The British Columbia author’s book from Kids Can Press releases in September
Thank you for agreeing to speak with me.
Q. Congratulations on the upcoming release of Birthdays Around the World from Kids Can Press. I noticed on your website that there are three books in this series including Families Around the World and School Days Around the World. When you wrote the first one, School Days Around the World, did you intend to write more? Why or why not? Why did you? Do you have plans to write more in this series? Why or why not? What has been the response from readers, both young and old?
A. Yes, the three books each feature different countries and cultures. My intent with Families Around The World was the show children that their lives might not be so different from those in far away countries. As I travel to schools (I do a lot of international school presentations) I found that children everywhere like to play soccer or video games, that parents everywhere want their children to be safe and have an education….
But I also wanted to highlight and celebrate differences that make cultures unique. I’m happy that we can use real children in real places. They may not seem real because of the art, which is wonderful, but each story is based in a real child’s life. And yes, I hoped I could write about more countries, using a different focus for each book. From what I hear from children and parents, they love reading and comparing, and also learning some words in different languages. I have been in schools where a child will be beaming because “their” country is mentioned and made special.
Q. How much research did you do for Birthdays Around the World?
A. The research for these books is unbelievable. Non-fiction is so much more difficult than fiction! Every single word needs to be true, I can’t make any of it up! So I interview children, parents, teachers who have intimate knowledge of each culture. Then I need to verify with different sources to make sure the food, the clothing, the customs, everything is correct. Especially the foreign words are difficult because we don’t want to spell a word or its pronunciation wrong! So even if this text seems very simple, it has taken many months of research to get to the end result. I also need to know much more than what actually ends up in the book.
Q. How did you decide which countries to feature? Did you interview more families then made it into the book? If yes, what other countries did you choose and why didn’t they make the book?
A. With Birthdays, my decision on countries was based first on interesting customs and, secondly, on whether or not the country had been used in one of the previous books. For instance, I knew that they have piñatas in Mexico, but Mexico was used in a previous book. When I was introduced to a lady from Peru, I discovered that their piñatas were slightly different. They don’t hit it with a stick, but pull a cord. So I also had to pass on that information for the illustrator so that it would be shown correctly.
In each book we use Canada and the U.S.A. And even though a birthday party in Nunavut is very similar to those across Canada, I was pleased to be able to include information on the importance of naming a baby in Nunavut and the child’s relationship with ancestors.
If I have more countries than I can use in the book, I need to decide which one has the most interesting information that is different from the rest. For Birthdays I did not have extra countries (I did for School Days Around The World) but I did specifically search for a country where Name Days are celebrated (Latvia) and one where birthdays are not celebrated (Lesoto, where they celebrate the King’s birthday).
Q. I know you interviewed both adults and children from various places to discover their birthday traditions, but how did you find them? How many families did you interview per country? (If it was only one, how do you know if this is a typical representative of the place?)
I have a lot of friends all over the world. If I know someone who lives in a specific country, I ask them if I can interview them. They don’t usually realize that I will be asking them questions for the next two years! 🙂
If I don’t know anyone, for instance in Lesoto, I ask my teacher or Facebook friends for help. A teacher I met in Africa had a friend in Lesoto, introduced me via email and I have been emailing with Nthabeleng ever since. I used her name in the book because she grew up there, still lives there and reflected on the information as a child. She also helped to make sure the art was all correct.
I usually one focus on one family, but ask many others for feedback or verification. For instance, I interviewed a friend who is Inuit and lived most of his life in Nunavut, but then consulted a language expert on spelling and pronunciation of words.
I initially got information from a Canadian teacher who lived in Cambodia, but she connected me with a Cambodian family who were able to give me more details and verify all the little tiny things I needed to know.
Q. How did you interview them? Over the phone, Skype, email, etc?
A. Most of my contact with them has been via email. But for pronunciations I spend a lot of time on Skype and Google. We also share photos on which the art is sometimes based. I also try to use many countries that I have visited myself so that I know the sights and sounds and smells. And I often meet the families in person, either before or after the book comes out.
Q. You have a number of other books on your website for children. Why do you like writing for kids? What is the hardest part about writing for this age group? Easiest?
A. I am a writer of children’s books. I have 35 books out, all for children in addition to a few for educators.
Children are the best audience to write for because they are curious, they want to find out and have fun. It is also very satisfying that you can influence a child’s thinking. I want them to know that the whole world is theirs to explore. Dr. Seuss once said that writing picture books and poetry are the hardest genres because you write “with shorth rather than length’! I love that because the ‘shorth’ is the hard part – you cannot use many words to explain so each word is important and needs to be just right.
Q. I know you write fiction, non-fiction and poetry as well as writing for educators. What is your favourite media? Why? What do you like about each type?
A. I love them all. I love poetry and very much enjoy helping teachers bring poetry to children. Kids love to play with language and poetry is a great way for them to express themselves. I also like fiction because it allows you to make up stories. I have a fictional novel coming out that is based on my own kids’ time in elementary school. And of course I love non-fiction because it allows me to learn and explore and then share my findings with kids.
Q. How do you come up with your ideas? Do you have a dream project? What are you working on right now? Do you ever get writer’s block? How do you push it aside?
A. Ideas are always popping up in unexpected places. No shortage of ideas, no writers’ block here! It is finding time that is a problem… 🙂
I have a non-fiction book coming out with Kids Can Press called The Elephant Keeper. It is about an elephant orphanage I visited in Zambia and shows children the importance of preservation and protecting species. It also shows how baby elephants are cared for and eventually released into the wild.
Q. You have lived in two provinces and two states. Where was home originally? When and why did you settle on Salt Spring Island, B.C., and how did you find it? What do you enjoy about living here?
A. I have moved 27 times in my life. I lived in the Yukon, in Alberta and in B.C. My husband’s work usually prompted a move but now we’re never leaving Salt Spring Island. Our lavender farm and book-lovers’ B & B (Between The Covers’ Booklovers’ B & B) are our little bit of paradise. Our children and grandchildren are also here.
Q. I read about your book-themed Bed and Breakfast, Between the Covers. When did you start that? What made you decide you wanted to open a bed and breakfast? What do you like about it?
A. The house we bought here allowed us to open the B&B we had always wanted. The rooms are filled with books that guests can take or trade. All the furniture and decorations are book based, lots of art from books on the walls. We get book lovers from all over the world to stay here, so we enjoy meeting them.
Birthdays Around the World releases in September.