There was never anyone quite like her. Other amazing children’s writers have won the Hans Christian Andersen Award, but none had her extra‑ordinary range: verse; picture-book texts; books for every conceivable age group; scripts for radio, television, film; serials for newspapers and magazines. “I have been such a tradesman all my professional writing life,” she said once. But for the word tradesman, read wizard.
She even looked like one, in that cape and broad-brimmed hat sometimes, or in the multicolored wig she wore to talk to schoolchildren or to recite her celebrated 1991 poem “Bubble Trouble” (later a picture book). There had been a green wig first, and she was quite relieved when she lost it, but popular demand made another one necessary. She was a private person but a happy entertainer; she gave talks all over the world because she was not good at saying no — just as she answered every child’s letter, probably with a little drawing at the bottom, of a cat or an alligator.
One year she drew penguins. Around 1998 she had a penguin suit, and when she made a trip to Antarctica she was asked to wear it when talking to the personnel at Scott Base. She wrote in a letter, “Though I feel reasonably happy dressing as a penguin and talking to a class in New Zealand, I feel uneasy about dressing as a penguin in the Antarctic. Apart from involvement with other penguins, it somehow seems a little like a violation of the sanctity of the great wilderness.” Then she added (and you could almost hear the chuckle), “Not that I am not good as a penguin…”
She was the best writer New Zealand has ever produced, not excluding Katherine Mansfield. Born in 1936 in Whakatane, North Island, to a bridge-builder and a teacher, she was the protégé of a teacher who soaked her in English literature from Pope to Eliot, via Gilbert and Sullivan; and after a degree and a library diploma she went to work as a children’s librarian in Christchurch, on the South Island where she spent the rest of her life. She wrote stories, but kept getting rejection slips until in the late 1960s the U.S. editor Helen Hoke Watts was shown her story “A Lion in the Meadow” and sent her $1,000 in advance royalties. Margaret never looked back. She bought a car and moved into the house in Governors Bay where she raised her two daughters as a single mother (she never spoke in public about their father). She wrote and wrote. It was 1979 before she took the plunge to become a full-time writer, but by 1984 she had won the Carnegie Medal. Twice.
Her output in that decade of the 1980s, encouraged by her longtime editor and later agent Vanessa Hamilton, was bracketed by two of her best picture books: The Great Piratical Rumbustification (illustrated by Quentin Blake) and the enchanting The Great White Man-Eating Shark (illustrated by Jonathan Allen), whose smug little hero comes to a deeply satisfying end. In between there was an astounding succession of major novels for older readers, blending realism with the supernatural: The Haunting, The Changeover (her two Carnegie winners), The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, and Memory. Above all, the layered fantasy of The Tricksters is essence of Mahy, full of what she called “that mysterious feeling that everyday life and ego and everything must take a step back to let the story come through.”
Memory dealt with dementia, whose heartbreak and absurdity Margaret knew well from caring for her aunt Francie. It’s a wry, touching book, and I was hired to write a screenplay from it (Margaret wrote, “Our friendship might be strengthened by this, I say, smiling into the blue of the computer screen”), but alas, the subject gave the producers cold feet before it could become a film.
When she first came to stay with me in 1989, we sat up far too late, talking and talking and drinking Scotch. It was like meeting a long-lost sister. We went on talking, sometimes in person, mostly from opposite sides of the world. She was wildly imaginative and generous and funny, and I shall always miss her. Who else would have written this, as a deadpan comment on the availability of pornography on school computers: “When I was a child we had to get our pornography off the walls of public lavatories, and a lot of it was hard to decipher, because you had to look at it in a dim light.” And then comes the chuckle. “It makes you realize how lucky children are these days.”
From the November/December 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.