From March 9 to 23, storytellers from all over the world will flock to Beijing for The Bookworm International Literary Festival 2012. These authors, illustrators, and performance artists will open young minds with special workshops, author talks, and interactive presentations. As they prepare for the literary festival, beijingkids spoke to five literary guests about their life, work, and aspirations.
American Peter Brown writes and illustrates children’s books. His works have been adapted into plays and animated short films, and translated into a dozen languages. The Curious Garden (2010) was a New York Times bestseller and won the E.B. White Award and the Children’s Choice Award. His other books include You Will Be My Friend! and Children Make Terrible Pets.
Why children’s books?
I’ve been writing and illustrating stories since I was 6. When you factor in my love of imagination, whimsy, and silliness, you quickly realize that I was born to make children’s books.
Tell us about the first book you made as a child, The Adventure of Me and My
When I was a kid, I was afraid of two things: getting lost, and being in the woods at night. One night, my dog ran away. I don’t know what actually happened, but [this]inspired me to make a story about my dog and I getting lost and having to spend a night in the woods together.
Why do most of your stories feature animal characters?
I grew up in a house at the edge of a forest. In that forest was a small valley. And at the
bottom of that valley was a stream where I spent much of my childhood. I saw fish, frogs, insects, turtles, squirrels, wild turkeys, raccoons, deer, and many, many birds. Nature has always been important to me, and that shows in the stories I create today.
What makes the perfect children’s book?
The perfect children’s book tells a story that readers of all ages can relate to and understand, but [also challenges them]in some way. The theme of the story should be universally appreciated, but it can’t be boring or predictable. Both its words and pictures should be beautiful and expressive. It’s difficult to define the perfect children’s book, but we know it when we see it.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring young artists?
There’s this thing called the “10,000-hour rule.” The idea is that when someone spends 10,000 hours doing something, they become a master at it. An aspiring artist should spend as much time as possible on their discipline, and with time they will become a master. The real question is, do you have the patience to become masterful?
JC Burke’s first novel, White Lies, was a Children’s Book Council of Australia notable book for 2003. Later novels include The Story of Tom Brennan, Ocean Pearl, and, most recently, Pig Boy. Burke lives on Sydney’s Northern Beaches with her husband and two teenage sons.
Your first novel, White Lies, tells the story of a teenager whose grandfather is diagnosed with leukemia. How did your personal experiences inform its writing?
Leukemia and bone marrow transplantation are what I specialized in when I was a nurse. However, [on a deeper level]I was telling the story of what it was like to be an older teenager who is still treated as though [she]couldn’t manage the reality of a serious situation – which can often be more damaging.
Tell us a bit about your working process.
The idea for a story is usually pretty random. Something grabs my attention and a game of “hypothetical” seems to play in my head until I realize a story is forming. Then, I start planning. I buy a workbook and jot down ideas; characterizations, events, and the story start to emerge in this stage. My workbook becomes a record of what I’m telling in the story and all the events that need to be tied together. I edit quite heavily as I go along and when it’s all finished, I email it to my editor.
Tell us about your latest book, Pig Boy.
Pig Boy is a first person narrative told by Damon Styles, a young man who doesn’t sit comfortably in his skin. In Year 12, he is expelled from school – that’s what causes his life to take a sudden turn. He takes a job with Miro, a pig shooter and a Bosnian-Serb who lives on the fringes of the community. The reader, like the townspeople, makes assumptions about Damon. Then, about two-thirds through the book, the reader is suddenly given information that the town doesn’t know and the reading experience changes.
What attracts you to themes of alienation, conflict, mystery, and inner turmoil?
I write about what interests me and ultimately I think the human potential for darkness and light is what inspires my thoughts – the decision-making that is open to us all.
Emily Gravett spent eight years living on the road before moving back to Brighton to learn illustration. Her children’s books have won several prizes; Again! is her latest work. She lives in the UK with her daughter, partner, and two pet rats.
What made you stop living on the road to study illustration?
For the first year of my daughter’s life, we carried on living in a bus but started to worry about bringing her up on the road. Eventually, we moved into a little cottage in rural Wales. We found it very hard, because we had lost our traveling community and became very isolated. Our daughter cried a lot and could only be soothed by reading picture books. I spent the next two years reading picture books for hours each day. I formulated [a plan]to become an illustrator and produce the books I’d fallen in love with.
How did you start making children’s books?
I was lucky. In my final year, I made two books for college projects: Wolves! and Orange Pear Apple Bear. I submitted both of these to a competition run by [publisher]Macmillan. I was amazed to win with Wolves!; Macmillan rang and offered to publish it, along with Orange Pear Apple Bear. I’ve been with them ever since.
What were your favorite books as a child?
My two favorite books were John Vernon Lord’s The Giant Jam Sandwich and
Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea. The Giant Jam Sandwich has a brilliant
rhyming text, and beautiful intricate illustrations. The Tiger Who Came to Tea has the power to transport me back in time to the 1970s. At one point, the tiger drinks “all the water in the tap.” As a child, I used to spend far more time wondering if that was possible than questioning [the idea of]a 6-foot tiger sitting down to tea.
What makes animals so well-suited to children’s books?
It’s easier to show emotion with a drawing of an animal than a drawing of a child; a happy rabbit perks his ears up, while a sad one drops them down. Animals cross class, race and gender boundaries. A girl who might not be interested in a book about a juggling boy may identify with a juggling guinea pig.
What kind of advice do you have for aspiring young artists and writers?
My advice would be to enjoy yourself; the best books are the ones the authors enjoyed making.
Australian Margo Lanagan writes short stories and young adult fiction. Black Juice, a collection of short stories, won two World Fantasy Awards and a 2006 Printz Honor Award. Lanagan’s most recent work, Sea Hearts, is a novel about love, transformation, and selkies.
Why did the myth of selkies (creatures who shed their seal skins to become women) appeal to you?
I like any kind of animal transformation story; my last novel involved a lot of people changing into bears and back again. When I put characters through this process, besides enjoying making my readers believe that this impossible thing is happening, I’m probably saying something about the wilder aspects of our personalities.
Your works have often been described as speculative fiction. What’s the distinction with science fiction?
If you take away the science [in science fiction], you don’t have a story. Science fiction is all about imagining the future and how technology might make it different from today. Speculative fiction is a broader category; it encompasses science fiction, but also includes fantasy and horror stories. What I generally write is fantasy, but I’ve strayed over the borders into both science fiction and horror.
Your “young adult” novels often stray on the side of “adult,” including scenes of rape, sex, and abuse. Have you encountered opposition to your works?
It’s not hard to go onto the Internet and find some very strong reactions of revulsion and discomfort alongside those of readers who like my stories. Mostly, the readers who dislike encountering the stronger material tend to do the sensible thing; they forge on as long as they can bear it, then put the book aside. And of course, some readers want the intensity of being challenged by a book; they read to stretch themselves and think or feel differently.
You’ve come a long way since the teenage romances penned under a pseudonym in the early 1990s. How have you changed as a writer?
I’ve stopped thinking of writing primarily as a “career option.” The best stories are the ones that emerge from a very deep part of myself. Early on, I tended to pick up a story and try to force it in a particular direction. These days, writing has become a matter of getting out of the way of the story and feeling around for what it wants to tell me.
What advice do you have for aspiring young writers?
Read as much and as widely as you can. Don’t just focus on “being a writer.” Have another life that feeds into your writing and connects you to the real world. Try lots of different ways to tell the stories or communicate [your]impressions. You’ll find the forms that suit you.
Icelandic author Yrsa Sigurdardottir was an award-winning children’s author before turning her hand to adult crime thrillers. The first of these, featuring lawyer and single mother Thora Gudmundsdottir, was published in English as Last Rituals. Her most recent novel to be translated into English is The Day is Dark. She lives with her husband and two children in Reykjavik, where she also works as a civil engineer.
The Day is Dark is the fourth novel to feature Thora Gudmundsdottir. What are some of the challenges of sustaining a character over several novels?
This is precisely the biggest challenge of writing a series. You want your character to be credible, yet this person must lead an incredibly interesting life that throws him or her curveballs. It is quite complex to come up with scenarios year after year.
Why the emphasis on women protagonists?
When I wrote for children, it was pointed out to me that I could sell twice as much [if I featured a boy]– people do not buy books about girls for boys, but it is OK to buy a book about a boy for a girl. This made me all the more intent on keeping my protagonists female; girls deserve to read about girls just as much as boys deserve to read about boys. It has since proven a wise decision.
How much does Iceland influence your writing?
My Icelandic heritage is a big influence on my world views and inner nature, and impacts my writing whether I like it or not. In addition, my novels describe Icelandic characters living in an Icelandic society with all that this entails. The exact location of my novels within my country is of great importance to me and I put a lot of effort into painting [a]picture of it in realistic colors. The more of a mess the state of my nation [is in], the gloomier I feel and write.
Tell us a bit about your working process.
My novels take me a year and one week to write. I start off by deciding the venue and a semi-plot, who is to be killed and how I can hide the murderer from the reader. I make as many visits as I can to the location involved and seek inspiration from [its]surroundings and social backdrop. There is then a lot of typing, followed by two or three run-throughs in which I tweak the storyline, the characters and make the plot watertight. Then I send in the manuscript, close my eyes, and pray to God that I did not just ruin my reputation with a horrible book.
To meet these authors at The Bookworm International Literary Festival 2012, see Events.