Q&A with Sean Taylor
Just Imagine: The snowy setting of your new book “The Snowbear” must be very alien to your children after life in Brazil. Is this book inspired by your own childhood memories?
Sean Taylor: I wrote The Snowbear when we were living in Brazil. I remember it was a very hot afternoon (33 or 34 degrees outside!) How was it possible to imagine myself into such a wintry story? Partly childhood memories. We got snow quite often when I was a child growing up on the south-western edge of London. The Snowbear’s opening lines…:
‘When Iggy and Martina
went to bed, everything
was the same as usual.
But snow came in the
Snow. Then more snow.
And when Iggy looked out
of the window, the whole
world was white.’
…are exactly what I remember a fall of snow being like. (And, sadly, what my young sons have never experienced – because it never snows in Brazil, and it hasn’t snowed in Bristol since we move here three years ago!) But it wasn’t just my own memories of snowy days that made it possible to write the story. I was also tapping into the many beautiful, magical ways snow is depicted in our culture – particularly in stories I love. For example, Tove Jansson’s Moomin Valley series (a huge influence on me) and the book I mention in my dedication, at the start of the book: The Fox and the Tometen by Astrid Lindgren.
JI: Did your writing change when you became a parent yourself?
ST: I wrote one of my favourite picture book stories three weeks after our first son, Joey, was born. I was up at four in the morning, walking him about to help him sleep. And when I got back into bed, the idea for a picture book called THE WORLD CHAMPION OF STAYING AWAKE arrived pretty much fully-formed, in my head. I wrote it down, sent it to my agent, Celia Catchpole, and I remember she replied, “Becoming a father has done something special to your writing!” That book (which went on to be beautifully illustrated by Jimmy Liao) aside, I don’t think fatherhood has caused a dramatic shift in my writing. I just hope my writing has got better, because having your own children gives you a sharpened sense of what makes a good story for a young reader of a particular age. (And it’s also given me two young listeners to test new stories on…thanks for listening, Joey and Rafa!)
JI: Your books showcase the work of a variety of illustrators. Do you have much input into the choosing of the illustrator? Have you ever been surprised by an illustrator’s interpretation of your writing?
ST: Publishers like to come up with the illustrators. They have so many brilliant ones queuing up for good stories. But they will check with me first and (after having published 20 or more picture books) I can only once remember saying no to the illustrator a publisher suggested.
I’m always surprised by an illustrator’s interpretation of my writing. As far as I’m concerned, that’s one of the delights of being a picture book author. Someone else takes away your words and returns having added to them in all sorts of ways, on their own imaginative journey. I’ll usually have some comments and suggestions on what I see. But basically, I love the surprise of finding out how someone else has brought my story to life.
JI: You have written books for a wide age range; do you have to think more carefully when writing for younger children?
ST: It’s the same amount of carefulness, whatever age you are writing for. If you are writing for 2-4 year-olds, there are specific ways you want to pitch the language and the content of the stories. But if you are writing for 12-14 year-olds, the same is true. The targets are different. But you take great care to hit all of them in the middle.
JI: Do you receive much feedback from your readers? Could you share some of the kind of things they say?
ST: This letter, received a few days ago, meant a lot to me (see gallery below):
Publishing a book is always special. A thumbs-up from a reviewer makes it better still. But getting a letter like that is what counts the most.
The strangest message I’ve ever had from a reader was about a picture book of mine called DON’T CALL ME CHOOCHIE POOH (the book of mine that makes audiences of children laugh the loudest.) I got an email from a woman in Arkansas. It said her son loves DON’T CALL ME CHOOCHIE POOH, but his copy of it was lost (along with his grandmother’s house) in a tornado. Would I sign the replacement copy? Yes. Of course!
JI: Do you have any more books in the pipeline & can you tell us anything about them?
ST: I’m pleased to say I’ve got a new book coming out next year with the illustrator Jean Jullien. It will be our third book together, following on from HOOT OWL, MASTER OF DISGUISE, and I WANT TO BE IN A SCARY STORY. And I’ll be publishing a very special title with Otter-Barry Books. It’s called RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS and is a collection of traditional Islamic stories. This came about, indirectly, because of a terror attack. Back in January 2015 there was a massacre in Paris. I could feel people in the UK were shaken by the nearness of the violence, and I sensed some ‘retreating into shells’ going on. This made me want to do the opposite. So I contacted a Muslim theatre company I’d had some contact with 12 years previously. My idea was that we might collaborate on a project together. To cut a long story short, we found a way. They and I love the stories of Mulla Nasruddin. So we wrote RIDING A DONKEY BACKWARDS. It features 21 age-old stories that are short, wise, funny and absolutely relevant to the times we live in.
For over 25 years, Sean Taylor has been taking riddles, stories and poems into primary schools and encouraging children to have a go at creative writing themselves.
Sean’s latest book The Snow Bear, illustrated by Claire Alexander, is published by words & pictures.
For more information on his work in schools go to www.seantaylorstories.com .