Margaret Mahy was born in 1934 in Whakatane, in the northeast of New Zealand’s North Island. From an early age, she demonstrated a precocious facility with language and storytelling, and a prodigious imagination. She studied at the then University of New Zealand, gaining a BA, then trained as a librarian at Wellington’s Library School in 1956. In 1965, she moved to Christchurch, where she took work as a librarian, first driving a Book Bus for the New Zealand School Library Service, taking books to schools around the remote small towns of the Canterbury Plains. In 1976, she became Children’s Librarian at the Christchurch Public Library. All the while, she was writing.
Mahy’s first stories were published in 1961 in the New Zealand School Journal, the premier local venue for children’s writing in the period, and in 1969 she achieved what in hindsight can be seen as an inevitable international breakthrough when five of her stories, including the iconic A Lion in the Meadow, were published as picture books by the American publisher, Dent. Her vivid imagery and lively word-play found favor, and she produced collections of stories, and moved into writing novels for young readers, winning the Carnegie Medal in 1982 for The Haunting, and again in 1984 for The Changeover.
In the mid-1980s, Mahy was able to resign her librarian’s job to work full time as a writer, no small feat for a children’s writer anywhere, but perhaps especially so in the small nation of New Zealand. Over the next few decades she produced a steady stream of remarkable novels for adolescent readers: The Tricksters, The Catalogue of the Universe, Memory, The Other Side of Silence, 24 Hours, Alchemy, and Kaitangata Twitch. In them, she employed an innovative magic realism closely connected to the psychodrama of adolescent coming of age. She also continued writing stories and picture books for younger readers, and kept up her creation of educational readers, as well as writing for television and theater. [End Page v]
Mahy’s early picture books and stories were deliberately written with only a very general approximation of place, meaning that her work sold well internationally. As her reputation grew, so did her interest in writing about the country in which she lived. In her novels for adolescents she made a conscious effort to incorporate New Zealand settings and concerns into her work. Her work is notable for its recognition of New Zealand as a country possessing not only a strong sense of individuality, but also a literary heritage that intertwines the European, Maori, and Settler traditions of reading and writing. Throughout all her works one can see a distinctive literary sensibility that incorporates a ready engagement with magic and fantasy.
In the last decade of Mahy’s life her powers inevitably faded a little, but novels such as Alchemy and Kaitangata Twitch saw her investigating different types of magic, while Maddigan’s Fantasia and The Magician of Hoad represent a late entrance into the field of secondary world fantasy. Perhaps indicating increased recognition of her individual power as a New Zealand writer of fantasy, Kaitangata Twitch and Maddigan’s Fantasia were both adapted into television serials. Mahy relished the creative interplay of collaboration with television producers.
Mahy’s work has been translated into many languages—at last count fifteen, but possibly more. It is read all over the world. Though she is not a household name outside her native country, her work is known particularly well by professionals in librarianship, teaching, and of course, children’s literature. From 1982 onward, when she was awarded the Carnegie Medal for The Haunting, Mahy’s work was awarded many international prizes, awards, and fellowships, and her international eminence only grew. In 2005, Mahy was awarded the New Zealand Prime Minister’s Literary Award; in 2006 she was awarded the Hans Christian Andersen award, perhaps the most prestigious award in the field of children’s literature. In 2013, a set of postage stamps honoring her work were issued by New Zealand Post, a first for a children’s writer in that country.
A growing body of...