Story: Mahy, Margaret May

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Mahy, Margaret May

1936–2012

Children’s and young adult writer

This biography, written by Tessa Duder, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 2018.

Margaret Mahy is New Zealand’s most celebrated writer for children and young adults. In a 55-year career she published more than 120 titles: novels, picture books, short stories, poems and educational texts, as well as writing for film and television. Translated into more than 15 languages, her books reflect her delight in fantasy, magic, adventure, humour, the supernatural and the transformative power of language.

Early years

Margaret Mahy was born in Whakatane on 21 March 1936, the first child of English-born Francis George (Frank) Mahy and his wife Helen May Penlington. Frank, a contractor specialising in building bridges, and May, a trained teacher, provided for their five children a home filled with books, music, lively discussion and storytelling.

Margaret’s early literary efforts from about the age of seven featured in newspaper children’s pages, but it was at high school that her gift for language and storytelling was recognised and fostered by a perceptive English teacher. Extant poems from this period show the teenage Margaret’s unusual familiarity with the canon of English literature, her shrewd and impish humour and the inherent musicality and energy in everything she wrote.

Education and parenthood

Reacting against family expectations of teaching, 16-year-old Margaret chose nursing, but after a diffident year persuaded her parents to support her university ambitions. Two years followed at Auckland University College (1952–4), studying English, Philosophy, Education and (less happily) French. She completed a BA degree at Canterbury University College in Christchurch, where a foreign language was not a requirement. Her recreational reading was vast and eclectic: adult fantasy, science fiction, folk tales, history, mythology, science and increasingly, children’s books, leading to a conscious decision around the age of nineteen to develop her talent as a writer of stories for children.

Concluding her studies in 1955 and needing income, Margaret rejected the more usual paths then open to young middle-class women of teaching, secretarial work, travel and marriage. She briefly considered joining the police before completing a diploma in librarianship at the New Zealand Library School in Wellington. She worked as an assistant librarian at Petone Public Library (1959–60) before shifting to a children’s librarian position at Christchurch Public Library.

Margaret gave birth to her first child, Penny, in 1961 and a second, Bridget, in 1966. The girls’ father, Paul Alleway, remained as a presence through their early and teenage years, though Margaret accepted the responsibility of raising them as a single parent. Margaret and Penny spent the early 1960s living with a young couple on a rural property in Ohariu Valley, north of Wellington, where Margaret did light housework and picked tomatoes in return for board. From this settled environment she began to seek publication of her first stories. In 1965 a small bequest from her grandfather enabled her to buy a section in Governors Bay, on the western shore of Lyttelton Harbour, and to begin building a modest home there. As a 1960s proto-feminist, she remained single and independent.

The School Journal years

A diary for 1960 survives, the pencilled writing revealing an imagination overflowing with ideas for stories, some of which – ‘17 kings and 42 elephants’ and ‘Mrs Discobombulus’ are examples – later became internationally acclaimed picture books. In 1961, with her first child on the way, Margaret submitted her story ‘The procession’ to the Department of Education’s highly regarded School Journal. Having her first submission readily accepted proved that her writing could earn income, and many more Mahy stories and poems appeared in the Journal over the following years. In 1966 the editors paid her the unprecedented compliment of devoting an entire issue to her work. Five of the stories, including the sublime ‘The wind between the stars’, would later be published in the United Kingdom and the United States as hardback picture books. Margaret’s distinctive voice, by turns lyrical, ironic, poetic, mischievous and occasionally disturbing, along with her love of metaphor, alliteration, personification and the mysterious ability of the imagination to transform reality, displayed an astonishing confidence and command of genre.

Juggling the roles of emerging writer, mother and breadwinner was, however, to prove demanding and exhausting. Mid-1960s society in conservative Christchurch did not look kindly on either unmarried or ‘working’ mothers. In 1967, with Penny at school and Bridget a year old, Margaret returned to full-time work at the School Library Service. She wrote late at night, often until nearly dawn. The School Journal continued to accept stories, and a new editor, writer Jack Lasenby, especially championed her work. The few local children’s publishers, however, found her submissions insufficiently ‘New Zealand’ in tone or setting. Attempts to place stories in a local landscape proved unsatisfactory, the writing contrived and unenjoyable. Publishing offshore was not an option in the absence of literary agents familiar with international markets.

The emerging writer

The universality of Margaret’s stories, so firmly grounded in the European mythic tradition, was no drawback for two American women who in 1968 became Margaret’s fairy godmothers. Children’s book editor Sarah Chockla Gross read the story ‘A lion in the meadow’ in a 1965 issue of the School Journal, in a touring exhibition of printing mounted in a New York library. Enchanted, Gross immediately rang her employer, Helen Hoke Watts, who wrote to Margaret offering to publish ‘A lion in the meadow’ as a picture book and asking if she had any more like it. Margaret, by this time resigned to not being published in her own country other than in the School Journal, responded by sending more than a hundred stories and poems. Watts, already internationally renowned for outstanding picture books, briskly found leading illustrators and flew to Christchurch to sign up her discovery in person. The advance royalties cheque for $US1000 enabled Margaret to make improvements to her two-roomed house, notably by installing running water and electricity.

The five picture books initially resulting from this relationship, including A lion in the meadow and The dragon of an ordinary family, were launched simultaneously in New York and London at the end of 1969. Story collections soon followed, along with an apparently inexhaustible stream of picture books which were reviewed favourably in both the United Kingdom and the United States. Translations brought new audiences in Europe and elsewhere.

Margaret’s public life gathered momentum, with invitations to speak at American, English and Australian library and children’s literature gatherings. In New Zealand she began regularly visiting schools, wearing the curly green or multi-coloured storyteller’s wig that was to become her iconic public image. Serious recognition by a New Zealand literary scene mostly indifferent to the accomplishments of a new wave of children’s writers like Mahy, Joy Cowley, Lynley Dodd and William Taylor, was to come only slowly.

Through the 1970s, Margaret’s dream of full-time professional writing remained elusive, despite increasing income from royalties and speakers’ fees. To her full-time library job, constant writing and the demands of single motherhood were now being added regular travel away from home, the preparation of speeches to well-read international audiences, and regular correspondence with publishers and young fans from around the world. In 1976 she left her management position at the School Library Service and resumed work as a children’s librarian at Christchurch Public Library. Not until 1980, aged 44, with both daughters away from home, did she feel confident enough to resign from her library position and begin working as a full-time writer from her Governors Bay home.

The full-time writer

The impact on her career was dramatic. She had already published three children’s novellas and toyed with longer works, but the virtuosity with language and clever characterisation apparent in her children’s novel The haunting (1982) surprised both herself and English critics who knew her only as a picture-book writer. Winning Britain’s prestigious Carnegie Medal for 1982 – equivalent to an Olympic medal for children’s writers – The haunting heralded an astonishing series of multiple award-winning young adult novels. The changeover: a supernatural romance won her a second Carnegie Medal in 1984, and was followed by The catalogue of the universe (1985), The tricksters (1986) and Memory (runner-up for the Carnegie Medal in 1987). Meanwhile, the spate of picture books and story collections continued unabated, along with the first of hundreds of ‘school readers’ for New Zealand publishers such as Wendy Pye and Avelyn Davidson who were steadily building up a reputation and international market for innovative reading programmes.

A key relationship for Margaret for the three decades from 1980 was with her editor at London publisher J.M. Dent. Later, as her literary agent, Vanessa Hamilton managed negotiations for new book contracts and for translations into more than 15 languages, and approaches for film rights, along with many reissues and the ever-growing Mahy backlist. The picture books featured some of the world’s leading illustrators: Quentin Blake, Jenny Williams, Helen Oxenbury, Charles Mozley, Shirley Hughes, Margaret Chamberlain, Steven Kellogg, Tony Ross and Polly Dunbar, and New Zealanders Robyn Belton, Dick Frizzell, Gavin Bishop and David Elliot.

At home, Margaret’s many achievements overseas were being increasingly recognised across the literary and educational spectrum. In 1984 she was appointed writer-in-residence at the University of Canterbury. As a tireless champion of the importance of storytelling and reading in children’s development, she was a favoured guest in schools, at library and teachers’ conferences, and at the writers’ festivals that were proliferating in New Zealand and elsewhere. A change of eligibility rules allowed Mahy novels and picture books first published in the United Kingdom and the United States to regularly win local children’s book awards.

Margaret’s imaginative brilliance and versatility were not confined to the printed word. For the small screen she wrote Strangers (1989), a six-part series for Television New Zealand which won a gold medal at the 1990 New York Film Festival. Typhon’s people (1993), a movie-for-TV thriller set in a post–apocalyptic future, followed. One of her longest novels, Maddigan’s fantasia, appeared as the 13-part series Maddigan’s quest (2006), while the short novel Kaitangata twitch was successfully adapted in 2010 for Māori Television. Animated versions of favourite picture books, notably The great white man-eating shark (1991), have also been produced for television. For the big screen, adaptations have been made of The haunting (as The haunting of Barney Palmer, 1986) and The changeover (2017).

Margaret’s achievements were recognised through many honours and awards. With her appointment in 1993 to the 20-member Order of New Zealand, the country’s highest civil honour, Margaret Mahy was formally acknowledged as one of its most admired and acclaimed living writers. She was awarded honorary Doctorates in Letters by the University of Canterbury (1993) and the University of Waikato (2005), and the New Zealand Society of Authors appointed her President of Honour in 2002–3. In 1998 she travelled to Scott Base as one of the first recipients of the Artists in Antarctica fellowship, and in 2005 she received the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction and an Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Award. Her high status in America was acknowledged when she presented the Arbuthnot Lecture at the University of Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, in 1989 but the pinnacle of global recognition came in 2006, when she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Writing by the International Board on Books for Young People. Judged by a distinguished multilingual jury, the award was begun in 1956 and as children’s literature’s highest award is often known as the ‘Little Nobel’. In 2006 and 2007 her novels The tricksters and Memory won Canada’s prestigious Phoenix Award for a book not honoured with an award at time of its publication.

‘National treasure’

For the last six years of her life, Margaret continued to travel and write, publishing between two and five books each year. Despite advancing age, her public appearances in New Zealand and overseas hardly lessened, always delighting audiences with her insights, warmth and humour, and occasionally, recitations of favourite poems, notably ‘Bubble trouble’ and ‘Down the back of the chair’. The once near-penniless single mother now freely acknowledged an income from writing that since the mid-1980s had enabled her to buy property in Christchurch and a block of land on the shores of Lyttelton harbour. Her solo lifestyle at Governors Bay remained simple, with time readily made available for her seven grandchildren and her wide circle of colleagues and friends. Within the close-knit community of children’s writers and illustrators, her generosity and support were legendary.

Margaret Mahy died in Christchurch on 23 July 2012 aged 76, having been diagnosed with cancer three months earlier. Her death as a ‘national treasure’ occasioned extensive media coverage over many days, equal in scale to that accorded to sporting heroes Sir Peter Blake and Sir Edmund Hillary. Christchurch held a public memorial service, and hundreds of children, fellow writers, educational colleagues and families attended a commemorative event in the Auckland Town Hall organised by the Storylines Children’s Literature Trust, of which she had been patron. Other official tributes included New Zealand Post’s issue in March 2013 of five Margaret Mahy postage stamps featuring the covers of her most popular books. December 2015 saw the opening of the Margaret Mahy Family Park on the banks of Christchurch’s Avon River. The title of one of her best-loved picture books is remembered in Down the Back of the Chair, the Ministry of Education’s catalogue of teaching and learning resources for schools and portal for education providers to view and order resources.

A common theme of the many international tributes to Margaret Mahy was the unusual energy of her writing and the unmatched richness of language and metaphor which won her inclusion in the pantheon of great nineteenth and twentieth century writers in English from Lewis Carroll to Philip Pullman. In her own country she is arguably still better known for her comic picture books. Literary critics, however, acknowledge her as a ground-breaking young adult novelist and one of New Zealand’s greatest writers, equal in imaginative power and achievement to Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame.

How to cite this page:

Tessa Duder. 'Mahy, Margaret May - Mahy, Margaret May', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 2018. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/6m3/mahy-margaret-may (accessed 22 October 2018)