New Zealander Margaret Mahy was the first writer from outside the UK to win the prestigious Carnegie Medal. Mahy's genius with language has been demonstrated over and over again in a prolific list of titles from early picture books through to challenging teenage fiction.
Born: Whakatane, New Zealand, 1936
Jobs: Nurse, Librarian
Lives: Nr Christchurch, New Zealand
First Book: A Lion in the Meadow, 1969
In 1936, the year Margaret Mahy was born, only four books for children were published in New Zealand. Mahy has been influential in changing the landscape of children's literature in her homeland - one of the most prolific of authors, she has penned around a hundred titles to date. Her output includes poetry, picture books, works for older children, teenage novels, television scripts and stories for magazines and newspapers.
She grew up in a close family with five brothers and sisters. Her always vivid imagination made life at school interesting rather than easy. After seeing The Jungle Book, she announced to her astonished seven-year-old classmates that she could talk to animals - "I had to resort to talking a certain gibberish and eating leaves and drinking out of puddles to prove how close I was to the Animal Kingdom." She started writing as a young child and admits to being something of a show-off - "I can remember carrying my notebooks around in an effort to introduce them into the conversation."
She began writing children's books in earnest at the age of eighteen, whilst training to be a children's librarian. Her big break came fifteen years later - in 1968 - when an American publisher came across the text of A Lion in the Meadow and bought it, along with all the other work Mahy had produced over the years. Eight books hit the presses simultaneously.
She became a full-time writer in 1980 and wrote The Haunting. With this novel, Margaret won the Carnegie Medal (she was the first writer outside the UK to do so). She triumphed again two years later with The Changeover. In 1986, she won the IBBY Honour Book Award. In February 1993, Margaret was awarded New Zealand's highest honour, The Order of New Zealand, which is only ever held by twenty people living at any one time. She also holds an Honorary Doctorate of Letters awarded to her by the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Margaret is a frequent visitor to schools and libraries, when she's liable to don an animal costume (possibly a penguin, perhaps a possum) or a multi-coloured wig. She has described herself, with characteristic modesty, as "a bit of an exhibitionist, with nothing to exhibit." Fans of her books - young and old - would strongly disagree.
WHAT SHE SAYS...
"I was always a writer. Before I could write, I made up stories and learned them by heart."
"I began writing when I was seven years old. I know this because my mother saved the first story I ever wrote and I have it to this day... half a dozen pad pages sewn together to make them more like a book."
"I have an almost fanatical belief in the importance of reading aloud, so many of my stories are written with this intention."
"I know a lot of people look back on their childhood as not being particularly happy, but I seemed to experience a lot of that particular angst."
"Most of the ideas I get come from something that has really happened... some of my ideas also spring from the sound of words - from rhymes, jokes, riddles and puns."
"I used to write late at night - sometimes all night - but nowadays I try to get work done before the day becomes too busy with other things... like my grandchildren coming over from next door."
"I always start writing a story with a lot of optimism; that this time I have a really good idea. Then towards the end I start to lose confidence. The minute I had posted The Haunting I thought it was dreadful. Then they wrote and said they liked it so I thought it must be good after all."
"I think writing a story involves several processes, and in the beginning I tell myself a story which is going to entertain me."
"I hope I'm exposing children to some sort of subversive ideas, to processes by which they can approach truth. Sometimes ideas become so anarchic and difficult to state that you can only do so through humour, through irony."
"I try to be entertaining. But I still have that puritan work ethic that says there has to be something more."
"Reading isn't passive. It's creative. I'm always interested to see reviews of my novels and get letters from readers: often they've found something I never even thought of. That doesn't mean they're wrong."
WHAT THEY SAY ABOUT MARGARET MAHY...
"Margaret Mahy is outstanding in the richness of her ideas and in her great story-telling ability. She has a fresh and vivid imagination, which speaks directly to the imagination of the child and an ability to use language to increase the force of her imagery to great effect."
Twentieth Century Children's Writers
"The queen of children's fiction... her plots are complex, her language is both rich and precise, and her work for older readers is always thought-provoking, confronting tricky subjects like death, revenge, friendship and love, as well as the eternal teenage questions: Who am I? What is the point of me? What am I going to do with myself? It is this that has made her books so popular with both educators and readers: approved by adults for their literary content in a market dominated by American pulp; consumed by teenagers with the power to vote with their pocket money."
Independent on Sunday
A prolific and versatile writer." Times
writer who takes risks, who's always changing, always capable of growth." Books For Keeps
"Few writers can match Mahy in her ability to exploit the exuberant possibilities of the playfulness of words." Irish Times
"Some of the best authors of junior fiction come from New Zealand. The finest of them (is) Margaret Mahy." Daily Telegraph
"Like all the best story-tellers Margaret Mahy not only writes supremely well, she takes her inventions, however absurd, quite seriously." Junior Bookshelf
"Children's writing at its best." She
"Mahy in madcap mode... is just as cunning and careful as she is in her serious fiction." The Bulletin
"Reads aloud beautifully." Child Education on Boom, Baby, Boom, Boom!
"Brilliantly crazy fantasy stories." TES on The Boy Who Bounced
"Both the language and subject matter... have a splendid anarchic energy."
Independent on Sunday on Bubble Trouble
"A classic in the least stuffy sense... it works brilliantly with four-to-seven-year-olds." The Scotsman on A Busy Day For a Good Grandmother
"A spectacular story."
Books For Your Children on A Busy Day For a Good Grandmother
"This novel is written with such richness of style and intensity of emotion that the reader emerges as if from a life-changing experience."
The Northern Echo on Catalogue of the Universe
"A typically Mahy Christmas treat... hilarious."
Children's Books in Ireland on The Christmas Tree Tangle
"Delightful" School Library Journal on The Christmas Tree Tangle
"Mahy is distinctly at her best in Dangerous Spaces." The Observer
"A wonderful fantasy tale exploring youthful emotions and interests."
Independent on Sunday on The Five Sisters
"Margaret Mahy's mad-cap The Greatest Show Off Earth is linguistically inventive and delightfully funny... the writing is highly original, though children who read a lot will hear echoes of Lewis Carroll and L Frank Baum." TES
"Mahy's timing is immaculate, her sense of fun firmly in control."
Junior Bookshelf on The Horrendous Hullabaloo
"The Other Side of Silence is not the easiest of books to find one's way in, but the reward of effort is rich indeed... one of her best books, which means one of the best of the half-century." Junior Bookshelf
"An extraordinary account of an extraordinary girl... Mahy pays cunning tribute to a number of children's classics."
Nigel Williams, Mail on Sunday on The Other Side of Silence
"A superb psychological thriller."
Sunday Telegraph on The Other Side of Silence
"Margaret Mahy's glorious blend of comic silliness... her relaxed viewpoint and love affair with language unite for a bracing romp."
TES on The Pirates' Mixed-Up Voyage
"That elusive balance between text and illustration which so few children's books achieve but which marks out (the) classics."
The Spectator on The Queen's Goat
"Margaret Mahy's story is chaotic and packed with adventure... the language is perfect for reading aloud: full of rhythm, alliteration, onomatopoeia and repetitions." Child Education on The Rattlebang Picnic
"A well-loved addition to any infant bookshelf."
Books For Keeps on A Summery Saturday Morning
"The ultimate in happy-ever-after stories although there's nothing remotely traditional about it."
100 Best Books 1995 on The Three-Legged Cat
"Look no further for that next great read-aloud."
Booklist on Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones
"A masterly romp, quick paced, ludicrous and effortlessly inventive."
Scotland on Sunday on Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones
"Mahy writes with the fearless exuberance of a nine-year-old with a thesaurus programmed into its brain... weird and wonderful."
Independent on Sunday on Tingleberries, Tuckertubs and Telephones
"A searing depiction of an entire family's rite of passage, The Tricksters is one of the most intellectually challenging novels written for teenagers in years."Publishers Weekly
"Mahy displays a deep understanding of the emotions and conflicts of growing up in a strange and threatening world, but is never mawkish or patronising."
Independent on Sunday on Underrunners
Sympathetic, unsentimental, effortlessly funny, this is high quality Mahy."
Jan Mark, TES on Underrunners
"Vintage Mahy, a cracking adventure, lit up by linguistic fireworks, and cris-crossed with unexpected developments."
Mary Hoffman, School Librarian on Underrunners
"Tris and his secret life is a marvellous study of childhood imagination, totally believable and highly amusing. The wonderful characterisation and compelling storyline combine with Mahy's perceptiveness to make this a most enjoyable book."
Junior Education on Underrunners
"This superb story brilliantly captures the way real life and vivid imagination are intertwined in a child's world."
Mother & Baby on The Witch in the Cherry Tree
The Order of New Zealand
The Carnegie Medal 1982 for The Haunting
The Carnegie Medal 1984 for The Changeover
The IBBY Honour Book Award 1986
The Observer Teenage Fiction Award 1987
The Aim Book Award (Junior) 1993
Five times winner of the Esther Glen Award
Shortlisted for the UKRA Award for The Five Sisters
New Zealand Post Book Award for picture books (and over all winner for that year) 1999 A Summery Saturday Morning
New Zealand Post Book Award for Junior Books 2000 runner-up A Villain’s Night Out