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The Changeover, Margaret Mahy

April 30, 2011

The Changeover Book blurb

The Changeover, Margaret Mahy

“‘The hair was hers and the eyes were hers… However, for all that, the face was not her face for it knew something that she did not.’

It was a warning.  Laura knew, when she looked in the mirror that morning.  There had been others: the day her father left home, the she met Sorensen, the boy with the strange silver eyes.

But nothing had prepared her for today’s terrible danger.  Why hadn’t she snatched Jacko’s hand away in time? The hideous mark stamped on it meant that her little brother would sicken and die.  And there was nothing anybody could do to help him.

Unless she changed over. Unless she and Sorensen joined together to use their supernatural powers…

‘Original and unforgettable – a seamless combination of supernatural thriller and teenage love story’


‘Startlingly original and refreshing – the most powerful novel this versatile and idiosyncratic author has written.’


[Back cover – Margaret Mahy (1985) The Changeover. Magnet: London]

The Changeover First Page



Although the label on the hair shampoo said Paris and had a picture of a beautiful girl with the Eiffel Tower behind her bare shoulder, it was forced to tell the truth in tiny print under the picture.  Made in New Zealand, it said, Wisdom Laboratories, Paraparaumu.  

Just for a moment Laura had had a dream of washing her hair and coming out from under the shower to find she was not only marvellously beautiful but also transported to Paris.  However, there was no point in washing her hair if she were only going to be moved as far as Paraparaumu.  Besides, she knew her hair would not dry in time for school, and she would spend half the day with chilly ears.  These were facts of everyday life, and being made in New Zealand was another.  You couldn’t really think your way into being another person with a differnet morning ahead of you, or shampoo yourself into a beautiful city full of artists drinking wine and eating pancakes cooked in brandy.

Outside in the kitchen the kettle screamed furiously, begging to be taken off the stove.  Laura, startled, emerged from under the shower only to discover there was no towel on the rail.  She could hear Kate, her mother, moving about in the room next door, putting the kettle out of its misery, and tried to shake herself dry as a dog does though she knew it could never work.

‘There’s no towel, Mum,’ she called fretfully, but as she spoke she saw a towel in a heap by the door and….”

[p1 – – Margaret Mahy (1985) The Changeover. Magnet: London]

Themes in the novel


The Changeover, Margaret Mahy

Possible directions for study/questions to apply to The Changeover:

I’m wondering how to put these questions together sensibly, but I’ll start thematically and build on it…

Adolescence and identity:

  • The novel starts with the ‘problem’ of being made in New Zealand.  How does being made in New Zealand, as it were, impact on adolescence?
  • Why connect adolescence and witchcraft?
  • Laura’s ‘changeover‘ into a witch parallels her shift towards adulthood.  In what ways?
  • What physical, emotional, perceptual (etc.) changes take place in/for Laura during this story? How are these explained? What events/experiences incite these changes? and for the other characters?
  • Childhood and adulthood are referred to in a contrastive fashion in this novel.  For example, when describing her encounter with Carmody Braque to her mother, the narrator explains how “As she spoke she [Laura] knew her words were reducing the experience  to a childish complaint, not revealing its true quality.” (p27)
  • Sorry’s identity is different when ‘in his room’ [“in this room he was somehow expanded, less simple, less mild, less good – overflowing with blackness.” (p61)] … theory does suggest that our identities shift in different context… but how does it help us understand Sorry? Are the other characters variable in this way? Are certain characters attached to places? How do Sorry’s mother, grandmother, and Sorry himself describe ‘Sorry’? How do we get a sense of Sorry through Laura’s observations/conversations with Sorry?
  • Consider also Sorry’s explanation to Laura that in his room he’s “powerful and sexy…, but the further away I go from my room the meeker I become.  At school I hardly exist.”  This phenomenon is linked to Sorry’s difficulty with being a male witch and the childhood he received as a result.  But, how does this explanation connect to other experiences of adolescence?
  • In the 8th chapter, Sorry describes his family and childhood.  What psychological theories does Mahy draw on to tell his story? Do these theories appeal to the reader? Are they popular theories, then? In what ways do they support our understanding of adolescence?
  • How are women and the concept of ‘femininity’ described? Consider, for example, Miryam’s statement: “Sometimes I think all women are imaginary creatures, as Sorry chooses to put it.  He doesn’t mean that we’re simply imagined, you know, but that our power flows out of the imagination, and that’s the faculty that makes magicians of all of us. Witches just act upon it with such conviction that their dreams turn into reality.” (p134)
  • How are the terms ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ used in this novel? In what ways are they understood? To which histories/stories are they connected? Are these terms viewed as a binary? To what effect?

Characterisation, relationships and family:

  • Multiple types of family are described in this novel, each type informing the other to give the reader a fairly broad experience of ‘family’.  How does this familial background help the story evolve? How do these different families together aid the reader’s understanding of Laura and Sorry? Of Carmody Braque? How do families provide a background for change?
  • The Changeover is a process that Laura goes through to become a witch, but each of the main characters also goes through a change of some sort during the novel (Laura, Kate, Stephen, Sorry, Carmody Braque, etc).  Who changes? When? Why? It might be worth considering these people as a community; looking at their influence on each other and the way in which they change together – and change each other…
  • I think Laura’s relationships are worth looking at closely.  For starters, the manner in which Sorry or Kate treat her; how much trust do they place in her? How agentic is Laura’s language and how do these characters respond to it? Does Laura’s role change as she (and the other characters) change? How do these relationships support/hinder her?
  • How is Carmody Braque characterised? He is the villain in the story… aside from the obvious aspect of stealing Jacko’s life, though, what does Braque threaten (within Laura for example)?
  • What is a witch in this novel?
  • Consider Laura’s statement early on that Sorry is a witch, but “He’s never done anything really witchy.  He wants to be left alone.  He just is, he never does.” (p12)  This is interesting and opens the way for ‘witch’ to become an identity.  How does this identity compare to other identities? (female, male, adolescent…)
  • How is mothering described? [Consider Kate’s ‘nervousness’ about mothering at the book store, for example (p29), or when she gets her hair done to go out with Chris; “She looked less like a mother in real life, and more like a mother on television, keeping herself nice for husband and family, thrilled to death with her new soap powder.” (p41)]

Time, story, representation and intertextuality:

  • Time is hugely important in this novel.  The (social, individual, and shared) experience of time in particular.  The way Mahy employs concepts of time is worth exploring further to understand the novel better.  For starters, I think it would be worth isolating the metaphors that Mahy uses to explain the passing of time.  It is also worth identifying the time metaphors Mahy draws on to make sense of other concepts in the story [eg “He was starting to look more at ease, more inquisitive again, but Laura’s anger was reaching its peak.  Their tempers were not synchronised” (p68)].  It is also worth noting the many instances in which the passing of time is measured in terms of experience (ie. the instances in which time is described as entirely relative).
  • Mahy’s depiction of the passing of time connects, as well, to the obvious influence of Story on the characters.  Their understanding of the world is often shaped by fairy tales, myths and other types of ‘story’. Which stories does Mahy make reference to?  To what end?
  • What are the themes we connect to through the fairy tales and other stories the characters/narrator refer to?
  • Consider the intertextual influence…. How do these stories add to the reader’s understanding of The Changeover?  How does intertextuality shape the reader’s journey through this text?
  • The forest that is described during Laura’s Changeover is a fairytale forest (among other things).  What symbolism is being called upon here? To what effect?
  • There are a number of photographs and pictures described in the novel.  They create a theme of visual ‘representation‘ but what does this offer to the story?  What other examples of representation are there in this novel (the numerous stories referred to for example…) and what purpose do they serve?
  • The photographs also represent ‘moments’ in time and place, captured for later reference… how do the photographs relate to the novel’s interest in the relationships between time, place, and personal experience?
  • What metaphors are used around ‘story’ in the novel? [Consider, for example, “the story, lively and indignant in her head, twisted itself in her mouth, limping out of her lips, sick and ashamed.” (my emphasis, p37)] What influence do these metaphors have on the way in which the reader is encouraged to perceive, for example, the ‘power’ of story in the novel?
  • Is there a difference between ‘physical reality’ and ‘story’?
  • Beginnings and endings are at the heart of a story. In what ways are ‘beginnings’ or ‘endings’ described in The Changeover? What about concepts of the ‘past’ or ‘future’?  Do these descriptions shape our relationship with the character’s ‘stories’?
  • Thinking of all the fairy tales referred to in this novel, how does the story end? ‘Happily ever after’? Like a Grimm tale? A trickster tale? etc….
  • In what ways is time made ‘directional‘? [eg “She forced her gaze into ruthlessness and used it as a goad to drive Mr Braque back toward his beginning….” (my emphasis, p192)] What impact does this have on our experience of time in this novel?


  • How is the Gardendale subdivision described? To what effect?
  • Physical distance, like the passage of time in The Changeover, is often described in terms of subjective experience (eg. Sorry drives Laura and Jacko home and comments “It’s not so very far, is it?” to which Laura replies “It is if you have to walk with Jacko and carry a pack” (p198)). How personal is our experience of place?  How does personalising the experience of place help tell this story?
  • Mahy uses metaphor to make many abstract concepts physical… they become navigable, visible concepts… identify these… how does this influence the reader (in regards to the magical aspects of this novel)?
  • Just as Sorry’s room brings out a different side of Sorry, so too the hospital seems to function under a different set of social guidelines; it is “another world” (p98). Gardendale and Janus Caeli are also very separate places… This becomes more significant if you consider Sorry’s description of his father: “Tim managed really well in a certain setting, but being out of work put one part of his mind into a state of constant despair….” (p117).  What settings are the characters ‘functional’ in? Do they become more functional in other settings as a result of these experiences? Why? How?
  • The moon plays an influential role in this novel.  When is it mentioned? In what ways? Is it contrasted with anything else? Is it connected to witchcraft? femininity? …

More generically:

  • What is the ‘problem‘ in this novel? How does it inform the plot?  What values are revealed when this problem is analysed closely?

I haven’t finished with this text, but until I come up with more, check out my other blogs on Margaret Mahy and her work.

Texts that invite comparison


Mahy’s other novels certainly invite comparison…

How to use this blog

Mindmaps help me think critically.  They help me see the links between things and plot a course through all the observations and questions that a text provokes when I read it ‘as a text.’  This blog is a mindmap of sorts; full of random thoughts and relevant-seeming quotations or ideas.

  • There is a tag cloud to the right of the blog, which shows the topics I am exploring as ‘tags.’
  • You can also use the search bar at the bottom of the page to see if a particular word/book/author/theme is mentioned.
  • Each time I bring an author into the discussion for the first time, I add an “Introducing the author” blog. This is easily found at the beginning of the section under that author.
  • I have a section titled ‘Blog Notes’ in which I explain my blogging style.
  • I have a ‘Literary Resources’ section which includes general ideas on literature and its study as well as the questions I apply to any text I study.
  • These questions (eg. Character Questions) may be useful to any other reader wishing to look at this text differently (refer to very early on in the blogging history of this section).
  • I absolutely welcome discussion: comments, suggestions, ideas, criticisms… please add them!

Mahy’s The Changeover: a History

Awards won:

  • Carnegie Medal in 1984
  • Boston Globe/Horn Books Honour Book: 1984
  • Esther Glen Award: 1985

Publishing History:

First published in 1984 by J. M. Dent & Sons, it has since been republished a number of times, though I don’t believe it is yet an e-book.  HarperCollins are currently publishing it and offer an online ‘browse inside’ service.

Bibliography of secondary literature:  

  • McVeagh, Janine.: “Myth and folktale in Margaret Mahy’s young adult novels.” Talespinner (8) 1999, 17-22. (1999)
  • Hale, Elizabeth; Winters, Sarah Fiona (eds). Marvellous codes: the fiction of Margaret Mahy. Wellington: Victoria UP, 2005.
  • Winters, Sarah Fiona.: “Aliens in the landscape: Maori space and European time in Margaret Mahy’s fiction.” Children’s Literature Association Quarterly (33:4) 2008, 408-25. (2008)
  • Duder, Tessa.: “Margaret Mahy, a writer’s life.” Auckland: HarperCollins, 2005. pp. 336, (plates) 16. (2005)
  • Elliott Gose ‘Fairy Tale and Myth in Mahy’s The Changeover and The Tricksters’  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 16, Number 1, Spring 1991, pp. 6-11
  • Berkin, A. “’I Woke Myself’: The Changeover as a modern adaptation of ‘Sleeping Beauty’’, Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 21 No. 4, 1990 pp. 245-251
  • Alison Waller  ‘‘Solid All the Way Through’: Margaret Mahy’s Ordinary Witches’ Children’s Literature in Education, Vol. 35, No. 1, March 2004 (freely available download)
  • Josephine Raburn ‘The Changeover, a fantasy of opposites’  CHILDREN‘S LITERATURE IN EDUCATION  Volume 23, Number 1, 27-38
  • Anna Lawrence-Pietroni ‘The Tricksters, The Changeover, and the Fluidity of Adolescent Literature’  Children’s Literature Association Quarterly, Volume 21, Number 1, Spring 1996, pp. 34-3
  • Michael Levy ‘Margaret Mahy’s Liminal Spaces:  Moments of Transformation in The Changeover.’   (freely available download)
  • Christie Wilkie-Stibbs The Feminine Subject in Children’s Literature
  • A Made-Up Place: New Zealand in Young Adult Fiction, by Anna Jackson, Geoffrey Miles, Harry Ricketts, Tatjana Schaefer, and Kathryn Walls (Victoria University Press: Wellington). This work considers a variety of New Zealand YA texts from a thematic point of view and references are scattered throughout.
  • There are more! So, to be cont…
  • There are also a number of interviews and reviews around the place as well as other online resources (eg Books for Keeps).
  • Margaret Mahy lesson plans (freely available download) and other resources (from Collins), including an extract of the novel.

Author information:

Refer earlier blog: “Introducing Margaret Mahy

Margaret Mahy


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