Remembering Margaret Mahy was the title of a symposium held on Saturday 22 September in Wellington, bringing together a collection of people - academics, writers, readers and fans - to talk about and celebrate Margaret's stories, poems, novels and film scripts. The event was organised by the English Department at Victoria University - in particular by Kathryn Walls, and as she pointed out in her welcome, it was being held on what was indeed -
Tessa Duder's A writer's life has just been reissued with an updated biography and list of Margaret's books. Tessa set the scene with a summary of Margaret's life and achievements, from her early years as a writer when she was trying to combine motherhood with full-time work and would often stay up writing until nearly dawn. Later in the day she was sometimes known to fall asleep over her library filing cards, and thoughtful colleagues would quietly re-check her filing in the afternoon. Tessa went on to talk about the prolific writing years that followed, and the many prizes and awards she garnered, culminating in the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award (sometimes called "the little Nobel"), presented at Macau in 2006.
Kay Hancock, former editor at Learning Media, is currently undertaking a PhD on the history of the Ready to Read series (aimed at Year 1 - 3 students) which began in 1963, and she gave a fascinating overview of Margaret Mahy's involvement in this series, with a glimpse of just some of the many titles she wrote. Dr Vivien Van Rij from the Dept of Education at VUW followed this with a talk on Margaret's work for the School Journal. As a contributor to both series, I loved these two talks and the way they highlighted Margaret's fabulous work in this area. Her Ready to Read books such as Fantail, fantail or The bubbling crocodile must have been a delight for any child to read, with their mix of charm, humour, clever rhythm and rhyme, rich language, appealing characters and warm family situations. I especially liked the cheerful, impulsive Crocodile who made a complete mess of the kitchen but was was enchanted by the foamy soap bubbles: "The Crocodile is a great lover of beauty,"' wrote Margaret.
During the break, we had a charming interlude in which Dr Marco Sonzogni, Current Director of the New Zealand Centre for Literary Translation, invited the Swiss Ambassador, Marion Weichelt Krupski, to launch a publication from Wai-te-ata Press. The booklet is an excerpt from Margaret Mahy's The three legged cat translated into te reo and also the four languages of Switzerland: French, German, Italian and Romansh. Interestingly, there was a question at the end of the day about whether any of Margaret's works had been translated into te reo, and it's possible that this is the first.
Dave Gibson, from Gibson Group, said that working with Margaret was one of the fondest memories of his professional life. He kept us entertained, enthralled and occasionally slightly spooked with film clips from Cuckoo Land, The haunting of Barney Palmer and the rather creepy Typhon's People. Loved the singing, dancing IRD men and the wonderful Library Recovery team. Couldn't bear to watch the deletion of Phoenix in the test tube - although it turned out to be not quite what we thought. .
Harry Ricketts then introduced two writers who each gave a personal perspective on what Margaret and her work had meant to them. Eirlys Hunter spoke as a parent who had read and reread Margaret's picture books to her four children, and James Norcliffe as a near neighbour who was the grateful recipient - as many other writers were - of Margaret's legendary kindness and generosity.
After lunch, we heard from a number of other speakers, focusing on Margaret's writing process, and often on one or more of her YA novels : Dr Claudia Marquis and Dr Rose Lovell-Smith from Auckland University, Dr Anna Smith from the University of Canterbury, Dr Babette Putz and Professor Kathryn Walls from Victoria University, and Trish Brooking from Otago University. Finally Dr Anna Jackson introduced Elizabeth Knox, who ended the day in style with a fine address on The other side of silence.
It was great to have this day set aside to talk about Margaret herself, her vast body of work and her wonderful legacy; how much we have lost with her passing, but how much of her we still have left. Everyone in the room went away not only with a renewed appreciation for Margaret's achievements, but also with a determination to go back and re-read all those wonderful stories, to enjoy them all over again and re-discover their depth and meaning.