Children's author Margaret Mahy was a taonga of New Zealand storytelling, whose work inspired many future creatives, from authors to musicians to designers at Weta Digital. Known to many children for doing book readings in a brightly-coloured wig, 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.
Born in 1936, Mahy grew up with English classics like Winnie the Pooh and Beatrix Potter. Her father read ballads and boys' stories to her. Another influence was the Westerns lapped up at the local cinema on Saturday mornings, thanks to her membership of The Young New Zealanders' Club. Occasionally the Westerns even featured females in adventurous roles (much later, Mahy would revel in telling a group of academics that The Terminator and Predator were on her viewing list). An avid reader, she wrote her first story aged seven.
She kept on writing while at university and library school. Mahy worked for the School Library Service, and was later appointed Children's Librarian at Christchurch Library.
Having her first stories published in the School Journal, in the early 60s, proved "incalculably important". Mahy did this while raising two young children on her own, and working at the library service. Finding someone to publish her books took over a decade. American editor Sarah Chockla Gross saw the text of Mahy's book A Lion in the Meadow; in 1968 it became one of eight of Mahy books to hit the presses at once. By 1980 Mahy 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 wrote in a very visual way, and a number of her books have been adapted for the screen. In 1986 her classic The Haunting became one-off tele-film The Haunting of Barney Palmer (which Annie Simon writes about here). 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 TV series, including Strangers and post-apocalyptic tale Maddigan's Quest.
Mahy's 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 for the first time to create fantasy 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. Writing for television provided an enjoyable contrast with the "sometimes very solitary" act of writing books.
Mahy and Mackay would form a close partnership. They worked together again on The Haunting of Barney Palmer, mini-series thriller Typhon's People (1993) — a rare project aimed at adults — award-winning series Kaitangata Twitch (2010) and A Tall Long Faced Tale (2008), a documentary about Mahy.
Mahy's 1986 book Aliens in the Family inspired a BBC series of the same name, which was nominated for a BAFTA award for Best Childen's Programme; her stories were also 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, after then 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 this first episode. The series won awards here and overseas. Mackay is also adapting novel Portable Ghosts.
Christchurch-raised director Stuart McKenzie developed a script from Mahy's first young adults novel, coming-of-age tale The Changeover, and directed it with his partner Miranda Harcourt. The film, whose cast includes Lucy Lawless and British actor Timothy Spall (Mr. Turner), is set in post-quake Christchurch. It was set for local release in September 2017.
Mahy 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 author Elizabeth Knox. Euan Frizzell's animation brings 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 in 2006 the pinnacle of children's literature awards, the Hans Christian Andersen Award.
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 Somerset, 'Memories of Margaret Mahy' - The Listener, 24 July 2012 (broken link)
'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