I'm so pleased today to introduce one of my favourite Australian authors to the Book Chook Blog: Sandy Fussell. I reviewed Sandy's first book in the Samurai Kids series, White Crane. I've also reviewed Polar Boy, shortlisted for a CBCA award, and more recently, Jaguar Warrior. Currently, Sandy is promoting the fifth book in the action-packed Samurai Kids series, Fire Lizard. Fire Lizard is set in the Kingdom of Joseon, and sees the kids face new dangers while almost making a new friend.
Susan: Sandy, I'm fascinated by the lengths you went to in order to help your son stay a reader, and how that led to you becoming a children’s author. Can you tell us the story?
Sandy: I became a children’s author by accident. My elder son stopped reading in 2003 when he was ten. Like all good parents, I panicked and tried everything to get him to read. I gave him books from every genre. He said they were all boring. So I convinced him to write a story that wasn’t boring. I took dictation. His story was based on his playground friends and people were mutilated, murdered and came back to life depending on what happened in the day’s handball game. Half way through, the main character just disappeared because ‘I don’t like girls anymore’. It was so frustrating. So random. However, I didn’t interfere. That would have defeated the whole purpose but by the time it was done, I couldn’t wait to write my own story.
I wrote nine manuscripts for practice. I showed number 8 to a few people and the feedback was promising. Number 9 was Samurai Kids which was accepted in 2006 and became my first novel (published in 2008). In the intervening two and a half years I have written four more Samurai Kids titles, Fire Lizard will be released in September 2010 and book 6, Golden Bat in March 2011. I have also written two historical novels, Polar Boy (shortlisted for CBCA Younger Readers Book of the year in 2009) and my latest release, Jaguar Warrior set in Aztec times.
Susan: It just amazes me that you've gone from a mum scribbling down stories to encourage her son to read, to being a multi-published, and much-loved children's author in so short a time! And your second son also had a considerable impact on your writing?
Sandy: Samurai Kids began life as a stand alone manuscript. Six months later the decision was made to extend it to a series and to illustrate it. Book 1 was re-titled White Crane. I began Book 2, Owl Ninja, based on an idea from my younger son. After I read White Crane to him he asked me: Where are the ninjas mum? But before I could think of a clever response – because at this stage there was no inkling of a book 2 - he answered: "I know, they’re in book 2.” Big joke! But when I was asked if I had an idea for Book 2 – I stopped laughing and started talking about ninjas! There has been quite a cost associated with this. I have discovered creative consultation is not cheap. My younger son is a good businessman who negotiated a box of Star Wars LEGO and a sales percentage for his effort!
Susan: I guess not every parent is prepared to become a children's author, though. Can you share some other things you did or do to motivate your reluctant reader?
Sandy: I still read to my younger son every night. He loves stories but he hates reading because at the moment, it is too much like hard work. But as we persevere and his reading improves, I hope the love of story will begin to lead him. A wonderful idea I found in Paul Jennings’ The Reading Bug was to approach reading as a peer group issue. I never thought of it like that. His suggestion was to ensure your emerging reader kept up with what everyone else was reading or talking about. In other words, read him Harry Potter, Zac Power and lots of Andy Griffiths so he can continue to be part of the peer reading scene. Interactive books are great fun as is reading in turns. Merchandised books also have special appeal. And that’s another key point. To get a kid to read you have to give them something they want to read, not something you want them to read. I’ll climb off my soapbox now *grin*.
Susan: I think the reason your Samurai Kids books have been so well-received is quite simply because kids love them. They're full of action, humour, an incredibly authentic setting, and characters kids can relate to. What's it like to meet young fans?
Sandy: For most children’s authors (and sadly this includes me!) the financial return is not enough to give up the day job. But the privilege of spending time with kids is a huge reward and something I actively pursue. It’s enormous fun. I love school visits. One of the highlights of my writing life was when I was Guest of Honour at the Henry Lawson Festival in 2008 and the street parade included a local school dressed up as Samurai Kids. When they stopped, bowed and hailed me as Sensei, I bawled my eyes out. That was the end of me pretending to be all official and literary for the morning.
I love getting emails and letters and I have a forum – still developing as new members join – where I interact with young readers on a daily basis. You can find it at the Samurai Kids website. We talk a lot about books and writing. We also discuss martial art related topics. And Samurai Kids of course.
Susan: In real life you work in Information Technology. How has this impacted on you as a children’s author?
Sandy: At first it sent me down the wrong track. I thought I would ‘write what I know’ and I wrote a techno fantasy (one of the practice manuscripts) - but it wasn’t very good. My writing improved when I began to ‘write what I love.’ But my experience in Information Technology has been invaluable in helping me provide add-ons for my books. I have three websites – a general author site, a site dedicated to the Samurai Kids series which includes quizzes, trading cards to print, educational resources (such as craft activities, a newsletter, fact sheets, a web quest, classroom play) and a forum, and a blog spot where I exercise my love and support for children’s literature. I produced a Teacher Resource Kit for classroom use with Polar Boy during Book Week. These resources include notes and Interactive Whiteboard activities - two quizzes, a game and a drag and drop story map. They can be downloaded from my site.
Susan: But your passion for literacy isn't limited to writing books. Tell us about some of the other projects you're involved in.
I recently set up ReadWriteZone. ReadWriteZone is a project aimed at fostering an interest in reading and writing though blog-based classroom interaction between students and authors. Teachers provide input on the focus they would prefer for the project and incorporate the blog conversations in their literacy studies. The project is in its first term and I am currently blogging with three schools - Smithfield Public School (NSW), Arncliffe Public School (NSW) and Manor Lakes Secondary College (VIC) for 8 weeks. Ultimately I hope to involve more authors and on ongoing stream of schools.
It is very early days yet but the project is proving popular with students and lively comment-based discussions are in place. I endeavour to add a multimedia element to the exchange and this always encourages comment. Students have logged in from home to check what's happening and they are beginning to engage in discussion across school blog posts, commenting on the discussions I am having with other schools. I hope this leads to direct cross-school conversation between students. Some students are already sharing written work, recommending books for others and contributing book reviews.
Any teachers or students are welcome to join current discussions. Teachers interested in participating next term can contact me samuraikids~at~people.net.au (replace ~at~ with @ when emailing).
I love workshopping with young writers. If I am working with a group for the whole day I usually spend the afternoon writing a group story, consolidating the techniges we learned during the morning. Then I bind the story into a book for shelving in the school library. Most of my workshopping is in schools, although recently I ran a children’s writing workshop as part of the Festival of Sydney, and weekend workshops during my author residency at the Wollongong Art Gallery.
I am currently teaching poetry to a year 4 class. My mission is to prove all poetry is not boring. The interactive whiteboard and the host of multimedia activities available on the Internet are my invaluable allies. I think the favourite poem so far is one of my own childhood favourites – The Highwayman – high action, gunshot wounds and a bit of romance – an age old formula that always works!
Susan: Sandy, (or Sensei as I now think of you!) you've given us so much to think about. I like the Paul Jennings idea about peer group reading – if kids can keep up, and enter into discussions with their friends, chances are their friends might also motivate them to read independently at some stage. I love that you're still reading to your son, and I love the great resources you provide at your web sites. Thanks for giving us these insights into your life as a parent and a writer.