The Changeover

For many years, Penguin Books in Australia offered support for young readers through the Puffin Club.  Especially popular were sessions in which one or more authors would meet with club members.  The highlight came when a well-known writer took part and read selections from one of their books.  The usual format included an opportunity for audience questions following the reading session:  typically these would include such queries as ‘how do you come up with your stories?’; ‘how did you become a writer?’  There might be a hide-and-seek or a similar activity, and the session often came to an end with soft drinks and nibbles.

The beginnings of this activity go back to 1939 when Allen Lane, the publishers of the popular Penguin and Pelican books series, became interested in launching a series of children’s non-fiction picture books.  The first Puffin picture books, published in 1940, were a great success and proved to Allen Lane that, with careful choice to ensure they had attractive stories, the company had a promising future in children’s publishing. In 1941 the first Puffin storybook appeared, featuring a man with broomstick arms called Worzel Gummidge.  The imprint quickly became established.  Some of the better-known Puffin tales of this era included adventures where children stepped through wardrobes into magical lands (The Lion, the Witch and the Wardbrobe by C. S. Lewis) or upon the thirteenth stroke of the clock travelled back in time (Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce) or found that spiders can talk and become best friends with a little piglet (Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White).

When Kaye Webb became Editor, she started a new initiative, the Puffin Club, in 1967,  promising Allen Lane that, “It will make children into book readers”. She kept her promise. The Allen Lane website tells us “The Puffin Book Club is still going strong today and is just one of the ways Puffin has established itself in the hearts of millions.”  The 1970s saw even more success for Picture Puffins, with The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle and Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg becoming instant hits (and I suspect both are still firm favourites today). And as for fiction, with the arrival of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl, Watership Down by Richard Adams and Jill Murphy’s much-loved The Worst Witch among many others, you could say Puffin was flapping its wings in delight.

By the 1980s, and despite the fact that real puffins have rather short wings, Puffin spread far and wide, from to America and Australia (and many places in between).  It became personal.  After having been involved with The Puffin Club in Edinburgh in the early 1970s, my partner, Pam Sheldrake, set up and ran an Australian branch of the Puffin Club, which adopted the by now familiar approach, combining readings and various activities to encourage children’s interest in books and reading.  I sometimes attended sessions as the ‘official photographer’ so that a record of events could be used for later publicity activities.

Margaret Mahy was the star of some of these occasions.  Right from the start, she was unlike almost all of the other children’s authors I’d met, and put her own, very distinctive twist on events.  First of all, she dressed for the sessions, wearing a multi-coloured wig, an equally striking large jumper in rainbow colours, and a long, knitted scarf with dozens of book-related badges attached.  Her other trick was that she possessed the ability to join in with the children, rather than being an adult talking to them.  She convinced her listeners that The Boy Who Made Things Up was somewhere nearby, or that we could pop down to the beach and meet the The Great White Man-eating Shark.  If we looked carefully, we could see The Lion in the Meadow, or The Crocodile in the Garden.  It was as if she and the children around her were living somewhere on the edge of the stories.  Margaret Mahy made illusions real.

She fascinated youngsters.  Magic was a key part of what she wrote about.  However, there was another Margaret Mahy, still writing about magic, but now in a different sense, and for teenagers.  This was about magic as a deus ex machina, introducing something unexpected or implausible, something out of this world, to create or resolve a situation, magic as an element in relationships, especially between young people.  Two award winning books, The Haunting and The Changeover, used this kind of magic brilliantly. The Changeover: a Supernatural Romance was published in 1984.   It won the annual Carnegie Medal from the US Library Association, an award that recognises the year’s best children’s book in English.  It was an amazing achievement as Margaret had won the 1982 Medal for The Haunting.

The Changeover is set in a fairly new suburb of Christchurch called Gardendale, based on the real suburb of Bishopdale.   It reads something like a fairy-tale plot, with a devoted sister risking her life to save her bewitched younger brother.  However, it much more than that.  It is a coming-of-age story, as well as  an unconventional romance between an aloof and difficult boy, Sorenson Carlisle, who happens to be a male witch and a strong-willed and psychically sensitive schoolgirl, Laura Chant.

The book begins when Laura has one of her ‘warnings’, a premonition that something is about to happen.  However, daily life dominated, so Laura was forced to ignore her sense of impending doom and had to go to school as usual. On the way home, she and her younger brother Jacko encountered the sinister Carmody Braque, who ‘playfully’ stamps Jacko’s hand, the stamp carrying an image of Braque’s face.  As Jacko becomes increasingly ill, Laura believes Jacko has been possessed. She seeks the help of Sorensen ‘Sorry’ Carlisle, who she recognises as a witch in hiding, although to others at school he seems just a painfully well-behaved school prefect who photographs birds as a hobby. She learns that Carmody Braque is an ancient being who consumes the life force of others to keep himself alive.

Sorry’s grandmother Winter, one of a long line of witches, recommends that Laura should ‘changeover’ from her normal life, to achieve her ability to be a witch or “woman of the moon” as she puts it. Then she would be in a position to trick an unwary Braque into putting himself under her control. Although warned that the changeover process could be dangerous, Laura is determined to save her brother, whose illness has progressed to the point he’s near death.  She goes through the changeover process, experiencing it as a spirit journey through a dark forest, which also takes her through an unfamiliar version of Gardendale.  The Carlisle witches help her through the process, (their reasons aren’t entirely clear), and she emerges from the perilous transition with the power of nature and imagination awakened in her.  Taking Sorensen along to mask her new abilities, Laura confronts Braque and succeeds in gaining power over him and breaking his hold on Jacko.  Despite her initial desire to make him suffer, she rejects this ‘dark’ temptation and instead ends his unnatural existence.

At face value, this probably sounds like a thrilling if not especially remarkable story about witches and evil.  In recent years this field of children’s literature has flourished.  However, it is much more than that.  Margaret Mahy has commented on the relationship between ‘truth’ and ‘the story’, in in doing so she has emphasised that she saw books not so much as something objective, to be analysed, like a rocking chair, but as an experience to live though, a part of the life journey of the reader.  In her 1968 essay ‘A Dissolving Ghost: Possible operations of truth in children’s books and the lives of children’ she suggested that a story is a “marvellous code” that helps us to make sense of our lives.   She goes on to comment:

“I am going to propose that there is a code in our lives, something we automatically recognise when we encounter it in the outside world, something personal, but possibly primeval too, something which gives form to our political responses, to our art, our religious feeling, sometimes to our science and even to the way the weather forecast may be presented as a little drama. It is something eagerly recognised in children, so perhaps there is no first encounter. Perhaps it is already in them …  This code makes use of cause and effect, though sometimes it precedes and transcends this necessary relationship. It can be suspected or duplicated but I don’t think it can really be dismantled … I am referring to story, something we encounter in childhood and live with all our lives.”

What are the elements of this story in The Changeover?  In part, she draws on the past as a starting point for what happens.  Past events have to be addressed, in order to confront  Braque and dealt with him.  This is part of a broader theme.  For all of us, the older we get, so the more we have to do to make sense of and integrate the past into our sense of who we are.  This desire to make sense of things is particularly important in relation to parents and grandparents.   There are many stories where it’s a powerful grandparent, one who’s a witch in the case of The Changeover, who becomes central to working out the source or reason for the challenge that needs to be addressed, and what needs to be done to achieve resolution.

A second important theme is that everyday life and other worlds are close.  Laura is a schoolgirl, someone with whom it is easy to identify.  At the same time, she sees and senses there is much more taking place than would seem to be case.  People like Laura and Sorenson Carlisle are both like us and unlike us, individuals who dissolve the dividing line between everyday life and fantasy.  Not only does this make for a powerful story, but it is a device that speaks to something in which we want to believe, that there is more to our world than the daily life we inhabit.  To fantasise isn’t just to imagine, but it is a means by which we are put in touch with what lies just beyond our merely prosaic, everyday perceptions.

This is a powerful idea for children, and Margaret Mahy both understands this, and makes it seem real.  Laura’s daily life is just like ours, but it takes only one small step for her to be in touch with that other place.  Isn’t this what fantasy does?  We read about other worlds, other possibilities, magical powers, and all the rest because we want to believe there is more to life than daily routine.  Sadly, (or perhaps I should say I think sadly), as we get older the idea that there are other worlds inhabited by witches, wizards, evil monsters and amazing powers is gradually lost as we spend our time studying practical stuff in school, and then go on to apply it in our working lives.  Those adults who still enjoy books like The Changeover and The Haunting often don’t do so just because they are ‘good reads’ but because they echo our persistent if residual belief there is more to life than the stuff most adult life embraces.

There is, of course, another important theme in The Changeover.  Laura is a young teenager, about to go through the changes of adolescence.  Central to the book is that section where Laura experiences the changeover as a journey through a dark forest.  Helped by the Carlisle witches, she emerges with the power of nature and imagination awakened in her.  She is no longer a young girl, but now a young woman.

This isn’t just about physiological changes, important though these are.  For Mahy, and the reader, this is about a young person taking control of themselves and their destiny.  Laura, who has been somewhat anxious about many things in the first part of the story, finds herself thrust into a series of unexpected challenges.  How is she going to deal with her mother’s new friend, Chris – or is he her mother’s new boyfriend?  How is she to deal with Sorry Carlisle, who seems to like her, but how far should that attraction go?  Finally, how is she going to deal with the never-ending tasks of home and school, at a time when her life is changing?

Margaret Mahy does a wonderful job of putting the reader in the picture.  This isn’t the magical world, which is in hidden away in another realm, not even one you can only access through the back of a wardrobe or by stepping through a mirror. Nor is it one of those complex fantasies peopled by a variety of creatures and magical being, dominated by strange events and power plays in another mysterious world.  This is about the magic around us in our everyday lives.  One moment we are reading about fish and chips, or a lost sock, or worrying about gossiping girls, and then, briefly and almost seamlessly, we are caught up a moment when the mundane and the magical overlap and collide.

In this kind of world, the magic that is all around you is usually out of sight.  However, a witch can give you a potion – to attract a boy, perhaps – or set you on a path, walking down a familiar track and suddenly ending up in another place.  For a young reader (and although Mahy clearly had girls in mind, it is a book for boys, too), this is exciting.  Magic is just around the corner.  However, magic is dangerous, and any contact with magic is a potentially perilous adventure.  Her books are nicely pitched as a step up from Blyton’s Secret Seven, but not at the complex level of Pullman’s Dark Materials.  Thrilling, a stepping-stone between a pre-teenager and worldly-wise late adolescent.

I don’t think The Changeover is great literature.  However, like A Bridge to Terabithia, on which I commented a couple of weeks ago, it speaks to young people, especially those who might still feel hopeful, different, or even haunted.  All too soon, the logic of government mandated school examinations, followed by work and adulthood, will take over.  Writers like Margaret Mahy understand the nature of children’s and young people’s lived-through experiences.  We need to let young people experience who they are, and how they change. To quote from close to the end of  The Changeover:  “Outside in the city, traffic lights changed colour, casting quick spells of prohibition and release.  Cars hesitated, then set off again, roaring with urgency through the maze of the Gardenvale subdivision, a labyrinth in which one could, after all, find a firebird’s feather, or a glass slipper or the footprints of a minotaur quite as readily as in fairy tales, or the infinitely dividing path of Looking-Glass land.”

It’s a clever analogy: even traffic lights can be seen as a source of ‘magic’ if we allow them to do so.  As one commentator has suggested, books like The Changeover offer children and young people a gift and a hope: the necessity to be constantly astonished at the wonder of the world and who we are in it; to be in a constant state of awe.  Margaret Mahy recognised the importance of magic.  Here are her final comments in A Dissolving Ghost:  “These days it seems to me that when I look at the world I see many people, including politicians, television readers, real estate agents and free-market financiers, librarians too at times, dressing as sharks, eating leaves and drinking out of puddles, casually taking over the powerful and dangerous images that the imagination presents, eager to exploit the fictional forms that haunt us all … I believe that inner space is haunted by other singularities, by stories, lines of power along which our lives align themselves like iron filings around a magnet defining the magnetic field by the patterns they form around it, and that we yearn for the structure that stories tell us, that we inhabit their patterns and, often but not always, know instinctively how to use them well.”   Fiction is magic, a magic that isn’t merely entertainment, but which offers us with exciting, different and even sometimes dangerous experiences, a magic essential to our growth.  The Changeover was truly magical.