We were able to catch up with Awesome Children’s Book Author, Tania McCartney, who graciously sat down to answer some of our questions. She shared with us her experiences, as well as, information that you can share with your students about what it takes to be an author. Her books are perfect for use in classroom unit studies about different countries.
In fact, they’re so perfect that she’s giving away a signed copy of Riley and the Dancing Lion: A Journey Around Hong Kong to one lucky blog reader. To enter, read her interview below and then leave a comment about where you’d like Riley to journey next.
Share with us how your journey as a children’s book author began.
I’ve been writing prolifically since I was a child, and wrote my first novel at nineteen. My early adult years focused on many adult fiction manuscripts as well as non-fiction. My first non-fiction book, You Name It (Tania Winter Buck, Hodder Headline), was published in 1995.
As is often the way with writers, life and rejection got in the way a lot and my career lapsed once I married and had children. I had always, however, had a complete obsession with beautiful children’s books, and still had a lot of my own collection from childhood. Before having kids, I collected many children’s books, and of course, when they came along, I went bananas! Both my kids have an enormous collection and I never ever say no to their book requests.
In 2005, our small family was posted to Beijing and I was really fortunate to become a well-known magazine columnist and kids editor for some major English language publications. During that time, I realized a long-held dream to pen a children’s book, and my first book – Riley and the Sleeping Dragon: A journey around Beijing – was inspired by our time in China.
Riley and the Sleeping Dragon became a bit of a phenomenon amongst the expat community in Beijing, and also Shanghai, Suzhou and Chengdu, most especially because of its unique style. I sold out of my first two print runs in three months, which is an amazing feat for a self-published book, and the third print run is almost depleted. It was recently featured in the Australian Booksellers Association’s Kids’ Reading Guide 2009/2010, which is a huge honour.
The success of the first Riley book inspired me to create a series of travelogue books and in November 2009, I released the second book – Riley and the Dancing Lion: A journey around Hong Kong – which has been updated with illustrations by Kieron Pratt, a local artist. Kieron will be re-do the first book and will work on subsequent books. In November 2010, we will release Riley and the Curious Koala: A journey around Sydney.
Have you always wanted to write children’s books?
I have always wanted to write. I think writers write what they know and what they relate to and love. If you don’t write what you love, you could never excel. There has to be passion behind it. I’ve written in so many genres, but each of them have encompassed where I’ve been at that particular point in my life.
Tell us about your books.
My Riley series of books is really unique. I don’t know of any other travelogue series that showcases different places around the world and includes black and white photographs, charming illustrated characters, a real life (photographed) toy plane and a classic storyline punctured with adventure and cultural aspects so deeply embedded, only adults could really pinpoint them.
I love how the Riley books make children react but also how they make them think and question and see the world in a new light. I think it’s of vast importance that children travel and get to know the enriching benefits of other cultures. If kids aren’t able to physically travel, they can take virtual tours in my books – have lots of fun and learn something along the way.
How could teachers use them in the classroom?
Oh golly, the scope is endless. Last year, I held an 18-session Writer in Residence programm at a local Canberra school and the children essentially recreated Riley and the Sleeping Dragon and ‘published’ books with their own characters, set in their own school, with their own photos. They did it all, from conception to binding and book launch. The children were able to do this because my books are very uniquely structured and are perfect for breaking down and assessing the smaller parts.
In terms of literacy components, the Riley books feature a classic storyline structure (problem, conflict, solution) and the constant conflict (Riley unable to find the dragon as he scours Beijing) teaches children how to create the momentum to drive a story. The books teach kids about creating likeable, strong characters who have purpose and whom the reader wants to see succeed. They also learn about creating an interesting setting, and the photographic backgrounds teaches them to think outside the square when it comes to illustrative design.
In each book, Riley takes his friend Panda along for the ride, but he also gathers friends along the way. For example, the dragon from book one joins them all in book two (as a little toy). Then the lion will join them all in book three, and so on. Adding these gorgeous little characters builds a family of characters that scatter the book’s pages, engaging younger children in particular, who love to find them on each page. The combination of these characters also encourages multi-culture, acceptance and tolerance, as these characters will begin to ‘jostle for space’ as the series progresses.
On top of that, the focus on culture and tradition in these books is strong. Educating children on foreign culture and encouraging the desire to travel is vital to the human spirit, opening minds and driving creativity and objectivity.
There are also a lot of metaphorical aspects to the storylines that children can explore – for example, in Sleeping Dragon, the Great Wall becomes a dragon and children never cease to astound me when they’re asked to make parallels between the dragon and the Great Wall and why they are one-in-the-same (strength, power, beauty, age, protection, physical likeness, plus some more abstract parallels that only kids can think of!).
What grade/reading level are they written for?
I have marketed these books at ages 0-8, purely because I strongly feel children should be read to from birth (even in utero!) and I’ve witnessed very young children sit in rapture at the storylines (a seven month old sat through two of my readings without batting an eyelid!). But overall, the literacy level of the books would suit ages 4-8. Dancing Lion is a little more text-heavy, so Sleeping Dragon would perhaps suit children a little younger.
What makes kids relate to the characters?
Their cuteness but also their chutzpah and sense of adventure. Riley is only six, yet he flies his plane into other lands at the drop of a hat – what kid wouldn’t want to do something like that? (or adult!) Panda and Dragon have their own unique personalities – Panda is a bit of a nutbag and a wee bit naughty. Dragon sleeps all the time – even whilst flying through the air with his tail hooked to the plane, which is hilarious. Lion is really excitable and frisky and can’t stop dancing. Kids love to relate to and laugh at these characteristics. And kids also love cute, and we’ve made sure the characters look cute.
Another thing I think helps make the characters endearing is that they are tenacious and overcome ‘adversity’. Even three-year-olds can appreciate these underdog sentiments, and become emotionally involved and supportive.
What advice would you give to kids who want to be authors?
There’s too much to write here! but the most important thing is to write and read. A lot. If you love writing, them write write write. Don’t talk about it, just do it. And reading other people’s work is really inspirational and provoking. The more you read, the better a writer you will become.
Write what you love and what you know but also think outside the square and get a little crazy with your writing. Make it fun and silly and imaginative.
For older kids who want to take writing into their adulthood, I think it’s important they don’t become waylaid by rejection, which really is a paltry thing in the end because it’s so subjective. Writing is really a life choice before it is a career. If you want to make it a career that earns money, you must persist, persist and then persist some more. If you never give up, no matter what, you will succeed.