'The best books, reviewed with insight and charm, but without compromise.'
- author Jackie French

Tuesday 26 January 2010

Interview: Kids Literacy Aficionado Susan Stephenson

Who is this person? Susan Stephenson

Who is she better known as? Madame Chook

Where can you take a gander at her stuff? thebookchook.blogspot.com and Literacy Lava

What's her story? I’m an Australian with more than 25 years experience teaching in New South Wales primary schools. I have also taught English in China. Right now, I share my love for children’s literacy and literature via The Book Chook blog and write children’s fiction.

I live with my husband and son, about as far east on Australia’s coast as you can go without falling into the ocean.

Why is she so impassioned about literacy and children’s literature? I would like to tell you it’s because I believe literate kids will be happier and more successful in whatever life path they choose. And I do believe that! However, I think a more truthful answer is that I love all forms of creativity and communication and can’t bear to think of kids missing out on the joy it brings.

Despite my silver hair, I don’t think I ever really grew up. I so enjoy reading wonderful kids’ books, playing with online story editors, finding new ways for kids to learn – I don’t think I could NOT be involved in children’s literacy and literature.

What inspired her to create The (very popular) Book Chook blog? Once I narrowed my focus to children’s fiction, I knew I needed to start building my platform as a writer. Prior to that, I had a simple web page that listed my published articles and stories. I decided to start writing a blog about what I knew and loved, because I figured that love would keep me going. I guess you could say it worked.

The Book Chook blog has taken over my life to the point where I often have to carve back fiction-writing time. Sometimes I think of it as the Blog Monster, with an ever-open maw. But it brings me such pleasure too, particularly when I get positive feedback. That truly makes the hours of work worthwhile.

What on earth is Literacy Lava? Literacy Lava is a free PDF that is published on my website four times a year. Writers keep their articles short because we know how busy parents are.

The articles present different perspectives on children’s literacy from reading aloud to babies through to motivating kids who are not yet enthused about reading and writing. The emphasis is on reading, writing and communicating with creativity. One thing I know deep in my heart is that people are happiest when they are able to create.

What motivated this wonderful magazine? Literacy Lava came about because I saw so many great ideas in many different blogs for incorporating literacy activities into family life. I thought parents might be interested in reading an ezine with a literacy focus, something that brought different bloggers together. With one blog, you mostly get one voice. With Literacy Lava, you get articles written by different bloggers and covering different age groups, interests and topics.

Why does she do all this? I’ve always loved reading, writing, all forms of communication really. I taught drama for many years, and love the less well-known aspects of literacy like storytelling and improvisation. Most of my students loved them too, and I saw them blossom as their literacy skills increased.

Trust me, if I could make every kid in the world happy, I would. Thus far, I haven’t been elected Boss of the World, so the next best thing is to try to share my love of literacy with other parents. Once they start using the ideas in Literacy Lava in their own family life, I truly believe everyone will be better off.

How long has she been writing? Once I returned to Australia from China in 2003, I decided to re-invent myself as a writer. I’d always loved to write, but I decided to get serious about it, and learn enough so I could be published.

At first, I wrote travel articles and was published in magazines like Transitions Abroad and Australian Traveller. I also wrote articles about parenting and the craft of writing, and sold stories to anthologies like The Ultimate Teacher. Once I proved to myself I could be published, and paid for it, I realised that wasn’t enough. I wanted to be published in the sphere I admired most of all: children’s fiction. I guess I’ve been focussed on that genre for nearly four years.

During that time I’ve learnt lots about children’s fiction. I’ve also learnt lots about myself. Owing to the prompting of some very good writing friends, I finally decided that I must start submitting to Australian publishers, instead off assuming they will reject my manuscripts.

So, 2010 for me is the Year of Submitting. And if I only receive rejections, all that will logically prove is that my manuscript didn’t hit the right desk at the right time. Come back and ask me if logic is enough at the end of 2010!

What does she enjoy most about writing for children? This is such an interesting question! The very best thing about writing for children for me is knowing I have successfully communicated with an audience. To be able to weave words in such a way as to make kids feel something is incredibly satisfying.

So far, I have had two of my short stories published on Rainbow Rumpus (rainbowrumpus.org/htm/k_story.htm) and I write a column for children about writing in Alphabet Soup magazine (alphabetsoup.net.au). I would love to have one of my books published. Most of all, I would love to know I have made kids giggle, think and love reading. Wouldn’t that be cool!

If she couldn’t be a writer, what would she be? A chicken. Probably not possible, so I’ll give you my next choice: a graphic artist. Unfortunately, it is about as likely as becoming a chicken, because I can’t draw to save my life.

Has modern children’s literature changed in the past decade? I think modern children’s literature HAS changed in the past decade. There are issues being explored, particularly in YA, that we wouldn’t have seen ten years ago.

I also think writing styles have changed – there is less description, and more emphasis on showing through action and dialogue. But a good story is still a good story. Some books that were published ten or forty years ago are excellent and have definitely stood the test of time, while I confess there are some more modern books that I personally dislike.

What does she love most about encouraging reading in young children? Hearing the giggles and guffaws, seeing the light in a child’s eyes when he realizes he 'gets it' and can read, knowing they are on the pathway to a world of reading pleasure – those things make me incredibly happy.

What books did she read as a child? We didn’t have many books, so I read a few over and over. Pookie Puts the World Right, Bambi, Kipling’s Just So Stories I can remember, and also that the lady next-door used to let me borrow their Milly Molly Mandy books.

My first chapter books were The Swiss Family Robinson, What Katy Did and Anne of Green Gables. I guess I read them hundreds of times.

Can she name five of her favourite children’s books of all time? I truly can’t. Not five, or even twenty. I can tell you I happen to think Australian children’s writers are among the best in the world.

What is it about children’s books that fascinates her so much? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s that getting kids interested in literature opens them up to a world of learning and entertainment, makes it possible for them to dream, encourages them to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

If children’s books can start that for kids, then it is not only fascinating, it’s fantastic! And I just appreciate children’s literature so much as an art form. Take a picture book – one of the most difficult books to write and illustrate really well, but when it works, it is like a song or poem that you never forget.

What five words best sum her up? Passionate, direct, sensitive, silly and spontaneous.

What advice would she have for parents on helping encouraging reading and literary saturation for their kids? Read to your kids every day from when they are babies. Don’t stop just because they learn to read independently. Let them see you reading, writing, creating and enjoying it.

Encourage them to choose their own books as well as the ones you choose for sharing. Value literacy. Make friends with your local librarian. Check out some of the great internet sites that promote reading and writing. Ask your kids questions that encourage imagination and creative thinking. Listen to your kids and get to know what they like.

What’s next for Susan Stephenson? I’m currently enrolled in two online courses that I hope will increase my expertise in using technology to promote literacy. I am also enrolled in a Photoshop course, which starts February. Being a student seems to be my focus for the next few months, as well as honing my writing skills and submitting manuscripts to publishers.

Learn more about Susan at susanstephenson.com.au.

The next issue of Literacy Lava (no. 4) will be published March 1, 2010. Don't miss it.

There will be a Literacy Blog Tour known as 'Share a Story - Shape a Future' from 8-14 March 2010. Susan will be hosting Day 2 at The Book Chook, which is entitled 'Literacy My Way/ Literacy Your Way', and she will be linking to articles by other bloggers about all sorts of creative ways to involve kids in literacy. See shareastory-shapeafuture.blogspot.com for more.