2013 / children's story books / Insight / Picture Books / Reading

Fantastically Formative: Academia & Writing for Children

I have always loved reading. When I was younger I remember my mum tucking me into bed and reading me a bed time story. I would hang off her every word and beg for another story (more often than not getting turned down.) I would then sneak out of bed, choose another story and go to my dad and ask him to tuck me in and read me a story (again, I was caught out and ushered back to bed but sometimes I managed to get two stories). Reading at such a young age is important and fantastically formative. Dr. Stephanie Owen Reeder – a children’s fiction writer – shares this view.

– Interview by Laura Bartlett

‘Picture books provide children with an introduction to both literature and art. They introduce them to stories about the familiar and the unfamiliar, the exotic and the banal, the frightening and the reassuring. They are a child’s window into the big wide world! We all remember a favourite book from our childhood, and sharing picture books with children is one of the greatest gifts you can give them. It is a special and intimate experience. As well as giving your time and your attention to the child, you are also providing them with invaluable lessons in both verbal and visual literacy––increasing their ability to understand the structure of narrative, to value and delight in words and language, and to interpret the complex world of visual imagery that is all around them.’ Says Dr. Reeder.

Image Credit: University of Canberra Website

Dr. Stephanie Owen Reeder. Image Credit: University of Canberra Website

Children’s text, how hard can it be right? If you have ever attempted children’s fiction than you will know that it is a lot harder than some people make it out to be. ‘Writing a good picture book text – which usually has only 32 pages and no more than 500 words – is one of the most difficult forms of writing. It is akin to writing good poetry. Every word counts, every sentence must read well aloud, and the story must hold the attention of not one but two audiences––both the child and the adult reading the book. Despite what many people think, writing for children is one of the most difficult literary genres. There are restrictions on and sensitivities about what you can write, in terms of the language you use, the topics you cover and the way in which you present your stories. There are also limits on the length of your books, depending on the age group you are aiming the book at and the genre you are writing in. And I have found that the fewer words you have to play with, the harder it is to get it just right!

‘You also have to be very aware that the narrative in a picture book is simultaneously conveyed in two different language systems––the visual and the verbal. For a picture book to communicate effectively, the text and the illustrations must complement and extend, rather than merely echo, each another. This is often a difficult balance to achieve.

‘There is no doubt that children’s picture books are my passion. As well as writing and illustrating them, I have been reviewing picture books for over 30 years for magazines, journals and newspapers, including Magpies, Reading Time, The Canberra Times and Australian Book Review. I have also been collecting Australian picture books since the early 1980s, and my PhD thesis was on visual literacy and the Australian picture book.’

‘My first children’s picture book had very academic origins. It began life as two university assignments. For my honours thesis in my Bachelor of Arts degree at the University of Sydney in the early 1970s, I translated a 14th century manuscript from Kawi (the Indonesian equivalent of Latin). As well as translating the story of the flaming witch, I also studied the artistic representations of the story in Indonesian culture. It was a classic folktale about a nasty witch, a beautiful princess, a handsome prince and a wise man, with lots of fiery drama!

‘Then, when I was studying children’s literature for my Graduate Diploma in Librarianship at the Canberra College of Advanced Education (now the University of Canberra) in the late 1970s, we had to write and illustrate a children’s picture book and I decided to use the witch’s story.

‘Inspired by the traditional storytelling of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen, I retold the story for Australian children. I illustrated it with pictures based on Indonesian wayang, or shadow puppets, as I was very aware of the need for authenticity and cultural sensitivity when retelling and illustrating traditional tales.

‘My lecturer encouraged me to send the manuscript to a publisher, which I duly did. Being somewhat naïve about the publishing world at that stage, when the manuscript was rejected by the first publisher, I thought that was it and so I just put it away in the proverbial bottom drawer.

‘However, when my children were studying Indonesian at Forrest Primary School in the 1980s, I dug the story out again. As the mother of three primary-school children, I now had a better understanding of what children like. So I rewrote and re-illustrated the story using more child-friendly language and images.

‘Children’s fiction is a lot more scrutinized than some people might imagination. The content and the message behind the story has to be appropriate to children and not only do you have to factor this in but also to what age group you are writing for. This goes for all forms of writing; know your audience.  However, the text is not the only thing important for children’s fiction so are the illustrations because we all know how much kids love pictures (and don’t deny that you love them to!) ‘In the early 1990s, I sent the manuscript for The Flaming Witch to Random House and, much to my surprise, they decided to publish it! However, they decided to use an Indonesian illustrator. The person they chose was the Indonesian artist Dadang Christanto, who now lives in Australia. His artwork is displayed at both the ANU and the National Art Gallery here in Canberra. His stunning, energetic and vibrant watercolour illustrations took the story to a whole new level. However, the process of getting him to illustrate the book was not without difficulties, especially when he went to Cuba for a couple of months and the publisher was afraid he would not come back. This was, of course, before the days of easy Internet communication!

‘The Flaming Witch was finally published in 1997. It was another ten years before I had another picture book published, after I had retired from my full-time editing job at Federal Parliament and finished writing my PhD thesis. My fifth picture book, Dance Like a Pirate––the third in a series of concept lift-the-flap picture books that I have written and illustrated for the National Library of Australia––has just been released. I also continue to retell Indonesian folktales, and The Tyrannical Toad recently appeared in Blast Off, one of the magazines published by the New South Wales School Magazine.’

Dr Stephanie Owen Reeder visits the ACT Writers Centre in September. Her fascinating and vibrant weekend workshops will give insight into writing creative historical nonfiction for children. Dr. Reeder will be equipping writers with the skills to research, structure and write narrative nonfiction for young readers. For more information about the workshops, and how to book, visit our website.

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