Book review: Magical Margaret Mahy by Betty Gilderdale

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Magical Margaret Mahy by Betty Gilderdale is a little gem of a book. It tells the story of the brilliant woman responsible for the magical and imaginative stories we all know and love. Margaret has always been one of my favourite authors, so I was thrilled when Penguin announced they were publishing a non-fiction book about Margaret that was especially for children.

As all books should (in my opinion), it has a picture of a map at the beginning. It looks like something straight out of Peter Pan or Treasure Island, with curled, worn edges, a compass that points north, exotic birds, mermaids, and a pirate who points his hook at a spot marked X – where a penguin sits atop a treasure chest! It looks terribly exciting and full of adventures waiting to be discovered.

A closer look and the reader realises that the map is in fact New Zealand. The exotic birds are the kiwi and the kea, the smoking volcano is White Island and the spot marked X is Governor’s Bay, where Margaret lived for more than 40 years. Hmmm but why was there a penguin sitting on the treasure chest?

I wasn’t puzzled for long – the first chapter reveals all. Gilderdale tells the tale of a group of children assembled in a school hall, waiting in anticipation for the person whose books they’d been reading all term: “What would she be like, this author who wrote about clowns and pirates, witches and wizards?” You can imagine their delight when out of the car stepped not a woman, but a giant penguin! “‘The problem is,’ [Margaret] said to anyone who might be listening, ‘that penguin flippers were not made for turning pages.’” Gilderdale retells this exciting and unusual school visit marvelously, and the reader gets a real sense of just how imaginative and remarkable Margaret was, and how much schools relished her visits.

In chapters two, three and four Gilderdale writes about Margaret’s journey from imaginative child to famed children’s writer. Margaret was inventing stories and worlds from an incredibly young age. Gilderdale has included the well-known story of little Margaret sitting “beneath the kitchen table listening to the thump-thumping noise of her mother ironing above her” and telling her the story of the Fox and the Little Red Hen.

I really enjoyed the way in which Gilderdale describes events in Margaret’s life in the same fantastical and adventurous style of Margaret’s stories. Even Margaret’s birth is described as an exciting journey by her Grandfather: “I am informed that you happily arrived this afternoon, quite punctually, after a rather long journey … what a lucky girl you are to have landed safely on a new planet.”

Gilderdale cleverly weaves together the connection between stories of Margaret’s life and how these experiences influenced Margaret’s writing. For instance, when Margaret was at school she was invited to a fancy-dress party. Her mother made a deep impression on her by suggesting that instead of a fairy — which surely a lot of other girls would go as — Margaret should go as a witch.

Margaret acted so admirably at the party that “for a long time afterwards she was nicknamed “The Witch”. Gilderdale observes that witches feature prominently in Margaret’s writing, for example The Witch in the Cherry Tree and The Boy with Two Shadows, but “her witches are not really threatening or wicked – the first one likes cakes; the other goes off on holiday”.

I did feel that parts of chapters five and six let the book down. Chapter five includes a long-winded explanation of how the publishing industry works, including a dry section detailing authors’ struggles with income tax and royalties. Likewise, Chapter six gets bogged down with explanations of how the television industry works and problems it runs into because of budget restrictions. As this is supposed to be a book for children, I’m not sure that these were needed – they’re not very exciting!

However, the book was really enjoyable overall. As well as being a great resource for children who want to know about Margaret’s life, it’s a generally fabulous read. As Gilderdale says in the last chapter of the book, “A ‘good’ children’s book is enjoyable for adults as well – a good book is a good book whatever age it is intended for”.

Reviewed by Stephanie Soper.

Magical Margaret Mahy
by Betty Gilderdale
Published by Penguin Books
ISBN 9780143568810