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World Famous in New Zealand? – Margaret Mahy at 70

Tessa Duder - Keynote speech for Margaret Mahy Symposium, Christchurch,
July 2, 2006.

When Louise Easter asked me in October last year to present the keynote address today, I had just emerged from an eighteen-month period of not-quite total immersion in the life, works and achievements of the writer I always tell questioning school children is my absolute favourite, the one I most admire: Margaret Mahy.

A month earlier, another children’s author, Lorraine Orman, and I, acting on behalf of the Storylines Children’s Literature Foundation, had posted off hefty packages to fourteen international address – in Switzerland, France, Italy, Austria, Spain, Finland, Russia, Slovenia, United States, South Africa, Iran, Venezuela, Ireland, and one lone city in the southern Pacific, Christchurch, New Zealand.

Each package contained a bubble-wrapped selection of nine Mahy books in English, along with as many European and Japanese translations as we could lay our hands on, plus a 40-page dossier containing a complete Mahy bibliography – some doing! – lists of foreign editions and awards, international reviews and accolades.

These packages represented Storylines absolute conviction that Margaret Mahy of New Zealand had as strong claim as any to be the 2006 recipient of the world’s most prestigious award for writers for young people, the Hans Christian Andersen Medal. It was a conviction we had gathered enough evidence to believe was shared by many in children’s literature elsewhere.

And a few months before, in May 2005, my literary history of Margaret had been published by HarperCollins, I have to say to gratifyingly good reviews and flattering personal feedback.

Having won Margaret’s permission to write what we agreed we’d call a ‘literary history,’ because a conventional biography in her lifetime was an unpalatable prospect and neither of two publishers I approached saw a market for my original idea, a selection of her unpublished essays and speeches, Margaret Mahy: a Writer’s Life inevitably turned out something of a hybrid. It was neither biography nor the critical study some might have hoped for, but served more as a vehicle for substantial quotes from Margaret’s own commentary on her life and works, within the framework of her career. I quite liked Greg O’Brien’s definition of my role ‘functioning as a kind of ground crew allowing my subject to take off on the lyric flights and imaginative trajectories that have characterised her fictional creations – and non-fictional commentaries – over the past 40 years.’ Later in the same Listener review, I was ‘the necessarily sensible dance-partner to Mahy’s wild colonial girl as she twirls and leaves the ground.’

Naturally I was anxious that whatever I produced be seen as readable, informative, affirmative, and, as an early contribution to better recognition of her place in New Zealand literature, doing her justice.

With both this 336-page volume and the tightly written dossier under my belt, my first reaction to Louise, after the usual thanks, was to ponder on the challenge of finding something new to say about Margaret that others and indeed she herself, once described by David Hill as a notably astute commentator on her own work, hadn’t already very eloquently said.

‘Of course,’ I wrote to Louise, ‘by then she may have won the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, or at the very least been chosen as one of the honour books, fingers crossed.”

Well, at three in the morning on March 28 this year, after a wait of more than six months, I looked up the website of the International Board on Books for Young People, known as IBBY, and saw there what I’d hardly dared believe might one day happen. Not an also-ran, not one of the runner-up honour books, but the gold medallist! The champion of the world!

As I read, I knew a glittering audience of international publishers, booksellers and other children’s book people, in Bologna for the annual children’s book fair, had gathered for the IBBY news conference to announce the 2006 winner.

We now know, from the official letter written to Margaret by Jeffrey Garrett, the American president of the 10-member International Jury, that at the announcement, ‘loud cheering broke out among the crowd of over 200. And those could not all have been New Zealanders!’

So, with Margaret now planning a trip to Macau in September, to receive the Hans Christian Andersen gold medal at IBBY’s biennial World Congress, and with Storylines’ task done, what more needs to be said?

My book had claimed more than once that she was New Zealand’s greatest living writer, completing a trinity with Katherine Mansfield and Janet Frame; also, that on anecdotal evidence from the former well-travelled diplomat Witi Ihimaera and others, she had been for more than two decades New Zealand’s best-known author on the international literary scene, more even than Frame or any of the usual A team of New Zealand’s literary luminaries.

Now, according to an international Jury speaking between them all the major European languages plus Persian, Russian, Afrikaans, Finnish and Swedish, it was official. We have a world champion among us, an author with permanent standing among the pantheon of the world’s finest writers for the young. What more need I say? This could be the shortest keynote speech on record.

Except that it may be also the best opportunity that I’m ever going to get wearing my Storylines hat to place the Andersen award in some sort of perspective and examine our motivation for doggedly nominating Margaret three times over a five-year period. Most authors are put up by their countries as candidates only once; at the most, as Katherine Patersen apparently was, twice. We up in Auckland and the children’s literature fellowship generally know what this award means, but I’m fairly confident not many others do, in the same way as they believe they know what a Nobel Prize for Literature or a Man Booker Prize means.

The media certainly didn’t when the announcement came through on the wires on March 28, even though our ever-hopeful press release, ready to go and sent out at 6.30 to catch the radio breakfast sessions, did its best within the brief format of press releases. It was, we said, no less than world literature’s ‘Little Nobel Prize.’

As the Storylines contact person, I fielded a number of calls that morning from radio, TV and print journalists. Please put this award in perspective, they all asked; just how do you rate this achievement?

‘Is it bigger than the Booker?’ demanded Sean Plunkett on ‘Morning Report.’ I knew he meant, how does this compare with our single biggest literary achievement to date, the bone people triumphing to win the Booker in 1985.

‘Oh, far bigger,’ I replied airily, with further animated words to the effect that the Man Booker was only for a single novel in English, whereas this was for a life-time’s body of work, to honour a lasting contribution to all the world’s children’s literatures published not only in English but in all the major languages – Spanish, French, Chinese, Russian, Arabic, Hindi and Urdu, Japanese and the languages of south-east Asia, eastern Europe and the Middle East.

This explains why many of the previous winners’ names are not known to us. Not many children’s books translated from Urdu or even Spanish find their way into our bookshops, schools or libraries.

You’ll probably recognise the inaugural winner in 1956, Britain’s Eleanor Farjeon, and others writing in English: Britain’s Aidan Chambers and Martin Waddell from Ireland, the Australian Patricia Wrightson, the Americans Meindert DeJong, Scott O’Dell, Paula Fox, Virginia Hamilton and most recently Katherine Paterson. You might know others from translations: Sweden’s Astrid Lindgren and Finland’s Tove Jansen, but I doubt any of us have come across books by the two from Brazil or Germany, or those from Spain, Austria, Germany, Italy, Denmark, Czechoslovakia, Norway, Japan and Israel.

And yes, you might have picked up a European bias in there, partly because it was the cultured countries of old Europe and Scandinavia which joined IBBY in its early days. Only member countries could nominate candidates for the Andersen awards for writing, begun in 1956, and for illustration, begun ten years later.

Over a glass of wine in Vienna three years ago, the incoming Executive Director (Albanian-born, raised in Australia living in Belgium) confided to me she felt that IBBY, with its head office in Switzerland, still needed to break down a lingering perception that its underlying culture was brazenly, unapologetically Eurocentric. ‘I’m glad you said that,’ I replied, ‘because it’s what our Australian friends believe, why since Patricia Wrightson won in 1986, they have been very little active on the IBBY front.’

Scrutiny of the Andersen list of winners, however, would support that by mid 80s the process of change had already begun, with writers coming from Europe, America, Australia, Brazil, Japan and the Middle East, and illustrators from all those countries as well as Poland, Russia and Iran. And though IBBY’s many other activities are not relevant today, I should add that we’ve heard a good deal in recent years about IBBY’s energetic work to promote literacy and books for children in Africa and China, especially.

It was the energetic deputy president Dr Peter Schneck, from Vienna, and the then president, Japanese academic Tayo Shima, visiting Auckland in 2000 for the World Reading Congress, who nudged Storylines into joining IBBY. Discreetly, it was suggested that previous Andersen juries had noted the absence of Margaret Mahy’s name from the list of candidates. Surely, we could find the money to join, enabling us to put her name forward?

Cautiously, the Storylines management committee began to investigate ways of supporting the $3300 annual fee. Ruling out the remote possibility of help that many other IBBY countries get from their governments or a single well-endowed university or library, and stretched to the limit for fund-raising for other activities like the annual Storylines Festival, we went the only possible way: a consortium.

Margaret’s New Zealand publishers HarperCollins, Penguin and Scholastic came to the party, as did Random House, the New Zealand Book Council and for the initial period, the New Zealand Reading Association. It took work, but we got the fee covered for three years, at $500 each a year, and set about putting our submission together.

We acquired multiple copies of 10 books from New Zealand and Britain, with translations supplied from Margaret’s over-laden bookshelves. There followed countless emails with Margaret’s forceful London agent and former editor, Vanessa Hamilton, who’d stated that ‘there was practically nothing closer to my heart than the thought of Margaret winning the HCA award, and I’ll do everything I can to further the cause.’

Fortuitously, a bibliography had recently been compiled by a library Masters student and generously made available to us. HarperCollins offered design help. A few months on, we had a good-looking dossier meeting the demanding criteria – 88 dense pages of it.

Of course we had no idea what standard of presentation by other countries we needed to match or surpass. We were a small incorporated society of volunteers, amateurs, doing all this in the New Zealand way, on a very thin shoestring. We imagined others going through the same exercise out of well-funded IBBY permanent offices, or university English departments.

With such support as my husband was able to offer, I lugged the books and dossiers to England; Vanessa helped me pack them up; I lugged them to a post office in Portsmouth (the idea was that posting in UK would be cheaper!) and I was very pleased to see them on their way.

'I just can believe MM won’t win,’ wrote an impatient Vanessa early in 2002, unaware that within a short time she would fall seriously ill, ‘but I know I must be prepared for international political machinations …’

And so it proved. Here’s Vanessa’s reaction, somewhat edited. She was apparently not a great fan of Aidan Chambers, who won.

'Tessa, I am truly dismayed and shocked. I’ve felt horribly depressed all day waiting for the news, and I’m very grateful to you for letting me know so quickly. DAMNATION! The only good thing to come out of this is the enthusiasm with which you’ve all backed Margaret, and the sheer professionalism of what you produced. I’m mighty proud to have been even slightly associated with such a team, and I send you all big hugs and grateful thanks. I feel incoherent with disappointment, so will say no more.’

For the 2004 award we were a bit more savvy. While another Storylines member was updating the dossier, I was in Europe and took the chance to visit the IBBY secretariat in Basel. I asked to see the other countries’ dossiers for 2002. Some had produced actual hard-covered books, a few were as glossy as company annual reports, but most were no better than ours and the UK folder that won Aidan Chambers the 2002 award looked hastily prepared and verged on the scruffy.

‘Actually, yours was one of the better ones,’ I was told, though I could see it was also one of the thicker volumes, probably too wordy for judges reading their way through 30 such documents and five to ten books by each author in multiple languages. We amended ours, but it was too late for a complete make-over. The 2004 writers’ award went, inexplicably, to the Irish writer-illustrator Martin Waddell. Vanessa Hamilton, during this time had become terminally ill and her death early in 2003 spared her a second disappointment.

For 2006 we’d learned a few things more. Our IBBY sub-committee chairman Wayne Mills had been sent to the 2004 World Congress in Cape Town. He gathered (despite the one for Aidan Chambers) that the dossier itself was the main selling tool, more than the actual books, so we decided we definitely needed to make it shorter, more judge-friendly.

88 pages dropped to 40, the font size practically doubled. Pictures were bigger, the claims for our candidate’s literary glory were bolder. We also knew that previously separate Juries for writer and illustrator had this time been combined into one grand jury of ten, charged with the responsibility of making both decisions. Thus Margaret’s entire phenomenal range, from picture books and school readers, poetry and plays, right through to her sophisticated teenage novels, would be familiar to all the Jurors. Surely not even the formidable claims of Britain’s candidate Philip Pullman, nor the American E.L. Konigsberg, nor the 23 unknown but no doubt impressive others, could match that.

Storylines had meantime stepped up to the IBBY mark in other ways too, mindful of Congress chat that as new chums we might have been a touch naïve expecting success first time around.

Dr Peter Schneck, now president, was hosted at the 2004 Storylines Festival in Auckland. A New Zealand expert in children’s books, fluent in English and Dutch, was nominated for and sent to Italy to serve on the 2006 Andersen Jury (a move we felt might do no harm). V.M. Jones is also travelling to Macau to see her novel Juggling with Mandarins celebrated as an IBBY Honour Book for 2006; other books have appeared on earlier lists.

New Zealand applied for and was chosen to host International Children’s Book Day, April 2, 2007, meaning a poster and message to the world’s children from Margaret Mahy, also an anthology of New Zealand and Pasifika stories. Reviews and news were submitted to the IBBY magazine, Bookbird.

If we had to find over $3000 a year, plus a further $1500 as administrative costs for each nomination, we were damn well going to maximise all the opportunities presented.
Happily most of the consortium signed on for a second three years, and are currently being asked for a further commitment to continue raising not only Margaret’s but other writers and illustrators’ international profiles.

And so, in March, our faith was amply justified. I sent a message to Vanessa Hamilton, where-ever, that the fairy tale continues, her dearest wish had been granted. Margaret had triumphed in what Jeffrey Garrett told her was ‘an extraordinarily strong field.’
His letter to Margaret concluded: ‘Let me also say personally that you have been one of my three or four favourite writers for children since I was first introduced to your work (by Diana Moorhead) with The Haunting in 1983. It will always be an honour for me to have been associated with the jury that has given you this long-deserved recognition.’

His Jury’s official citation read:

‘In awarding the 2006 Hans Christian Andersen Medal for Writing to Margaret Mahy, the jury has recognised one of the world’s most original re-inventers of language. Mahy’s language is rich in poetic imagery, magic, and supernatural elements. Her oeuvre provides a vast, numinous, but intensely personal metaphorical arena for the expression and experience of childhood and adolescence.

‘ Equally important, however, are her rhymes and poems for children. Mahy’s works are known to children and young adults all over the world.’

No doubt many of you here rejoiced that day as we did in Auckland. Joy Cowley sent Storylines a rapturous message, as did many others writers and publishers.

From London, Margaret’s equally helpful new agent Mandy Little emailed me: ‘My God, this is fantastic. I’m just over the moon, as everybody must be. And quite apart from our wonderful Margaret, so much is down to you who has put so much into the entry material to get the rest of the world to see what we’ve all known for years.’

I can share that compliment because it’s not true. Of course it was a team effort, involving some six or seven skilled, reliable and dedicated key people sharing the work for all three nominations; I was just the link person, the noisy one.

And while those of you who’ve read A Writer’s Life may deduce some of the reasons why I’ve chosen to devote time and energy to this task, there are other personal factors which go back to the mid-eighties.

As my own career took off, with the publication of Alex in 1987, and I was being asked to write reviews, columns and comentary, I found myself perplexed that comparatively few people outside publishing and children’s literature devotees seemed to be as eager as I was for the next Mahy novel.

Remember, in the 1980s and early 90s they were coming at barely two year intervals: The Haunting, The Changeover, The Catalogue of the Universe, The Tricksters, Memory, Dangerous Spaces, The Blood and Thunder Adventure on Hurricane Peak, Underrunners, in 1995 the extraordinary first person novel, The Other Side of Silence.

It seemed so wrong that my Alex quartet was winning awards and selling like hot cakes, but the acclaimed award-winning novels of Margaret’s literary flowering, imported in hard cover from Britain, pricey and under promoted, were ineligible for local awards until a rule change around 1990.

Deprived of the promotion attendant on such awards, or much publisher promotion or serious reviewing at all, expensive Mahy novels were apparently selling far fewer copies than one might imagine. Students and teachers, in school after school I visited, knew little or nothing of her novels, which always made me feel disappointed for her and cross and vaguely guilty.

She’d won two Carnegie Medals, for God’s sake – where were the stickers, the posters, the author tours, the thoughtful and prompt reviews, the pride?

‘ Prophet in her own country,’ more than ‘tall poppy syndrome,’ I think – and the situation not helped by an editor then agent who rightly put her energies into building Margaret’s career in infinitely more rewarding markets than tiny faraway New Zealand. If Margaret Mahy was often assumed in Britain to be one of their own as she picked up awards for Memory and other novels that appeared on British and American ‘notable book’ lists, so be it.

And in her own country, always – and still! - that entrenched media mentality that barely mentioned her Carnegie Medals or Observer Teenage Fiction Award and even nowadays can see the New Zealand Herald devote half the front page to a lesser-known male butterfly swimmer winning Commonwealth gold in Melbourne, but a week or so later put the story about the Hans Christian Medal on page 7. They’d sent a reporter and photographer out to Governors Bay, good picture, nice story, but on page 7. TV had broken it first, they would argue. Sport rules, I’d say.

And what about two recent TV documentaries: FrontSeat’s Year in the Life of Margaret Mahy, which involved Oliver Driver trailing her at occasions over many months and must have cost a fortune; Artsville’s recent doco Made in New Zealand: Margaret Mahy, a serious attempt to better inform Kiwis of her real international reputation, including interviews shot in London with her British editor and a Guardian critic.

Both documentaries, with TVOne’s customary sensitivity towards its thinking audience, were buried at the dead of night, at weekends.

The Artsville one waited around two years to go to air, and clearly it’s beyond TVOne’s ‘programmers’ to imagine that a doco on a successful writer for the young might conceivably be of prime-time interest to children and teenagers and their parents and teachers.

The Listener’s comment promoting this programme informed us: ‘We consider Margaret Mahy to be a national taonga, but she’s also immensely popular overseas, having been translated into more than 15 languages and tucked a slew of international awards under her belt. This doco looks at just how highly regarded she is internationally’.

Any sub worth their salt would have rewritten that weirdly upside-down first sentence, and the Andersen medal, which the writer should have known about, is not just any old international award, in a slew or otherwise. A bit like saying Peter Snell won a raft of international golds, or Ed Hilary had climbed a Himalayan mountain or two.

I’ve been challenged by the more literary critics for making this claim, but I still believe that until the last few years Margaret has been seen in the public mind primarily, even solely, a picture book writer.

I have spoken of my own dispiriting experiences on schools visits. During the two decades from the publishing of The Haunting in 1982, the continual stream of picture books, the school readers, school visits, the green wig and cosy grandmotherly media images with enraptured children, all helped to embed the notion that Margaret Mahy was first and foremost an uncommonly gifted writer of wacky stories and verse for the very young, also a successful screen writer for children’s TV and film, and through her public persona, a generous, effective advocate for child literacy and literature - and primarily for those reasons, was admitted in 1993 to the 20-member Order of New Zealand and awarded the first of her two honorary doctorates.

One reviewer rebutted my contention that meantime Mahy the young adult novelist had been under-recognised, even ‘shamefully neglected,’ by stating that to the contrary ‘she has been read, studied and widely cherished by anyone who cares about writing.’
All true, but I’m less concerned with those ‘who care about writing’ and more with the recreational reading of ordinary schoolkids growing up in ordinary intermediates and high schools who choose to read, if they read at all, Dahl, CS Lewis, Rowling, Pullman, Jacqueline Wilson, Anne Fine, Louis Sacher, Anthony Horowitz, Lemoney Snicket (it helps if there’s a film) - but have never been introduced to Mahy; and the English student whose New Zealand Lit. course takes in Mulgan, Ihimaera, Grace, Shadbolt, Gee, Kidman, Duff, Marshall, Wendt, Tuwhare, Hulme and Knox - but is still unlikely to have professors enlightened enough to include Mahy.

Another academic reviewer – and here the words ‘ivory tower’ come uncharitably to mind - put forward Margaret’s six Esther Glen medals as clear proof that all Margaret’s awards destroyed my argument that her achievements as a young adult novelist had not been taken seriously.

Well, of the six, only two – The Changeover and 24 Hours - were for novels for young adults. Others equally good, arguably better novels like Memory and The Tricksters and The Catalogue of the Universe which all won places on honour lists and awards in Britain and America, passed the Esther Glen judges by. And the Esther Glen, while worthy and valued as the country’s oldest literary award, is hardly going to cut much ice among the offerings in intermediate and high school libraries and the local Paper Plus in south Auckland or Te Kuiti or Hokitika.

More than a few adult readers of A Writer’s Life volunteered the information that they previously had no idea she wrote novels, and then, praise be! said they’d rushed out to buy one. Such advice reinforced my informal surveys done at the time of researching the book, when I’d seized every possible social and school opportunity to ask people to tell me some Mahy titles – and found that the novels rarely featured. Many were surprised to hear that she’d written any novels at all. An Australian reviewer confessed a similar ignorance, until half way through my book, when quote ‘already engrossed, and stunned at Mahy’s accomplishments, I knew I couldn’t continue until I’d read at least one of them. The Changeover was a revelation, brilliantly written, highly suspenseful and more than two decades on, not a bit dated.’

As for what some of the more literary reviewers saw as my outdated sense of grievance about the status of children’s writers generally, I found myself smiling, but also made a little grumpy. Those who’ve been around only for five or ten years have hopefully been spared some of the condescension, mostly from older males of the post-modernist persuasion, that I experienced in the 1980s. One reviewer pointed out Margaret’s high regard in the general writing community. Undoubtedly true, but this community remains a minority one and in a small country, notably self-referential.

But as my book asks, why is Mahy, whom all of us here know to be so eminently quotable, not (as far as I could see) included as are lesser writers in any books of New Zealand quotations? Why does any first-time adult novelist get a prompt stand-alone review when probably only Mahy and possibly Joy Cowley of the children’s writers will, even now, get that attention? How could an AA ‘Directions’ magazine of last year include a lengthy piece on New Zealand literature, leave out Mahy, and the editor be quite unrepentant when I wrote to complain? As well leave out Kiri Te Kanawa in a piece on New Zealand opera singers on some spurious ground that she’s lived all her adult, professional life elsewhere.

Then there was the Otago academic whose review admitted that perhaps he agreed with Greg O’Brien’s quoted statement placing Mahy as one of a line of New Zealand geniuses that includes Katherine Mansfield, Janet Frame, Frances Hodgkins and Rita Angus – but went on to suggest I should have more firmly placed Mahy in the august company of a generation of talented and versatile senior men and women of letters who were born in the 1930s and achieved writing careers of 40 years or more – Janet Frame, Maurice Gee, CK Stead, Joy Cowley, the late Maurice Shadbolt.

Well – no. On the international literary stage, in terms of around 230 books published over a forty-year span in New Zealand and elsewhere, translated in more than 15 languages and sold in their millions, in terms of the pages and pages devoted to her in academic journals and Oxford and Cambridge Companions and similar American publications, and very probably their counterparts in Italian and French and Japanese, I think it entirely justified to claim that Margaret stands as the most senior, head and shoulders above them all.

However, I must resist further temptation to answer reviews – authors traditionally never respond to reviews, at least in writing, and especially to bad ones and usually unthinkable in public! But the issues they raise are sufficiently relevant to why we’re all gathered here today.

Two years on from completing work on A Writer’s Life, I’d happily agree that things are looking up for the mana of children’s literature in this country, and yes, that this sea-change has largely been due to the torch proudly carried by Margaret for thirty-five years since her fairy-tale debut on the interenational scene, with simultaneous launches of five picture books in New York and London in 1969.

Offshore, and to a lesser degree here, during the 1990s there has grown a body of seriously scholarly Mahy studies and accolades, as readers of the by-no-means exhaustive bibliographies in my book will be aware. For example, British academic Peter Hunt, the first children’s literature specialist to win a full professorship in a major university, rates Margaret as an phenomenon in international publishing and one of his 38 all-time great writers in English in the last two centuries, alongside such names Lewis Carroll, AA Milne, Beatrix Potter, Rudyard Kipling, Kenneth Graham, Roald Dahl, CS Lewis, Dr Seuss, Philip Pullman, L.M. Montgomery, Dr Seuss, Philip Pullman and J.K. Rowling.

More recently there’s been Elizabeth Hale, the Kiwi expatriate editor of the first scholarly book on Margaret’s work, Marvellous Codes, who finds it ‘pleasingly appropriate’ that a writer ‘working in such traditionally marginalised, or non-canonical, genres as children’s and young adults’ literature, and fantasy literature, to say nothing of her consistent representation of marginalised people such as single parents and the elderly, should be one of the foremost writers of a national marginalised by its size, population and location.

‘ Mahy is not wholly a realist, she does not write canonical forms, she does not write the Great New Zealand novel, and she does not place New Zealand-ness front and centre to her writing, having deliberately set her sights on an international marketplace. But in writing within marginalised, rather than central forms, she has been increasingly successful and I think, has been instrumental in reframing the possibilities of this country: bringing a kind of wild magic into New Zealand writing, blending European, Maori and other literary traditions into her work.’

It was gratifying to read in a Weekend Herald and other publications of last December summing up achievements for 2005, that for Margaret Mahy (clearly not just a national taonga whose work happens to be immensely popular elsewhere) this had been a brilliant year of quote ‘long-overdue returns.’

There’d been a second honorary doctorate and a New Zealand Icon award from the Arts Foundation, the Canadian Children’s Literature Association Phoenix award for The Catalogue of the Universe, and just before Christmas, the New Zealand biggie, the Prime Minister’s Award for Fiction, the third recipient after Janet Frame and Maurice Gee.

Two more novels, Maddigan’s Quest and Kaitangata Twitch had been published, the TV series of Maddigan’s Quest was soon to be screened. Into 2006, a seventh grandchild had arrived, work was proceeding on the epic fantasy provisionally called The Magician of Hoad and probably other stories, short and long, and possibly even poetry and TV projects no-one yet knows about.

Down the Back of the Chair, brilliantly illustrated by Polly Dunbar, was published in March, to universal acclaim and laughter. In the same month, Storylines held a 70th birthday Gala Dinner in Auckland attended by 200 people, a glittering event people are still talking about; two weeks later the Hans Christian Andersen jury delivered their verdict.

And around the country other birthday events are being held, like this one for adults, and others in schools and libraries involving children.

In September Dr Libby Limbrick, chair of the Storylines Trust and I anticipate the great honour and pleasure of escorting Margaret to Macau for the Wold Congress where she will receive the Hans Christian Andersen Medal 2006, and then go on for four extra days in Beijing where at a large school and an English language bookshop we shall watch her with Chinese children typical of young readers all over the world: entertained, astonished, bewitched.

The final words spoken at the Gala Dinner were Margaret’s, as they were in A Writer’s Life, and I think it fitting the same words should be here also be my last.

I find it interesting that Margaret wrote this jewel when she was only around 35. It was a little gem then; now it is magnificent. Back in 1973 she introduced it to a conference of teachers thus:

[Extract (text and MM poem When I am old) from last page of Margaret Mahy : a Writer’s Life.]

Margaret, for these and all your millions of wise and wonderful words, for being wonderful you – thank you!

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