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New Zealand author Margaret Mahy has won the world's premier prize for children's writing, the Hans Christian Andersen Award, it was announced today.

Often called the "Little Nobel", the award is given biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBY) to honour an author who has made a lasting contribution to international children's literature.

Mahy, 70, nominated by the Storylines Children's Literature Foundation of New Zealand representing the New Zealand branch of IBBY, joins Australian writer Patricia Wrightson as only the second from Australasia to win the award, which has been bestowed since 1956.

She will travel to Beijing in September to be honoured at the IBBY world congress.

Storylines chairwoman Rosemary Tisdall said today she was jubilant that Mahy had now achieved her rightful place in world children's literature.

"This is a huge achievement and the whole of New Zealand, children and adults like, congratulates its greatest and most beloved writer."

The prize adds to Mahy's many accolades.

Already holding New Zealand's top civil award, the Order of New Zealand, in the last two years she has received the Prime Minister's Award for Fiction, a second honorary doctorate (University of Waikato) and the Phoenix Award from Canada's Children's Literature Association.

She became a New Zealand Arts Icon in 2005 and is twice shortlisted for the 2006 New Zealand Post Children's Book Awards, to be announced in May.

Mahy's career began in 1961 with the publication of her first story in the New Zealand publication, the School Journal.

In 1969, five of her Journal stories appeared as picture books and were sold internationally. She wrote many other picture books and story collections during the 1970s.

In 1980, aged 44 and mother of two teenage daughters, Mahy left her position with the Christchurch library to write full-time.

Her two novels, The Haunting and The Changeover, won the prestigious British Carnegie Medal for 1982 and 1984.

Mahy also writes non-fiction, poetry and plays. She has recently written essays and speeches for adults.

She has also written extensively for television and adapted The Haunting as a feature film.

Many of her children's books have been translated into more than 15 languages, and she has regularly appeared at international forums on children's literature since the early 1970s.

Mahy lives in Governor's Bay, Lyttelton, and has two daughters and seven grandchildren.