I thoroughly enjoyed Susannah McFarlane’s previous book Fairytales for Feisty Girls and Susannah has now written a companion book, Bold Tales for Brave–Hearted Boys. Both these books are full of child-appeal and are lovely gifts.
Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Susannah.
A pleasure, thanks for the opportunity!
Where are you based and how are you involved in the Australian children’s literature community?
I am based in Melbourne and I work as both a writer with a number of publishers and as a publisher myself. I am currently Head of Publishing for Bible Society Australia.
You have written a number of highly popular books. Could you tell us about some of these?
I have a written a few trade non-fiction titles (Heartlines: The Year I Met My Other Mother (Penguin-Random House) and Love in a Lunchbox: Tales of a Modern Mum (Hardie Grant) but I think my heart is in writing for kids, particularly primary school age.
I also love writing series fiction as you can really build a connection with both character and the readers. As with EJ12 Girl Hero, EJ Spy School (Scholastic) and D-Bot Squad (Allen & Unwin, written with Louise Park) you can tell an over-arching story as well as the story of each book.
I probably have a heart-favourite in Emma Jacks, the 10 year-old hero of EJ12 Girl Hero. Originally based on my daughter Emma, and spanning 21 books, it was my contribution to tween feminism, to showing girls they could do great things, even when they didn’t quite believe it themselves. And I got to be a secret agent, something I have always wanted to be ….
Your new book Bold Tales for Brave-Hearted Boys (Allen & Unwin) has four stories derived from traditional tales. How did you select which stories to include?
They were the stories that got me wondering the most. Why was Jack made out to be the hero in Jack and the Beanstalk when he was really a disobedient thief? Why didn’t we as readers side with the giant who was having his things stolen? And what about the Prince who rescued Aurora in Sleeping Beauty? What was going on in his life besides rescuing princesses? I thought I’d like to flesh him about a bit so he became more than a sword-wielding cardboard cut-out prince who perhaps had thoughts and feelings of his own.
I also wanted to show the softer side of boys to boys. That, as I write in the verse at the start, ‘strong is more than muscle and might: it’s following your heart do what’s right.’ We undervalue perhaps the importance of softness as a strength, particularly in boys and I wanted the tales to help give boys permission to show that side of their characters – and see how it triumphed. A little bit of twenty-first century tilting to talk to today’s kids.
How closely (or not) did you adhere to the original stories? How did you decide which elements to change?
I think it is important to keep the skeleton, the narrative rod, but then play with the bits that hang off that, fleshing out some bits that are under-developed, leaving out bits that perhaps don’t speak so loudly into today. I read lots of previous versions before deciding how mine would go.
There are some lovely messages coming through your versions of these stories. Could you tell us about one or more?
Thank you! I think it’s the role of stories to help us understand the issues of life and how best to deal with them, both as adults and kids. In Jack and the Beanstalk, the message is one of forgiveness: Gentle Jack (my giant) has a choice when he catches that pesky thief, little Jack – will he punish him or show mercy? I won’t give away the ending!
‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ is currently being mentioned in the media and popular culture. Why is this tale so resonant at the moment?
I think because it is about calling out the truth, something that seems to be increasingly missing in action these days. The story fascinated me – with all the sycophantic, reputation-protecting adults feeding the lie of the Emperor’s non-existent new clothes, what about that little boy who calls out the truth as the Emperor parades in his bloomers? Was it just the voice of innocence? In my story, the boy has a battle with himself to stand up and tell the truth to protect his friend, the young Emperor. That’s a battle going on in playgrounds, classrooms and offices right now so the tale, as fairy tales so often do, speaks loudly into lives today and encourages our brave truth-tellers.
In ‘Hansel and Gretel’ you describe the gingerbread house and the sweets on and around it so well I had to go and eat some lollies. What are your favourite lollies – the ones in the story or others?
Ha! It is probably one of the most beautiful illustrations in the book and I totally understand how it might drive you to the lolly jar! Just the thought that everything is deliciously edible: a roof dripping with icing (one of my favourite things is cream cheese icing on carrot cake); boiled lolly fruit trees and honey-combed trellises! My favourite sweets are probably those from my childhood – fantales, fudge and fairy-floss (that was unintentionally but amusingly alliterative!).
How do you craft your writing to be so accessible and appealing?
I don’t know but it’s very nice of you to say so. I think I just try to get into the head – and heart – of my characters and that’s what readers perhaps connect with. I often think I’m not very good at describing things and places but better perhaps with describing feelings.
Each of your stories in Bold Tales for Brave-hearted Boys is illustrated by different artists. Why was this decided and how was each artist selected to match the story?
As each character has his own voice, we (the clever people at Allen & Unwin and I) wanted to show that with a different illustration style. And what fabulous illustrators they selected!
What is your overriding aim in writing books for children?
I hope I write stories that not only entertain but take them somewhere so they might finish the story a little more equipped to deal with the world and themselves than they were before they started.
How can your readers contact you?
I love hearing from readers! What a privilege that kids might spend their time in one of my stories. They can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Thanks very much for your responses, Susannah, and all the very best with Bold Tales for Brave-Hearted Boys and your other books. You are doing wonderful things in the children’s literature sphere.
Thank you so much, Joy!