Margaret Mahy was an amazing person. She was, until her death last week at age 76, New Zealand’s best-selling contemporary author, and had attained worldwide acclaim for her imaginative and uniquely-styled children’s books.
In her career, she wrote more than 100 picture books, 40 novels and 20 collections of short stories. Margaret was the first non-British winner of the Carnegie Medal, awarded annually for the best children’s book written in any British Commonwealth country, winning the award in 1982 and again in 1984. She won numerous other awards both within New Zealand and throughout the world, and her books were translated into more than 20 languages.
She was a member of the Order of New Zealand, which only 20 living New Zealanders can belong to. Perhaps the most prestigious honor she won was the Hans Christian Anderson Award, widely seen as the Nobel Prize for Children’s Literature, which was awarded to her in 2006 for her lifetime contributions to children’s literature.
Despite these awards and fame as a writer, she was a warm and down-to-earth person who always remained an accessible, engaging person who was interested in a wide range of topics and issues.
How do I know this? Because I was lucky enough to have met her and become one of her friends. The circumstances of our meeting and subsequent friendship are a good illustration of the sort of person she was.
While I was teaching at Bogor Expatriate School in the 1980s, the librarian at this very small international school decided to increase kids’ interest in books by engaging with famous authors. So all of the students in the school decorated a birthday card for Roald Dahl, at the time one of the world’s pre-eminent children’s authors. After waiting months for a reply with no result, the kids were quite disappointed.
I then suggested that maybe a letter to Margaret would be an alternative, and hopefully bring more positive results. So the exercise was repeated (minus the birthday wishes). Less than two weeks later a large envelope was delivered to the school. Handwritten on it in multicolored writing was: “To the children of Bogor Expatriate School,” while an equally-colorful hand-drawn dragon also adorned the envelope. With great excitement, the letter was opened and read. Margaret began by telling the kids that it was the first letter she had ever received from Indonesia. She then went on to answer all the questions and comments the kids had made. I was as impressed as the kids were and wrote to her to express my thanks.
As a famous author she received hundreds of letters and messages each week and yet had found the time to personally respond to this small group in a place so far away. As an expatriate New Zealander, I felt very proud of my fellow Kiwi and told her that in my letter. I also asked if on my next visit to New Zealand, I could drop by her home and personally thank her. She welcomed the idea and so began our friendship.
In her book-lined living room in her beautiful home at the head of Lyttelton harbor, we would talk, drink tea and share all sorts of ideas, views and experiences. She was always interested in what was happening in Indonesia and so in the mid 1990s, after I had moved to Jakarta International School, I arranged for her to come to JIS as our visiting author. For a week in her multicolored wig she entranced the students with her stories, poems and recollections of her life as a writer.
Almost every time I returned to New Zealand I visited her, and although her pace of life slowed, she retained her same warmth and humanity and ongoing interest in Indonesia and the world we both lived in. I’ll miss Margaret’s company and friendship, but along with millions around the world realize her legacy will always be in the wonderful literature she has left us — books that line my bookshelves, as they do libraries around the world, and have entertained and enriched millions.
Personally, her act of kindness in writing to a small school so many years ago in Bogor will remain one of my strongest memories of her. As someone said in recent tributes “She was a national icon and treasure who took the time to be kind and encouraging — that’s real greatness.”
Hugh Collett is a teacher at Jakarta International School and a long-time resident of Indonesia.