Margaret Mahy and the importance of childhood reading

There's a painting of a lady on the wall at my work. She's sitting in an armchair, with a big black dog at her side and a black cat on her lap. Behind her is a bookcase full of books and to her right side a window, opening up to a garden and a sea on the horizon. There is a lot on the painting I can relate to. Books, a dog, a lazy cat. But the woman in the painting remains a mystery. All I know is her name: Margaret Mahy.

Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson
Portrait of Margaret Mahy by Glenda Randerson. Flickr CCL-2012-07-24

I am most likely the last person who should be writing a blog about Margaret Mahy. First time I heard of her was three years ago when I realized I might be moving to Christchurch. The only New Zealand author who I had found on the bookshelves of my school library at home was Witi Ihimaera. So I did a bit of homework before I set out for Aotearoa. To my surprise I realized I was moving to a city that used to be a home to the greatest New Zealand children's author, someone who won the Hans Christian Andersen award - the most prestigious and highest recognition in the world of children's fiction.

After I landed, further revelations followed. Everyone I talked to seemed to know Margaret Mahy's work or at least know about her. Even more: I was very lucky to make an acquaintance with a lovely lady who used to be her neighbour and a close friend. I ended up working at the same library as Margaret did. A lot of my colleagues still remember her. Her eccentric personality and masterful storytelling. Her fiery wig and starry cloak. Sue, who used to work with her, recalls her immensely generous and extremely modest nature:

She was very hospitable and often entertained colleagues and hosted parties for the local Children's Literature Association at her home and was a wonderful friend and a colleague. She was also immensely interested in EVERYTHING - she learnt to fly, she studied astronomy. She was also a keen gardener.

Even though I have heard so much about her as a writer, a storyteller, a librarian, a person and a friend, she still remains a mystery to me. I have a strange notion the reason for this might be in the absence of her books in my childhood. It feels like she has never become a part of my imaginative landscape. She never entered my literary homeland because I never got a chance to read her books as a child. When I read them now, I still feel like I missed that initial, formative reading - experienced through child's eyes, mind and imagination.

The irreversibility of time is unavoidable and cruel. I am reminded of that every time I talk to a person who read a certain book or author as a child, which I haven't. I find myself swallowed by the feeling of missing out. It is similar to regret, that comes along when a favourite music star passes away and you realize you will never ever be able to see them again.

This points to the importance of reading in childhood, creating an imaginative mental space mutual to all - every reader, no matter their origin and background, can enter it. With reading, authors and books become a part of our collective memory, collective culture and make us feel at home, connect us together. With every new reader, this memory gets stronger.

Reading and nurturing readers is not the only way of strengthening this memory. There are other ways as well. Every morning on the way to my work I am reminded of that: Margaret Mahy's name greets me from the stone wall of the new exciting playground on Cambridge Terrace. When I visit my colleagues at Fendalton Library or go to library's storage facilities, I can't resist not to browse through Margaret Mahy's collection: a treasury of old children's books that (most likely) your grandparents used to read as kids. Some of them never made it to my shelves. But they maybe did to yours.

I am inviting you, to help me figure out the mystery of the lady on the painting and create another little piece of collective memory of Margaret Mahy. Have you read her books as a child? What was it like? Which one was your favourite? Did you read them to your children? Grandchildren? Do you remember her? Have you been to any of her storytelling sessions in the library? What was she like? I can't wait to hear your stories about her - please post them as comments!

As for myself I will persevere. Reading her books, listening to stories about her. I hope one day I might be granted a visa to enter that world of collective culture, of bountiful legacy, that Margaret so generously laid in front of her readers. Until then, I will salute that lady on the painting every morning I come to work: in my name, yours and most importantly - in the name of those to come.

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