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Dame Lynley Dodd brings Hairy Maclary to life

Beloved author Dame Lynley Dodd reveals her latest project and how Hairy Maclary came to life.
Beloved author Dame Lynley Dodd reveals her latest project and how Hairy Maclary and her children's books came to life.

It’s impossible not to swap animal stories in the company of Dame Lynley Dodd. From domestic cats who like to steal underwear, to sneaky seals escaping the sea for a nearby home, the Hairy Maclary author relishes recounting the capers of these clever creatures. Today, her own four-legged friend is the centre of attention as the Weekly chats with Lynley (73) in her Tauranga home. No, not a certain dog for which she is best known, but a beautiful Burmese cat named Suu Kyi – after Aung San Suu Kyi, the Myanmar politician.

“Really puss? Are you going to be interviewed?” she coos, as the yellow-eyed beauty writhes in her lap.

Lynley’s singalong rhymes and light-hearted tales exploring the cheeky behaviours of animals have captivated children and adults alike for more than 40 years. While iPads and Kindles have eclipsed books as the go-to tool for the next generation, Lynley’s Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy and her follow ups Slinky Malinki, Scarface Claw and more, remain a staple in most Kiwi kids’ homes – something, Lynley admits, is “surprising”.

“My books have been around long enough now to have been passed down from one generation to the next. It does seem that digital delights and traditional books can exist side by side – so far anyway. Judging by the hundreds of books I sign for people, the latter are still very much alive!”

So what does she attribute to their success? “There is plenty of fun and humour,” Lynley says. “And there is an awful lot of mischief going on. Children love that.”

Lynley is best known for having created beloved children’s characters Hairy Maclary and Slinky Malinki. Her Hairy Maclary toy now sports graduation regalia, similar to that worn when Lynley received an honorary doctorate from The University of Waikato.

But it wasn’t always animals that captured the author and illustrator’s eye. In fact, there was a time when human subjects were her fascination. “When I was a kid, I wanted to draw people all the time,” Rotorua-born Lynley recalls, “especially brides, princesses in crinolines and ballet dancers. I was preoccupied with fashion.”

With a forester father, Lynley grew up “miles from anywhere” on the road between Napier and Taupo. Her passion for art and sketching was always encouraged, and she went to board with family friends so she could attend Tauranga College.

“I wanted to do fashion illustrating in the days before photography took over,” she tells. “It was a pipe dream.”

In the end, Lynley applied for a teaching studentship, leaving her regional setting behind for Auckland University’s Elam School of Art.

“I was nervous – I wondered if I was going to be good enough to do it, because I was, as my mother liked to call it, defeatist. But I quite enjoyed it.”

After graduating, Lynley taught art at Queen Margaret College in Wellington. Teaching meant any creative energy she had went into her students, though, and it was only when she became a stay-at-home mum to her two children, son Matthew (47) and daughter Elizabeth (45), that she looked at getting back into drawing.

Lynley began freelance illustrating in the early 1970s. One of her jobs was for the Correspondence School, drawing fortnightly sets for the children which, naturally, involved animals. However, becoming a children’s book author took a bit more courage. She first collaborated with her late husband Tony’s cousin, Eve Sutton, to create her debut book My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes in 1973. Once Lynley got a taste for the experience, as she puts it, “I thought I’d like the whole thing to myself!”

By the late 1970s, she had received the first Choysa Bursary for Children’s Writers, with her children affectionately calling her the “$5000 mum”.

Lynley thinks there is still a place for paperbacks. “Judging by the hundreds I sign, traditional books are still very much alive!”

Lynley began working on more ideas and, feeling they needed a publisher, she was happily approached by Ann Mallinson of Mallinson Rendel. Ann had heard of Lynley’s search and suggested she send her ideas through. However, Hairy wasn’t included – in fact, Lynley’s best-selling work was a happy accident.

“I was just getting started on illustrating a new book called Wake up Bear when Ann rang me and said, ‘There is another book coming out called Wake up Bear, it’s Christmas.’ So, on panic stations, she said, ‘Have you got anything else?’ I thought, ‘Oh help!’ I went to my ideas book and out fell a piece of paper.”

On it was a little sketch Lynley had done of a shaggy haired dog and the words, “One morning at nine on his way to the park went Hairy MacLary from Donaldson’s Dairy.”

“It was a sign!” she says. “I thought, ‘Right, I have to do something about this.”

The rest, as they say, is history. Thirty books, numerous awards – including being made a Distinguished Companion of the New Zealand Order of Merit – and a global readership that includes the royal family, followed.

And this month marks another milestone, as a five-year project to see her characters brought to life on Tauranga’s waterfront comes to fruition. Hairy and friends, reincarnated as bronze sculptures, are being installed there, and Lynley is excited to see how the passing animals will react.

“Apparently dogs go past with their owners and do a double take, or do what dogs all do – sniff! They must be terribly disappointed after that!” she says with a laugh.

While her life is occupied by the project, as well as writing letters to fans around the world, Lynley is hopeful that, when her schedule is clear, another book may be on the cards. “I used to do a book a year at one stage, but I just need time away from distractions!” she tells with a smile. “I’m hoping I’ll write again. I don’t want to feel that I have written my last book.”

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