Margaret Mahy’s The Word Witch and a mini challenge

Margaret Mahy (1936 – 2012) is one of New Zealand’s most beloved authors. She wrote over two hundred titles from dazzling picture books for the very young to award-winning novels for teenagers. She wrote poems, novels, non-fiction, picture books and countless school readers. Margaret was awarded the Hans Christian Anderson Medal which is an enormous, international honour.

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I met Margaret several times and I loved many things about her. I loved her generosity with words — not just on the paper where they wove spectacular (and quiet) magic but with other people. She always wanted to listen to others, to read the books of others, to delight in the lives of others — and she devoted much attention to children. To me she was an exceptional role model for authors.

Once she asked me to recite one of my poems. I was surprised and shocked she would ask me but my poem Blind as a Beetroot came into my head and I recited that. I was quaking in my jandals but she roared with laughter and slapped her knees when I finished. That was such kindness on her part.

Today I am going to tell you what I love about her poetry collection The Word Witch and talk about a poem of hers that HarperCollins has so kindly given me permission to post. Tessa Duder went on a fabulous hunting expedition to gather the poems togther for the book. Before I talk about the book though, I am going to give you a mini challenge. Write and tell me which Margaret Mahy poem you love and why.

You have until 5pm Saturday 23rd March. Send to with your name, age, class year, name of school, teacher’s name and email and I will post the winner on Monday 25th March.

Word Witch (With CD)   Word Witch (With CD)

Margaret’s poems never sit still. It is as though she sat on a rocky beach hunting for marvellous words with patience and daring and a knowing eye and ear. Each word is like a little rock or shell or pebble and Margaret could see what made that pebble word special. She knew how to make a pebble chain (of words) that gleamed and glistened and sparked.

Some of her poems are long and are terrific read aloud — I love ‘Down the Back of the Chair,’  ‘A Summery Saturday Morning’ and ‘Bubble Trouble.’ These poems have infectious rhythms that get your body moving, but they also have dazzling alliteration (‘calculated catchwork’) and rhymes that duck and weave and chime. Margaret is our Rhyme Queen.

Three salutes because Margaret was never afraid of big words (nefarious, cacophony, gallant). Perhaps like me the dictionary was one of her favourite books as a child. It is a bit harder now with spell check and computer dictionaries to snuggle up and hunt for words.

I love the made-up words that find their way into Margaret’s poems: flingamango, sandified, fandandical.

I love too those poems that tell a story; the rhyme and the rhythm and Margaret’s spectacular imagination sweep you along the curves of the story (‘Bubble Trouble’ is a great example).

I am posting ‘Baby is falling Asleep‘ thanks to HarperCollins (see credit at the end of the poem).

This poem has it all. It starts with a very ordinary, everyday thing. The baby manages to fall asleep amidst the clutter and racket in a household full of cats, dogs, mother, father, sisters, brother and bagpipes! Margaret makes that racket boom and burst on the page and in your ear. Say her words out loud and listen to her sounds: ‘grousing and grumbling’ and ‘pinging and popping and piping and clattering.’ Marvellous. Her rhyme is slipping and sliding and making music magic. She is not afraid to put in ‘cacophony.’ Say that word out loud and hear how good it is.

I like the way she plays with the last lines so that they are nearly the same but not quite. Try it!

Altogether this is a poem that reading once is just not good enough. You need to read it again and again. Perhaps you will be like me and the poem will make you want to get writing too.

I have felt a bit sad writing this post knowing that Margaret is no longer with us and we no longer have the joy of her presence, but I am full of such gladness that we have the richness and joy of her words.


Baby is Falling Asleep


The happy home rumbles with racket and rumpus

and Mother and Father both jiggle and jump as

the fracas flows in from each point of the compass . . .

yet baby is falling asleep.


Kate’s in the kitchen. She’s grousing and grumbling

at Sam on his skates. He is sliding and stumbling

upsetting the saucepans. Ka-BOOM! They go tumbling!

But baby is falling asleep.


Florrie and Fern are commencing a flounce-about!

Two of the cats start a passionate pounce-about,

dogs begin barking, embroiled in a bounce-about.

Baby is drifting to sleep.


Mervyn makes music no ceiling can soften. He

blows on his bagpipes. Amazing how often he

hits a wrong note, and produces cacophony!

Baby has fallen asleep.


Sleep, little darling, through family clattering,

blaring and banging and booming and battering,

pinging and popping and piping and pattering!

Sink into whispering sleep!


© The Word Witch

By Margaret Mahy, edited by Tessa Duder, illustrations by David Elliot

Published by HarperCollins New Zealand


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