NZers of the Year: Margaret Mahy, author

By Chris Barton

Former librarian Margaret Mahy, 69, got some long overdue returns this year.

It began with the Canadian Children's Literature Association Phoenix Award - given annually to a book first published 20 years ago which did not receive a major award at the time. Mahy's The Catalogue of the Universe (1985) met the criteria - although she has been publishing children's books for much longer, beginning in 1969 with A Lion in the Meadow.

Then in April Mahy received an honorary doctorate from Waikato University - in recognition of her "enormous value to the literary, creative and educational world".

The university said Mahy was "without doubt the most well-known, most widely read and most enjoyed New Zealand writer".

In July the Arts Foundation of New Zealand honoured her with a living Icon of New Zealand arts award.

On that occasion she was described as "a household name in New Zealand" and a prolific writer of children's books (120 at the last count), some of which have been translated into 15 different languages.

Mahy's brilliant year was capped off with a $60,000 Prime Minister's Award for Literary Achievement in Fiction.

She was a writer, said Prime Minister Helen Clark, "who has brought magic, humour, and joy into many a young (and older!) life".

Not that Mahy is a stranger to accolades, having received an Order of New Zealand in 1993, and the British Library Association's Carnegie Medal twice for The Haunting in 1982, and The Changeover in 1984.

And, among other book awards too many to mention, she has received the New Zealand Library Association's Esther Glen Medal five times.

Tessa Duder points out in her "literary history" Margaret Mahy: A Writers' Life (Mahy didn't want a biography in her lifetime), despite the overseas recognition, Mahy has been "shamefully neglected" as a serious novelist, essayist and thinker in her own country - "a paddler up some distant and unimportant creek".

Thankfully that's changing. And if children's literature was once a backwater here, or worse still, consigned to "an invisible ghetto", Mahy has played no small part in making it a respectable endeavour - as seen in the collection of academic essays, Marvellous Codes: The Fiction of Margaret Mahy published by Victoria University Press this year.

Mahy's imagination will continue to reach beyond books when Maddigan's Quest - a 13-part kidult television series, with tie-in book Maddigan's Fantasia - shows in Australia, Britain and here next year.

There's little sign the woman, known to many as the enchanting lady in the wacky multi-coloured wig who read to them, or their children, is slowing up.

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