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

Saturday 15 May 2010

Interview: Rebecca Newman

Today we welcome Rebecca Newman to Kids Book Review. Rebecca is the Publisher and Editor of Alphabet Soup magazine, which you can check out at alphabetsoup.net.au and soupblog.wordpress.com.

What's your story?
I was born in NSW but my family moved to Western Australia when I was 8. I now live in the southern suburbs of Perth with my husband and three young children. We all have lots and lots of books!

When I’m not busy publishing and editing, I like to read (mostly kidlit), write (kidlit, nothing published yet!), bake, and make my own greeting cards. I used to be a quilter until the space for storing material was taken over by my ‘to read’ pile. (Plus I once accidentally tacked a quilt to the carpet, and I never recovered from the trauma.)

I love choral music, fiddle music, and bushdancing.

I’d like to be able to draw, so I recently signed up for a life drawing session once a month.

Why are you so impassioned about literacy and children’s literature?
When I was growing up, we always had books and if we moved house (or state!) one of the first things we’d do is join the local library. I loved libraries. So many books! So I signed my own babies up a few weeks after they were born. When my children started going to school, I was amazed to find some parents didn’t know that joining a library is free. And that kids can have their own library cards. It’s hard for kids to enjoy reading if they don’t have access to books at home.

I love seeing a child’s delight in a book they’ve discovered, or about writing their own stories and poems. Literacy is important – it’s empowering. But it is also FUN! (Sometimes I think adults forget that.)

I’ll tell you a story about a recent library visit that left me smiling, even though I came away without my book.

After reading the first book in Sandy Fussell’s Samurai Kids series (samuraikids.com.au), White Crane, I was looking forward to reading Owl Ninja. I found it at the library, and I was pulling it off the shelf just as a girl called out to her mum ‘I’m going to see if Owl Ninja is here’. She turned the corner and found me standing there with the book in my hands.

She looked at the book. She LOOKED at me.

I handed her the book, and she went off, beaming. (Best not to stand between a Samurai Kids book and a young fan.)

And then I had to stop myself calling after her, ‘Can you read it quickly?’ She did anyway, it was back on the shelf by the next library visit!

What inspired you to create Alphabet Soup magazine?
When I was growing up, we joined the Puffin Club and it included a magazine, Puffinalia. My brothers and I loved Puffinalia and we read every issue cover to cover, we entered all the competitions and I announced I would write a book and have it published by the time I turned 21. (Um … )

Many years later, I found myself with a daughter who loved reading and writing, and she really enjoyed some old issues of Puffinalia in the cupboard. (She wanted to enter the competitions and I had to explain that those entries closed back in 1982). So I thought I’d join her up to the Puffin Club for her birthday.

But I discovered that Puffinalia wasn’t around anymore in Australia, and there wasn’t really anything available in Australia that was similar. I have an Arts degree (majoring in English) and a Graduate Certificate of Editing and Publishing, so I began to think about starting a children’s literary magazine. Eighteen months later Alphabet Soup was born! (Actually, it was more complicated than that, but I’ve left out the boring bits).

The only downside is that my own kids still can’t enter the competitions, they’re a bit cross about that …

Can you tell us what it comprises?
Inside every issue you will find:
  • A Q-and-A with an author or illustrator.
  • A feature article – interviews have included an air traffic controller, a gardening family, a scuba diver, and others. The current issue (issue 6, May 2010) features rogainers.
  • Stories, poems and book recommendations by adults for children.
  • Children’s writing – stories, poems, book reviews, letters and artwork.
  • A crossword page.
  • Writing Tips for children from the Book Chook.
  • Kids’ writing competition.
  • Fun and quirky illustrations by Greg Mitchell and Annette Flexman.
Tell us about the format of the magazine and why you designed it this way.
What did you specifically want to include? The magazine is 24 pages (self cover) on satin finish paper. We decided against gloss, as the glare from glossy paper can make reading uncomfortable and our main readership are primary school children. Alphabet Soup is highly illustrated, and illustrations come up well on a satin finish. We also try to have a reasonable amount of white space on every page, to make reading more comfortable.

We decided to publish it in print format (rather than online) for now, to give kids the experience of sitting back in a chair for a good read. And it’s always great to get ‘real mail’ in your letterbox! There is a free sample copy of the magazine on the homepage that you can download though: alphabetsoup.net.au.

Further down the track we will consider making an online version available if there is enough interest.

We felt very strongly that there should be children’s writing alongside the adults’ writing. There’s nothing like seeing your name in print to keep you motivated about writing! We decided that the kids’ writing pages would provide an opportunity for any primary school child to have their work published - a forum for their writing, and not just the ‘best work’ or the work of competition winners. Despite this, we are constantly impressed with the high standard of writing children send in.

We are selective about the adults’ writing we print because it can provide a model for children’s own writing. And we want high quality stories and poems to keep our readers engrossed.

We also feel it’s very important to offer reading material that reflects the language, vocabulary and idioms of Australia.

Issue 6, May 2010

Who is it aimed at and what do you hope Alphabet Soup provides its readers?
The magazine is aimed at 6 to 12 year olds. We publish it for children who love reading and creative writing, but I’ve been told it has also inspired quite a few (previously) unenthusiastic readers and writers too! The format of a magazine makes it easy to dip into the odd story or poetry page - or author interview - and then take a break and come back for another section later.

I hope it provides our readers with another way of enjoying reading – a literary magazine is not a book, but does promote books and reading, and feed your passion for books and reading. And I hope readers to see the value of their own stories, poems, book reviews and artwork in print.

Of course I also hope it encourages a love of language, books and poetry.

Where do you envisage the magazine heading?
Down the track, we will look into distributors so the magazine is available more widely (see the next question to see where you can find a copy!). It would also be great to expand the magazine so we can include more of everything in each issue—more stories, poems, kids’ writing and artwork, book reviews etc.

After that, we plan to take over the world …

Where is it currently available?
A 1-year subscription (4 issues) costs $29.80, incl postage and handling to Australian addresses (see website for prices and postage costs to overseas addresses.)

Buy/subscribe online: alphabetsoup.net.au (you can subscribe or purchase single copies via the ‘subscribe’ page)

Stockists in Western Australia: Westbooks Children's Bookstore (396 Mill Point Rd, Victoria Park) and Zero to Ten (330 South Tce, South Fremantle).

Has modern children’s literature changed in the past decade? How?
I think there are now more early chapter books available than there were a decade ago. Books like Aussie Nibbles (see the Penguin website) are fantastic for young readers to make the jump into reading novels, when previously you had to plough on with fairly uninspiring (I thought) books for beginning readers.

There are some fantastic early chapter books. And once kids feel they can read these on their own, it doesn’t seem like such a big step to tackle something longer with smaller writing. I think early chapter books are fabulous. (And I’m trying my hand at writing one!)

My son recently read his first book from the Aussie Nibbles series (The Girl Who Fell Into a Book by Julia Lawrinson). He read it in one sitting, curled up on the couch. He was very excited about reading a chapter book, and when he had finished, he handed it to me and said, ‘you should read it, Mum. It’s a good one!’

He now brings a large stack of Aussie Nibbles titles home from the library every time we visit. And he chooses them himself. This is a thrill for both of us!

What books did you read as a child?
I loved picture books, even when I was (supposedly) too old for them. Picture Books that I remember were books by Shirley Hughes, like Dogger and Sally’s Secret, and other books like Harry the Dirty Dog (and the others in the series), The Story About Ping, and Tikki Tikki Tembo.

I loved fairytales and folktales. When I was six I dressed up as the queen from Rumpelstiltskin for the school book week parade. My mum made me a list of names on a long piece of white felt. (And my teacher came as a pirate with an enormous octopus slung across her shoulders. I was terrified!)

One of the first chapter books I read was Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Tree Farm. I was hooked! So I read a lot of Enid Blyton (especially the Enchanted Wood/Faraway Tree books, and the Secret Seven series), followed by Beverley Cleary, Roald Dahl, Milly Molly Mandy books, Robin Klein and any ‘make and do’ type books I could get my hands on (I liked craft!)

Name five of your favourite children’s books.
These are five of my favourites and not necessarily my five favourites (I can’t pin down my five favourites): Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson, The Naming of Tishkin Silk by Glenda Millard, Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park, Nim’s Island by Wendy Orr, When We Were Very Young and Now We are Six by AA Milne (I have it in a combined volume, so it counts as one book!). Oh and I have to include Anne of Green Gables. Ok, that’s six. And the Narnia books. That’s seven …

What is it about children’s books that fascinates you?
The way a story can be told so perfectly in so few words. And the music in those few words. This is especially true with picture books. Books for adults just don’t seem to me to shine the way that children’s books do.

And I love it when I read books with my own children and then they start using some of the words or phrases in their own speech.

Describe yourself in five words.
Enthusiastic, friendly, loyal, responsible, old-fashioned.

If you could do any job in the world, what would it be?
If I couldn’t do Alphabet Soup anymore, I’d like to be a fulltime kidlit writer. But if we’re talking about a nigh-on-impossible-except-in-a-fantasy-world job, then I’d love to be a children’s book illustrator. (Sadly art is not one of my talents – I’m working on it!)

What advice would you have for parents on helping encouraging reading and literary saturation for their kids?
Get them their own library card - it’s free!

Have a selection of print materials available at home. (If you both join the library, you can borrow around 8 items at a time, each. That’s a lot of books, comics, newspapers and magazines to have lying around, calling to be read.)

Have pens/pencils/crayons and paper within reach so children can write when the mood takes them.

Read books to your children. (And continue to read to them even when they can read independently!)

Make time for yourself to read your own books.

What’s next for Rebecca Newman?
More of the same! Family, reading more from my ‘to read’ pile before it topples over, polishing Alphabet Soup, and working on my own writing. And pottering about with art materials.

Anything else you’d like to say?
Alphabet Soup is starting a new club for kids under 12, and it’s free! Undercover Readers is a book review club - kids can write reviews of books they’re reading, and go on our list of club members who would like to receive free books to review.

For more information, visit the book review page on our blog.

Parents and teachers can request an application pack by emailing the editor: editor@alphabetsoup.net.au.

For updates and news about our writing comps, or book-related events, you can find Alphabet Soup on these sites:

Website: alphabetsoup.net.au
Blog: soupblog.wordpress.com