Posts tagged Margaret Mahy

Marvellous Margaret Mahy

March 21 would have been Margaret Mahy’s 78th birthday and it’s a great excuse to check out some of the fantastic Margaret Mahy stuff on our catalogue and the internet.

If you are itching for some Margaret Mahy screen goodness, you can check out full episodes of her award-winning TV adaptions on NZ On Screen:

The Haunting of Barney PalmerBook Cover

Is Barney being haunted by his dead Uncle? One person in every generation of his family has a special gift; is it Barney? If you like the movie, borrow the book from our Library.

Kaitangata Twitch

What happens to a girl who has dangerous dreams? What if the land itself punishes those who would harm it? Kaitangata Twitch is a supernatural eco-thriller! Watch the first episode on NZ On Screen and then check out the book or DVD from the library.

The Great White Man-Eating SharkBook Cover

Norvin looks a little bit like a shark and is also a little bit sick of other swimmers at the beach. He thinks he’s got the perfect plan to have the beach to himself, but does he? Once you’ve watched the hilarious video, read the full story from our library.

If you’d like some more information about Margaret Mahy, you can check out our interview with her, or our special Margaret Mahy pages.

If you start reading now, you might be able to read all of our Margaret Mahy books before the Margaret Mahy Family Playground opens. It hasn’t been started yet, but when it’s finished it will be ‘the most amazing playground’ the city has ever seen, it will have different activity zones aimed at different ages, comfortable places for adults to supervise, and challenging play equipment, all inspired by the amazing stories of Margaret Mahy.

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Illustrating the great Margaret Mahy

Over the years I’ve had many manuscripts offered to me, from short School Journal stories to picture books and a few novels too. It is always the most exciting (and often scary) part of my work – imagining for the first time all the different ways this manuscript could be illustrated. But there are manuscripts and then there are MANUSCRIPTS. Earlier this year I illustrated Margaret Mahy’s Dashing Dog. I’d never been offered a picture book manuscript like it. Being my final blog post for the Star Author programme, I thought I’d discuss why I think Dashing Dog is so unique – and also why I made some of the decisions I made and what I was trying to achieve as an illustrator.

It’s a very subtle art that Margaret Mahy practiced – one that seems deceptively simple to outsiders – and it can be a bit difficult to decribe exactly how she does what she does. Well here’s my perspective from an illustrators point of view … sometimes, when I’m given a manuscript, I feel like the author is telling me what to do. The words can seem like they’re giving me a list of instructions, like … “Kevin sat over there, in a red chair, with orange hair, with his teddy bear, did we care?” (that’s not from an actual book by the way). However, in Dashing Dog we hardly get a sense that much is going on at all – there IS a lot going on, perhaps more than in some other books, but it’s going on in a different way.

When I first read the manuscript for Dashing Dog I couldn’t figure out just why I liked it so much, or what made it so different. The only thing I could come up with was that this was real poetry – not just some rhyming words. Dashing Dog was like a list of ingredients as opposed to the aforementioned list of instructions. Like all great writers, Margaret uses lovely evocative words that are great to roll around in your mouth, and like my friend Kyle Mewburn, Margaret’s words are very sparse. She was keenly aware of the fine relationship between author and illustrator, and like all great picture book authors, she leaves lots of gaps for me to fill in.

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Possible Dashing Dogs?

For example …

Most obviously, Margaret doesn’t prescribe what kind of dog Dashing Dog is, or what colour or what size for that matter. Margaret only gives one clue as to what dog I might choose to illustrate – the word “curlicued”. I did lots of character sketches of all kinds of curly, long haired dogs, trying to find one that would be just right for the story. Eventually I settled on a large blue/grey poodle – why? because Margaret takes our hero on a journey from la-de-da dashing to heroic dashing savior. I thought that a poodle would be the perfect dog because you could have a lot of fun visually with the contrast between a manicured poodle and the disheveled heroic dog at the end of the story. Also, Margaret’s stories always have a wonderful streak of crazy ridiculousness, and I thought that the poodle matched her fun story-telling.

So I had my poodle, why make hime roan blue? I had decided early on that I didn’t want to illustrate yet another New Zealand story where I had to do page upon page of blue skies (and yet another blue sky cover to sit on the bookshelves) – instead, the tone of Dashing Dog was going to be a summery yellow. I envisioned the cover on my first reading of the manuscript – and leaping across this yellow sky would be a roan blue dog (at that stage, of undetermined breed).

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the cover for Dashing Dog was the first vivid picture that lodged in my brain.

So here’s the funny part … after I had completed Dashing Dog I got a phone call from the mother of a boy I went to school with. She told me that her son, now living in Christchuch, owned the brother of Margaret Mahy’s dog – and this dog was … a large poodle. Black to tell the truth, but a large poodle none-the-less. So Margaret also had poodles in mind when she wrote this story. It just goes to show what a great writer she was, because she writes a story that is so obviously about a poodle without ever once mentioned the breed of the dog. I related this story to someone and they replied “Didn’t you know it was supposed to be a poodle?” – which completely misses the point – which is, the author (contrary to popular public belief) does not tell the illustrator what to do.

While I was working on Dashing Dog I was also working on a book about Shakespeare. Actors love to play Hamlet because during the course of the play he portrays almost every possible human emotion. In a fun and simple way, I decided to make my Dashing Dog the canine children’s version of Hamlet. Aside from a fun story and the simple pun on ‘dashing’, Margaret takes our Dashing Dog on an emotional and character-developing journey with a subtle secondary message of not judging by appearances. As an illustrator, it was fun to try and convey all the different doggy emotions and it became my mission to make ‘dogginess’ the focus of the story.

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Some of the many moods of Dashing Dog

It’s no surprise then that Margaret also doesn’t describe the environment of Dashing Dog. It’s simply a beach somewhere. The mission I give myself is to expand and fill in the spaces she leaves for me. I know there will be people out there who think that is the wrong approach – that my pictures are overdone and perhaps I should just have pictures on blank backgrounds and leave something to the reader’s imagination (someone said words to that effect somewhere). There is always a place for ‘white space’ – but here’s what I’m trying to achieve… Usually, somewhere near the start and again at the end of the book, I like to set the scene – pop in a big double page of colour and excitement that sets the tone of the story and describes the environment and the world that this book inhabits. In Dashing Dog I blended all my favourite beaches: it is part Devonport boardwalk; part Napier waterfront; part Mount Maunganui; and part Whangamata (what’s the point in being an illustrator if you can’t be self-indulgent every once in a while?). My other aim with these big spreads is to expand the story beyond the pages. I want the readers to feel that this world continues outside the edges of my illustrations – that it could be a REAL fantasy world and is full of life.

I have a very vivid imagination, and as a child these were the type of illustrations I liked – especially books like Graham Oakley’s Church Mice series, which are jam packed with amazing detail. Even as an adult I can pore over them for hours. So – counter-intuitively it seems – for me, more detail, not less, lets the reader’s imagination run wild.

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I want readers to imagine the world carries on beyond the edges of the page.

Detail CAN be problematic though. I can understand the reader, or publisher, who finds detailed illustrations are a distraction from the story flow (especially in rhyming books). This is quite a fashion in American books. It’s a fine line to choose what, and how much, detail to put into a picture. Sometimes I pick up a book and feel like I’m assulted by an illustrator who has stuck in all manner of unrelated rubbish. Sometimes the detail becomes the main focus of the image may be totally distracting rather than a nice little background aside. In Dashing Dog there are all sorts of things going on in the background, but hopefully they all relate to the story – either characters and items that will appear later on, or funny in-jokes (if you look closely you might find a certain young boy wandering to the seaside with a shark fin attached to his back). In the spread above is an array of ugly dogs – which simply stand to contrast our heroic poodle.

All this detail is a common trait in my work. Kids are like little sponges and if you don’t give them stuff to discover within a book, then there’s not much reason for them to go back to that book over and over (let alone the parents who might have to read it night after night). I find an entire book full of simplistic illustrations boring, and they miss out on opportunities for kids to latch on to weird little background items. In one of our Dinosaur Rescue books, author Kyle Mewburn wrote a tiny aside about Roman fire brigades. It was a great pleasure to get an email from a boy on the other side of the world who read that aside and became fascinated with Roman history. This is the type of thing I did as a kid (and still do as an adult).

At the end of the day, I can’t second guess what everyone else in the world will like, I just try to do books that I would like. I have taken to heart Elizabeth Taylor’s quote “if you do it for yourself, at least ONE person will be happy”. It seems like a lot of hoohah when you write it all down, but these are all things I do instinctively. Really I’m just trying to emulate my heroes. I pick out parts of their work that I like the most and slowly form some ideas about what I’m trying to achieve. I try not to over think what I do. I know what I like. And I know what I don’t like. As Brian Eno said – “you have to be opinionated, that gives you a basis for your artistic choices”.

Picture books are often children’s first experience of the written and painted arts, and in the best books, words and pictures each complement the other with what they do best. I’ve had the pleasure of illustrating some of New Zealand’s finest writers and it’s my greatest joy to be able to make a full time career out of something that I am so passionate about. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of my Star Author blogs about my thoughts and processes. Even if you DIDN’T – that’s great – go and form your own opinions and do something different!

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The wonderful tattooed lady.

Hello everyone, here I am at the Tuam St library again, in my quiet corner (I say ‘quiet’, but there’s someone skyping on one side of me, and four people reading or working on laptops to the other side. Such is a rainy Sunday afternoon). Today I thought I would write about someone we have all been thinking about a lot lately: Margaret Mahy. I took my youngest son, who is nearly three, to one of the Margaret Mahy readings at the libraries yesterday. We went to the Peterborough library, where the librarians did a great job of reading A Summery Saturday Morning and Down the Back of the Chair, but I’m sorry to say my son was more excited by watching the diggers working on the site of the demolished Convention Centre across the road. However, I enjoyed the readings very much, as did lots of other parents and children.

My earliest memory of reading a Margaret Mahy book was The Boy With Two Shadows, about a boy who is plagued by the shadow of a witch and has to become increasingly canny to try and get rid of it. Oh, how I felt the frustration of that boy! I was just a few years too old for her young adult books when she started writing them, but I read and very much enjoyed The Tricksters a few years ago.

There is something so unusual in the way she constructs her stories. She tells a rollicking tale, but there is always something bumpy, something skew-whiff going on, whether it’s a character who is cliché-free or a plot that takes off in impossible, unexpected directions – a direction that you almost don’t want and are reluctant to follow because it confounds your expectations so much, but if everything happened the way we expected it to, reading would get a bit boring.

I came back to MM’s young adult books again last year, after I had finished the first draft of Red Rocks. I read The Haunting, Kaitangata Twitch and The Changeover (which I adored and is now on my list of favourite books of all time). After reading these books, I realised we had some things in common: in all of these books, family is very strong. So many kids’ and young adults’ novels feature kids having adventures while the parents or other adults are just shadowy figures in the background. MM portrayed these families in all their messy, fractured, loving glory. In Red Rocks, Jake’s father is almost as important to the story as Jake himself, in fact, a good deal of the conflict arises due to a hiccup in their relationship, and the family dynamics are quite complicated, as they are in real life.

So I love the dad in Kaitangata Twitch having a rant about the developers threatening the beauty of nearby landscape, love the complex feelings Barney’s stepmother has in The Haunting, and the protectiveness Laura Chant feels for her little brother and suspicions she has of her mum’s new boyfriend in The Changeover.

After Margeret died, there was a lot of talk about how disciplined and determined she was as a writer. In the early days, she used to work full time in the day, and come home and write at night, often until the wee hours. All while raising her daughters on her own.

I am always complaining about not having enough time to write, but I am the first to admit that in the evenings I shut down, and the TV (good quality TV of course!) seems to call me when I finally get a chance to sit down and put my feet up. My brain is a little doughy at night, it has to be said. I try to go to bed early so I can get some reading in before I fall asleep at 10.30.

I don’t know if MM’s brain ever got doughy, but if she could write after work like that, when she must have been so tired, then so can I, right? So, inspired by MM, I vow to write another children’s novel in the evenings, while I work on my adult novels three days a week.

I only met her a couple of times, once at an event I was doing for the Christchurch launch of my second novel, Magpie Hall, and again a few months later at a book launch at the University Bookshop. That first time, she sat in the front row while I read from my book and answered questions, and she gave me her full attention, and every now and then she interjected and struck up a conversation with me as if we were the only two people in the room. When I finished reading a scene where a man skins a tiger, she declared, “I can’t believe you haven’t skinned a tiger yourself. You write about it as though you have.” This was a huge compliment, coming from her, and I will always remember the feeling of pride it gave me. And when I read a scene about a young woman getting a tattoo, she piped up from her seat; “My mother told me never to get a tattoo, that I’d regret it when I was 60. So I waited until I was 62, and I got a tattoo.” And she proceeded to roll up her sleeve and show it to me.

Thank you Margaret.

Rachael King

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Organ Music by Margaret Mahy

Reading Organ Music by Margaret Mahy is like being stuck in a really weird, creepy dream.  I had chills running down my spine and the whole time I was trying to figure out what was going on.  All these things combine to make a thrilling story.

As Harley and David make their way home one night, through a dodgy part of town, they come across a battered old car parked on the side of the road with the keys in the ignition but nobody else about.  They get in the car and drive off, but when they try to stop they realize the car is actually driving itself.  The car eventually stops in the middle of a forest at a place called the Willesden Experimental Station, but what sinister secret does this place hide?

One thing I really liked about this book is its brilliant cover that is illustrated by Gavin Bishop.  It really tells you a lot about the story.

If you like creepy, scary stories about ghosts and secret experiments then you should read Organ Music by Margaret Mahy.

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Check out who was at the Storylines Family Day

Margaret Mahy at Christchurch Storylines Family Day

Margaret Mahy

Joy Cowley at Christchurch Storylines Family Day

Joy Cowley

Gavin Bishop at Christchurch Storylines Family Day

Gavin Bishop

Ross Kinnaird at Christchurch Storylines Family Day

Ross Kinnaird

Sandy McKay at Christchurch Storylines Family Day

Sandy McKay

I had lots of fun walking around and talking to the all the authors and illustrators.  There were lots of kids who were dressed up in costumes.  My favourite costume that I saw was a girl who was Pippi Longstocking.  There were also a few Harry Potters and a Willy Wonka.  I like getting my books signed because I think it’s really special, especially when an author or illustrating writes something nice.

Did you go to the Storylines Family Day?  If you did, what was your favourite part of the day?

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Meet great NZ authors at the Storylines Free Family Day

StorylinesIf you’re looking for something to do this weekend, why don’t you come along to the Storylines Free Family Day at the Christchurch Town Hall from 10am-3pm.  It’s a chance for you to meet some fantastic New Zealand authors and illustrators, including:

You could get your favourite author’s autograph, listen to them talk about their books and read some of them, make a cool mask or bookmark, or learn about the world around you in the Factopia Zone.

Who’s your favourite New Zealand author?  What question would you ask them if you got the chance to meet them?

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Writing Tip of the Week – Margaret Mahy

Our writing tip this week is once again from Margaret Mahy, who will be at the Storylines Free Family Day next Sunday, 15 August at the Christchurch Town Hall.   Come along and listen to Margaret talk about her writing and read some of her books.

“I think writers ought to read a lot, and it is often good to be working on more one story. If your first story does not work out it is comforting to have another story to fall back on. Most writers have to work hard – to write and re-write their stories.”

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