The Five Sisters by Margaret MahyThe Five Sisters by Margaret Mahy children's fantasy book reviewsThe Five Sisters by Margaret Mahy

You always know you’re in for a magical, whimsical treat when reading something by Margaret Mahy, one of New Zealand’s most best-loved children’s authors. The Five Sisters (1997) is no exception, recounting the marvellous adventures of five paper dolls with linked hands.

On a hot summer day Sally entreats her Nana for a story, but instead watches as she folds a piece of paper and draws a doll with a crooked smile and strong running shoes called Alpha. But before the rest of the sisters can be coloured in, a kingfisher swoops down and snatches them up while Sally and her Nana are fetching lemonade.

The adventures that follow involve a near run-in with a lawnmower, an evil magician in the guise of a china pig, a playful breeze, a career as a bookmark, and several attempts to reach an island that’s filled with storybook characters. As they fall into the hands of other people, the sisters each get a face and name of their own, until they’re finally a complete set of unique paper dolls.

The Five Sisters is a poignant, thought-provoking book, which actually reminded me of a Hayao Miyazaki film: one of the gentler ones like Ponyo or Kiki’s Delivery Service. The dolls experience life in all its beauty and danger, and many of Mahy’s favourite themes pop up, specifically the importance of stories and the interconnectedness of the world.

Illustrations are provided by Patricia MacCarthy, who goes for realism in her sketches of nature and human beings, while retaining the amateurish artwork of the dolls themselves.

As with all the best fairy tales, The Five Sisters eventually comes full-circle, making it a perfect read for children aged seven to ten. It may even inspire them to make some paper dolls of their own.

Published in 1997. Facing the harsh elements aboard their small ship, five courageous sisters become even more determined to find the mysterious island on the edge of the sea–no matter how difficult the journey.


  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.