Memories of Margaret Mahy

UNLIMITED IMAGINATION: Margaret Mahy loved reading to children, usually wearing one of her colourful trademark wigs.
UNLIMITED IMAGINATION: Margaret Mahy loved reading to children, usually wearing one of her colourful trademark wigs.

She was the cherished children's author living in our own backyard. A resident of Governors Bay for half a century, Margaret Mahy wrote picture books, novels, short story collections and poems.

Her unlimited imagination made her one of 12 "Christchurch heroes" immortalised as a bronze bust at the Arts Centre. She was an obsessive reader who became a librarian, writing children's stories in her spare hours until she could afford to go fulltime. A mother of two, a grandmother of seven.

She read to children in schools and libraries and felt like a true local though her words and fame went far beyond New Zealand. She was translated into at least 15 languages and won awards that are rarely heard of on these shores but mean huge things in the world of children's publishing.

In 2010, I sat with her for a couple of hours at her home. It was late in the afternoon and she was tired, no longer sitting up and writing through the night. I hate cliches but she definitely had a twinkle in her eye.

The phone rang in the middle of our interview, she picked it up and spoke for a few minutes.

"Goodbye," she said to the caller. "Hugs for the kids. Lots of love. Lots of love."


Lorain Day, Editor

"It was the launch of A Writers' Life, by Tessa Duder, at the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival.

"Margaret was there, of course, and a whole host of people. She started to speak and then spontaneously went into reciting her poem, Down the back of the chair. Then a little voice joined in the chorus and we realised it was Harry (her grandson), who must have been about 7.

"Instantly, Margaret beckoned him forward and he stood with her, reciting the poem, completely unrehearsed.

"It was a magic moment and I suddenly realised what her magic was. She wasn't just an internationally recognised children's author that the world knew and loved.

She was a grandma, a mother.

He was his Nana who had read and recited that poem to him as he was growing up and he knew it word-for-word.

"That summed her up. She never lost that part of her and I think that's what children responded to. They responded to the wild flights of fancy but they also responded to that wonderful sense of humour because it was grounded in the lovely, motherly, grandmotherly part of Margaret. I just felt so grateful to her family who had given up so much and shared her with the world. I felt a real sense of gratitude to them for that."


Gavin Bishop, illustrator and author

"I knew her for close to 45 years. The first time we met her was at an afternoon party in Cashmere. We had a brand new baby and we were very green and anxious parents wondering what to do with a baby at a party. I'd never met Margaret before but she swooped in and said "I just love babies" and whisked our daughter off and trotted her around the party. She returned two hours later and brought her back. "That was her. She just loved people. We travelled together a bit and she would always talk to people she didn't know from a bar of soap, asking about the book they were reading. All sorts of questions.

"Another night, when her two daughters were school-aged, it was Christmas Eve and it was getting dark, about 10pm. We heard the gate squeak and then we heard three people singing carols. She often did that with the kids.

"The thing that set her apart was her extraordinary memory for old songs and poems. You could mention a hymn or a George Formby song and she'd rattle it off. Epic poems you'd learned at school. Extraordinary."


Rosie Belton, friend 

"We always tried to do something together on or around Margaret's birthday. Maybe go to a movie in Sumner or eat a cake on the verandah. In 2010, my husband, Mark, suggested she might like to come in the boat to have lunch.

"She said she'd love to so Mark checked the tides and we picked her up at 9am.

"It was a perfect summery Saturday and a calm, beautiful sea. Mark rowed sedately, well, that's the only way he can row. We went to this tiny bay near Maori Gardens just around from Governors Bay. There's a cave and at full tide you can row into the mouth of the cave, so we did that and set up. We had quince jam, tea and coffee. I brought a little tablecloth. It was wonderful. At that hour of the morning, you see big shags with their wings spread out, drying them in the sun. It was just a delightful birthday morning. Then someone we knew came scrambling over the rocks and asked if we wanted a picture.

"She just really loved the harbour and as she grew older and became more isolated, we grew very close."


Bridget Mahy, daughter 

"This is a memory from childhood, a history of our toilets. Margaret bought a piece of land in Governors Bay in the late 1960s. It was quite small and private. We had a can for a toilet. I have a memory of it slowly filling up over the week then around would come Saturday or Sunday and Mum would be hefting this can off to a hole she'd dug in the garden.

"Eventually we had an electric toilet outside the house. If it was cold you'd have to run to the outhouse then push a button to flush. It would make a terrible grinding noise and a weak blue stream of chemical would run down the bowl.

"By the time I was a teenager and almost ready to leave home, we had a proper toilet. When you grow up with a can for a toilet, it gives you a bit of perspective on things.

"There was an element of survival to Margaret. In the mid- 1970s, she went through a self- sufficiency stage so there were books on gardening and health and things like that.

"One day she baked a loaf of bread. It was symbolic of her cooking skills. It was rock hard and I imagine us peering at it, unable to get the knife through it. She'd baked the life out of it. But we always had a pot of vegetable soup on the go and anyone who came over could be fed. A bowl of soup and store-bought bread.

"One year, as part of this self- sufficiency drive, she built a chicken house. She built this chicken house and the Rhode Island reds and roosters had a home and dutifully woke us at 5am."


Bill Nagelkerke, colleague

"I knew her as a librarian and fellow writer. I first encountered her in about 1974 when she was in charge of the school library service and I was a student. There was this quite extraordinary thing where she and her second-in-charge would just burst into song, quite randomly.

"It was a reasonably formal workplace in those days and you'd be at your desk and when suddenly they'd leap up and burst into song. It would be a Gilbert & Sullivan duet or something like it. From a library aspect Margaret had this sense of fun and joy and she wasn't afraid to share it.

"In a writing sense, she was a great support to me when I started writing and always took the time to comment.

"When she was 70, she made the effort to come into town and launch my book at the library. She'd forgotten the book and her notes for the launch which was typical of Margaret but, equally typically of Margaret, it didn't matter at all.



Christchurch Writers & Readers Festival runs from August 27 to 31.

It includes the first Margaret Mahy Memorial Lecture by Elizabeth Knox and a panel discussion on Mahy's young adult novel, The Changeover.

The Press