Margaret Mahy dies aged 76

Margaret Mahy dies aged 76 |

She died of cancer yesterday. I’m saddened by her death. She was a wonderfully eccentric character, travelling around New Zealand’s primary schools to give readings dressed in garish clothes and a multi-coloured wig. Even if you were never lucky enough to have her visit, you knew about the wig.

She’s been publishing prolifically for pretty much my whole life – generations of New Zealand school children have read her many contributions to New Zealand’s School Journals. I first encountered ‘The Lion in the Meadow,” her first work to be published overseas and probably her best-known book, as a six year old, or thereabouts, and have been reading her ever since.

Petra has a copy of ‘Down the Back of the Chair,’ which is an exuberant paean to the treasure you might find inside a chair. We read it often. It’s hard to pick an excerpt to do it justice, but here are the results of Father’s first foray into the chair:

Some hairy string and a diamond ring were down the back of the chair.
Pineapple peel and a conger eel were down the back of the chair.
A sip, a sup, a sop, a song, a spider seven inches long.
No wonder that it smells so strong – down the back of the chair.

She also wrote books for older children and young adults, which stand up to reading and rereading. I thrust ‘The Haunting” on Travis, collecting it from a box in my mother’s basement in Dunedin and carrying it all the way back to Vancouver specially for him. Luckily for him and for me, he enjoyed it! It was her first proper chapter book and it won her the Carnegie Medal. At its heart is a bang-on rendition of the pleasures and pains of family living, forced as you are into close quarters whether you like it or not. And then there’s the haunting which scares me still. It’s beautifully written. Here’s the opening. Check out the fantastic first sentence:

When, suddenly on an ordinary Wednesday, it seemed to Barney that the world tilted and ran down-hill in all directions, he knew he was about to be haunted again. It had happened when he was younger but he had thought that being haunted was a babyish thing that you grew out of, like crying when you fell over, or not having a bike…

Yet here it was beginning again…the faint dizzy twist in the world around him, the thin singing drone as if some tiny insect were trapped in the curling mazes of his ear. Barney looked up at the sky searching for a ghost but there was only a great blueness like a weight pressing down on him. He looked away quickly, half expecting to be crushed into a sort of rolled-out gingerbread boy in an enormous stretched-out school uniform. Then he saw his ghost on footpath beside him.

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