Yak and Gnu is a tale of two friends who set out joyfully on a river-sailing trip, “Yak in a yakak, blackberry black; Gnu in a blueberry blue canoe.” They believe themselves to be the only creatures who can sail on the river, but lo and behold! They meet a “goat in a boat!” And then a “snazzy snail, setting sail… ” and a whole swag of other unlikely sailing beasts! What will happen to their treasured idea of themselves as the ONLY sailing creatures?!
This is the third book I have had published with Walker Books, all three being illustrated by the wonderful Cat Chapman. The first two were Little Witch, an early reader, and The Frog Who Lost His Underpants.
Yak and Gnu and The Frog Who Lost His Underpants both have a joyous rhythm that begs to read aloud to a room full of kids. What draws you to this writing style?
I love music and song, and rhythm is a very strong part of that. I find that creating a strong rhythm with the words in a picture book is a delightful and satisfying challenge. When I am working on a new story, I sometimes draw little circles of different sizes above the syllables of each line to indicate where the stress lies, to make sure that I keep the pattern clear in my mind. It really helps me to have a visual aid!
Both Yak and Gnu and The Frog Who Lost His Underpants feature characters who want to stand out from the crowd and be unique. Why do you think this resonates with young readers?
An interesting observation. It wasn’t until sometime after I had finished Yak and Gnu that I realised that common theme myself! I almost never think about the theme when I am writing a story, or at least not until towards the end. It seems to be something that evolves of its own accord. As a result, it is something that emerges from my own subconscious preoccupations. In terms of children relating to this theme, these are my thoughts: I feel we live in a society that puts huge emphasis on achievement. Achievement is lauded as a pathway to fulfilment and self-worth. I don’t think this is necessarily entirely healthy, nor particularly true. It is fine to encourage children to work hard and do well, and to celebrate successes, but what I wanted to offer in these two stories (once I knew what I was saying!) was that true self-worth comes from within. You are worthy simply because you are. And your close friends and family are hopefully the best place to find this reflected back to you. They are the people who will love you for who you are, not for your startling and unique ability to sail a boat, or for your fabulous underpants. I hope everyone who feels a driving need to stand out somehow will have a Yak, Gnu or Teddy in their lives to make them feel worthwhile.
What books did you read as a child? Do you write books now that you think you would have liked as a child?
I read Dr Seuss (of course!), Margaret Mahy, Roald Dahl, Beverly Clearly, Judy Blume when I was a young teenager… and many, many more! My father read to us a lot, and he too loved rhyme and rhythm, and wrote a lot of extremely good rhyming verse himself. I hope I would have liked the stories I write now when I was a child – wouldn’t it be disappointing if I could send them back in time and find I didn’t? Haha!
What advice do you give to aspiring young writers?
- Firstly, read. To write well, you need to read as much as you can of the genre that interests you, until you can identify what makes a good story, and what particularly appeals to you.
- Then write! Write to discover stories, to discover what inspires you, to find out if writing is something you love doing.
- Writing is a craft. Learning a craft takes time, but it is a wonderful process.
- Learn to take feedback. Show your work to people you respect and listen to their comments with an open mind. This takes practice too! If you can do this, you can edit and improve your work immeasurably.
- If you want to write in rhyming verse, you must make the rhythm as perfect as possible, for a wide variety of readers. Try your work out on at least five people and listen carefully to how they read it. And rhymes too must be perfect: “near enough” rhymes really don’t work in a picture book.