Inspiring author a global favourite

MIKE CREAN
Last updated 05:00 25/07/2012
Margaret Mahy, photographed in 2008, at home in Governors Bay. Her work was translated into 15 languages.
KIRK HARGREAVES/Fairfax NZ
TRUE ARTIST: Margaret Mahy, photographed in 2008, at home in Governors Bay. Her work was translated into 15 languages.

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The lion in the meadow has lost its roar. Its creator, literary lion Margaret Mahy, has died.

The author of books for children and young people was diagnosed with cancer four months ago. She was 76.

A Lion in the Meadow was the first of her more than 200 books. All were fruits of a rampant imagination that seemed to take hold of Mahy at a young age and force her to write - often through the night. Compulsive? Probably. Brilliant? Certainly. Much-loved? Without a doubt.

Mahy was the very model of the true artist, from the early garret existence to a continuing and endearing eccentricity. Biographer Tessa Duder referred to her as "impecunious but determined".

But it was more than the appearance of an artist, more than the tendency to attract attention, that brought Mahy fame, that won her top national and international awards, that crammed her much-thumbed books on to the shelves of many family homes in New Zealand, that had her works translated into 15 languages for readers in many countries.

Her own childhood was fun. The daughter of a Bay of Plenty bridge builder and a mother who had been a teacher, she grew up the eldest of five children.

She once described herself as "cheeky, given half a chance", and admitted she did not do "terribly well" at school, except in reading and writing.

She read at every opportunity. When opportunity was lacking, she read anyway. She was often caught holding a book open under her desk during maths or science lessons. Punishment followed, but change of behaviour didn't.

"I was an obsessive reader," she recalled in 2010.

Daughter Penny says: "She was a weirdo at school. She used to have a lot of fantasies. I think it did sort of mark her as being a bit special."

From reading to writing seemed a natural progression. She produced her first storybook at seven, launching into it with the gusto that would become her trademark: "Once upon a time there was a boy called Harry and he was lazy."

Who was this lazy Harry? A world of children would want to read on.

Mahy began university studies at Auckland, where one of her English lecturers was writer M K Joseph. He recommended she read Tolkien, so she deferred purchase of a pair of shoes and bought The Lord of the Rings. No wonder themes of fantasy and the supernatural became integral to her own writing.

She moved to Christchurch and graduated from Canterbury University in 1955. Still only 19, she then did a one-year librarian course at Wellington and began work in Petone.

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She moved back to Christchurch to work for the School Library Service and was appointed children's librarian at the Canterbury Public Library in 1976.

Two daughters were born to her as a young librarian. With disarming candour, she once explained she was never married and that her mother was "naturally concerned" at her choosing to be a solo mum.

"In the context of the time, not being married was a bit scandalous," she said.

It was also financially tenuous. Life as a librarian brought rewards, but not riches. In her biography, Duder captures an image of the desperation of Mahy's life, returning home exhausted from a day's work to face the challenge of caring for two children and then writing into the wee small hours.

"I'd get off the bus at night and immediately start weeping as I walked towards home," Mahy told her.

She was equally candid in discussing charges against her in 2008 for drink-driving.

"It was a terrible embarrassment and I'm really ashamed of myself," she told The Press soon after. She quickly paid her dues and never drove a car again.

It must have seemed a double life. On one hand, committed to raising her children alone and keeping a home for them to grow up in, with each hectic day leading into a night of aloofness from the real world, in a land accompanied only by the characters of her dreams as she typed her stories. On the other hand, the animated character in coloured wig and outlandish garb, reading aloud to groups of children with such verve she seemed to merge with the books' characters, happy advising budding writers, keen to socialise with the literary set.

Rescue from the hard times came in the form of a wealthy American with an acute eye for classy writing. Mahy stories had been appearing in the New Zealand School Journals, a literary trail blazed by the likes of James K Baxter. New York publisher Helen Hoke Watts spotted the stories and recognised the brilliance. Watts came halfway around the world to sweep into Mahy's Governors Bay home with a contract for five books. It must have seemed like fantasy to Mahy, but she was realist enough to sign on the dotted line.

And so a lion appeared in the meadow - even if, as Mahy later remarked ruefully, some New Zealand critics said it should have appeared in a "paddock".

Mahy realised the universality of her appeal and the need to write for an audience beyond this country. As she said, she had been brought up on stories of Winnie the Pooh and Little Squirrel Nutkin.

"My imagination was home to squirrels, moles, foxes and badgers, which never lived in New Zealand," she said, adding that she found it hard to write about her native land.

The success of A Lion in the Meadow in 1969 made her name known worldwide. For the next 40 years she enhanced that name, as books and poems poured from her pen.

Even in her last days, she had writing in mind. So much was she consumed by the need to write that every experience, every person she met, she saw in terms of how they could become part of a story.

Every mishap she encountered she turned into an adventure.

Duder notes Mahy was drawn to themes that represented "the opposing concepts of reality and illusion, truth and imagination, the fabulous in the ordinary, the fantastic in the domestic". These elements energised her stories.

Penny says: "She had one or two [books] in the pipeline when she died. She just had such an enormous output. Even in her last few months when she was suffering and in a bit of pain she would say, ‘Ooh, that could be an idea for a story'. She still had an eye for a story. It was so much part of her and central to who she was."

Mahy won many prestigious children's book awards, including Britain's Carnegie Medal twice. She was the only New Zealander to receive the Hans Christian Andersen Award, sometimes known as the "Little Nobel Prize". She was co-winner last year of the New Zealand Post Children's Book of the Year award, for The Moon & Farmer McPhee, with Dunedin illustrator David Elliot.

Her many honours included New Zealand's highest award, membership of the Order of New Zealand in 1993. She typically accepted honours and awards with gleeful surprise and modesty.

Mahy spent thousands of hours visiting schools and speaking to groups, always encouraging people to read and write. She had marvellous rapport with children.

Christchurch author and illustrator Gavin Bishop, who knew Mahy for 40 years, says she was "one of the kindest and nicest people you could ever meet".

"She was incredibly supportive and never catty or jealous about anybody's work. She took anybody's work seriously," he says.

"She was incredibly generous with her time. I remember that she would write enormous numbers of long-hand letters to children who had written to her."

Friend and neighbour Morrin Rout says: "Today in Governors Bay it is grey and sullen - we have lost our bright spark."

Readers the world over would agree.

Margaret Mahy, born Whakatane, March 21, 1936; died Christchurch, July 23, 2012.

- The Press

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