Memories of Margaret Mahyby Guy Somerset
Joy Cowley, Sir Peter Jackson and others recall one of New Zealand's greatest writers.
It was only two weeks ago, at the beach in Papamoa, near Tauranga, that the line came into my head as it comes into my head everytime I'm at a beach anywhere - "the great, graceful breakers moved like kings into court ..."
Few are the authors whose writing stays with you as Margaret Mahy's does - the speed with which she was quoted after news of her death spread on Twitter last night suggesting few had need to seek out the quotes in question. They were in their head as that line from The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate is in mine, and always will be. She transformed forever the way I see the sea. That is what great writing does.
Great writing also allows itself to be read aloud - delights in being read aloud. I can't be the only parent whose heart lifted when their children returned from their bedroom with a stack of Margaret Mahy picture books to have read to them, and left behind those inferior other picture books that strained so hard and so unsuccessfully for the scansion and sense of verbal play that marked Mahy out as a genius. (In the case of The Witch in the Cherry Tree, it didn't hurt either that the 70s mum in Jenny Williams's illustrations was such a fox.)
These are my abiding memories of Mahy - the memories of a reader. I did exchange emails with her a few times, always just before Christmas, about books she agreed to review for various children's book specials. It was always a thrill - my heart not so much lifted as in my mouth. And she was always a complete delight.
As I went through my contact list seeking contributors for our tribute below, I came across Mahy's own details, my heart this time sinking. I, like most of us, had no idea she was ill, and when I stumbled upon the news of her death on Beattie's Book Blog last night it was like a punch to the stomach. As someone on Twitter said: "Does New Zealand feel just a little bit... less New Zealand tonight, without Margaret Mahy? I think so."
I think so, too.
Below are memories of Mahy from a varied bunch of New Zealanders who either knew her personally and/or professionally or read her. We'll be adding to these memories over the next few days (I asked a lot of people), and we invite you to give your memories at the bottom of the post in our comment thread.
Joy Cowley, children's writer: "Margaret was a great friend and mentor to all children's writers and those of us who had regular phone calls and letters feel a keen loss that is offset by a feast of memories. Margaret and I were born in the same year, 1936, and had our first children's books, The Lion in the Meadow and The Duck in the Gun, published in 1969. We became friends in the mid-1970s and a year or two later TV One decided to film Margaret and I at her home for the Kaleidoscope arts programme. This took place over a long weekend which included a visit to a school. As we walked along the road from the house, Margaret, in a full penguin costume, and oblivious to the stares of passing motorists, talked about the breeding habits of emperor penguins. She said she always dressed up for school visits. The filming that weekend was such fun, we all suffered from strained ribs. Margaret's aunt Francie, who lived next door, had Alzheimer's and was not sure what was going on, but she delighted in the film gear, especially the cameras, which were objects of great curiosity. On the Saturday evening, Margaret took Francie home and gave her a large silver, funnel-shaped torch, should she need to come out again. Francie came back almost immediately and handed the torch to Margaret, saying, 'You forgot your trumpet, dear.' When the Kaleidoscope programme eventually came to air, Margaret said she sat with Francie to watch it. Initially, France was not interested, but when the TV screen showed a close view of Margaret, she got very excited, pointed and cried, 'I know her! I know her!' We all loved both Margaret and Francie and the beauty of their relationship. To this day, my favourite Mahy book is Memory, a tender story of woman with Alzheimer's."
Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens, film-makers: "Although we did not have the fortune of knowing Margaret Mahy personally, we feel as if we've lost a friend. She was and will always be one of our greatest story-tellers. No one had a closer affinity with the magic of words - her stories were alchemy-inspiring and delighted the imagination of readers all over the world. We take comfort from the fact that our children and our children's children will continue to grow-up with lions in their meadows, witches in their cherry trees and men whose mothers were pirates."
Fleur Beale, children's writer: "I remember the long lines of children waiting for Margaret to sign their book. She would sign, draw a picture of a perky lion or dragon and chat to each child, her face always intent and alight with interest. And I remember her thoughtfulness and generosity. For one of the New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, we were shortlisted in the same category and so were seated in the same row. She pulled out my book and asked me to sign it. I was overwhelmed and felt so honoured that she had taken the trouble to buy, and then bring, the book with her. Her words have woven themselves into the fabric of my family, as have her stories.We need to make sure that her legacy lives on for the next generations of children."
Sam Scott, musician (including the Phoenix Foundation): "Margaret Mahy will be remembered for her wonderful writing for many years to come. My mum read A Lion in the Meadow to me and lately I have been reading Summery Saturday Morning to my boy. But many New Zealanders will also remember her for the more direct impact she had as inspirational reader. She came to my school on at least two occasions and those experiences have stuck with me. Margaret Mahy was a generous spirit and I feel her stories, her reading and her energy were pivotal in inspiring me to take on a life of words and storytelling. My Facebook feed is full of friends' memories of her visits to kindergartens and schools in every part of this country, and all those sat on the mat listening to her read T'he Great Piratical Rumstification or any other wonderful story will know exactly how I feel today."
David Hill, children's writer: "Every time I was in Margaret’s company, I went away feeling... elevated. She was hugely, invigoratingly interested in everything and everyone. And I remember my open-mouthed disbelief when, one of the first times I met her, she, one of the world’s greatest living children’s writers, held out one of my books and asked if I’d sign it for her. Like everything else she did, it was a gesture with absolutely no affectation: as I say, she was gloriously involved in every facet of life. Oh – and once we began talking about some aspect of astronomy. It’s one of my pastimes and writing topics, so I set out to tell Margaret a few simple facts. When we parted 15 minutes later, I’d learned a lot about astronomy ..."
Lorrain Day, friend and editor: "I was Margaret's editor for the following books during my time as publishing manager at HarperCollins and she became a dearly loved friend: The Riddle of the Frozen Phantom, Dashing Dog, Portable Ghosts, Maddigan's Fantasia, The Wizard of Hoad, The Word Witch, The Dark Blue 100-ride Bus Ticket and Tessa Duder's literary biography, A Writer's Life. My most cherished memories of Margaret include the time I was editing one of her books and found a difficulty with the plot. I rang her and very tentatively pointed it out, suggesting a solution. I was extremely nervous of the fact that I was a baby editor and she was a world acclaimed author. There was one of those famous protracted Margaret silences, which anyone who knew her would instantly recognise, and my heart sank into my boots, as I was convinced I had offended her when finally after a long wait, I heard her say, 'You know... that's exactly what did happen.' Not only had she generously accepted the thought, she had incorporated it into the telling of the story and it was no longer an idea - it was what had happened in the story. It was the beginning of a 10-year relationship of author and editor that I regard as the highlight of my career. She was an incredibly warm and generous woman and I had the delight of escorting her to one of the many New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards she won, and noticed when I met her off the plane from Christchurch that she was carrying a very large black leather bag - completely empty. During the course of the day, she bought a copy of every one of her fellow finalists books - about 20 or more, and during the awards ceremony went up to each one and asked them to autograph their book for her. The expressions of wonder and delight on the faces of those who didn't already know her was quite a sight. I remember seeing her at lunch eagerly sitting beside fellow author and ex-science teacher Des Hunt, and saying, 'Oh good - I wanted to talk to you about string theory' - and launching into a detailed discussion of astro-pyhysics and the universe with him. Once, driving her between school visits and our office in Auckland, just before my wedding, I played her a Bic Runga song we were going to play, which included the words, 'There'll be no crying, no more'. She listened intently to the whole song as we drove, then turned to me and said, 'That's what it feels like to be in love, isn't it?' Having afternoon tea with her and all the staff at HarperCollins, before her big 70th birthday celebration, she gave us a rousing recitation of Down the Back of the Chair, and set six-month-old Gus Wogan, who was sitting on his mother Tracey's knee, bouncing up and down with sheer delight. At the launch of her literary biography, by Tessa Duder, she again started reciting Down the Back of the Chair... only this time she came to the first chorus and there was a little voice joining in - her then seven-year-old grandson Harry, who was encouraged forward by Margaret and joined her in reciting it, word for word in front of at least 200 people - and I realised that while it was loved by children round the world, and she was a famous children's author, she was also and foremost a much-loved mother and grandmother, and to Harry it was one of his favourites that Marg read to him when he was little. So many memories, such a wonderful, memorable storyteller and one of the wisest, kindest, most intelligent women I have ever met. I remember introducing her to Sir Richard Taylor, and all the Weta designers shyly coming into the boardroom there, with all the gleaming Oscars and Baftas and awards they had won all around us, like eager little boys wanting to meet her - and one of the designers thanking her for making him believe, as a child listening to his mother read her stories to him, that fantasy was valid and imagination treasured and that one day he would be able to earn a living from fantasy himself. I loved her dearly, and have been reading her poems aloud all morning in her memory, to my dog and cat. Marg would understand that, and thoroughly approve."
Iain Sharp, poet and literary journalist: "Like everyone else, I’m saddened to hear that Margaret is gone. The world is a darker place without her. I interviewed Margaret for the Sunday Star-Times and other publications on a number of occasions. Although she recognised her publishers’ need to promote books and went along with it, I don’t think she was all that keen on the interviewing process in her later years. She would much rather have been writing or chatting over a drink or two with family and friends. Because of her deep-grained kindness, she would never have dreamt of just scowling at an interviewer in silence like Ian McEwan, but she often misbehaved. In the mid-1990s (I’ve forgotten the precise date), I interviewed her at the Teachers Training College library in Epsom. She had just given a performance to a group of children and she was still wearing her famous multi-coloured wig. 'I’m a terrible old ham with no gift for acting at all,' she told me, 'but I love it all the same.' Then, apropos of nothing I had asked her, she spoke about how fond she had always been of the periodic table. I must have looked non-plussed. By way of elucidation, she began to sing the comic song about chemical elements by Tom Lehrer with the tune borrowed from The Pirates of Penzance:
There's antimony, arsenic, aluminum, selenium
And hydrogen and oxygen and nitrogen and rhenium
And nickel, neodymium, neptunium, germanium
And iron, americium, ruthenium, uranium
Europium, zirconium, lutetium, vanadium
And lanthanum and osmium and astatine and radium
And so on. Margaret knew all the words and sang them all for me, quite loudly, to the bemusement of the librarians. In October 2000, I interviewed Margaret in regard to her then new novel 24 Hours. She interrupted me midway though one of the constipated little questions about the book I’d worked out in advance, fiddled with her blouse and said, grinning, 'Would you like to see my tattoo?' As part of her research for 24 Hours, she visited a tattoo parlour and had a pirate skull with a rose between its teeth etched on her right shoulder. It pleases me that I was one of the panel of judges who made Margaret the recipient of the Prime Minister’s Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction in 2005. When she got up to speak at the awards ceremony at Government House, however, it was clear that Margaret was not her usual brilliantly articulate self. She kept repeating herself, then suddenly she began to giggle and told the audience, 'You’ll have to forgive me – I’ve been on the gin since 1pm.' Margaret was one of a kind. RIP."
Rachael King, writer: The first time I met Margaret Mahy she sat in the front row of a reading I was giving for my novel Magpie Hall, which is about tattooing. She piped up, 'My mother told me never to get a tattoo, that I'd regret it when I was 70. So I got a tattoo at 70.' She proceeded to roll up her sleeve and show it to me."
Tilly Lloyd, Unity Books, Wellington: "I attach MM’s confession note from around 1992 when Unity Books Wellington was at Perrett’s Corner. I’m sorry it’s not in better condition."
Emma Neale, writer and poet: "I once had the initially terrifying experience of having Margaret attend a workshop I was tutoring at the Bell Gully Secondary Schools' Writing Festival. When she decided to come along with the group of students I'd been allocated, I was quaking in my boots, not least of all because I'd been up all night with a small child with a bad ear infection: so I wasn't exactly feeling as if I was going to be much good to anyone, let alone someone of Margaret's stature. And what did I do at one point during the workshop? (May I use sleep deprivation as my excuse?) Blithely talked about how strict metre and end rhyme, to the modern ear, could often seem too saccharine, bathetic, predictable. To her great credit, Margaret Mahy piped up and said how interesting that was, how she'd never thought of it that way before, and how poetry to her was always rooted in the music of strong formal structures: and that she couldn't write poetry without it, but now she wanted to try. When the students tackled one of the exercises I set, she tried it too, and came up with, yes, something that had a slick, compelling meter and a deliciously comic use of rhyme. 'I can't help it!' she cried. And it was a wonderful way for us to talk about how compendious a genre poetry is; what makes good and bad poetry, both of the strictly metrical and rhyming kind, and of free verse. Of course, she should have been running that workshop. I imagine she was just filling in an un-timetabled hour, and wanted to listen to the work the students might come up with; I imagine she was pressing her ear up to the real world of one section of her wide readership. Afterwards, when I thanked her, and then said I felt I'd been under par because of the night-time shenanigans, she mentioned one of her daughters, who had several children to look after, and who had recently had similarly disrupted sleep. I expressed some sense of awe (and shame?) at how her daughter managed with a much larger family. Margaret said, 'Oh, being up in the night is the pits, whether it be for one or for five.' What did I take from all of that? How open she was, how warm, how accepting. No need to pull rank; she was genuinely interested in what the students had to say, and was keen to engage in aesthetic debate, even with a much younger, much less experienced writer; and she knew, intimately, the world of small children and their parents. It should be no surprise, of course: her intense attunement to that world, and her musical ear, are there, deep in the fabric of her work. They are the fabric of her work."
Jack Lasenby, children's writer and friend: "In the early 70s, with my daughter Becky on holiday in Auckland, Margaret – suffering some crisis – came to stay a few days at our cottage that looked down through green pines at the blue water of Paremata Harbour. I was given time off from School Pubs, and we lazed and swam and fished and talked and snoozed in the sun all day, and told stories all night. Margaret went home leaving behind a superb, illustrated story, drawn in coloured chalk on the huge blackboard that was one wall of Becky’s bedroom. The pictures, the story stayed on the blackboard for months until time and romps scuffed and obliterated it. Why didn’t I photograph it? Because it was part of the largeness, the generosity of Margaret’s genius that she said, 'Leave it for Rebecca to add to and alter as she wishes.' In the 1950s, I remember a soaring argument on abstract art between Bill Wilson, leader of the Group Architects in Auckland, and Colin McCahon. Colin illustrated his defence with crayon drawings all over the wall and cupboard doors of Faith and Graeme Laws’s kitchen where we sat. That masterpiece, too, was lost through time’s attrition. I miss Margaret bitterly, but I love the the lavishness of genius, so often transient as life itself."
Gavin Bishop, children's writer and illustrator and friend: "One of my fondest memories of Margaret and one that displayed her impish sense of humour was the night a small group of us went out to dinner in Auckland. We had been to a reception at the International Reading Association Conference and thought we should have something to eat. We settled on an Indian restaurant at the Viaduct Basin, found a table and sat down. Margaret announced that we should all have a drink and she was paying. A waiter was summonsed and some drink menus were distributed. Margaret again took the lead and decided we should have champagne. 'The occasion calls for champagne,' she said. She ran her finger down the list of sparkling wines and chose one. 'We’ll have that one,' she said very grandly. 'Very well, madam,' said the waiter. 'A very good choice.' I looked at the wine on the list that Margaret had chosen and said, 'Margaret, you can’t order that one. It’s $200!' She replied even more grandly, 'Yes I can. In fact, we’ll have two!’"
Jane Hurley, reviewer: "Up until my early 20s (many years ago now), and despite being an English graduate, I had successfully managed to avoid reading much New Zealand fiction. It seemed to me too masculine, too full of dour realism, much too rooted in the dreary decades of the 1930s and 1940s. I didn't really want to read about being a man alone, in the bush or anywhere else. (Of course, I'm not saying this was an accurate impression but it seemed overwhelming at the time.) And then I read Margaret Mahy's The Haunting. It was a revelation, not only one of the best children's books I had ever read but set in my New Zealand, a place I recognised. It was funny, it was spooky, it was about real people, warm and flawed and struggling and, best of all, the hidden power at the last twist of the labyrinth turned out to belong to a girl. The Changeover: A Supernatural Romance was even better. It is still one of my favourite novels in the whole world, and I would put up a spirited defence for it being an almost perfect book. I only came into contact with Margaret Mahy a handful of times and I am not sure she realised my starstruckedness, though I tried to tell her, but she was as warm and funny and fascinating as her characters. She would arc from one spellbinding subject to another like some dazzling aerialist on a trapeze -- female pirates, quantum physics, rogue firefighters who began setting their own fires, and the books that everyone knows but no one reads any more, like Lorna Doone. If I were stuck on a desert island for years, the person I'd most want to be stuck with would be Margaret Mahy. Every day would be full of enthusiasm and excitement and optimism and story. I remember in one phone interview Margaret confessed that she'd always wanted to be a tapdancer. She was. She tapdanced through words and her prose sang around her."
Dylan Horrocks, cartoonist: "Reading Margaret's books is like being included in a secret; there's something very private and intimate about them, as if she's invited us inside her own imagination. I only met her a few times, but when I did she made me feel like a co-conspirator. It was like I'd met the Queen and she'd winked and slipped me a spliff or something. She really was royalty: the reigning sovereign of New Zealand writing. Her stories are part of the air we breathe. Thank you, Margaret: from me; from my wife - who's never been so excited about meeting a writer as the time she met you - and from my sons, whose internal worlds you've strengthened and enriched. Thank you and goodbye."
Ann Packer, Listener children's book reviewer: "We loved Margaret, even before she stayed in our home outside Hastings for five whole days in early 1980. The Hawke's Bay Children's Literature Association toured her round local schools and we were the lucky hosts. What a treat! My daughter Genevieve bunked down with her brothers so Margaret could have her little bedroom. She says: 'All I remember is getting ridiculously shy and crying and not wanting to be in a photo. It might have been the rainbow wig… Still have the pic somewhere though!' Margaret signed all our books with her trademark lion drawing and a personal message, and whenever she and I met up again she would ask after the children by name. Margaret was a generous supporter of fellow Kiwi authors, buying multiple copies of their books to get autographed so she could give them away on her trips overseas."
Sheila Sinclair, owner of The Children's Bookshop in Christchurch and The Dorothy Butler Children's Bookshop in Auckland: "My first memory of Margaret was soon after I first began working at The Children's Bookshop, Christchurch. We held the launch of her novel Memory, an amazing book which touched upon the condition of Alzheimer's disease. At the time of publishing little was known about this distressing subject and Margaret's sensitive description of the little old lady wandering around the supermarket carpark late at night who befriended a troubled teenage boy will always remain with me. My father was in the first stages of this disease so it was especially poignant. Imagine my feelings when soon after starting work at The Children's Bookshop and alone in the shop I had a call from Margaret from her home in Governors Bay asking if we knew if the head of Penguin Publishing UK was coming to Christchurch that day, as she thought he might be coming for lunch at her place and could I find out. After hunting around I found Penguin New Zealand's number and yes, lunch was expected. I rang Margaret back and she decided to take him to 'the pub' as she didnt have lunch organised! Margaret was a trooper. At any event where she was required to sign books she was always the last to leave; if there was a queue of children she stayed until each book was signed. This sometimes included school librarians with a stack of library books from the shelves. Margaret always took the time to personalise each child's book and there was always a pen and ink sketch alongside her signature. Schools certainly benefited from her generous gift of time and she never said no to attending book weeks or library openings here in Christchurch. Here in Canterbury Margaret was cherished and we will miss her enormously."
Lloyd Jones, writer: "As parents do with a favourite bedtime story, I read endlessly A Lion in the Meadow to my kids. As everyone knows, it is a deceptively simple tale, but at the heart of it sits a child's discovery of the imagination and a willingness to suspend belief, always a major discovery in any child's reading journey. A similiar thematic moment is touched on in an essay I commissioned from Margaret for the Montana essay series. In Notes of a bag Lady, Margaret describes the tantalising moment when she declared to her school friends that she was a witch and the implicit dare that went along with it. I am what I say I am. Don't dare question it. She maintained the same approach in her writing. Anything was possible. To her enormous credit, she applied the same rule to life. If she could help someone then she would, and I know of one instance, no doubt there are many others, when she dug in her pocket to pay for a seriously ill child of a friend of mine to fly to the US for treatment. I think of her as someone generous in mind and spirit, as she was in life."
Roger Hall, playwright: "Let us not forget that MM's first publisher was School Publications with A Lion in the Meadow. One of the many things I admired about MM was her refusal to heed any publishers' requests to provide reading vocabularies to suit certain ages. She knew children love a wide and rich vocabulary and gave it to them. She was, perhaps, the most independent person I have ever met."
Paula Green, poet and reviewer: "When I was at Wellington Teachers’ College in the mid-1970s, the writing of Margaret Mahy was a treasure chest I carried into the classroom, but it also fuelled my desire to write. What did I love about it? I loved the reach of Margaret’s roving imagination and I loved the way her sentences sung and clung to me. Her sentences were audacious – they curled and cavorted in unexpected ways. Rhyme was surprising, infectious and demanding to be said aloud. New words were delicious on the tongue. Her stories and poems were the perfect doorway for children to step through into the glorious universe of words. I used to think she was the word gymnast, the way she could balance words on a beam so precariously, so elegantly, so lithely, they way they could somersault and flip … and I still do. Once I had my own family, Margaret’s stories had new life for me as we read them over and over. When we went to our first Storylines together (I had only published poetry for adults at this point), I was astonished to see her reading to a cluster of children in a foyer with an incredible hubbub of parental chat going on and the to-ing and fro-ing of feet. Yet there she was drawing in her audience with her marvellous words -- my two daughters and me included. She signed our book in a line that snaked around, drawing a picture for each and everyone. It seemed to me that she knew what mattered most -- and that was the children before her. Years later, when I had published a handful of children’s books, I was at the Storylines festival myself sitting in the bar at the end of a long and wonderful weekend. Margaret turned to me and asked me to recite one of my poems. I was quaking in my boots. But I managed a small poem from Flamingo Bendalingo. She leaned back when I had finished and slapped her knees and roared with laughter. This was the other side to Margaret. She paid attention to those about her. She sat next to Markus Zusak and told him she had read and loved his book The Book Thief (they were about to be on a panel in Christchurch). Not all authors are like this. I have never met a New Zealand author with the same capacity to attend to those about her. It was humbling, inspiring. Writing is not about the glory and the public profile, but about inhabiting the universe of words with utter grace and generosity. Stories and poems are to be shared. Thank you, Margaret, thank you."
Tim Bray, theatre producer, director and playwright: Just 10 days ago, we finished a joyous season of Margaret Mahy’s The Great Piratical Rumbustification. Over the years it has been a privilege and an honour for our creative, acting and technical teams in bringing her many stories to life on stage: Mahy Magic (1992, 2004); The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate (2006, 2010); The Dragon of an Ordinary Family (2008); A Lion in the Meadow and Other Stories (2011). I have enjoyed the challenge of faithfully bringing her words to life in my dramatisations. As a company, we have relished presenting on stage the magic, warmth and the quirky characters she created for the page with her whimsical imagination. Margaret’s stories are rich in their remarkable turns of phrase, playful choice of words and humour, and they are all underpinned by her keen eye for captivating stories. Parents and grandparents as well as children strongly identify with her tales and wisdom and recognise within them a ‘truth'. Margaret was willing to share her stories with us and she rejoiced in seeing her characters alive in the theatre. When she attended, her presence was infectious: she lit up the theatre. Mystery, enchantment and magic reign supreme in her world; our world is the richer for her offerings. Her stories and her magic will continue to live on, and we will all remember her with much fondness. Margaret Mahy is a literary treasure and a much-loved New Zealander. Sadly, her voice is stilled now but her influence on children’s imaginations will be a living force in the realm of literature. We send much love to her family."
John McIntyre, reviewer and owner of The Children's Bookshop in Wellington: "We were at the Bologna Children's Bookfair in 1996, and as we walked into the Italian Language Hall we were meet by an oversized, floor-to-ceiling photo of Margaret. She was there as a guest of her Italian publisher, and she was a massive draw card. There were librarians who had taken leave and travelled from Rome to meet her, and whilst we were with her she was interviewed at length by Italian television. Whilst the interview was recording, we sat in the sun and talked to her daughter Bridget, who was visiting from London. The other memory is of a promotional visit to our store 10 years ago, She had developed pneumonia on tour, and we had suggested that it was quite all right if she cancelled, but she was having nothing of it. She came, she read, she signed, and she stayed upbeat through the whole session. There was a recording of her [yesterday] morning talking about how she had been battered at times by the sheer scale of the work she took on, and that day exemplified for us just how much she sacrificed, and how hard she grafted. Nothing worth doing is easy, but she gave so much to bring so much pleasure to so many people."
Barbara Else, writer: "The Railway Engine and the Hairy Brigands! It isn’t one of Margaret’s better-known titles but it was the first book of hers that my little family came across, in the early 1970s. We adored it. I didn’t meet her in person until an early Wordstruck! Festival in Dunedin, in the early 1990s. I was blown away by her knowing my name though I was a total nobody. Her warmth and interest in other people was palpable. But it is her understanding of the geography of a child’s imagination that made her unparalleled, from poems to picture books to complex young adult novels – matchless Margaret."
Julia Marshall, Gecko Press: "When I think of Margaret Mahy I think of her brightness and generosity and the pleasure she seemed to take in every small moment. I treasure the times I was lucky enough to hear her speak - my favourite book of hers is The Three-legged Cat. My best moment was when we were talking about a contract and I was a bit shy and apologised for mentioning money and received the following: "Dear Julia, I am so sorry if I made it sound as if money questions were tedious. No way! I am thrilled with money."
Bill Manhire, poet and director of Victoria University's International Institute of Modern Letters: "Here’s a para from a July 30, 2007, email from Margaret. I kept thinking this book-eating dog might end up in a picture book, but I don’t think it happened. 'My life is rather chaotic at the moment because I have a new pet - a puppy called Honey (because of her colour). She is full of confidence and curiosity and she is what the pet shop described as a "cavoodle". Her father was standard poodle. You'll have to guess about her mother. She likes biting the backs of books and I live and work in a room where books are easy for a relatively small dog to reach. Never mind! By now I have a dog who has great literature in her.'"
Sarah Laing, writer, designer and cartoonist: "I never had the honour of meeting Margaret Mahy in person, but I've known her books all my life. I was born three years after A Lion in the Meadow was published and it was my first favourite book that I can remember. Then, when I started school, The Boy Who Was Followed Home enchanted me. How wonderful it would have been if a hippo and a giraffe came to live with me. As I grew older, so did Mahy's books. I devoured The Haunting and had that first possession-by-novel experience when reading The Changeover. I desperately wanted to be a witch, too, especially if it meant kissing a boy. I put aside Margaret Mahy books for about 15 years, and picked them up again in the early 2000s when I had my son, Otto. A Lion in the Meadow was one of the first ones I bought for him, along with In the Night Kitchen and The Tiger Who Came to Tea. I got to discover new books, Beaten by a Balloon, Simply Delicious and Down the Back of the Chair. Also ones that had passed me by - the brilliant The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate, with the Morrissey-esque philosopher and the ebullient wheelbarrow-chauffeured mother. I love reading these books to my three kids. First, there's the poetic language that trips off the tongue, no getting stuck to the roof of my mouth. Then there's the subversive wit, the feminism, the up-ending of expectations. My gun-obsessed middle child made me read him Beaten by a Balloon every day for about six months. The hero's PC father refuses his son a sword, then they defeat a gun-toting bank robber with a balloon, a thorny rose and a chocolate cake. 'Dad, you were really violent with that chocolate cake. Does that mean a cake can be a dangerous weapon?' The father relents and buys the son a water pistol. He uses it to water his sunflower. Every time I read this book I marvel at Mahy's genius. I've got books waiting for my children to grow into. They are inscribed with my name, my sister and brother's names. One even has Mahy's signature, and a deft drawing of a parrot. Otto has read The Dark Blue 100-ride Bus Ticket and Gus is almost ready to have it read to him. Recently we finished The Great Piratical Rumbustification with Quentin Blake's crazy illustrations. Violet enjoys Down the Back of the Chair. I will have to buy The Changeover and The Haunting soon - I read those when I was in my early teens, and Otto is going on 10. We have lost a literary giant, but we still have her books. And they have not aged one bit."
Jolisa Gracewood, reviewer and book editor: "[Yesterday] morning, I put on a silly hat covered with leaves and flowers (the next best thing, me not being in possession of a rainbow afro wig), and talked to a classroom of six-year-olds about the legend who had just passed. The headline in the paper, which some of them had seen, called her a 'giant', which they found persuasive. When I asked them to guess how many books this giant woman had written, they shouted 'A THOUSAND!!!' -- which felt close enough. I read them The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate. I’d grabbed it off the shelf that morning in a rush to get to school. It’s not an easy book – Mahy doesn’t write down to children, she writes up to them – but it seemed a suitable choice for a seaside school, a little man and his mother on an optimistic pilgrimage towards the ocean despite various obstacles and doubters.'The wonderful things are never as wonderful as you hope they'll be,' grumbles a philosopher. 'The sea is less warm, the joke less funny, the taste is never as good as the smell.' The robust pirate mother isn't having any of that. She knows where she's going, and her downtrodden son looks perkier the closer they get ... After reading the story, I told the kids to be sure to look around at home for gold earrings and shiny cutlasses and silver pistols, just in case their own mothers were also secretly pirates. There was a pause and then several hands shot up and a little voice asked, point-blank, with just exactly the right amount of suspicion and scepticism, 'Are YOU secretly a pirate?' Suddenly I stared back at them, not quite sure myself. Suddenly, I was." [This is an edited extract from Gracewood's Busytown blog about Mahy at Public Address, where you will also find this by reviewer Craig Ranapia.]
Pamela Allen, children's writer: "The first time I heard of Margaret Mahy was in the early 70s when I was a playcentre mum with two small children. A New Zealand story, A Lion in the Meadow, had just been published. Someone in America had found it in a school magazine. Jan Farr was also at playcentre with me and was publishing her stories in the New Zealand school magazine. Maybe we, too, could publish something - Jan Farr's words with Pamela Allen drawings. Since then I have many memories of the person Margaret Mahy. Reciting Down the Back of the Chair with her grandson. Sometimes with blue hair. Sometimes eating flowers. We will miss you, Margaret."
Elizabeth Knox, writer and friend, who interviewed Mahy for 2008 documentary A Tall Long Faced Tale: "What was it like to have a conversation with Margaret? She was widely and deeply read, and curious. But that only describes her habits of acquiring the world, not how her mind worked. Her mind was astonishing (a word she loved). People have remarked on her feeling for myth. But what she had a feeling for was significance. She saw possibilities for meaning, for story, in the way ideas fitted together, not mechanically, but as if this thought and that would suddenly seem subject to the same gravity, as if the way things fell together revealed the star they belonged to – the shining star, or the obscure one, whose only energy is gravity. This meaning-seeing and making was simultaneously playful and serious. It seems to me that her thinking and her work never sought to find a balance between fun and seriousness, fancy and portent. The opposing qualities just partnered-up, and wobbled, and danced. Margaret could say so much, and do so much, with one stroke of the tongue or pen. For instance, I remember yelling with joy at the line in The Pirates’ Mixed-up Voyage concerning the philosophical position of the parrot given to intoning 'Doom and destiny!' With just four or five lines she produced 1) a very funny joke, and 2) a deeply felt personal worldview, and 3) a potted history of Western philosophy in all its sober nuttiness. I mean – this was a book for eight- to 11-year-olds and it clearly came out of the same mind that, in The Changeover, spends a certain amount of time – a bit too long for comfort – contemplating the terror of the death of a child. Talking to Margaret I always had the sense that there were things she had made up her mind about for the purposes of transmitting helpful and thoughtful views to her readers, and that, beyond that, the generative and noticing imagination that came up with the thoughts was always turning up as many monsters and paradoxes, and that those monsters and paradoxes drove her as much as her kindness and wisdom and generosity led her." [This is an edited extract from Knox's tribute to Mahy on her Knoxon blog.]
Tessa Duder, writer and Mahy biographer: "Margaret was, I believe, best known to the general New Zealand public in a rather limited sense, as a writer of wacky picture books and as a be-wigged ‘lovable eccentric’, adored in schools and libraries by generations of children. But to the rest of the world, in the UK and US and other English-speaking countries and in many translations, she was regarded as primarily a writer of ground-breaking junior and YA novels, from The Haunting and The Changeover onwards through The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters (my favourite), Memory and The Other Side of Silence to her last major work, The Magician of Hoad. And to book people who attended literary festivals, to teachers, librarians and academics at their seminars in New Zealand and around the world, she was a compelling, challenging and sophisticated speaker. I don’t think it’s widely appreciated in her own country that behind the picture book texts and comfortable public persona lay a first-class mind. Her early family life was full of music round the piano, books and stories. At school, a gifted English teacher introduced her to the cannon of English literature, classical music and the patter songs of Gilbert and Sullivan; she had a phenomenal memory, able to pour forth Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Edward Lear, WS Gilbert or English music hall ballads until she decided, usually looking a mite bashful, to stop. At university, she majored in English literature and philosophy; her many bookcases held an eclectic mixture of substantial works on religion, philosophy, history, politics, world literature, children’s classics and current fiction, both for adult and younger readers, from a wide range of countries. She read American science magazines; on her coffee table the last time I visited her was a large book about the world’s tattoos. Her intellectual curiosity was boundless. Yet in company with other writers, teachers, librarians, friends, she never dominated a conversation; rather, she delighted in listening intently to others’ viewpoints and stories. She insisted that her reading was as important to her as her writing, and that writers should not worry about their work being derivative but they should simply revel in being part of the world’s ‘imaginative network,’ belonging to the fellowship of storytellers. She saw possible stories in everything, and always different, in the writing or telling, from what she’d first imagined. She could have been a stand-up comic, or a guest on Whose Line is it Anyway? At a literary festival in Whakatane, four of us were asked to make up a story on the spot before a large audience. The experience afforded a rare public glimpse of her quicksilver wit. David Hill and Martin Baynton, no slouches when it comes to public speaking and ‘thinking on their feet’, admitted beforehand to being right out of their comfort zone, as, most certainly, was I. The story got going. We’d been about three rounds, with Margaret each time turning the story on its head. But about the fourth round we realised she was putting her contribution effortlessly into rhyming couplets. I swear David Hill, next in line, turned pale. I don’t remember the story continuing on much beyond that: the audience was paralytic with laughter and astonishment and David, Martin and I were more than ready to vacate the stage, acknowledging the clear winner on points. One English commentator observed that her writing ‘had the unusual quality of charging up the reader’. She likewise charged up, through her laughter and her boundless generosity of spirit, those fortunate enough to meet her, whether as a colleague or teacher, as a parent or child waiting patiently for the book to be signed, their special smile and hand-drawn crocodile or lion to treasure. We came away knowing the world was a better place. The eminent American author Katherine Paterson, herself a Hans Christian Anderson Medal winner, wrote the best summing-up of Margaret that I know: 'She is, I believe, one of the most intelligent people I have ever known, but this enormous intellectual sophistication is coupled with the most winsome childlike wonder. To be with her is to know the joy of constant new discoveries and a delight in the marvels of the everyday.'"
John Barnett, film and television producer, South Pacific Pictures, executive producer of Maddigan’s Quest: "Margaret Mahy was a treasure. I think many New Zealanders were surprised to realise how famous and revered she was around the world. In the mid 1990s, I was pitching potential ideas to the BBC to try and interest them in commissioning something from South Pacific Pictures. The long-time head of children’s television, Anna Home, said, 'If you can get Margaret Mahy to create something, we’ll take it.' And that was how Maddigan’s Quest was born. It took a decade to get to screen, but Margaret was the magical key that opened the door. She was fun, she was irreverent. I remember her, quite possibly deliberately, telling an erudite academic group that her then current video viewing was Predator and Terminator. She was generous and warm, and without ego. We will all miss her."
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