What I learned from Margaret Mahy

00:34, Jul 24 2012

Last night I watched Campbell Live and found that the piece on the Fosters, a couple who were so unhappy about their two-year-old being taught te reo Māori vocab in preschool that they were considering withdrawing her from it. I found myself at moments almost shaking with fury at the wilful ignorance on display, at others hooting at laughter at the wilful ignorance on display. Still, as the Silver Fox so gleefully pointed out, this would make good "blog fodder".

But then, just before going to bed something else happened. The news of Margaret Mahy's death filtered through to me via Twitter. And suddenly I didn't want to write about how my fellow countrymen and women sometimes confuse and disappoint me but about a woman who was the polar opposite of that and what I learned from her.

It's over 20 years since I first read it but my favourite book is still The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.

I picked up a hardcover copy of the book at my school library. The cover had a black background with a picture of an olive-skinned girl with woolly hair holding some kind of coin in her hand. I devoured it until I was close to the end, at which point I slowed my reading pace so I could make it last longer.

The book focuses on high school girl Laura Chant, whose little brother is bewitched by a creepy old guy who runs an antique shop. To save him she is forced to seek supernatural help. There is peril and magical transformations but the most notable thing about this book for me was that it was set in Christchurch in a landscape that I recognised. Boring old Christchurch.

The Port Hills and the estuary and myriad other places were easy to see in my mind's eye because I saw them all the time with my actual eyes. And more than that, Laura Chant was a part Māori, part Pakeha girl whose father was no longer living in the family home. She was me. Boring old me.

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If you'd asked me at the time what if anything I had "learnt" from that book, I would probably have said "to avoid creepy old men who run antiques shops" or at a push "to trust your instincts". But now that some time has passed, what I understand is that what I really learned from that book, what Margaret Mahy was good enough to want to teach me, was that a part-Māori girl living in the Christchurch 'burbs could still be the heroine of her own story. She could be brave and scared but achieve extraordinary things.

It's a sad fact that some kids, particularly Māori kids, don't have that self-belief. That you can be things. You can do things. Most important, that you can save yourself.

I didn't know what I wanted to be then. Even with my notoriously good English grades, being a writer wasn't something that I imagined was possible for me. That didn't even occur to me until I was well into adulthood but I think that Margaret Mahy (along with my family and some of my teachers) helped sow the seeds of self-belief in that book that would eventually lead me to try things that seemed a bit impossible. And that doing those things led me here.

I once almost met Margaret Mahy. I worked for several years at Christchurch City Libraries and Margaret (if I may be so bold as to refer to her by her first name, like a dear old friend) was the public library's most famous former employee. She had worked in the Children's Library many years earlier* and though she was no longer a practising librarian (the thing about being a librarian is that you never really stop being one - it's that sort of affliction) she still had ties with the library. She'd come in one day for an event of some kind and was sitting not three metres away from me in the tearoom.

I was overcome with shyness and even though I was desperate to tell her how much I admired her, I didn't because I didn't trust myself to speak without sounding unhinged. Instead, I lurked with a biscuit, stealing sideways glances in her direction. A couple of years later when I met Te Hata (Olly) Ohlson I had the exact same feeling of excitement and fear, but by then I'd figured out how to fake normality enough to carry out a polite conversation.

And I thought that, since I bottled out that day, I might say it now. Thank you, Margaret Mahy, for giving me a heroine who looked like me. Thank you for making her nothing like that insipid, whiny Bella Swan. Thank you for showing me that my city and my stories might be as entertaining and worthy of a book as the streets of Paris or the victories of foreign kings. Thank you for being completely and utterly comfortable with difference. Thank you for the rainbow afro wig.

The only sadness I feel at your passing, since you had such a long and extraordinary life, is the idea that you might not have known what you gave us, what it meant to us, the kids you inspired. It's the regret of someone who really should have taken the opportunity to say thank you in person. But I kind of think that someone of your imagination probably knew, right?

Please feel free to share your Mahy memories, if you have any. Which was your favourite book? Did she ever read to you in that glorious wig?

* Before the earthquakes a portrait of her hung in the Children's area in the Central Library, showing her sitting in a chair down the back of which, I imagine, were a plethora of wondrous things. I wonder if it's still hanging there in the abandoned library? Or is it stored somewhere safe?

Picture of Margaret Mahy: Fairfax NZ