Childlit Posts

Interview with award-winning New Zealand author, Gavin Bishop

Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commissioner’s residence. Photographer: Satadru Mukherjee 


In December 2018, award-winning New Zealand children’s writer Gavin Bishop was invited to India by the New Zealand High Commission for an author tour. Gavin Bishop is an award winning children’s picture book writer and illustrator who lives and works in Christchurch, New Zealand. As author and illustrator of nearly 60 books his work ranges from original stories to retellings of Maori myths, European fairy stories, and nursery rhymes. Gavin Bishop participated in the Bookaroo Children’s Literature Festival as well as travelled with his publisher’s, Scholastic India, to various schools for exciting interactions. I met Mr Bishop and his wife, Vivien, at the New Zealand Deputy High Commissioner’s, Suzannah Jessep, residence. It was a lovely evening of freewheeling conversation about books and publishing, children’s literature, creating picture books and the power of stories. Excerpts of an interview are given below.  

Here is a picture taken at the Deputy High Commissioner’s residence along with Gavin Bishop. It has been uploaded on the Facebook page of the New Zealand High Commission to India
  1. How would you define a children’sbook especially a picture book as you make them the most often? 

A children’s book is one that speaks honestly to childrenwithout pretentions. The worst kind of books are those that pretendto be for children but are really aimed at the parent or adult reading the bookto the child. 

 Apicture-book is one where the pictures and words tell a story, ‘hand-in-hand’.Neither the pictures nor the text are ’top-dog’, neither one is moreimportant than the other. Both parts have separate jobs to do to tell thestory. The picture book is my passion. It offers so many artistic and literarychallenges that I could never exhaust them all in a single lifetime. Manypublishers, mostly in the USA, have said to me that picture-books arequite simply for children who can’t read yet. I can’t think of anything furtherfrom the truth. There are lots of examples of picture books that work at manylevels and can be re-read over and over again by children of all ages.  Ithink my version of The House that Jack Built that looks atthe colonisation of New Zealand by the British in the early 19th century, is a picture book that appeals to older children, children who can certainly read. Many New Zealand schools use this book at upper levels to talkabout the history of this country.

2. How do you select the stories you choose to write about?  Where did you hear the stories that you write about in your books?   

For stories, I constantly revisit all the terrific folktales, myths and legends ofthe New Zealand Maori as well those from Europe. When I rewrite a story, I tryas much as possible not the change the plot or the outcome. If it isa little frightening, I leave it like that. But if I think aparticular story is more suited to adults, as many traditional storiesare, then I don’t choose it. There are lots of adventures for example, that the Maori demi-god Maui has, that I think are extremely interesting but theycontain adult elements that a child does not to be confronted with yet.

My childhood is another very deep pool full of memories and stories that I diveinto from time to time.

Most of my books take a long time to produce. My pictures are often full of detailand are drawn by hand on paper as opposed to beingcomputer-generated. If I am to live with a creation for most of a year, Ihave to be convinced from the start that the story is worthwhile and willadd something to a child’s life. I know that sounds lofty, but I really believe that as a writer for children my obligation is to present a young reader with stories and ideas that they will find interesting and perhaps have not heard of. 

Another huge source of inspiration is reading. I try to read a lot of fiction. Movies are a good source of ideas too. In fact a movie is rather like a picture book except instead of text as in a book, you have dialogue. Some of the movies I seen over the years have never left me. I have beenparticularly inspired by movies I saw as a young adult. Films by Fellini, Bergman, Pasolini and Altman showed me how stories can be told using vivid imagery and characters.

3. Did you consciously choose the style of writing for children as you do in your longer pieces of fiction –simple sentences, very short chapters, precise descriptions with few polysyllabic words? 

When I write I do keep in mind that I am writing for children. But this is onlyreflected in the style and format. I try not to modify the story or the humour which can result in ‘talking-down’ to the reader. Although I usesimple sentences and short chapters I don’t shy away from difficult words if I think they are the right ones for the job. When I wrote Piano Rock I probably had 7 or 8-year-old readers in mind. I have been heartened by thenumber of young boys who have written to me to say Piano Rock is the first book they have read right through. I would like to think that thiswas because of the content, but I suspect it had something to do with thefact the book is full of short sentences and quite a few pictures. It is very non-threatening to a reluctant reader. No sooner have you started a chapter than you find yourself finishing it.

4. Piano Rock and Teddy One-Eye focus a bit on the stories narrated to you by your mother and grandmother but your repertoire indicates that this love for stories go fardeeper. When did this love for stories begin and do you still collectstories? 

These two books are about me. They are my autobiographies, even though the second one waswritten by my 68-year-old teddy bear. I vividly remember sitting with my grandmother by the fire listening to her reading me stories and singing strange little songs that she plucked out of her memories of when she was a child. One I remember more than all the others, and one I included in Piano  Rock was – “Old Mrs Bumblebee said to me the other day, comeand have a cup of tea on the back veranda.” That’s all there is to it, but at the age of 3 or 4 I found it for some reason, intriguing. I can remember trying to make sense of it byputting it into the context of our neighbourhood. “Did Mrs McQuirter overthe back fence invite us over for a cup of tea?” I wondered quietly to myself. 

This little ditty has been with me all of my life and I have, in my quest to find itsorigin, mentioned it to lots of people. All have replied they had never heardof it until one day at a talk I was giving an Indian woman stood up in theaudience and said she had heard it in India when she was child.Perhaps the word ‘veranda’ is a clue? The mystery deepens……,

5. How would you define a compelling story? 

The best stories are the ones that become part of you for the rest of your life. I think this happens more often in childhood, therefore it is even more important for a children’s writer to put everything they have into producing the best story they can. 

6. The imagery in your books is fantastic. It’s almost as if the imagery used complements the illustration. Was that deliberate or an unconscious act? 

 I am a very visual person and when I’m writing I see everything that is happening in my mind’s eye. I plan my text and illustrations carefully to begin with but after that, when it comes to painting and writing, I rely a great deal on my subconscious. I follow my gut-instinct and often cannot tell whether a picture or a piece of writing has worked until I distance myself from it by leaving itfor some time and not looking at it. 

7. How do you conceptualise a book?Is it taking into account the text and the illustration? How does the illustration process evolve? 

To beginwith I am directed by format. If it is a picture book, then I know from thebeginning it will most likely have 32 pages. I generally begin with the storyand write it with the length of the book in mind. I have now developed a spare writing style for this sort of book where I deliberately keep description for example, to a minimum so as to allow plenty of room for the illustrations to tell their parts of the story. Sometimes I jot down little ideas for the pictures in the margin as I write. The process at this stage of the book is quite measured. Once the text reaches a stage that I thinkis workable, I draw up a storyboard, a page by page plan from cover to cover ofthe whole book. I usually keep this small, drawing the whole thing onto a single A2 sheet of paper, so that when it comes to putting images into place on the miniature pages I cannot get into too much detail. This results in stronger compositions when these little pictures are increased tofull size later, when I make a dummy. I work in pencil which I go overwith ink. The dummy is based on the page size supplied by the publisher afterreceiving a quote from the printer. I make a dummy with 10 sheets of paperfolded in half. That gives you 32 pages plus endpapers and cover. Next I print off the text and glue it into place throughout the book. This instantly showsme how much space is left for the illustrations. The next couple of months arespent enlarging and drawing the pictures from the storyboard into the dummy. This is really where all the hard work begins. If it is a historical story I do most of my research at this stage.

A completed dummy is useful for showing your publisher what you have in mind for the book it also provides a detailed guide for the next process of producing the finished art work. From the start to publication a picture book usually takes a year.

8. How does your Maori ancestry inform your art of storytelling and fascination of folk tales?

My Maori ancestry tells me who I am and where I belong. Aotearoa/New Zealand is myturangawaewae, my place to stand in the world. I have European ancestry as well and that has given me literature and language but to know that some of my tupuna/ancestors have lived in the South Pacific for thousands of years and I live here now, gives me a great sense of belonging. My mother’s name was Irihapeti Hinepau and her father gave her those names because they areancestral names. I have a large number of relatives in Aotearoa who trace theirancestry back to people in the past who have these names too. Maori myths and legends are as rich and profound as any in the world, yet when I was a child we were told more about the myths and legends from Greece and Rome than the stories from our part of the world. New Zealand has for too long suffered from a cultural cringe, always looking North to the rest of the world for affirmation. As a re-teller of Maori myths for children I want to help the next generation become proud of being part of this country. I want them to know their stories and be made strong by them. 

9. How did you get into bookmaking?  Have you collaborated with other writers and illustrators?  

In the 1960s I went to the University of Canterbury School of Fine Arts  and studied painting. While I was there I was fortunate to be taught by Russell Clark, a well-known New Zealand artist with a particular interest inillustration. He saw I was interested in children’s picture books and he encouraged me to pursue that interest. It was not until the late 1970s that I did something about this interest and tried writing my first book, Bidibidi.

My ideal project is one where I write and illustrate my own book, but I have, from time to time, worked with others. Some years ago  I wrote about 30 or 40 ‘readers’. Because a lack of time these were illustrated by a series of international artists and published all over the world. 

I have also illustrated books for other writers. I have done quite a few with Joy Cowley, the most successful being the Snake and Lizard series. And Margaret Mahy and I worked on what was probably her last book before she died —  Mister Whistler .

10. Do your books travel to other book markets in English and have they been translated? 

My books have been sold all over the world, particularly in England, Australia and the USA. Some of my books have been translated into Spanish, French, Italian, Danish and other European languages. Recently my books have become very popular in Asia and several of my recent publications appearin Korean, Mandarin and Japanese editions.

Some ofmy books, such as Kiwi Moon and Hinepau have been adapted for the stage.   Kiwi Moon travelled nationally as puppet theatre and the third adaption of Hinepau was performed entirely in Maori. 

But oneof my biggest creative challenges was writing the story and designing the sets and costumes for two ballets for the Royal New Zealand Ballet Company. Although they were pitched at an audience of children they were performed by the regular company of dancers with whom I got to work. Original music was composed by a musician friend and the choreography was designed by one of New Zealand’s top dancers. Attending the opening performances of these ballets that were created in consecutive years, were two of the most exciting experiences of my life.

Watch Shantanu Duttagupta, Head of Publishing, Scholastic India interview Gavin Bishop at the New Zealand High Commission. 

In Conversation with Gavin Bishop

We met author Gavin Bishop and discussed books, writings and much more!Big Thanks to: New Zealand High Commission to India, Bangladesh, Nepal & Sri Lanka Scholastic New Zealand

Posted by Scholastic India on Monday, December 10, 2018

14 December 2018 

Julia Donaldson in India, Jan 2018

Julia Donaldson

Universally adored children’s writer Julia Donaldson toured India in January 2018. The reception she received was heartwarming. Wherever she went there were crowds of excited children and parents. Even at the specially organised event by Scholastic India of school librarians and teachers there were many who while learning from Julia Donaldson’s performance were completely star struck — you could see it in their eyes and later when innumerable group photographs were being clicked. It was an incredible experience to witness.

Here is an article I wrote about Julia Donaldson’s trip in January. It was written days after her departure from India but never was published till today. It was an honour to meet Julia Donaldson for her humility shone through as did her vast amounts of experience in inculcating the love of reading in children. She was keen on telling a good story to the children and infecting them with the joy of reading. While being a fantastic storyteller she also shared her experience of working on the technically-sound phonetic books like the Oxford Reading Tree ( ORT) books that are introduced as part of school curriculums worldwide. According to her it was a big learning curve for it taught her how to focus on telling a story within the limited number of consonants prescribed for a particular level without losing her trademark touch of creating rhyming and play books. 

Note: Follow the links embedded in each title and it leads to the book page on Amazon India. 

Julia Donaldson MBE and former UK Children’s Laureate is to the world of picture books what Stephen King is to horror stories and both have an enviable fan base. Like Ed Sheeran, Julia too began her career busking. She enjoys performing and always has a repertoire in mind before going on stage but willingly adapts if the occasion demands it. As Julia says “audiences and moods vary depending on whether you are performing in a bar, a street or in schools.” She usually performs with her husband Malcolm who accompanies her on the guitar. Their thorough professionalism at managing crowds was evident after a performance ended when Malcolm picked up his guitar and sang while going up and down the queues of eager yet restless folks awaiting their turn to have their books autographed by Julia.

When Julia Donaldson’s tour of India was announced excited adults squeaked “Her picture books are fabulous! The illustrations! AndGruffalo…Will he be there as well?” Chirrups of delight from the children who became eager volunteers at every performance! She would call upon children from the audience to come up on stage to play minor roles in the stories she enacted such as SuperwormThe Ugly Five,and What the Ladybird Heard. Ideally Julia prefers it if her audiences have read some of her “play books” in advance as it enriches the experience. This fear was put to rest in India. Whichever city she visited the enthusiastic crowds of children and adults alike sang with her. It was like being at a pop concert where the  hysteria of the audiences upon seeing Julia Donaldson in flesh was worth witnessing.

The crowds in India were far larger than any she has performed before anywhere else in the world. Yet the warm, cuddly, grandmotherly figure with a radiant smile that lit up her already twinkling eyes remained unperturbed. She performed happily even though some of her little extras decided to plonk themselves on stage to read the pile of picture books placed in a pile rather than participate in the sing-along!  Despite battling terrible bronchitis Julia Donaldson managed to mesmerise folks with her storytelling. Certainly she had sophisticated props; mostly recognizable characters sketched by her long time illustrator Axel Scheffler, yet she relied mostly upon vast dollops of imagination to make her stories come alive.

Julia Donaldson’s magnificently magical storytelling is technically perfect in using rhythm and wordplay. She demonstrated to teachers that while sharing light-hearted stories with new learners it is easy to convert a simple classroom into a vibrant one with music and colour. A happy child learns fast. The importance of reading is critical to her and has always been — she taught her younger sister to read! Of the nearly 200 books Julia Donaldson has written the bulk are phonic readers; requiring her to blend vowels and consonants precisely according to early learning rules of phonetics. This is in keeping with her fascination for sound patterns and letter stories.

Julia Donaldson grew up in a home filled with music and poetry with her grandmother instilling a lifelong passion for Edward Lear’s nonsense language —in The Giants and the Joneses Julia invented Groilish! (Later to her delight she was commissioned to write a sequel to Lear’s “Ówl and the Pussycat”.) Age 5 she was presented by her father, a still treasured edition, of The Book of Thousand Poems inculcating in her a dream to a poet/lyricist. Her mother would play a version of “antakshri”, encouraging her daughter to find a word beginning with the last syllable of a word she had uttered. All of which helped Julia while writing her books in blank verse.   

In the 1970s she worked in a publishing firm while contributing songs and plays to radio. One of these was A Squash and A Squeeze which an editor recollected two decades later persuading Julia to turn it into a picture book.

Julia Donaldson’s fascination lies in experimenting with well-known folktales. In the Gruffalo it was the retelling of an ancient Eastern tale where a little girl goes into the forest and tames a tiger that follows her meekly home. But Julia was stuck for an appropriate rhyming word for “tiger” so used “Grrr… “ Rest they say is history! She recalls fondly that her sons could never cross a bridge without enacting the Three Billy Goats, now she hears of picnic expeditions that revolve around a Gruffalo hunt!

Her books have sold millions of copies worldwide, translated into many languages. She structures each book carefully paying close attention to her conclusions: “She does not like rosy endings that tell the child that it was all a dream. Sealed endings are not to her liking.” In 2014, 40p of every pound spent on buying picture books in UK, went to Julia Donaldson. It was more than spent on Harry Potter books! On Christmas Day 2017 The Highway Rat premiered on television as an animated film, fulfilling an annual ritual of converting a Julia Donaldson picture book into film since 2012 when Room on the Broom was nominated for an Academy Award. ( For Christmas 2018 it will be Zog and for Christmas 2019 The Snail and the Whale are to be adapted.) 

Running on the Cracks is the only young adult novel she has written. It has her characteristic gentle empathetic touch without underplaying hard issues such as immigrants, mental health, sexual predators and runaway kids. Even so “she would rather make picture books that allow her the freedom to play with words that get made in a shorter time than writing a novel which takes some effort.”

Ultimately Julia Donaldson firmly believes that children should read a variety of genres including comics – give them anything that appeals to them!

And yes, Gruffalo came. Many selfies were taken!

8 Dec 2018


“The Serpent’s Secret” by Sayantani Dasgupta

“Dark energy. It’s the energy that helps the universe keep expanding. You might call it a part of the universal life force.” 

That sounded vaguely familiar. 

“My Baba always tells me we’re all connected to energy — trees, wind, animals, people, everything.” I tried to get my ragged breathing under control. “He says that the life energy is a kind of river flowing through the universe.”

And that our souls are just a bit of that river water held inside the clay pitcher of our bodies?” Neel smiled at my surprise. “Year, I know that story too. They say that when our bodies give out, that’s just the pitcher breaking, pouring what’s inside back into the original stream of universal souls.”

“So no one’s soul is ever really gone,” I finished, repeating the words that Baba had said to me often. 

Sayantani Dasgupta‘s The Serpent’s Curse is a delightful fantasy story about a twelve-year-old girl, Kiranmala, who sulks at the idea of being dressed up as a princess for Halloween. She refuses to believe her parents when they claim Kiranmala is a genuine princess and on her birthday ( which alas falls on Halloween) she must dress up appropriately. It is on her twelfth birthday that all sorts of odd things begin to happen. She discovers her parents have disappeared leaving a moving map in their wake for her assistance, two princes have arrived on winged horses to escort her, there are monsters in her backyard and much, much more. It is an exciting adventure she sets off on to locate her parents while trying not to get entangled in the affairs of the Serpent King and the Rakkhoshi Queen.

The Serpent’s Curse is a mish-mash of desi folklore and myths combined with the American experiences of an immigrant family told at a brisk pace. Even though the fantasy elements are familiar and many of the stories told are retellings of well-known Indian folklore, it really does not matter. The beauty of age-old stories is that they can be told once more by a master storyteller and still be magical. The same holds true for The Serpent’s Curse. The fight between good vs evil, the Serpent King / Naga, the Rakkhoshi Queen / Evil Queen, the Underworld, princes and princesses etc.

Book review

While this is being promoted as YAlit an eight-year-old reader I met was absolutely charmed by this book. The little girl told me solemnly “I picked up this book at the school book fair because the cover was so lovely. I am now enjoying the story too.” Then at my request she proceeded to write a short book review as well though in her note on the left hand side says it is an “interview”. This is what she wrote:

Interview of The Serpent’s Tail

I enjoyed the book a lot because there were spells, snakes, mysterious parentage and magical lands. 

The story is about a girl who had annoying parents and one day she realized that her parents were gone and she set off with two princes one half demon other human and she realizes that her mum is actually someone else and so was her dad. Her mum is actually a moon maiden and her dad is the king of serpents! 

I picked the book because it had a cool cover and serpents are cool. 

I rate this book: 0/4 serpents and 4/4 moons 

The action in The Serpent’s Curse moves swiftly. The dialogue is never dull despite incorporating a lot of “Indianisms”. Having grown up on a feast of stories and desirous of sharing this rich storytelling tradition prompted Dr Sayantani Dasgupta to create her own books that retell Indian myths and folklore for the youngsters of the Indian diaspora. Having said that the book works equally well for everyone! The author is a pediatrician by training but now teaches narrative medicine/health humanities at Columbia University. It probably explains the chatty and accessible style of her storytelling. There is a lovely rhythm to the pace without a word out of place. She acknowledges her colleagues for inculcating in her that “stories are the best medicine”.

The Serpent’s Tale is well worth checking out!

Sayantani Dasgupta The Serpent’s Tale Scholastic, New York, USA, 2018. Hb. Pp. 350 Rs 495

31 May 2018 

 

Scholastic India Session on reading, Times of India LitFest, New Delhi ( 26 Nov 2017)

On Sunday 26 November 2017, I moderated the ‘SCHOLASTIC INDIA SESSION’, a conversation on young adult fiction with Shantanu Duttagupta, Scholastic India and Arti Sonthalia at the Times of India LitFest, Delhi (#TLFDelhi). The conversation began with Arti Sonthalia introducing her fabulous chapter book, Hungry to Read.  The story revolves around a reading competition in Grade 3 with the aim of inculcating the love of reading amongst the students. The prize of a night stay in school to use the telescope to watch the night sky is what every student dreams of! The delicious way in which Arti makes it more than a dull story about a competition. Read it!

Using Hungry to Read as a springboard, the conversation expanded to reading levels, tools for measuring reading such as lexile and numbers at the back of books, reading for young adults, reading as a lifelong skill particularly in this information age where content is the oil of twenty-first century!

Watch the conversation:

28 November 2017 

“The Bicycle Spy” & “Brave Like My Brother”

Of late there has been an increase in the amount of historical fiction set during the second world war by contemporary writers. These are two wonderful examples. The Bicycle Spy introduces young readers to the Resistance and German occupation of France. It is a story told from the perspective of a young boy who discovers his classmate is a Jew from Paris and needs protection. With the help of his parents he sets out on his mission. Likewise Brave Like My Brother is about a young American soldier who is recruited and within three days packed off to England and later, France. The story is told via letters he exchanges with his younger brother. As the writer says he did take some creative license to tell it but it’s embedded in facts such as Eisenhower’s visit to the Allied troops in Europe and the use of inflatable armoured vehicles to be used as decoy before D-day.

Both the books, published by Scholastic, are immensely readable and a great way to introduce children to different aspects of the war. Now for similar yalit fiction about conflict situations in other geographies.

17 February 2017 

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