Margaret Mahy - Award-winning children’s author

 

"But Abel, though a treble, was a rascal and a rebel, fond of getting into trouble when he didn't have to sing. Pushing quickly through the people, Abel clambered up the steeple with nefarious intentions and a pebble in his sling…"

Bubble Trouble typifies Margaret Mahy's infectious skill as a storyteller to children – and to grown-ups. A baby has been trapped in a bubble and wafts in search of mischief into the local church, where the choir is practising. With a fondness for alliteration (she was christened Margaret Mary Mahy) and a genius for quirky yet entirely believable invention, Mahy could sail any sea of story-making and return with an irresistible catch.

Her first book, A Lion in the Meadow, came about in 1969 when a New York children's editor spotted a short story in a children's magazine. She wrote to its author, a librarian in New Zealand, asking if she had any further material. By return of post she received a hoard of 100 unpublished stories. Kaye Webb, the long-serving editor of Puffin Books, soon spotted this talented new arrival. In 1971, she brought her latest star author down to The Red House in Thame, Oxfordshire.

I had left Fleet Street two years earlier to open a specialist children's bookshop. Margaret seemed somewhat diffident and withdrawn; she was a long way from home and still adjusting to her new life as an author. But she gladly graced our monthly Puffin Club meeting with a wonderful story session, one of many more to come.

The simplicity and charm of her lion tale had gripped me. I asked how it had come about: "Well, I had been in the library all day. Came home hoping to write. Put the girls to bed. Sat forever… and then it simply dropped into my lap." It is the perfect tale of the fearful fantasy world of a child, who tells his mother that there is a lion in the meadow; his mother goes along with its reality by giving precious growing space to her offspring. "Here's a matchbox… why not put it in there..."

Margaret Mahy, the eldest of five children, was born in Whakatane, North Island. Her father was an engineer in whose Irish blood flowed endless stories which he regaled to his children. Her ambitious mother, a teacher, made sure Mahy went to university. Words were her thing: she still kept the MS of a story written when she was seven. She trained as a librarian, working in Christchurch until she was appointed children's librarian.

A single mother, Mahy worked during the day, cared for her two daughters and then would write the night long, sipping black coffee. In 1980, growing success enabled her to write full-time: her published work amounts to some 100 picture books, 40 fiction titles for teenagers and 20 collections of short stories and poems; she is translated into 15 languages.

Her empathy for a growing audience moved on to stories for teenagers. The Changeover deals with the joys, fears and failures of puberty. Laura meets Sorenson Carlisle at her school. He is a complex loner dressed frequently in Gothic black: Laura knows him for what he is, a male witch with family problems at home. But she falls for him, especially when he steps in to help Jacko, her ailing baby brother who has been marked by a demon who seems to be sucking his life away.

The romance between Laura and Sorry (his new name once he has been sent away to an abusive foster home) as they learn to love themselves when they fall in love with each other, is skilfully and credibly told.

Mahy is the only children's author to have received the Carnegie Award twice, for her first two works of older fiction. In 1993 she received New Zealand's greatest honour, the Order of New Zealand, joining Prince Philip in the equivalent of the Order of Merit. But what delighted her most, as much as her many children's storytelling sessions decked out in her woolly rainbow bonnet, was being given The Hans Christian Andersen medal for services to children's literature.

Margaret Mary Mahy, author: born Whakatane, New Zealand 21 March 1936; two daughters; died Christchurch, New Zealand 23 July 2012.

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