Margaret Mahy (1936–2012) is New Zealand’s most celebrated children’s writer. As the author of more than 120 titles - which have since been translated into 15 different languages – Mahy’s readership is vast. Before becoming a full-time writer, she worked as a librarian for over 10 years. Mahy’s books ring with humour, fantasy, adventure, science, and the supernatural, aspects that the author skilfully balances with her interest in the narrative possibilities of the ordinary world. Awarded the Order of New Zealand in 1993, she also won many global prizes for children’s writers, including the Carnegie Medal and the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award.
Place of residence: Christchurch, New Zealand
The Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award was first presented in 1991 to Margaret Mahy in recognition of her marvellous contribution to the world of literature for children and young adults. The medal continues to be one of the most prestigious awards in New Zealand children's literature today.
Margaret Mahy is a six-time recipient of the Esther Glen Award, part of the LIANZA Children's Book Awards. The award-winners include: A Lion in the Meadow (1970), The First Margaret Mahy Storybook (1973), The Haunting (1983), The Changeover (1985), Underrunners (1993), and 24 Hours (2001).
Mahy’s early-reading book The Great White Man-Eating Shark (1989) is a cautionary tale about Norvin, a rather plain looking boy who just happens to look rather like a shark.
Mahy received the A W Reed Award for Contribution to New Zealand Literature in 1998. She also received the 1998/1999 Antarctica New Zealand Arts Fellowship, which allowed her to visit the world-leading science centre in Antartica and to artistically explore the concept of the country through her literature.
A Summery Saturday Morning, written by Mahy and illustrated by Selina Young, won Book of the Year and Best Picture Book at the 1999 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
24 Hours (2000) was shortlisted in the senior fiction category and received an Honour Award at the 2001 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom (2001), was short listed in the juniot fiction category at the awards in the following year.
Mahy was the first recipient of the Auckland College of Education's Sylvia Ashton Fellowship in 2002.
Alchemy (2002) has won Best in Senior Fiction at the 2003 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults . 'This book,' said the judges, 'succeeds on several levels, incorporating some fairly erudite philosophical concepts, but Mahy, as usual, wears her intelligence lightly', and never loses sight of the characters' humanity. Alchemy was shortlisted for the LIANZA Esther Glen Award in 2003.
Notes of a Bag Lady (2003) is one of the Four Winds Press Montana Estates Essay Series titles, edited by Lloyd Jones.
Tragedy's Wild Twin: The Mixed Nature of Humour is the text of the public lecture Margaret Mahy gave when she was the Sylvia Ashton-Warner Fellow (Auckland College of Education, 2004).
In 2005, Mahy received a second honorary doctorate (University of Waikato) and the Phoenix Award from Canada's Children's Literature Association. In the same year, she was honoured as a living icon of New Zealand art as part of the second biennial Arts Foundation of New Zealand Icon Awards, in addition to having received the Prime Minister’s Awards for Literary Achievement for fiction, for which she was awarded $60,000.
Mahy's Zerelda's Horses was published in the same year as part of the Kiwi Bites series (Penguin). Illustrated by Gabriella Klepatski, it is the story of a girl with a strange and wonderful secret - she can understand horse language.
Margaret Mahy: A Writer's Life by Tessa Duder, and Maddigan's Fantasia were published in 2005 by HarperCollins.
Kaitangata Twitch, published by Allen & Unwin in 2005, won the Young Adult Fiction Honour Award at the 2006 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults.
Margaret Mahy was announced as the winner of the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award in 2006.
Portable Ghosts was published by HarperCollins in 2006, and Changeover was published by HarperCollins in 2007.
Roly-poly (McGraw-Hill), a collection of stories by Mahy, Joy Cowley and June Melser, was published in 2007; Sing to the Moon (McGraw-Hill, 2007) was published soon after, and was also the product of collaboration between Mahy and Cowley.
Down the Back of the Chair, written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Polly Dunbar, received a Storylines Special Mention in 2007.
Magician of Hoad (HarperCollins, 2008) is a teen fantasy novel, described by the New Zealand Listener as having ‘an epic sweep and fascinating characters, and when … Mahy slips the leash on her descriptive powers, the effect of the sudden soaring lyricism is overpowering’.
A DVD documentary of Mahy’s life, The Magical World of Margaret Mahy, was released in 2008. The documentary was directed by Euan Frizzell, and produced by Gnome Productions.
Bubble Trouble (Frances Lincoln, 2008) is a stand-alone publication of one of Mahy’s previously-anthologised stories.
The Dark Blue 100 Ride Bus Ticket, a short novel for young adults, was published by HarperCollins in 2009. When Carlo and his mother, Jessica, accept a free bus ticket from a strange old woman in a supermarket, they are really only being polite. Secretly, they think she must be slightly batty, with her talk of one hundred free bus rides at the end of the world – but what begins as fun and laughter quickly morphs into something far more sinister.
Margaret Mahy's books have been continually shortlisted for or listed as Storylines Notable Books. They include: Down the Dragon's Tongue (2002), Alchemy (2002), The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom (2002), Dashing Dog (2003), Kaitanga Twitch (2006), Maddigan's Fantasia (2006), and most recently, The Dark Blue 100 Ride Bus Ticket (2010).
The Word Witch, written by Margaret Mahy and David Elliot and edited by Tessa Duder, was also released by HarperCollins in 2010. The work was a finalist in the picture book category of the 2010 New Zealand Post Book Awards for Children and Young Adults. It was the Honour Award Recipient.
The Margaret Mahy Treasury: Eleven Favourite Stories from the Marvellous Margaret Mahy was published by Puffin in 2011.
Margaret Mahy passed away on 23 July 2012, at the age of 76. Though Mahy’s personality will be sadly missed in the New Zealand children's publishing world, her perennial work continues to delight future generations of young New Zealanders, with new editions of her classic works published each year.
Mister Whistler, written by Margaret Mahy and illustrated by Gavin Bishop, was published posthumously by Gecko Press in 2012. The work was awarded Best Picture Book at the 2013 New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards, and in the same year, the top New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards prize was renamed in her honour, to become the New Zealand Post Margaret Mahy Book of the Year.
In December 2015, the Margaret Mahy playground was opened in Christchurch. The playground's design was inspired by by the characters and settings of Mahy’s best-known fantasy books.
Last updated March 2016.
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Children’s questions for Margaret Mahy
Where do you live?
I live in a place called Governor's Bay at the head of Lyttelton Harbour. It seems to me a mysterious place - a still, cloudy sea surrounded by sharp hills, rocky and bare but with dark bush in wrinkles and gullies.
Once (about twelve million years ago) this harbour was the crater of a volcano. In the evening or early morning I can often imagine I am quite alone in an early time of the world, walking with my dog, both of us like ghosts, wandering in a time before life came out of the sea. But of course mostly it is a busy place. Other people walk around the edge of the harbour with other dogs. I meet neighbours and hear distant cars speeding down the road to the city on the other side of the hills, Then I go home and into my office, which is also my bedroom. I sit down at my computer.
Beside my computer is my fax machine and my little old cat (she is twenty years old which is really old for a cat) likes to sleep on my fax, which is a nice warm place for a cat. (Mind you, the inventors of the fax machine did not really think of it a place for a cat to sleep on, but I like to see her there. I enjoy the joke of it.)
I begin my work, and the dog goes to sleep on the floor.
What kinds of books do you read?
I read a lot of books. I always have. I read a great many books for children and a great many adult books too. I read fiction and non-fiction and I re-read books that I have enjoyed. (At present I am re-reading the Earthsea books by Ursula Le Guin, partly because she has written a new book, which someone is sending me, and I want to remind myself of what happened in her earlier stories.
Before that I was reading the biography of a writer for adults called Iris Murdoch, and every now and then I pick up a book called A hundred years of poetry for children and read a poem or two.
Sitting at the foot of my bed I have a great pile of novels and non-fiction for adults waiting to be read and on top of the television set I have a pile of books for children and young adults (all by New Zealand authors) that I have read and have not yet put away. In fact I am going to find it hard to find space for them. My bookshelves are already overflowing.
Do you have a favourite author?
This is a very hard question because books work for me in such different ways. I don’t think I have a favourite. I have a group of favourites a big group because there are so many books which means there are so many authors.
I used to love the stories of Eleanor Farjeon who wrote books for children back in the 1950s and 60s but I don’t know of any child in New Zealand who reads her stories now.
I enjoyed the Harry Potter books and look forward to the next one, but I don’t think they are quite my favourite books. Indeed there was another writer, Diana Wynne Jones, who wrote about a magician’s school a long time before J.K.Rowling did, and I think Diana Wynne Jones is probably one of my favourites. And I always look forward to reading books by other New Zealand writers like Tessa Duder and Joanna Orwin. If I had to list my favourite authors it would be a very long list indeed...too long!
How do you think up your ideas?
Most of the stories I write begin with things that have really happened to me. The picture book A Summery Saturday Morning, for example, is almost entirely true. I did once go walking with two dogs, a black one and a white one. They did chase a flock of geese. I called the dogs but they took no notice and I thought, 'This is terrible. I am going to see a goose killed!' But suddenly the geese turned around and began to flap their wings, running fiercely at the dogs. To my amazement the dogs turned round and ran away. I used this real adventure for my book but I wrote the story in verse. And now, because it is a rhyming story it somehow seems much more of an invented story than it really is. And inside that story I made the dogs chase a boy on a bike and then a cat before they chase the geese, because there are a lot of folk tales in which things happen three times and change on the third time...stories like The Three Little Pigs and The Three Billygoats Gruff. It somehow makes a satisfying pattern.
The stories I write for the Middle School all tend to be nonsense stories.
My most recent Middle School story The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom is a nonsense story and yet it has a lot of real things about it, too. I did go to the Antarctic and stayed there for ten days, so my descriptions of the clothes the people wear, the way they move around on the snow and ice, and the sights they see as they travel are all quite realistic. Mind you, some things are greatly exaggerated. In my story the children and their explorer-father come upon a mysterious community of white penguins – albino penguins. While I was visiting a penguin colony in the Antarctic I did see a white penguin walking in between all the others and I have picked that penguin out and turned him in a whole white-penguin colony hidden in a mysterious cave.
So I often get my ideas from real things I see around me, which I stretch and exaggerate and make jokes about. However the real event is only the beginning a sort of jumping-off place.
Writers make things up all the time, and I certainly make things up to amuse myself in the first place and then (I hope) to amuse other people.
What is the best thing about being an author?
I think the best thing about being an author is that when you are writing a story, you somehow live inside that story. It is like living in an adventure or a joke or a mystery. I really enjoy the feeling.
Do you have a pet?
I have a black dog called BAXTER. He is a standard poodle – a tall dog who needs to be clipped every so often though I don’t have him clipped in patterns or anything too fancy. Baxter is a very kind dog always pleased to see other dogs (unless he thinks they might be about to steal his dinner). He can open doors which can be a nuisance, and he watches me closely. If I pick up my car keys, he runs to the car and waits for me. He hates to be left behind.
As well as a dog I have three cats. One is a my old cat called Orsino. She was born in this house, a little blind sprawling kitten, and she is more than twenty years old. She used to hunt but these days she spends most of her time sleeping on my fax machine. Then I have another black cat called Sabbath who loves to be fed. If I don’t get up to feed him in the morning he climbs up onto my bed and wakes me by licking my head something I don’t enjoy.
And I have a cat called Socks! (I didn’t give him this name. He already had it when he came to live with me). His original family had to go and live overseas, and I first saw him at the vets, for the vet was trying to find a new home for him. Nobody seemed to want him so I said I would have him. It took him a while to settle into a house along with two other cats and a dog but we kept on working at it and how he is quite at home with me well, he is even at home with BAXTER. Socks is a big black cat, with white paws and white whiskers. (He is half-curled up behind me, carefully washing his paws, as I write this)
Do you have a favourite colour?
I don’t really have any favourite colour – but let’s say 'green'. I do like green. (Mind you I love a lot of other colours too)
A favourite food?
My favourite food is probably salad or salad sandwiches made with wholemeal bread and cheese and tomato and lettuce and spring onions, and avocado and hard-boiled egg and anything else that is handy.
Do you have a favourite movie?
I like a lot of moves but I don’t really have a favourite, though I have watched 2001 many times (I have the video of it).
Do you have a favourite game?
And I don’t think I have a favourite game except possibly tennis. I really enjoy playing tennis.
What is the best thing about being a writer?
For me it is getting a good idea and feeling that, when I try to turn it into a story it is working out well. I really love that feeling of being right inside the story.
How do you make books?
I don’t make books. I write the stories, but almost always someone else does the pictures. The books are actually put together by publishing firms. The publisher pays the author and the illustrator, and also pays someone called an editor who looks at the pictures and stories and often suggests ways in which they can be improved. My editor writes to me, correcting my typing mistakes and making helpful suggestions, and I write back often (but not always) accepting the suggestions and improving (I hope!) my original story. This happens with illustrators too. Then the publishers pays people to print the books and to bind them, and still other people to take the books out into the world and to try and sell them to booksellers. This isn’t easy. There are a lot of books in the world.
Where do you go for your holidays?
This may sound strange but I almost never have a holiday, and if I do I mostly like to stay at home, to take the dog for walks and to read.
What was the naughtiest thing you ever did at school?
I used to get into a lot of trouble at school for talking, and sometimes for reading when I was supposed to be doing something else. (In those days I used to be strapped in front of the class) On the whole I tried quite hard to be good – which sounds rather boring.
I suppose the naughtiest thing that I ever did was to set off for school and then to hide and not go to school at all. (We used to call it 'playing the wag') I was never caught out and I did not get into any trouble for it, though I did get into trouble for a lot of little unintentional things.
I once got the strap FIVE times, one after the other, for shrugging my shoulders. The funny thing was that I didn’t really mean to be rude to the teacher. My shrugging was like a sort of nervous twitch. I will never forget going back to my desk after the fourth strapping and feeling, with horror, my shoulders twitch again and hearing (also with horror) the teacher call me back out in front of the class to be strapped for the fifth time.
How did you get started as a writer?
I began writing when I was seven and started sending poems and stories to children’s pages in the New Zealand Herald and the Bay of Plenty Beacon (which was the local paper in Whakatane where I grew up). I went on doing this for some years and went in for competitions in a magazine called The Junior Digest which was published in New Zealand many years ago.
Every now and then I would win a competition for – say- writing a limerick or a short story. I used to try sending my stories to publishers but I had them turned down over and over again.
When I was about twenty-five I started having stories published in the School Journal, and in the New South Wales School Magazine. I still sent stories to publishers but I did not have a book published until an editor in the USA saw some of my stories in the School Journal, which had been sent to the USA as part of an exhibit for a printing exhibition. This editor wrote to me asking to see some of my stories, and I must confess that I sent them over a hundred stories and poems, so you see I had been working hard even though I had not been having any books published. One of the school journal stories was A Lion in the Meadow and this story was turned into the first book I ever had published.
What inspired you when you were getting started as a writer?
I was inspired by reading stories and having them told to me. I loved stories and somewhere along the line, when I was really small, began to make up stories of my own.
When I learned how to write, I began writing them down. My mother saved the first story I ever wrote (I was seven years old) and I have it still. It was called HARRY IS BAD and I can remember sewing the pages together to make it look like a book.
What advice would you give someone an aspiring writer?
I think you have to be tough because most writers take a while to get something published, and this means that most writers have a lot of disappointments early on.
It takes quite a long time to work out exactly what you want to write and how to write it in the best possible way. Of course there are people who get their first stories and books published, but most of us have to try, try and try again.
I think it is a good idea to have a notebook of some kind so that you can jot down ideas when you get them, and I think it is a good idea to read a lot – not in order to copy other people’s stories of course, but in order to get some idea of what it is that makes some stories work so well.
You need your story to be typed or printed out as neatly and accurately as possible so that it is easy for the editor to read. The children’s section at the Canterbury Public Library has list of publishers who are interested in publishing children’s books and the publishers give some idea of what sort of books they are looking for. (There is no sense in sending a picture book story to a publisher who specializes in non-fiction).
Sometimes there are conferences and workshops for young writers and it is useful to attend these if you can.
But as I said in the beginning, it is quite difficult to be a published writer, and most writers have to work hard particularly if they dream of making a living as a writer.
Is it difficult to make a living as a writer in New Zealand?
Yes. It is very difficult, even if your first books are reasonably successful. All the same a few people do make a living and if you are a keen writer it is worth working towards it. Generally you have to have a few book published and out in the bookshops bringing in royalties on your behalf.
I had my first book published in 1969 when I was working as a librarian and I worked as a librarian for ten years longer, before I thought I would try to make a living as a writer. Then I worked very long hours, sometimes all night, writing books, television scripts, stories for reading series and indeed a great mixture of things. I did make a good living after a while, because my books were published overseas and sometimes did very well, but it was extremely hard work. And it is much harder if your write books that are published in New Zealand but not overseas.
New Zealand children need books about their own country, but it is a small country and of course a lot of people do not buy books. New Zealand publishers try hard to sell the books they publish to overseas publishers and this sometimes works well. The Hairy Maclary books sell wonderfully well in the UK and other countries too. On the other hand I know writers in this country who write very good novels for young adults but who find it very hard to get their books published overseas.
What were you like as a teenager?
I spent a lot of my teenage life in a sort of dream. I was a devoted reader and rather a solitary person, though I did have a few good friends (who are still my friends).
I was not good at any team games, though I was reasonably good at tennis. I was a good swimmer I was a swimming champion at Whakatane High School, though I was usually came about third in the Bay of Plenty Championships and did better at the longer races than the shorter ones. I was overweight, and did not have any great judgment about clothes (I still haven’t. My daughters tell me what to wear).
I liked to joke and play games with words. I invented a club to which my friends and I belonged called the Appolonniquartodeciman Junior Society of Genii which studies Tautology, Idiosyncrasy, Huggermugger and Procrastination. (I did know what those words meant because I had found them in the dictionary, but I didn’t use them in everyday conversation) Compared with many teenagers I was not only clownish but rather childish too. I have often joked that I was a teenager until I was thirty years old.
Although I did not plan in those days to write children’s books, I kept on reading them. I read a lot of adult books too, but every now and then I would revisit some story I had enjoyed when I was a child. (Mind you I still do this.)
Do you have a story you’d like to tell?
As anyone who has read A Busy Day for a Good Grandmother can tell I have always rather wanted to ride a motorbike. There have been times I have had the opportunity to zoom around paddocks getting a bit of practice, but the motor-bike riding occasion I remember most vividly was when I was down in Sandy Bay – a little beach which is part of Governor's Bay where I live. Only a few people lived in Sandy Bay in those days and I thought I could ride a motorbike up and down the beach without annoying too many neighbours.
The man who owned the motorbike told me what to do, how to accelerate and so on, and I climbed onto the motorbike and off I went. All went well to begin with, but there was a log lying in the sand further down the beach – a log which I needed to avoid. I began steering around it. Horrors! I over-steered! Suddenly I found myself out at sea, water around my knees. I was riding a motorbike through the waves.
I was so surprised I just sat there, riding along, while others shouted in alarm. Then I pulled myself together and pointed the bike and myself along with it, back to the beach once more. However that was the end of my lesson – my last lesson. Apart from the fact that I was now in need of dry clothes the owner of the bike was most concerned for it. Many motorbikes can go through fresh water quite easily, but salt water can upset them.
I have never ridden a motorbike since then. After all I want to be kind not only to mice and men but to machines as well. I decided it would be kinder to motorbikes if I left them to other people.