Archive for the 'Johanna Knox' Category

Happy International Children’s Book Day!

Today is the birthday of Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen, best known for his fairy tales. Today is also celebrated as International Children’s Book Day.

In New Zealand the event is celebrated perhaps most notably by the Storylines Trust, which holds Margaret Mahy Day annually on the Saturday closest to International Children’s Book Day. This time there will also be extra local children’s-literature excitement over the coming week, as the finalists in the New Zealand Post Children’s Book Awards are announced tomorrow.

Cover of the School Journal, July 1916

Cover of the School Journal, July 1916

It’s also worth acknowledging a longstanding New Zealand publication that has given much to the thriving children’s literature scene in New Zealand, as well as to our wider culture. For more than 100 years the School Journal has nurtured this country’s writers and illustrators, many of whom have gone on to become prominent in children’s, and adult’s, literature.

New writers and illustrators have routinely embarked on their careers knowing that this was one publication to which they could always submit their work, even if other avenues were closed to beginners. However, the School Journal was never just a place to get published. It was a unique institution where you could become known and valued as one of a large, vibrant stable of freelance contributors – and where you could form relationships with generous editors who would offer helpful critiques and encouragement for next time, even while gently rejecting your current offering.

The School Journal has been the foundation of the country’s growing and flourishing children’s literature scene: a nursery for emerging writers and artists, but also a familiar and reliable port-of-call for the more seasoned.

Te Ara features work from, or biographies of, numerous New Zealanders for whom the School Journal has been a springboard, including:

There are also hundreds more, including Margaret Mahy herself, who have gone on to contribute immeasurably to the cultural life of this country.

An alien in the bay

The recent 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair, at which New Zealand was guest of honour, got some of us thinking about our own cultural links to Germany. My mind turned to this hand-painted tray:

Tray painted by Lisbet Delbrück

Tray painted by Lisbet Delbrück

When my sister and I were growing up it was our ‘invalid tray’, and for me it still evokes the comfort of a day off school – a treasured stretch of freedom – no matter how much I had to be sneezing, aching or vomiting to be granted it.

On this tray, with its fold-down legs, my mother served bedridden daughters dry toast and weak orange juice. They often came with an extra helping of stories about the tray’s painter, the German artist Elisabet (Lisbet) Delbrück, who was stranded in New Zealand during the Second World War and labelled an enemy alien.

Lisbet’s husband, businessman Werner Delbrück, died in a ballooning accident in Stettin, Germany, one stormy day in 1910. From then on Lisbet began turning away from the settled, well-to-do life that was expected of a woman of her social standing, and she chose instead to wander the world.

She made a modest living as she went, selling her own artwork, taking collections of European fine art prints from country to country as touring exhibitions and giving public lectures. Audiences in many countries found her passion for contemporary European art infectious.

She was in her early 60s when she travelled to Australia. It was 1938. The Second World War loomed and Germans down under were treated with suspicion. Australian authorities kept Delbrück under surveillance, convinced her sketching trips to inland towns were covert intelligence-gathering missions.

She voyaged on to New Zealand in 1939, where the public received her exhibitions and lectures enthusiastically, but the police had deep concerns. They began a dossier on her activities and infiltrated her art lectures to see if she was using them to disseminate Nazi propaganda.

Delbrück planned to travel next to South Africa, but on 3 September news came that war had broken out. Along with other Germans here she was labelled an ‘alien’ (later upgraded to ‘enemy alien’) and barred from leaving.

Some authorities argued she should be sent to jail. However, Delbrück had been welcomed into the small, coastal community at Māhina Bay, Eastbourne, on Wellington Harbour. The families there – and in neighbouring York Bay – were a tight-knit group of art lovers, who saw themselves as free-thinkers with strong social consciences. Their vouching for Delbrück’s character helped somewhat to assuage official fears.

My mother’s favourite story was of how Delbrück tried to prove she was no Nazi sympathiser by showing officials the many modern and abstract prints she owned – works that had been banned by Hitler as ‘degenerate’. One New Zealand official who looked at them said, after some consideration, ‘For once I find myself in agreement with Mr Hitler’.

When the war ended Delbrück had warmed so much to Māhina Bay and its people that she wanted to stay. She continued to make a lasting impression on all who met her, organising group gatherings that resembled European salons, and tirelessly sharing her love of art with local children.

When she gave my mother this tray for a birthday, it was just one of many carefully crafted items, often in folk-art style, that she gifted to young friends. More often than not they treasured them into adulthood.

As with all her gifts, it was personal. The scene is the beach at Māhina Bay. The girl with the pram is my mum, and the other children are also Māhina Bay locals. One is apparently children’s poet and School Journal stalwart Alan Bagnall.

A detail of the tray, showing a scene at Māhina Bay

A detail of the tray, showing a scene at Māhina Bay

Lisbet Delbrück stayed in the bay until her death in 1967 at the age of 93.

A biography of Lisbet was recently published – One artist on five continents: the life of Elisabet Delbrück, by Margaret Sutherland. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang, 2011.

Margaret Mahy (1936–2012): the writer we want to be

Margaret Mahy (sculpture by Mark Whyte, photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Margaret Mahy, local hero (sculpture by Mark Whyte, photo from Wikimedia Commons)

I was one of the many people who was eaten up by story – not any particular story, but the platonic form of story that roars and devours us all (though people don’t always realise they have been swallowed). Writers are the ones who roar back, digesting while they are themselves digested.

– Margaret Mahy, Notes of a bag lady. Wellington: Four Winds Press, 2003

Since the death of author Margaret Mahy, expressions of grief have flowed not only from devoted readers, but from legions of authors and illustrators in New Zealand, Australia and around the world. It’s because as well as being phenomenally popular, Margaret Mahy was a writer’s writer.

Within the New Zealand children’s literature community there has been an almost non-stop wake for Mahy, in real life and across social media. It will perhaps culminate on 11 August when a nationwide read-aloud takes place in her honour.

Over the Tasman, writer, reviewer and editor Judith Ridge says, ‘As we are wont to do with successful New Zealanders, we naughtily liked to claim her as our own. Or, at the very least, we liked it when people assumed she was Australian!’

Unlike many New Zealand writers for children and young adults, I never met Margaret Mahy, or even had the privilege of hearing her speak at an event. But her work for all ages – her picture books, her junior and young adult novels, and her erudite and illuminating essays – have thrilled me, inspired me, and made me cry – those mysterious tears that come in response to astonishing human achievement.

Judith Ridge has said, ‘Mahy is an author other authors wish they were.’ And I think that sums it up.

Mahy’s quote above talks of the platonic form of ‘story’ – an abstract ideal. I can’t help but think that if there were such a thing as a platonic form of ‘writer’, Mahy might come close to it. Every quality that, as a writer, I aspire to, or like to imagine I already have in some small degree, Mahy had in almost superhuman abundance.

There was her fascination for and facility with language: as author Melinda Szymanik said, ‘Words behaved differently under her guiding hand.’

She also had an all-consuming love of story. And, as Elizabeth Knox writes so eloquently, there was her instinct for the significant:

People have remarked on her feeling for myth. But what she had a feeling for was significance. She saw possibilities for meaning, for story, in the way ideas fitted together, not mechanically, but as if this thought and that would suddenly seem subject to the same gravity, as if the way things fell together revealed the star they belonged to-the shining star, or the obscure one, whose only energy is gravity.

Mahy also had an utterly unique way of seeing the world, disarming honesty, a ferocious intellect, an insatiable curiosity and boundless empathy.

Then of course there are the qualities that technically might not be needed, but which most writers must envy: Mahy spoke as eloquently as she wrote, and she is said to have been able to get by on little more than four hours’ sleep a night. (What author struggling to balance family commitments and paid work, at the same time as keeping the fires of their writing career burning, wouldn’t wish for this?)

Margaret Mahy leaves an immense body of work. But she has also gifted us with something less instantly tangible. That is the massive effect she has had on the work of thousands of other writers.

Judith Ridge wrote to me: ‘Many of my writer friends cite Margaret as a huge influence, particularly writers of young adult fantasy, who have been deeply influenced by novels like The Changeover, Catalogue of the Universe and (my own favourite) The Tricksters.’

She adds: ‘I always cite Margaret as the greatest practitioner of the rhyming text for children to my creative writing students, and warn them if they aspire to write in this style, they have the highest of bars set before them thanks to her genius.’

New Zealand author Fleur Beale (recipient of last year’s Storylines Margaret Mahy Award) says:

I think it’ll be a while before we realise what we’ve lost. While she was here among us, we relished her presence both as an exuberant and generous personality and we stood in awe of her intellect and her genius. To a certain extent, she herself was the focus - the star in the firmament, the person we looked to for inspiration and guidance; she stood on the heights to which we aspire. In talks she gave, she threw light on the mysterious process of story. She was a go-to person for things literary. Now there is no ebullient, articulate Margaret and the focus must turn to her writing. I suspect that every time any of us discovers a Mahy book new to us, or rediscovers an old favourite, we will then begin to understand something of what her loss has meant. There will be no more stories. Those of us lucky enough to have known her, however slightly, have been privileged indeed.

I do believe we’re all better writers for having shared the earth with Margaret Mahy, but it will take distance to see more of the ways in which this is true.

In years to come the subtle patterns of influence will become more obvious in the works of others. I imagine these patterns will provide plenty of material for literary researchers and critics, but most of all they will prove just how much we, in New Zealand and around the world, owe to this very great writer, this literary treasure, Margaret Mahy.