TT: Mahy’s Marvelous Mystifications

JANE: I enjoyed learning about Katherine Mansfield.  I have a feeling New Zealand has other authorial gems of whom I am unaware.

Are there other authors you can tell me about?

ALAN: Yes indeed – does the name Margaret Mahy mean anything to you?

Mahy for Middle Grade

Mahy for Middle Grade

JANE: I’m sorry, but I seem to have missed her.

ALAN: She was a modern day New Zealand writer with an international reputation. (She died in 2012). She won many prestigious awards for her middle-grade and YA books. Her stories tend to appeal to SF fans because they often have a strong SF/Fantasy/Supernatural flavour. They discuss relationships and the rites of passage that separate children from adults. Many of them are set in New Zealand, and I think they give an accurate picture of the character of New Zealand society.

JANE: I’m hooked.  Tell me more!

ALAN: Before I do, I must tell you a really cool story… One day I was sitting in an airport lounge whiling away the time by reading a Diana Wynne Jones novel. Margaret was also in the lounge and when she noticed what I was reading, she came bouncing over and introduced herself so that she could talk to me about Diana Wynne Jones who, it turned out, was one of her very favourite writers. We chatted away quite happily until it was time to board our respective flights.

JANE:  That sounds wonderful.  Knowing how much you love Diana Wynne Jones’ work, I bet you two had a wonderful time.

Had you read any of Margaret Mahy’s works at that point?

ALAN: Indeed I had – I’d made a deliberate effort to read her books because she’d been a guest of honour at a convention I went to shortly after I first came to live in New Zealand. I have an autographed copy of her novel The Changeover, which is a coming of age story in which a young girl risks her life to save her bewitched brother. It’s also a rather sweet romance story about the relationship between the girl and a rather aloof prefect at her school who is also a male witch. Amusingly, the family’s surname is “Chant.” I asked Margaret if this was a reference to Diana Wynne Jones’ “Christopher Chant” but she said it was just a coincidence.

JANE: A believable coincidence, too, since sorcerers are usually described as “chanting” spells.

Is The Changeover set in New Zealand?

ALAN: Yes it is. The action of the story takes place in Christchurch, Margaret’s home city. Anyone familiar with Christchurch will immediately recognise it in the book, and anyone familiar with the way New Zealand society works will recognise all the people in the novel. Margaret captured the zeitgeist perfectly and really managed to convey a convincing picture of contemporary New Zealand life. It’s one of the book’s great strengths. And Laura Chant herself is part Maori and part pakeha, which allows Margaret to comment directly on both those aspects. A lot of New Zealand children will recognise themselves in Laura.

JANE: This sounds like a book I want to read.  I’ll need to look for it.

ALAN: I’m glad.  Let me see if I can give you the flavour of it. Here Laura and her mother Kate are discussing Kate’s new boyfriend, a Canadian:

“He’s a librarian at the Central Library… in charge of the New Zealand Room.”
“A Canadian in charge of the New Zealand Room!” Laura exclaimed. “What’s wrong with a good, honest Kiwi joker?”
“It may be International Swap Over Year in library circles,” Kate suggested. “Or they may be promoting Commonwealth understanding.”

JANE: I like that.  The sense of internationality is subtle but strong, and the awareness of being part of the British Commonwealth as an element in the New Zealand mindset is also good.

Also, there’s a strong sense of place in that use of the word “joker.”  Certainly, an American wouldn’t use it in that fashion.

I realize this book was from the 1980’s, but is the word “joker” still in use in that fashion, or was that slang of the time?

ALAN: “Joker,” in the sense of “ordinary person,” is one of those timeless pieces of slang that seems to have been around forever. It’s just as appropriate today as it was in the 1980s as it was in the 1940s…

JANE: I think it’s fallen out of use here in the U.S….  Well, I’ll bring it back into fashion. Tell me more about this joker, Margaret Mahy.

ALAN: Margaret was quite passionate about encouraging children to read. Many of her books were written for very young children and were designed to whet their appetite for words. She also had a “road show” – she would visit schools and libraries and, wearing a multi-coloured fright wig, she would read stories and poems the children. If you search for her in Google, you’ll find a lot of pictures of her wig.

JANE: I searched and I did.  My goodness!

ALAN: As I mentioned before, the first time I met Margaret was when she was guest of honour at a convention in Christchurch. She confessed that she didn’t really know how to behave with adults, so she said she’d read us an SF poem that was always a big hit with the children. It’s called Bubble Trouble:

Little Mabel blew a bubble
And it caused a lot of trouble!
Such a lot of bubble trouble
In a bibble-bobble way.
For it broke away from Mabel
As it bobbed across the table,
Where it bobbled over Baby,
And it wafted him away.

The townsfolk chase the bubble all over town trying to rescue the baby. Hilarity ensues!

All the children in the audience (by which I mean the whole audience) were utterly captivated. We all fell a little bit in love with Margaret that day.

JANE: I think I have, too.  What do you say you wait while I run off and see if my library has any of her books.  Okay?

ALAN: That’s a good idea.

JANE: (panting slightly).  I’m back.  Turns out our library has a pretty good collection of Margaret Mahy’s works.  However, our branch only had two, and both were for younger children.  I didn’t see The Changeover listed, but they did have a YA novel called Alchemy.  Given my current obsession with the topic, I put an order out for it.

Can you wait again while I read the two books I brought home with me?  Maybe Jake would like to go for a run or you could hunt with Harpo or even nap with Bess.

ALAN: Oh – you’ll love Alchemy. It has similar themes to The Changeover and is aimed at the same age group. And yes, alchemy has a large part to play in the story. Meanwhile, it’s a hot day here so I think Jake and I will go to the park. He needs to have a swim.

JANE:  Alan!  Are you back?

ALAN: Yes – just got back. Sorry we took so long, but Jake found a sheep’s skull that just had to be played with.

JANE: Yuck!

I’ve just finished reading – brace yourself, Ms. Mahy apparently liked long titles – The Great Piratical Rumbustification & The Librarian and the Robbers and Tick Tock Tales: Twelve Stories to Read Around the Clock.

ALAN: Yes, that sounds like Margaret. But she only used the long titles on the books she wrote for young children. I kept hoping that one day she’d publish a book whose title was longer than the story. But she never quite managed it.

JANE: I liked both books a great deal.  The stories were full of an illogical logic that is absolutely natural to children.  I thought that Mahy actually tried to make this point overtly in the story “The Boy Who Made Things Up,” as if she wanted to shake parents with too practical mindsets.

Tell me, is “rumbustification” a typical New Zealand word?  She used it in two different stories.

ALAN: No – it’s a Margaret Mahy word.

JANE: A pity.  I’d rather hoped that when Jim and I make it to New Zealand someday, we’d get invited to a rumbustification.

Having just “met” Margart Mahy (and feeling rather sad that I won’t ever get to do so in person), I hope that she is not forgotten in New Zealand.

ALAN: She’s remembered very fondly indeed. In 2009, a bronze bust of Margaret was unveiled outside the Christchurch Arts Centre. Everyone was very pleased that she lived long enough to see it.

JANE: Is she wearing her trademark wig?

ALAN: No, unfortunately. Indeed, I think she must have had her hair done specially. I’ve never seen her looking so neat.

JANE: Still, that’s a tremendous honor.  I find myself envisioning an annual event held in her honor.  Or, rather, “honour,” since it would be in Christchurch.

The bust is adorned with a rainbow wig, then a librarian takes a seat in front of the bust, and reads some of Margaret Mahy’s short stories to a circle of children.  I think “The Boy Who Bounced” would work very well, or maybe “Poodlum Hoodlum.”

I suspect Ms. Mahy would have thought this a great deal of fun.

ALAN: She’d have absolutely loved it!

There are some other New Zealand writers that you might enjoy. Are you interested in hearing about them?

JANE: Absolutely!

3 Responses to “TT: Mahy’s Marvelous Mystifications”

  1. Peter Says:

    sigh At this rate I’ll never make a dent in my ever-growing TBR queue.

    As a Canadian, I was instantly sold by the line about “promoting Commonwealth understanding”, so I’m looking forward to Alchemy percolating to the top of the pile. (Or perhaps I should say calcinating the queue until only Alchemy remains.)

  2. Louis Robinson Says:

    17 Kings and 42 Elephants…

    I may have to sneak into the children’s section to look at this one…

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