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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

BooksSeptember 5, 2023

Hairy Maclary’s publisher reflects on a lifetime of making children’s books

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

Ann Mallinson co-founded Mallinson Rendel in 1980 and became world renowned for publishing Lynley Dodd’s beloved Hairy Maclary books, among many others. Here she reflects on her start in the industry and what she thinks of children’s publishing in Aotearoa today.

Children’s publishing in New Zealand has come a very long way since I first became involved with it. That was in the 1970s. I worked in a smallish company called Hicks Smith & Sons, whose function was to sell books imported from Britain. I was employed to start an educational list. It was a very male oriented company, where the men all had lunch together, and went to the nearby pub for drinks on Friday evening. It was pretty deflating to be left out of all conversations that would have been of interest to me.

One day someone from the Labour Department rang and asked me to go into their office for an interview. I had no idea what it was about – and was surprised when I was asked questions about my working relationships in the office. My problems all came pouring out, until I suddenly stopped and said, “I am sorry, this must sound ridiculous.” The interviewer replied, “Not at all. We have heard a large number of stories like this.” 

I suppose I should have left Hicks Smith and found other work, but the thing about publishing is that you become devoted to your authors and determined to do your very best for them. I simply could not bring myself to leave my team of Social Studies authors.

Hicks Smith & Sons had a large warehouse in Wakefield Street in Wellington, and among the many major companies they represented was the children’s publisher Methuen. Methuen was a leading publisher of children’s books in the UK, with authors like A. A. Milne, Kenneth Grahame and Hergé of the Tintin fame in their stable.

Methuen publications from the 1960s and 70s.

It was not surprising therefore that the majority of New Zealand authors who wanted to write a children’s book would submit their manuscript to Hicks Smith, Methuen’s New Zealand agent. The manuscript would be read by someone in the office, and if it was considered good enough, it would be forwarded to Methuen in London. In the 1970s, the reading of such manuscripts was the responsibility of editor Ros Henry and me.

We spent many merry Friday afternoons ploughing through the large number of children’s picture book manuscripts and junior novels submitted by hopeful authors. We found an excellent junior fiction manuscript, submitted by Ruth Dallas, and sent it off to Methuen in London with our recommendation. Methuen did indeed publish it, but it came back to New Zealand under the Methuen imprint, the sales people didn’t realise that the book was by a New Zealand author and so only ordered 500 copies, and the result was disappointment all round.

There were just three really successful New Zealand authors of children’s books in the 1970s – Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Lynley Dodd. They were published at that time in the UK, or, in Mahy’s case in the US.

Mallinson Rendel’s good fortune in finding a niche in the New Zealand children’s market occurred because of this situation. My husband David Rendel and I started Mallinson Rendel Publishers on 1 January 1980. We thought we would be general publishers, but fate took us in another direction.

In 1980 Lynley Dodd submitted a manuscript – Wake Up, Bear – to Hamish Hamilton in London. They turned it down. London publishers were experiencing a downturn in publishing at that time, and I have always thought that it would have been easier to reject an author who lives on the other side of the world than to reject an author who lives on your doorstep. 

Dodd, who had already won the Choysa Bursary for a Children’s Writer in 1978, approached other publishers with Wake Up, Bear, and was rejected. She was therefore without a publisher when I heard of her situation. I was sitting next to Elizabeth Alley at a Literary Fund meeting when, during the coffee break, Elizabeth turned to me and said “Isn’t it strange that Lynley Dodd can’t find a publisher?”

Well, it was indeed strange. She had published, with her cousin Eve Sutton, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes in 1973, a picture book that received great acclaim, and she had followed it with her own picture books, The Nickle Nackle Tree (1976) and Titimus Trim (1979).

By this time she was both writing the text and doing the illustrations, and winning the Choysa Bursary for Children’s Writers allowed her the chance to work full-time for a period of up to one year on an approved project “which will reach book form”.  This award gave recipients time, money and a boost to their confidence. During that year Lynley wrote The Apple Tree and The Smallest Turtle – but she had no publisher. We, meanwhile, were looking for authors.

We jumped at the opportunity to publish Lynley’s two manuscripts, and were well rewarded. In fact, these two manuscripts persuaded us that we should specialise in publishing children’s books. And our success with those two books gave Lynley the confidence to carry on writing and illustrating picture books.

And carry on writing was certainly what she did. Between 1982 and 2019 (when Mallinson Rendel Publishers was sold), we published one picture book a year written and illustrated by Lynley. We reprinted her first books, My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes and The Nickle Nackle Tree many times, both of which her UK publisher had allowed to go out of print. They are still in print today.

Lynley was a joy to work with. She is a perfectionist, who wears her huge talent lightly. She was our leading Mallinson Rendel author for 28 years.

I think it can be said that the 1980s were golden years for children’s publishing in New Zealand. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy was published in 1983 and took off immediately. Margaret Mahy, Joy Cowley and Lynley Dodd were joined by Tessa Duder, Maurice Gee, Robyn Kahukiwa, Patricia Grace, Gavin Bishop, Jack Lasenby, William Taylor and many others. David Hill joined the Mallinson Rendel ranks in 1992 with his brilliant junior novel See Ya, Simon. He has made a huge contribution to children’s literature. Publishing for children in New Zealand flourished – and was of a very high standard.

And so it is today, when 120 books have been submitted for the New Zealand Children’s Book Awards in 2023. Do I think there are too many books published for our small market? Yes, I do. Do I think that children’s publishing is in a healthy state? Yes, I do. As Julia Marshall of Gecko Press has said to me, “Yes, there are many children’s books published for our small market, but there is a new energy coming from new smaller publishers that is really exciting.”

In July this year, Ann Mallinson received The Publisher’s Association of New Zealand Lifetime Achievement Award “in recognition of her significant contribution to publishing in Aotearoa New Zealand.”

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