Today I had the immense pleasure of meeting the talented Aleesah Darlison, author of more than thirty books and novels for children and teens.
Aleesah was inspiring, informative and generous with her knowledge, and I had the opportunity to ask her some questions specifically about children’s picture books.
EM: I started by asking Aleesah what do you find most rewarding about writing for children?
AD: For me, it is the opportunity to share my stories and ideas that can influence or excite children, especially the animal stories. Also, having my stories brought to life by talented artists and illustrators, is very rewarding. The illustrations lift my stories visually which helps me to share them in a very different way. So essentially, it is the interaction with the children and the artistic side of picture books that I find most rewarding.
EM: On that topic, how does it feel to see the illustrations for your book for the first time?
AD: The illustrations are like a gift to me, it is so exciting when the first illustrations come through. There is a lot of joy, it is like opening a present. I have just had the draft illustrations come through for a book called “Free.” This book is about a boy in a wheelchair, who connects with an osprey and wants to be free of his physical difficulties like the osprey. The illustrator has included this gorgeous little beagle which I hadn’t written into my story. Instantly I thought the dog was beautiful and it has added this emotional depth through its interaction with the child. At one point he sleeps with the dog and it almost brings tears to my eyes, especially considering I had beagles when I was a child. It is incredible how illustrators can connect with you, and often in unexpected ways.
In “Stripes in the Forest: The Story of the Last Wild Thylacine”, illustrator Shane McGrath cleverly illustrates the stripes of the animal hidden behind palm fronds and ferns as camouflage. It is incredible how much work an illustrator can put in to the book, from exploring the bush to researching ideas that lift the story visually and creates 32 pages of surprises for the author and the reader!
EM: What advice would you give to aspiring picture book authors?
AD: Write every day, read every day, immerse yourself in the industry, get to know other authors and illustrators, and connect. We all talk the same language whether one is aspiring, emerging or established. And never give up.
EM: Do you feel that picture books have a big impact on the lives of children?
AD: Books definitely have a big impact on children and the number one impact is (or should be, in my opinion) enjoyment. We really need to focus on enjoyment instead of forcing curriculum components, as this can sometimes destroy or limit the beauty and joy of a book. So books should be fun and children will connect with that.
The theatrical aspects of musicality, rhythm and rhyme engage children. Books that can be sung or performed with actions are extremely important and tend to entice young readers back for a second look.
EM: Do you have any specific examples of how your books have influenced children?
AD: There seems to be this innate connection between children and animals, it’s quite incredible. With regards to my “Warambi” book, children will come up to me and say, ” We have little bats, we love bats, we’ve seen bats!”.
And with the older novels such as The Totally Twins series, which features identical twins who have very different personalities, the children reading it can connect with the difference in personalities they might have with their siblings or friends. For fantasy novel, children seem to love that escapism and the access to magic that it gives them. I have a book that deals with anti bulling as well, which is great in schools, as kids can see how to act or react in certain situations where they might be challenged or tested by others. I do like to keep my stories light, though, so even if there is a moral the children are not necessarily aware that it is there in the story.
EM: How do you strike a balance between entertainment and delivering an underlying message?
AD: When we first start out as authors we often have a message that we want to trumpet out to the world, but you have to peel it back a bit because kids are smarter than you realise. They will get it and will work out that message pretty quickly. Usually quicker than adults do, which keeps us on our toes.
EM: Do you have a favourite picture book and what is it about this book you love?
AD: I love them all! I’ve read so many great picture books. I love “Pig the Pug,” he’s gorgeous, and “Fearless,” by Colin Thompson and illustrator Sarah Davis, they are such beautiful, funny characters. It terms of my own work, the picture book that I’m really thrilled about is,” Stripes in the Forest.” I love the images. They match the scenes and themes of the story so well. I’ve read it to children a few times already and I still get a lump in my throat in the sad parts. It is quite a serious, emotive story and I’m very proud of it and the story behind it, so I think I’m on the right track with that one.
EM: Thank you Aleesah for your thoughts and insights. I was particularly fascinated by how appreciative you are of the illustrations bringing your story to life.
Further information about Aleesah Darlison and her books can be found on her website www.aleesahdarlison.com