up when you do.

Have a MM lunch – a salad sandwich made with wholemeal bread and cheese and tomato and lettuce and spring onions, and avocado and hard-boiled egg and anything else handy.

I’m going to remember Margaret by driving over the winding hill to Governors Bay and then wandering along the wiggly track at the bottom of the road. I won’t be alone. I’m taking a dashing dog, a bubble trouble baby, a gaggle of geese, a couple of mixed-up pirates, a librarian, a three legged cat, a boy with two shadows, a tin can band, a dragon, a lion and of course a witch.

Our procession will be one of nonstop nonsense, full of mischief and mayhem. A magical way to remember Margaret Mahy.


The more we change, the more we find out who we are – WORD Christchurch

Karen Healey‘s first experience with Margaret Mahy came early, as a toddler.

There’s a photo of me — I must have been about 4 — reading A Lion in the Meadow, sitting on the toilet, wearing a raincoat and wellies. I’d obviously rushed in without bothering to take them off, but had made enough time to grab a book to read.

Cover of The CHangeoverIn contrast Elizabeth Knox first picked up The Changeover while working in a museum shop in her twenties. She had only recently started reading books for young adults again after a self-imposed diet of 19th century poets. (“I think Mahy would have got on very well with William Blake,” Knox adds.) The strong sense of family present in Mahy’s works, similar to those by Diana Wynne Jones, have made both writers firm favourites of hers.

Karen Healey:

I first read The Changeover when I was about 13 and it just blew my BRAINS out. I was so excited by this book, because Laura literally writes herself into being a heroine.

Laura’s strong, flawed character will be the core of the forthcoming Changeover movie, filmmaker Stuart McKenzie confirms. While some aspects of the book have necessarily been trimmed (including Sorry’s backstory and, much to my regret, librarian Chris Holly), McKenzie assures us that they have been pruned to allow better visibility of Laura and her story.

The film is set in post-earthquake Christchurch, updated from 1984. The transformation of the city echoes the various changeovers present in the book, from Laura’s physical change from child to adolescent to the changeover of the title.

Cover of Guardian of the DeadAnother strong character in the movie will be Carmody Braque, whose malevolent presence seeps through the book like the smell of peppermints — yet in the end the reader almost feels sorry for him. We get a glimpse of the person he might have been once, possibly someone quite similar to Laura. Healey admits to stealing the amoral nature of Carmody Braque, a character who decides his need to live overrides your freedom, for her first novel.

Braque is terrifying because you get the sense that he sees himself as quite reasonable. He turns up everywhere in various guises, whether as the patupaiarehe in Guardian of the Dead, or Laurel in Fire and Hemlock. In some ways they are utterly alien, yet there is the possibility in all of us to become another Braque. This role-reversal and exploration of the slipperiness of our sense of self is a theme throughout The Changeover, asking: When do we stop being ourselves?

An Unreal House Filled with Real Storms – WORD Christchurch

Photo of Elizabeth KnoxIt seems appropriate that Elizabeth Knox‘s inaugural Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture took place on a Sunday morning. Despite an audience so packed there were barely enough seats, we all sat still and quiet. We were so spellbound by her memories, funny and sad in equal measures, that when at the end Kate de Goldi tentatively opened the floor for questions there was only the collective held breath of a room full of people. I hardly know how to describe it — Elizabeth Heritage likened it to a religious experience, which is probably as close as I can get to conveying the atmosphere that a matter-of-fact writer created in a small, stuffy room.

This year has been the raven on my shoulder.

A refrain, repeated three times over the course of an hour. How to untangle the references to Odin and God, twined together with anecdotes of chemical-green glowing farts and a family of ghosts who lived among the convulvulus?

Knox discovered Mahy late, stumbling across The Changeover in her early twenties and describing her writing as “opening up a room in New Zealand literature I wanted to hang out in.” With so many books to her credit, ranging over several genres…

I write with genre, hand in hand with it, rather than within genre.

…I think we can safely say Knox has found her place in this unreal room filled with storms.

While the lecture won’t be published in the immediate future, it should be available soon on National Radio. Look out for it.

The Changeover – WORD Christchurch

The Changeover: 30 years onLet’s talk about that much-maligned beast, the supernatural teen romance. No, not sparkly vampires and werewolves and love triangles. I’m talking about romances that pretend to be something else, self-aware and awkward and occasionally grumpy. Love where there’s no romantic comedy Big Understanding, just characters growing together over the course of the book, facing their own hardships and taking it out on each other. Characters who help each other but still work for their own solutions, and who change without changing into a Romantic Entity. My favourite romances occur in the margins of the plot, so it’s no surprise that Margaret Mahy’s The Changeover hits all the right notes for me.

Laura Chant knows the morning the book begins that something’s going to happen — she’s had a Warning, just like the morning before her dad left — but her Warning is brushed aside in the chaos of breakfast and getting her little brother Jacko ready for the day. Laura’s mother Kate needs to leave for work and has no time for feelings of doom, and Laura herself half forgets once out the door. You’ll be shocked to learn that there is an incident with the superbly creepy Carmody Braque later that day, and that Jacko’s health starts deteriorating with supernatural rapidity. Obviously it’s up to Laura to stop Jacko being leeched away, and who else can she turn to but teen witch Sorensen/Sorry Carlisle? Sorry tries hard to be Tall, Dark and Mysterious, but let’s pass over the Twilight comparisons please because in trying he’s funny, which is not an adjective I would ever apply to Edward Cullen.

I’ve described The Changeover as a romance — well, that’s what it says on the cover — and while I do enjoy Laura and Sorry’s confused romantic tension, to leave it at that is to do the book a disservice. Yes, Laura and Sorry’s fledgling friendship makes me laugh, but Laura’s relationship with her mother, Kate, is also warm and real and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny; Laura’s reaction to her mother’s new boyfriend is predictably conflicted; and her feelings for little brother Jacko are key to the whole plot. His sudden magical illness is frightening and inexplicable the way illnesses at that age usually are, and while Laura is determined to fix it, the solution is by no means guaranteed.

Do you, too, like humorous quirky fantasy with awkward romance? Maybe you will be interested in listening to others discuss The Changeover! Join Stuart McKenzie, co-writer and producer of the forthcoming Changeover movie, and young adult writers Elizabeth Knox and Karen Healey, as they discuss with children’s literature specialist Bill Nagelkerke the importance of this great teen novel and its ongoing relevance.

“As long as the story is moving”: Margaret Mahy 21 March 1936 – 23 July 2012

Margaret Mahy displays

Two years ago, we lost “word witch” Margaret Mahy – a famous Canterbury local and a much loved children’s author.

Cover of The ChangeoverWhat better way to remember her legacy than with words. There is a session The Changeover: 30 Years On at the WORD Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival on Saturday 30 August 2014. Join Stuart McKenzie, co-writer and producer of the forthcoming Changeover movie, and young adult writers Elizabeth Knox and Karen Healey, as they discuss with children’s literature specialist Bill Nagelkerke the importance of this great teen novel and its ongoing relevance.

Words are also for consumption. Search our catalogue for books by Margaret Mahy.

Margaret used to be a children’s librarian at Christchurch City Libraries and our Margaret Mahy pages are full of ideas about writing as well as info on Margaret and her stories:

If the ideas don’t come I go for a walk, listen to music, do a bit of gardening, but I have so much work, it is always easy to go onto something else for a while. If it is urgent I make something happen, even if I am not particularly satisfied with the level of invention, because I think as long as the story is moving something is going to happen, and so far I have been lucky.

We are also lucky to have online the poem Down the back of the chair, and The word-eater written by Margaret Mahy, and illustrated by Bob Kerr. You might recognise the setting of the Central Library in Gloucester Street.

The Word-eater - written by Margaret Mahy; Illustrated by Bob Kerr

More Margaret

Margaret Mahy Miscellany

March 21 is the 78th anniversary of the birth of Margaret Mahy. Although it has been nearly two years since she passed away on July 23 2012, her name is still in the news.Book Cover of Magical Margaret Mahy

Plans are full steam ahead for the Margaret Mahy Family Playground. Billed as ‘the most amazing playground’ the city has ever seen, it promises activity zones aimed at different ages, comfortable places for adults to supervise and relax, and challenging play equipment, all inspired by the stories of Margaret Mahy.

It’s almost time for the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards to begin. The finalists will be announced on Tuesday 8 April, and the winners will be announced on Monday 23 June. The supreme winner wins the title of New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year, and an additional $7500 prize. The award was re-named in honour of Margaret Mahy in 2013 and Into the River by Ted Dawe won the inaugural award.

If you are itching for some Margaret Mahy screen goodness, you can check out full episodes of her award-winning TV adaptions and scripts on NZ On Screen:

The Haunting of Barney PalmerCover of The Haunting
Which ’80s kid wasn’t totally freaked out by this spooky film?

This thriller inspired many a secret gang and clubhouse in the playground.

Cuckoo Land
If you haven’t seen this psychedelic, video-effect laden show, narrated by Paul Holmes, you should stop reading this and check it out immediately. I don’t remember seeing it as a kid, possibly because my parents thought it was some sort of medication-induced hallucination.

For the full list of Margaret Mahy media, head over to the NZ On Screen site.

If watching these makes you want to get back into some the source material, check out our full list of Margaret Mahy titles  on our catalogue and revisit some childhood favourites.

Then get onto our Margaret Mahy pages and check out the latest, and sadly last, titles published by this Kiwi taonga.

Cover of Footsteps through the FogCover of The Man from the Land of FandangoCover of The Green Bath

Illustrating Margaret

cover of Dashing DogMargaret Mahy was a spell caster no doubt of it. Not just children and parents, but illustrators fell under her spell. The other night I was watching A tall long faced tale , the very creative documentary about Margaret and her work which recently screened on television. Happily we have a lot of copies of the DVD in our libraries but if you want a taster it is here on NZ On Screen. Some very famous illustrators talk about the magic of working with Margaret.

The very next day what should I see but a wonderful account from New Zealand author and  illustrator Donovan Bixley about how he worked on illustrating  Margaret’s book  Dashing Dog. Donovan has been our November Star author on our Christchurch Kids blog. The Kids blog is something anyone interested in children’s books should read. The monthly star authors are a particular treat with writers from New Zealand and overseas. Amongst Donovan’s posts from November are The Art of Hybrid Novels, Part One and The Art of Hybrid Novels, Part Two which make very interesting reading, especially if you are interested in graphic novels.

Missing Margaret

Margaret Mahy displays23 July 2012 was a big big day. Central Library Tuam opened, South Library closed. And that night, news filtered through Twitter and other sources that Margaret Mahy had died.

People were stunned and sad for her family and friends. And we felt the loss of someone with a heart as big and free as her imagination.

We paid tribute in as many ways:

This year, we are having some more Mahy funtimes at our libraries.

Experience the awesomeness of Margaret Mahy through her books and DVDs and have a delve in our collection of Mahy stuff:

  • “When I have an idea properly established I think of it all the time . . . driving, gardening, shopping . . . sometimes the story becomes so interesting to me that real life becomes rather shadowy for a while” and more Margaret in her own words
  • The Word-eater: Our very own library Margaret Mahy story with pics of Central Library on Gloucester Street

An illustration of Margaret Mahy’s The Word-Eater by Bob Kerr.

Here is an omnium gatherum of some of our favourite tributes:

RIP M.M. Much missed.

Margaret Mahy storytime at Central Library Peterborough
Margaret Mahy storytime, 2012

Celebrate Margaret Mahy at your library

23 July marks the first anniversary of Margaret Mahy’s passing. Margaret was a “word witch”, a master of children’s literature and also a former Christchurch Children’s Librarian.

To celebrate Margaret’s life we are presenting storytime sessions at various libraries throughout KidsFest. “Margaret Mahy Mayhem and more!” will be a colourful, energetic tribute to one of New Zealands most highly acclaimed and loved children’s author – and to our former colleague.

Children’s Network Specialist

Margaret Mahy book signing Margaret Mahy displays