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Margaret Mahy

20 July 2023

Margaret Mahy is often grouped with Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame as the third writer from New Zealand, of acknowledged genius, whose body of work has made a major and lasting contribution to world literature. Learn more about this local hero.


Margaret Mahy is often grouped with Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame as the third writer from New Zealand, of acknowledged genius, whose body of work has made a major and lasting contribution to world literature.

The world-wide children’s literature community recognised this in 2006, when at 70, she won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. Because it is judged by a multi-lingual international jury, assessing nominations from more than 30 countries, this award is regarded as the pinnacle of achievement, the ‘Little Nobel’ prize for children’s writing.

Few winners in the award’s fifty-year history have matched Margaret’s inventive use of language and her imaginative range, across powerful, gritty young adult novels, comic novels for younger children, picture books, hundreds of short stories, poems and ‘school readers’ – along with plays, scripts for television and film, and for adults, brilliantly original essays and published speeches.

Born in 1936, Margaret was, from the age of about seven, a compulsive writer and an ‘eager and greedy’ reader, growing up the eldest of a large extended family in Whakatane. Her parents and teachers recognised her unusual gifts; surviving schoolgirl poetry shows that by her teens she had a wide knowledge of English literature, music hall ballads (the family were enthusiastic parlour singers) and Gilbert and Sullivan.

Majoring in English and philosophy at the Universities of Auckland and Canterbury, she went on to train and work as a librarian, first in Petone, moving in 1965 with her four-year-old daughter to Governors Bay, Lyttelton.

The child’s birth in 1961 coincided with the first of many Margaret Mahy stories appearing in the School Journal during the 1960s including a 1966 issue devoted entirely to her stories and poems, in effect her first book. A second daughter was born that year. Library work, and writing mostly at night, continued. She wrote for children, she has said, because she wanted to write fantasy; then, the children’s genre was seen as fantasy’s natural home.

In 1968 came the breakthrough. A leading New York publisher, alerted by a colleague to a story of unusual charm in a touring exhibition of School Journals, promptly flew to New Zealand to meet the 32-year-old author. It was a fairytale start to Margaret’s international career. The following year A Lion in the Meadow and four other School Journal stories were published in New York and London, illustrated by leading artists. They heralded a remarkable stream of picture books, collections of stories and verse, novellas and always, School Journal stories by the dozen. Some books were translated into 10 or more languages.

By 1981, now in her early forties and with her daughters leaving home, Margaret decided she was financially secure enough to move on from librarianship at the Canterbury Public Library to write fulltime.

If the 1970s had shown her talents with short stories, the 1980s saw Margaret burst onto an astonished children’s literature world as an accomplished and innovative novelist. Her first two serious novels (The Haunting and The Changeover) won Britain’s top children’s book award, the Carnegie Medal. Young adult novels followed, published in Britain and America and in many languages.

Concurrently, she was producing literally dozens of ‘school readers’ for reading programmes published internationally, while also developing a parallel career as a scriptwriter for highly original, award-winning children’s television. She became a tireless traveller to speak at seminars in New Zealand and overseas, and a frequent, much-loved, visitor to schools, often costumed and bewigged.

By the end of the decade and onwards, Margaret’s huge body of work was being recognised with prestigious international and local awards: the Observer Teenage Fiction Award, the May Hill Arbuthnot Lecture awards in USA, and many appearances in American ‘honor book’ lists and New Zealand Post and Ester Glen awards. In 1993 came New Zealand’s highest civil honour, the Order of New Zealand; later, three lifetime achievement awards and honorary doctorates from the Universities of Canterbury (1993) and Waikato (2006).

In addition, she has been one of only two authors to twice win the Children’s Literature Association (America) Phoenix Award for a book published twenty years earlier but not an award-winner at the time: for The Catalogue of the Universe in 2005 and Memory in 2007. The superb young adults’ fantasy, The Tricksters, thought by many to rival The Changeover as her best novel, was also a Phoenix Honour Book in 2006.

In later years, though overseas travel slowed, there had been no resting on her laurels. A major 2006 publication, Maddigan’s Fantasia, was accompanied by the television series. In 2008, The Magician of Hoad, an epic ‘cross-over’ fantasy begun in the early 1980s finally appeared in Britain, New Zealand and America to critical acclaim, bringing her total of books since 1961 to around 250.

Reprints in many languages continue, as well as new picture books, notably her famous comic ‘performance pieces’ Down the Back of the Chair and Bubble Trouble, illustrated by the English artist Polly Dunbar. And in The Word Witch: The Magical Verse of Margaret Mahy, illustrated by David Elliot, all her poetry has been brought together into a single volume.

Margaret Mahy occupies a unique place among New Zealand authors. Her generosity is legendary, towards young or new writers, the schools she visits, the seminars and festivals she attends and the young fans all round the world who queue patiently and are rewarded with a lion or crocodile sketch as well as an autograph. Her name honours the highest award for a distinguished contribution to New Zealand children’s literature, the Storylines of Margaret Mahy Medal.

Her reputation as a writer of genius rests principally on her stunningly inventive language, at once comic, witty and profound, full of effortless alliterations and internal rhymes, quirky metaphors, and as one English critic has said, ‘a spectacular originality’ that by its energy and intensity has the unusual quality of charging up the reader.

A recurring theme in much of her fiction and many essays has been the poser of the imagination to alter reality, often drawing on her deep knowledge of (mostly) European myth and fairytale.

By Tessa Duder (Copyright © March 2009 Local Heroes Trust)

Tessa Duder is the author of the biographical portrait “Margaret Mahy, a writer’s life” (Auckland: HarperCollins, 2005) and editor of “The Word Witch: The Magical Verse of Margaret Mahy”, illustrated by David Elliot (Auckland: HarperCollins, 2009). Her 35 books for both adults and children include novels, short stories, non-fictions, plays and anthologies.

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