Author finds the fun in words

University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence...
University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence Melinda Szymanik: ''I think life is just this great big thick opportunity to learn as much as possible.''
Writing springs out of being fascinated by things and wanting to share that fascination with other people, Melinda Szymanik, this year's University of Otago College of Education/Creative New Zealand Children's Writer in Residence tells Charmian Smith.

As a child, Melinda Szymanik was always reading and keen to see if she could write, but kept it a secret for many years.

''My husband always says he didn't even know I wanted to be a writer when we got married,'' she said with a laugh.

The Auckland writer has been in Dunedin for the past six months, working on several books - one about Polish refugees who came to New Zealand in 1944, a young adult fantasy, and a picture book that is a riff on nursery rhymes and fairy tales.

Growing up in New Zealand with Polish parents, she hesitated to think she could become a writer, as she thought all writers came from overseas.

There was little New Zealand children's literature in those days.

However, after she had children she returned to university to do an English degree.

Originally she had studied zoology because of a fascination with birds, animals and the physical world - history geology, geography - she said.

Since then she has completed a diploma in business and is on to her last paper for a diploma in children's literature.

''I think life is just this great big thick opportunity to learn as much as possible,'' she said.

About 15 years ago she finally decided to give writing a go, and started sending stories to publishers.

After three or four years, things began to be accepted. They were all children's stories. She loves children's books and reads them herself in preference to adult books, she said.

''I've been thinking about this recently and made the joke the other day on Facebook that it's because I don't want to grow up because adults don't make adulthood very appealing.''

She likes the sense of hopefulness in children's literature that can be absent from adult literature.

''I like the freedom with the form. You can be more imaginative and more adventurous in what you do and I think children find that exciting. They are much more willing to embrace things.

''You potentially lose some of that with adult writing. I guess I find it more fun and there's more freedom for me. It seems to suit me. I feel more comfortable there and it's worked well so far.''

As her children got older, she broadened her writing to include young adult fiction, she said.

She has published around 10 books so far with two more coming out next year, picture books, junior fiction and young adult fiction as well as numerous stories in various anthologies and journals.

The most recent one The Song of Kauri (Scholastic) is released this month in both English and Maori versions for Maori Language Week.

It was inspired by an image in a short film she saw at a film festival some years ago, she said.

''As we were walking out I turned to my husband and said that would make a really good book. It only took 10 years to wrangle it into shape!''

After a visit to Waipoua forest and seeing the giant kauri Tane Mahuta she began to think about what a tree that lives that long might have seen and what it might think, she said.

''I don't think you could do that in an adult book, but that's the beauty of a picture book. It's a kind of potted history of New Zealand and a bit of an environmental story.''

Another recent publication is A Winter's Day in 1939, based on her father's story of growing up in Poland during World War 2 and the family being captured by the Russians and sent to work in the country.

Her parents, both from Poland, met in Britain after the war, married and moved to New Zealand where her father's younger brother and sister had come as child refugees in 1944.

Szymanik has a fascination with words.

The more she has written, the more she has appreciated their power, she says.

''Words are very powerful. You can hurt people or make them happy with words, but there's also a lot of fun in words and what they can convey and how they can convey it. I like wordplay and I find that's more useful when I'm writing picture books because you are so limited when it needs to be less than 1000 words and ideally less than 700, so each word has a very important role to play in the whole story. I try to make the most of it and make it fun to read and, I guess, a little challenging as well. It's an opportunity to introduce new words and make the words themselves part of the enjoyment of reading for children. It's nice to show children that words are more than just a direct form of communication.''

She is also aware parents are tired at the end of the day and want to read stories that trip easily from the tongue, so rhythm is important.

A future book is even coming out in rhyme, she says.

Szymanik prefers to write in the afternoons but she does not have a strict schedule as she says she needs time to rest and feed her mind.

''Sometimes you need to just do nothing and sometimes the ideas are slow in coming and you have to let your mind work on them subconsciously, and at other times you have deadlines so you have to dangle the carrot and work through it.''

She likes to rewrite and titivate as she goes so she doesn't need to go back too far to change things. However, with picture books she prefers to get the idea and the complete story down as quickly as possible, then spends days going back over it and honing it.

''Because you have so few words, it's checking every word fulfils its job, doing the best that single word can do to be part of the whole.''

One of her pet issues is the genderisation of children's books.

Boys tend to pick up boy-centric books and many girls go for ''pink sparkly, fairy, unicorn and magic rainbow'' books but when she was a child she read widely, choosing books because they looked interesting rather than whether they were for boys or girls, she said.

''I'm really interested in whether we've influenced how girls and boys perceive books and whether we should be doing something differently in the future. Girls have an advantage there because they read more widely; they have a better handle on boy things as well as girl things. Is there a concern that boys are missing out on understanding more about the female perspective? It's a really interesting debate and I wish we had a better understanding of how it all works.''

Besides her traditionally published books, she has e-published a teen and a junior novel. Although children's digital books are not usual here, they are common overseas, she says.

''Once you put the e-book up, it's there in perpetuity. It doesn't have the same sort of shelf life a printed book does.

It's just an opportunity for me to put things out that might not be picked up by a mainstream publisher but which I feel are still a decent story.

With several other children's writers, she runs ''fabostory'', an online writing competition for children.

They provide the first paragraph and children have to finish it.

Each fortnight one of the participating authors judges the stories, gives feedback and awards prizes.

There is a good response and children enjoy it, she says.


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