Children's author Margaret Mahy was a taonga of New Zealand storytelling, whose work inspired many future creatives, from authors to Weta designers and musicians.
Born in 1936, Mahy grew up with English classics like Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter. Her father also read ballads and boys' stories to her. Another influence were the Westerns she used to see at the local cinema on Saturday mornings, as a member of The Young New Zealanders' Club (much later, she revelled in telling a group of academics that Predator and The Terminator were on her viewing list). Some of the Westerns even featured females in adventurous roles. Mahy, an avid reader, wrote her first story aged seven.
She kept on writing while at university and library school. She worked for the School Library Service, and was later appointed Children's Librarian at Christchurch Library.
Mahy described getting her first stories published in the School Journal in the early 60s as "incalculably important". She did this while raising two young children on her own, and working at the library service. Finding someone to publish her books proved a challenge: her first picture book was published by American editor Sarah Chockla Gross, after seeing Mahy's work at an exhibition in New York. The book, A Lion in the Meadow, launched her international career. By 1980 she was devoting herself full-time to writing. She would publish more than 200 works, many for young adults, and be translated into 15 languages.
Mahy told simple tales about complex ideas. Everyday things are made magical. A strong theme in her work is the transformative power of fantasy, and she often dealt with supernatural themes.
Mahy wrote in a very visual way, and a number of her books have been adapted for the screen. The Haunting became one-off tele-film The Haunting of Barney Palmer. The Magical World of Margaret Mahy consisted of adaptations of five of Mahy's best selling children's books, as animated by Euan Frizzell. She also created a number of television series, including Strangers and post-apocalyptic tale Maddigan's Quest.
Her first foray into screenwriting came before any of these. In 1981 she contributed to puppet series Woolly Valley. Five years later she collaborated with Wellington director Yvonne Mackay on the first of many projects together: fantasy series series Cuckoo Land, which won a gold medal at the 1986 New York Film Festival. Set in an alternate reality created almost entirely through miniatures and special effects, the show's impressive cast included Grant Tilly and Jennifer Ludlam. Mahy found the process of writing for television an enjoyable contrast with the "sometimes very solitary" act of writing books.
Mahy and MacKay worked together again on The Haunting of Barney Palmer (Annie Simon writes about it here), mini-series thriller Typhon's People (1993) - a rare project aimed at adults - and fantasy series Kaitangata Twitch (2010). Mahy's 1986 book Aliens in the Family also inspired an eponymous 1987 BBC series, and her stories were adapted for British shows Playbus and Dramarama.
In 1988 Television New Zealand approached Mahy to come up with an idea for a children's series. Starting from the idea of a family that becomes aware someone is observing it, Mahy wrote Strangers, the tale of four youngsters playing detective. Directed by Peter Sharp, the show's impressive cast included teen actors Joel Tobeck, Navigator lead Hamish McFarlane, and Martin Henderson in his screen debut. But Mahy identified most with the character of Emma (Amber McWilliams), and recalled being a similiar sort of dreamer as a child.
In the mid 90s South Pacific Pictures approached her to create another series for television, after SPP boss John Barnett, pitching ideas to the BBC, was told "if you can get Margaret Mahy to create something, we'll take it". The idea of a circus had been haunting Mahy's mind since childhood, when she organised one in her backyard in Whakatane, complete with a trapeze strung from a pine tree. Mahy's concept emerged as Maddigan's Quest, (plus accompanying novel Maddigan's Fantasia), with further development by TV veterans Gavin Strawhan and Rachel Lang. Set in a post-apocalyptic future, Maddigan's Quest follows a circus troupe on a secret mission to replace a dying power source from their home city. The show sold well internationally and won four NZ Screen Awards, including best children's programme.
Kaitangata Twitch debuted on Māori Television in May 2010. Based around an island with a dark history and a life of its own, the Yvonne Mackay-directed series was shot largely in Governors Bay near Christchurch, where Mahy had "imagined the story taking place". Mahy cameoed in a scene in a library, in the first episode. The series won awards both here and overseas.
Writer/director Stuart McKenzie is developing a movie from Mahy's bestselling coming-of-age novel The Changeover, while MacKay is working on an adaptation of novel Portable Ghosts.
Mahy has found herself in the camera's gaze in Sonja de Friez documentary Made in New Zealand (2004) and MacKay's quirky A Tall, Long Faced Tale (2007), which saw her being interviewed by fellow writer Elizabeth Knox. Euan Frizzell's animation brings some of her characters to life to quiz their creator, including the lion in The Lion in the Meadow. Frizzell's animation can also be glimpsed in Margaret Mahy's Rambustifications, in which Mahy reads some of her stories.
Her novel The Haunting won the Carnegie Medal of the British Library Association, an honour conferred on her three times. Other awards included the Young Observer Fiction Prize (1986); the Italian Premier Grafico Award (1976) and the Dutch Silver Pencil Award (1977). She was awarded the Esther Glen Medal from the NZ Library Association six times, and the pinnacle of children's literature awards, the Hans Christian Andersen Award (2006).
Margaret Mahy died on 23 July 2012 in Christchurch. She was 76.
'Interview with Yvonne Mackay and Margaret Mahy' (Video Interview), NZ On Screen website. Director Clare O'Leary.Uploaded 9 December 2008. Accessed 15 October 2010
Ann Easter, 'Margaret Mahy' - Waikato Times, 8 May 1985, Page 8
Guy Somserset, 'Memories of Margaret Mahy' - The Listener, 24 July 2012
'Beloved author Margaret Mahy dies' - Otago Daily Times, 24 July 2012
'Margaret Mahy'. New Zealand Book Council profile. Accessed 24 July 2012
Maddigan's Quest press kit
Strangers press kit