Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Author Q&A: Chitra Soundar

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Chitra Soundar is the author of over 30 books worldwide. Many of her books her inspired by Indian myths and legends.

Her latest book, You’re Safe With Me, tells the story of a group of animals who are afraid of a thunderstorm. A wise elephant shares her knowledge of the weather and reassures the little animals that they are safe under her watch. 

I was able to ask Chitra some questions about the story, and I am delighted to share her answers.bird

What was the starting point for your story?

The story came to me as an image – a mother elephant rocking little animals in her trunk. And I wanted to find out what her story was.

 

What were the main influences?

This story is drenched (the pun is fully intended) in my experiences of the thunderstorm. The crash of thunder, flashes of lightning and the relentless downpour is etched in my deep subconscious. And of course the image of a gentle elephant has stayed with me from my childhood.

 

How do you see Mama Elephant’s role?

This story began with my experience as a storyteller. I wanted the main character Mama Elephant to be a storyteller who would explain scary things in a poetic way.

She plays the role of my grandmother in my life – reassuring, poetic and imaginative.

 

Why did you choose to include a refrain?

In the first version of the story, I didn’t have a refrain. And the title was different too.

Then as the story found its rhythm, and as I found the voice of Mama Elephant, I knew she had to reassure them that she’d be there no matter what. She not only explains the fearful elements and makes them less scary, but she acknowledges their fears and makes them feel safe.

 

Your story offers children scientific explanations in a very poetic way. What role do you think art has in helping children learn about the natural world?

Albert Einstein said, “Logic will get you from A to B. Imagination will take you everywhere.”

Children identify with animals and nature – whether it’s Goodnight Moon or baby owls. They want to know how animals do bedtime, eat their food and go to school.

Children put themselves in the character’s place – like the little animals in You’re Safe With Me and they mirror the fears of the characters and they empathize with the characters.

Whether it was thousands of years ago around the fire, to teach children the dangers of predators or today we tell stories about thunderstorms, the purpose of stories is to give us a frame of reference to relate to this world. Through stories we learn about our natural world and our place in it. We learn to respect and live in harmony with the world around us.

 

I love the personification of the natural world. Why did you use personification?

I don’t think it was a conscious decision. I grew up thinking of nature as living beings. Like the Greeks we have gods associated with each element and we respect them, fear them and acknowledge their place in the natural world.

For this story, the underlying theme was empathy and alternate perspectives. I wanted the little animals to understand the working of the elements and not fear them.

 

Many thanks to Chitra Soundar for your time. You’re Safe With Me is available now from Lantana Publishing.

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Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A: Author Meaghan McIssac

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A door to the future has been opened 

Movers have the ability to pull people from the future into the present day. Time travel is not only possible, it terrifies the authorities. Regular readers might remember that I reviewed Movers a couple of weeks ago. I was struck by the relevance of certain themes to the present day, and enjoyed the complex world McIssac has created.

Time travel, morals and strong female characters. There was so much I wanted to ask McIssac, and I am thrilled to be able to share her answers with you. 

Welcome Meaghan McIsssac, and many thanks for your time.  bird

Movers is set in world where people from the future at trying to immigrate to the past. It also features an organisation who are vehemently opposed to this movement. To what extent was this inspired by current events? Why did you decide to explore this through Sci-Fi?

I hadn’t really been considering any specific current event when I set out to write Movers over five years ago now. The idea actually came from something I’d read from Stephen Hawking who said that one of the most compelling reasons for Time Travel not existing is that,  if it did, we would be inundated with immigrants from the future. What a wild thought. What would that world look like? How would people now react to people from tomorrow? How would the government handle it? And the world took shape from there. I’ve definitely been struck by how applicable Movers has become to events unfolding in the news every night since then. So while I didn’t necessarily set out to comment on any current events, I think it’s great that people are able to engage with Movers, and Sci-fi as a whole, to help navigate  and make sense of important discussions surrounding those events . Sci-fi may take us to new worlds, but it also reflects the one around us. And I think that’s what makes it so captivating.

 

Pat’s mother is a movement advocate. Other parents in the story are against movement. How can fiction help young readers to shape their own political views?

I’m definitely not looking to shape anyone’s “political views” but I do think fiction can have an impact on a young reader’s moral compass and view of the world. Through Sci-fi, and all fiction, really, young readers are confronted with big questions and extreme dilemmas, but let’s face it, life is filled with these things too, and young people are forced to confront big questions by virtue of the world we live in today. Heck, I’m thirty and still figuring out my place! My hope is that fiction and story can provide an exciting and safe space to engage those questions, to sort out their feelings and reflect on thoughts and ideas that they hadn’t considered.

 

Were there any challenges to writing time-travel?

Oh gosh, yes. Paradoxes, paradoxes, paradoxes. Time travel is one big tangled hairball of paradoxes. Think of Terminator — ‘Wait, if John Conner’s dad goes back in time to save his mom so that John Connor can be born, but his dad can only be his dad if John Connor is born in the first place to send him back in time, what comes first? What?… No wait…What?” This is ALL YOU THINK ABOUT in a time travel story. Not John Connor, no, but problems like these. If this plus this equals that, but this can only exist if that exists too…Oh goodness. The brain melts. So trying to patch up these tricky problems is a BIG challenge and requires a lot of organization. I am not the best at organization. I spent a lot of time doodling diagrams and moving skittles across my desk to try and get the answers I needed. Also lots of problem-solving sessions with friends and family and editors helped immensely. Time travel is a tricky beast, but it’s also a lot of fun.

 

How did you plan a novel set in the future?

Again, a lot of doodles. To be honest, I went into the time travel part of it a little naive. It wasn’t until I was revising that I realized how much planning would have helped avoid the paradox problems. So for book 2, which takes place both in the past and the future, I had multiple diagrams in my notebook of timelines with plot points marked on each one. I can’t recommend timelines enough. They change as the story develops, asking you to redraw them again and again, but they are so worth it for keeping the story organized.

 

Your female characters include intelligent Gabby and strong Rani. How did you make them into fully-rounded characters?  

I don’t do anything special for my female characters vs. my male characters. I just try to write convincing people — their fears, desires, their secrets and they just grow as the story unfolds. Writing is such a crazy process, because you make up these people and you think they are exactly who you want them to be, but it doesn’t take long for characters to take on a life of their own. Before you know it, they are saying and doing things you never planned for them to do. It’s kind of spooky, but exciting. Gabby and Rani came together the same way Pat did, the same way Roth and Leonard did — I set them free in my brain and they started saying and doing things that were totally them. It’s the best part of crafting a story, watching your characters become who they are!

 

Huge thanks to Meaghan McIssac for your time, and to Harriet Dunlea at Andersen Press for arranging this opportunity.

Guest Post · Q & A · Q and A/Author Interview

Q&A: Kelly McCaughrain – Author of Flying Tips For Flightless Birds

kellymccaughrainbannerFlying Tips For Flightless Birds is one of my favourite books of 2018. It has everything: memorable characters, themes everybody can relate to and bucketfuls of humour. If you love contemporary YA look no further. This one is special. Kelly McCaughrain has kindly agreed to tell me some more about the story. Huge thanks to Kelly for your time and insight into the novel. I totally love your answers! 

About the book:

img_4989Finch and Birdie Franconi are from a circus family. Now the family business is in trouble, it is up to the twins to save it with their flying trapeze act. The twins are also a double-act at school. It has never mattered to Finch that everybody calls him a freak, because he and Birdie have always done their own thing.

When Birdie suffers a terrible accident, Finch must find a new double-act if he is going to save the family circus school. Can Finch overcome his feelings about school and new-boy Hector? Will he ever get over James Keane? Can Hector’s Dad accept the son he has?

A warm and witty YA novel about sexuality and identity.

Check out my full review here. birdQ and A:

Hi Louise, thanks for having me on your lovely blog! This is my very first blog interview so I’m very excited!
Your story deals with a teenager’s feelings around coming out. What were your priorities in writing a coming out narrative?

My priority was never to write a coming-out story, it was to write a love story. But the very unfair fact is, if you’re going to write about a young-teen LGBT romance then coming out is probably going to feature because it just does in real life. It’s the unavoidable roadblock in the way of your first relationship, and I think it’s hugely unfair that if you don’t come out, then you don’t get to do the teen romance thing like all your peers, or certainly not in the same way. I remember telling my parents I’d been asked on my first date by a boy, and that was hard enough (it was awful!), because you’re basically admitting private things about yourself – you like someone, you’re thinking romantic thoughts – things that are really no one’s business. It must be so much worse if you think your parents might react really badly.

So I knew it was going to feature coming out and I did feel strongly that I wanted the characters to be young. I wanted them to get started on their love lives at the same time as all their peers, not in late adolescence or university or even later, which is the case in many novels about coming out. If there was a priority, it was maybe that.

But beyond that, I didn’t really have conscious ‘priorities’ in mind. I wanted it to be sensitive and realistic, but I’d have wanted that for any story, LGBT or not. The whole point is that Finch’s feelings are no different to any teenage boy, so I didn’t try to approach the story any differently than I would that of a straight kid, and I didn’t think about it too much while I was writing it.

 

 

Birdie has an accident part way through the narrative. What does this mean to Finch (beyond stress and fear for his sister)?

Finch and Birdie are not only brother and sister, they are twins and trapeze partners, which means their lives really revolve around each other and always will. So Birdie’s accident has huge ramifications for Finch in that sense.

I’ve always found twins interesting. I’m not sure I’d have liked to have one because I’m a bit of a loner, but on the other hand, it might be like having a built-in best friend. But it must be weird if your identity is built around being one half of a pair; twins are so often known as ‘The Twins’, even within their own families. How do you know who you are by yourself?

And I think that period when teenagers start dating must be especially weird for twins who are close, because it’s the beginning of a process of separation. Birdie’s accident is the start of that process for Finch, and it’s the start of him discovering who he is and who he can be without her.

 

 

Birdie expresses her feelings through a blog. Why did you choose to tell her part of the story through blog posts?

I chose to let Birdie speak through a blog partly to differentiate her voice from Finch’s, and partly because it felt like a very natural way to impart all that information about circuses. Finch and Birdie wouldn’t sit around talking about circuses, that wouldn’t have felt natural. And if I’d just made Birdie tell the reader all that stuff directly, it would have been boring. But writing it as blog posts meant I could make it entertaining, funny, and believable. So structurally, it was very useful.

But the main reason I used the blog was that, although a lot of the posts appear to be about circus history, in fact Birdie is using them to describe her feelings about her role in the circus. It’s her sneaky way of telling Finch some things he needs to hear but doesn’t want to hear. I think it’s a strange phenomenon that, even though the internet is so public, it can be easier to say things online than in person, because it feels sort of anonymous. It’s also probably what I’d do if I had something important or difficult to say to someone. I’d prefer to put it in writing than try to have a conversation about it, I just find writing easier than talking.

 

 

Please can you tell us more about why you chose a circus setting? What does it represent within your story?

I love circuses. I’ve been trying to learn to juggle since I was 16 and I’m still crap at it (I have infinite sympathy for Hector). I love the atmosphere of circuses and the more I read about them, the more I admire them.

The reason people run away and join the circus is that they have always been a place for outsiders.  Circuses have been around since the 18th century, when social roles were even more rigid than they are today. People who were severely limited in mainstream society – women, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities or disfigurements, people of colour, people from poor backgrounds – could not only have a career in the circus, but be the star of the show.  Talent and hard work were all that mattered. 

It was no utopia, of course. The life was rough, they worked hard for their money, they could never settle down, there were sometimes violent clashes with local people or rival circuses, but it must have been preferable to many people than life in the mainstream.  Perhaps because they got to be themselves.

In Flying Tips, the circus is a refuge for Finch because it is a completely accepting space. He is loved there for his uniqueness, whereas at his high school he’s rejected because he’s not exactly like everyone else.

 

Finch is hung up on popularity, and sometimes forgets to value his friends. Please can you tell us more about why you chose to give him this flaw?

I don’t think Finch ever wanted to be the most popular boy in school, but when he experienced rejection by someone he cared about, he reacted by going in the opposite direction and deliberately making himself a total outsider. But really I think he was just hurt, and the reason he tends to be unfriendly is that he’s trying to keep people at a distance because he’s afraid to trust anyone else in case he gets hurt again.  It can be brave to step outside the mainstream and be a loner, but it can sometimes be even braver to let people into your life.

 

Quickfire/Fun: –

  • Which role would you choose in the circus?

I’d be torn between Trapeze and Clown. I honestly think Clown would be harder and more rewarding.

  • Finch and Birdie wear some amazing outfits. What would your most daringKelly McCaughrain Vintageoutfit look like?I love vintage! This is a picture of me at a Jubilee party wearing a tea-dress, stockings and a 1940s headscarf. (Can I stress that the cigarette was part of the costume, I do not smoke!!!) But, unlike Birdie, I wouldn’t dress like that every day, because hair and make up are so time consuming! Actually, I think if I was really brave, I’d just wear men’s clothes all the time because they’re so comfy.
  • Hector’s clowning draws attention to himself in a good way. What would you like to be noticed for?

My writing. I have lots of hobbies, but I’ve never truly cared about being very good at anything except writing.

 

Q and A/Author Interview

Dream Christmas Cracker – Author Michelle Harrison

 

91btlu-xnvlI love a trilogy, I love fairytales and folk legends. Michelle Harrison’s trilogy about a girl who can see fairies is one of my all-time favourites. Author of six novels, you can find one of her short stories in Winter Magic. Published in paperback for the first time, it brings some of the finest British children’s authors working today. I love how widely one starting point has been interpreted. Michelle Harrison’s story is linked to her stand-alone novel The Other Alice. 

I am excited to welcome Michelle to my blog, to tell you about her dream Christmas Cracker. 

 

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If you could create a cracker:

 

Would there be a joke inside? What would it be, or what would you have in place?

I’m not a fan of cracker jokes, they’re usually too corny for me. Instead, I’d have something like a mini book quiz, or a silly talking point like ‘Would you rather have reindeer antlers for a month, or a Rudolph red nose for a week?’ My family and I make up a lot of  ‘Would You Rathers’ and it keeps us entertained for hours! Or, if I were at a writers’ Christmas dinner, perhaps a favourite book recommendation, top writing tip or inspirational quote.

 

What sort of hat would you wear?

My first choice would be something simple like cat ears – black ones of course, but that’s not particularly Christmassy, is it? Antlers are always a favourite; reindeer are so beautiful but then there’s also a link to Gwyn ap Nudd, a figure in faerie folklore who is often depicted with horns or antlers. And, let’s face it, no one is going to fight you for that last piece of Christmas pudding if you’re sporting a decent set of

antlers . . .

 

What would you hope to see inside?

miniature_dnf_dictionary_055_ubtI love tiny, whimsical things – especially if they’re handmade. When I took bookbinding classes in Oxford a few years ago, one of the other students made the most beautiful miniature books. I would love to find one of these in a cracker, or perhaps a tiny snow globe or a beautiful Christmas decoration – something to treasure and bring out again each year. Humans have become so wasteful, so things like throwaway pieces of plastic and tat really bother me and crackers are notorious for this. I try to buy the ‘make your own’ cracker kits and put lottery tickets and little handcrafted chocolates inside, there are so many ways to be inventive.

 

Which fictional character would you pull it with?

Ooh, that’s a tough one. I’d love to pull a cracker with Turpin, a fairy from one of my own books (One Wish) to see her reaction when it went bang!, and also because she’s one of my favourite characters that I’ve created. Having said that, Turpin thieves everything she can get her hands on, and Christmas is really about giving, so I would probably say Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Match Girl. It’s such a tragic story and one that’s always haunted me. I would love to give her a wonderful Christmas dinner in a warm house, and inside her cracker would be a key, so she could come and live with me.

Q and A/Author Interview

Michael Rosen Q and A: On word play, format and memories.

RosenbannerMichael Rosen Picture 2 - Credit Goldsmiths, University of London

I was hugely excited first to be offered the new edition of Michael Rosen’s Chocolate Cake to review, then to be given the chance to ask him some questions. Michael Rosen has been a hero since I was small. He came to talk at my primary school, and made every child laugh within about three seconds by describing the assembly hall as having a ‘Weetabix Ceiling’. Rosen’s poetry is funny, and great for sharing and reading aloud. It is also full of moments which are easy to relate to. The boy in chocolate cake, for example, finds himself caught-out after breaking the rules. 

I’m delighted to welcome Michael Rosen, on language, format and childhood memories. breakbirdLN: I have been familiar with the poem since childhood, as it appeared in The Puffin Book of Utterly Brilliant Poetry. Have you adapted the text over time, or was it rewritten for the new edition? 

MR: I adapted the text over time through my performances in schools. Then I put that performance on my YouTube channel. The book is the text of that performance.

 

LN: Did years of live performance influence the changes?

MR: Yes indeed. Every performance demands that I grab the attention of everyone in the room or wherever it is I’m performing. 

 

LN: I am particularly interested in the addition of extra noises, which are highlighted in different fonts. Is playful language important to the poem?

 MRI think it is. It’s easy to forget that letters belong to us, they don’t belong to dictionaries or academics. We make all sorts of noises that mean a lot but are not strictly speaking ‘words’. If we want to, we can represent those noises with letters, with brand new spellings. I think it’s great for children to know that they can do that. They can make letters work for them.

 

LN: In the past, you have spoken about books being more important than formalised language learning. Why is it important for children to see playful approaches to language? 

MR: Books work very hard to convince readers that they are worth reading. We do this with all sorts of ‘hooks’ to do with emotions, thoughts, feelings but we also do it with the sound of what we write. Language always has a physical aspect. With books, that aspect is print and paper. With speech, it’s sound waves created with our bodies. What’s very infectious (and funny) is when you write things down that appear to invite your body to play and experiment with those sounds. The poem is full of that, and I’ve found ways to have created an element of surprise in the sounds. This is also connected with a visceral pleasure (eating cake!) and high risk (what if I’m found out?). This combination seems to have tickled quite a few children and drawn them into wanting to hear it and read it over and over again. 

 

LN: The illustrations are new to this edition. How much of a collaboration was there between yourself and Kevin Waldron? Did you have any ideas about how you wanted the poem to be experienced, and how the illustrations might differ from previous editions of the poem? 

 MRMy attitude to illustrators, publishing and editors is that my job is to write. Everyone else in the production of a book has their job to do. The illustrator ‘reads’ my text and re-represents it through the pictures. The editors and other publishing workers create the book. That’s not my job either! So I saw the roughs as Kevin worked but I had very little to say because he was doing his work, his way and we all trusted him. I like that way of working. 

 

LN: I am interested in the different ways you have brought the poem to readers, for example in his school performances and on social media. Has YouTube changed the way in which you write new poems? Did it influence the new text? 

MR: Thanks for asking this. My own view of my poems is that I have several ways of ‘delivering’ them to people, each as valid as another. You’ve identified three: books, live performances, social media.  These aren’t separate from each other, though. They each nudge each other into adapting how they are written or performed. This book is a perfect example of this kind of hybrid. I think I realised this for the first time in the late 1970s when I was going into schools a good deal to perform my poems and found that the talk I was doing between the poems was more interesting to the children than my poems! Then I realised that I could write down these talking parts. Nowadays, I think my thoughts have become  very compressed: as I write I’m miming performance in my head. Social media are quite hard to do from a performance point of view because the only people there are the film crew and the director. They’re not there to enjoy themselves, they’re working, so I’d be ill-advised to take notice of their reaction. I do ‘take direction’ though, especially as the director is my son!

 

LN: You have said before that you writes about childhood memories. Why and how do particular moments lend themselves to poetry? Are they universal experiences, or very personal memories?

MR: This is your hardest question. I’m not really sure how I find these memories or why I select them. I sense that they are ones that have at their core something absurd or ironic. In some way or another, the person in the story (usually me but not always) doesn’t know as much about what they are saying or doing as the audience. It’s the core of dramatic irony, discovered or polished  thousands of years ago by the Ancient Greeks in drama and has been keeping us going through entertainment ever since. I’m not even sure why it interests me so much other than that I like the way dramatic irony respects the audience: it seems to say, ‘you take over’ or ‘you figure this out’. 

 

Huge thanks to Michael Rosen for his fantastic answers. The picture book edition of Chocolate Cake is available now. It looks as scrumptious as it sounds!

Thanks to Sarah Hastelow and all at Penguin Random House Children’s for arranging this opportunity.