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Introducing Margaret Mahy

April 12, 2011

Margaret Mahy

She’s a world-wide phenomenon and a real treasure in NZ.  You can’t keep track of everything she’s written – picture books, Young Adult fiction, Short Stories, essays, not to mention the published speeches…

And that rainbow-coloured wig is surely trademarked by now – how could you not love Margaret Mahy?! The idea of no-more-books-by-Margaret-Mahy is a horrible one.

Basic Bio:

– born Whakatane 21 March 1936, died on 23 July 2012, aged 76

– librarian, writer, sister, (1 of 5; 3 sisters and a brother), mother (2 daughters), grandmother

– writer of more than 200 books, translated into 15+ languages

– her visits to schools and libraries to read children stories will remain in people’s memories for a long time!

– “I write about the impact of imagination on a person’s life,” she once stated, “and the visions it enables them to see, the assertions it can cause them to make.  People respond to stories that have hope in them, and in that sense I see myself as an optimist. I write about people breaking out of lives that are imaginatively restricted….” (p.7, Greg O’Brien, Moments of Invention)

– “Born in Whakatane in 1936, Mahy began writing at the age of seven. In retrospect, she sees her childhood stories as plagiarisms, but she remembers play-acting stories, speaking them aloud, and it is in this that she sees the origins of her story-telling skills. ‘Writing is like telling yourself a story – but it is much slower. At its best it can be a magical experience. You leave yourself – and when you come back you are enriched. Reading a good book can be like that too.'” (p.9, Greg O’Brien, Moments of Invention)

– “Mahy’s writing contrasts domestic life with the supernatural, the familiar with the unknown.” (p.10, Greg O’Brien, Moments of Invention)

– multi award winner (winner of the Order of New Zealand; winner of The Esther Glen Award; twice winner of the Carnegie Medal, 1982 + 1984!)

– Mahy even has awards named after her (The Storylines Margaret Mahy Award)! Read her inaugural speech, Surprising Moments, to get heaps of great stuff (freely available download at Storylines, the NZ IBBY)

– Mahy once explained: “My mother was a schoolteacher and took reading very seriously, so that I grew up in a house with lots of stories, both those that were read to me, and those that were told to me. My parents both made up stories for me, and I soon learned to make them up for myself. I used to play story games about foxes and little red hens when I was about four. / At school I continued to play these games, and at times this acting out of stories got me into a lot of trouble. However at school I learned to write, and from the time I was about seven I wrote continually. / Whakatane was close to Ohope Beach, so the sea played a big part in my early life. I swam well, spent time climbing trees, and continued with or without other children to act out many story games. I believe that the games I acted, talking aloud as I did so, were the real stories I was inventing, and that they signified a willing submission to patterns of myth and romance which did not only affect what I read and write now, but actual choices I have made and continue to make.” (Margaret Mahy quoted p.111 Tom Fitzgibbon, Beneath Southern Skies)

– Call me weird, especially for mentioning it, but Mahy’s ability to keep a public hole in her private life really appealed to me (it just stands in absolute contrast with your average, rhetoric-spouting, affair-having American politician): “In terms of personal life the 60s are the Mahy mystery years.  She raised two daughters, the offspring of what friends say was a deep and passionate commitment to someone already married who still lives in Christchurch. In an era when solo mothers were still called ‘unmarried’, it was a bohemian act entirely in keeping with Mahy’s offbeat character and entirely out of step with Christchurch’s net-curtain propriety.  She absolutely refuses to discuss a part of her past which still has such huge capacity for hurt in the present.  In the accounts of her life there will, she says, always be this gap and she will never fill it by writing about it.  

She sometimes deflects questions about how it all came about with mock glibness: ‘Inefficiency,’ she’ll say.  But there is no doubting the depth of her experience. ‘It’s part of being human,’ she says, ‘to feel that when a relationship like this happens to you it is the first time it has ever happened.  You don’t realise at the time how treacherous and hurtful the behaviour can be.’ Did you hurt anyone? There is a pause. ‘Yes, myself included.'” ((my emphasis) p81 Jenny Chamberlain “Word Witchery: Margaret Mahy” in North & South November 1993, pp74-83)  I don’t want to sound like a tabloid, but I really like this about her – it’s so human and honest and lovingly foible-ish… and I like that I didn’t even know she was ill until they announced her passing – I like to think she spent that time with her family, knowing how popular she was with the rest of us, but having her priorities so straight somehow… I’ve just always really liked her!

She was a wonderful, unique character; a treasure.

“being alarmed is a natural human condition” ~ Margaret Mahy (quoted, p.10, Greg O’Brien, Moments of Invention)
“Humour has a more spiritual function than many people are prepared to admit” ~ Margaret Mahy (quoted, p.7, Greg O’Brien, Moments of Invention)

Mahy on writing:

Where do you even start?  The woman’s prolific and just looks at the world with such quirky, lovely goggles on!

The Lion in the Meadow is the first book I ever had published so it’s got a very powerful tug. I remember opening the parcel, back in 1969, and there – there at last – was a book with my name on it.  It was very thrilling because I’d wanted to have a book published ever since I was a child.” p88 Interview with Deborah Nation (2005) “Margaret Mahy” in New Zealand House and Garden, July 2005

“I don’t have messages in my work except for a very few woolly ones. I write about the impact of imagination on a person’s life and the visions it enables them to see, the assertions it can cause them to make.” p7 Greg O’Brien and Robert Cross (1988) Moments of Invention; Portraits of 21 New Zealand Writers. Heinemann Reed: Auckland

“I think a hopeful story can make a reader, particularly a child, feel powerful.” p8 Greg O’Brien and Robert Cross (1988) Moments of Invention; Portraits of 21 New Zealand Writers. Heinemann Reed: Auckland

“Uncomfortable events can be interpreted as adventures.” p11 O’Brien and Cross

“My main problem is I always write too much.  I’m resigned to that – but sometimes I write much too much.  then I have to go through the work asking what’s wrong.  But I’ve been dealing with the problems of writing for so long now I’m confident each time I’ll be able to come out of it. I get a lot of pleasure locating what’s wrong in a piece and knowing I can put it right.” (my emphasis) p11 O’Brien and Cross

Academic material:

Margaret Mahy

Claudia Marquis (University of Auckland) has taken an academic interest in Mahy’s writing. Her article, “Margaret Mahy’s strong characters”, is a freely available download.  As is “Haunted Histories: Time-slip Narratives in the Antipodes” from Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature Vol 18, No 2 (2008)

Michael Pohl wrote his MA thesis on her (freely available too at the Victoria University Library).

Alison Waller has written an article, titled  “SOLID ALLTHE WAY THROUGH”: MARGARET MAHY’S ORDINARY WITCHES (freely available download, thanks to Roehampton University Research Repository), also published in Children’s Literature in Education Volume 35, Number 1, 77-86

Michael Levy has written an article, “Margaret Mahy’s Liminal Spaces: Moments of Transformation in The Changeover”, which is freely available as a download.

Babette Puetz, “‘Carnival’: More than a jolly name: Margaret Mahy’s The Tricksters and Mikhail Bakhtin’s Carnival Theory”, (freely available download) in vol 20, No 2 (2010) of Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature

Perhaps check out  Re-Embroidering the Robe, by Suzanne Bray, Adrienne Gavin and Peter Merchant, which has a sample freely available online.

Marilynn Olson, “Falling into Place”:  Margaret Mahy’s Alchemy”, (freely available)

If you have access to The Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (great journal!), check out: Sarah Fiona Winters Aliens in the Landscape: Maori Space and European Time in Margaret Mahy’s Fiction – Volume 33, Number 4, Winter 2008, pp. 408-425

Hale, Elizabeth; Winters, Sarah Fiona (eds). Marvellous codes: the fiction of Margaret Mahy. Wellington: Victoria UP, 2005.

Anna Jackson, Geoffrey Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer, and Kathryn Walls   A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction (Victoria University Press: Wellington). This work considers a variety of New Zealand YA texts from a thematic point of view and references to Mahy and her work are scattered throughout.

The Word Witch, Margaret Mahy

Also, KATHRYN WALLS “Margaret Mahy: An Adlerian Reading” International Research in Children’s Literature Dec 2008, Vol. 1, No. 2 : pp. 187-199

Joan Gibbons (1994) “Family relationships in the stories of Margaret Mahy” in Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 5(1) April: pp11-27

Claudia Marquis (1987) “Feminism, Freud and the Fairy Tale: Reading Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting” in Landfall: New Zealand Arts and Letters 41(2(162)): 186-205

and Heather Scutter“Choose Your Own Agenda: Margaret Mahy’s Memory” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly Vol 20, No 1, Spring 1995

but you’ll need uni access to get these…

Oh and others too!

More general info on the net:

The Christchurch City Libraries have made quite an effort to share NZ authors with us:

New Zealand Book Council :

See also: the New Word;  The Arts Foundation;  Storylines;  Quotes by Mahy; NZOnScreen documentary on Mahy; and A tall, long-faced tale

Margaret Mahy

Interviews at: NZonscreenChristchurch City Libraries;  Judith Ridge;; Julia Eccleshare; YouTube;

Bibliography at New Zealand Literature FileFantastic Fiction

commentaries at Idealog,

Teacher plans are all over the net, covering individual books and her oeuvre more generally. Check out TKI.

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