Magical books and cakes: An interview with Barbara Else

Barbara Else is a well-known New Zealand author. She has written novels for both adults and children, as well as the wildly popular Go Girl: A Storybook of Epic NZ Women. Her latest book Harsu and the Werestoat is an exciting fantasy story for children. Library blogger Missbeecrafty talks to her about the book and its characters and asks about Else's favourite reads from childhood and now.

Harsu and the Werestoat

Daama is a truly awful mother! She reminded me a little of the parents from Roald Dahl’s Matilda (although she is a different kind of awful). I’ve read that your novel Tricky Situations has been described as even funnier than Roald Dahl. What is it like to be compared to such an iconic author?

It feels very nice indeed, especially when it’s to do with making children laugh. Chapters from Tricky Situations are good read-alouds when I visit schools. There’s one where I have to sing which gives kids a surprise. I’m not sure if Roald Dahl sang to schools.

Do you enjoy Roald Dahl’s books yourself?

Definitely. I love his Revolting Rhymes. I also love the Willie Wonka books. Roald Dahl gave me permission to adapt ‘Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator’ for the stage, which I did for a Wellington drama group. His agent became cross and said it should never have happened. I don’t think Roald or I cared much.

Who was your favourite author when you were a child?

Catalogue link for Mr Galliano's circusEnid Blyton, especially Mr Galliano’s Circus which I’ve just discovered was her only attempt at an adult novel. It was turned down by the publisher so she cut out the best bits and turned them into a kids’ book. I also loved ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ and its sequels, and any collection of legends and fairy tales that came into my grasp.

Is there a book you’ve read recently that you really enjoyed?

Just one? I’ll pick The Rift, a YA novel by Rachael Craw. It’s very exciting indeed, set on a weird island that could be near any country in the world, so I imagined it close to New Zealand. A pair of remarkable teenagers are trying to save a rare herd of deer from evil hounds that come through The Rift. Edge of your seat! Gasps!

That sounds an exciting read! I'll have to look out for it! 

You are obviously an avid reader. In your book, Harsu struggled with reading, and his desire to learn to read was really important to the story. I struggled with reading as a child, and was intensely embarrassed that I couldn’t read as well as the other kids at school. It was great to read about a character who struggled with reading, and wanted so much to learn.

Can you tell us about your experiences with reading as a child?

Reading was my favourite activity. I clearly remember managing to read my very first book, aloud, when I must have been 5 or 6. From then on I wanted to be lost in a book every moment.  My older brother and sister grew fed-up with me continuing to read aloud even at the dinner table. They said, ‘Barbara, you can do it quietly, in your own head!’ Do you know what? I tried it and they were right. I was amazed.

One of the things that stood out for me was the “looking cakes.” I love to bake, and decorate cakes, and I especially liked the sound of Blanche’s butterfly cake.  Birthday cakes are one of those wonderful parts of childhood, or they should be! My Mum made some great cakes for my birthday, the one I remember best is the horse cake, which was made of chocolate cake, and featured a “field” made of green jelly. Daama making beautiful cakes and not letting the children eat them, sounded to me like next-level meanness for a Mum! Can you tell me more about where that idea came from?

Bronwen, I love the sound of that horse cake!

The looking cakes. It would be awful, not to let children eat their own birthday cake. But I did hear of someone who used to make two cakes, one to be eaten, the other only to be looked at. I took that idea further, with glee.

Do you have any birthday cake memories from your childhood?

I remember my mother making a cake in a pudding bowl so when it was iced with a doll stuck down the middle it was a crinoline skirt. I thought it was magic. 

She used that same puddling bowl once – and only once – to give haircuts to me and my sister. That was not magic.

Do you like to bake yourself?

No. I always drop the sugar, or leave out a crucial ingredient, or have to dash to the shop to buy one I forgot, or muddle up the order to do it all in, and I shout a lot.

But I love presenting a cake to family and friends, watching it disappear then watching second helpings disappear too.

What is your favourite kind of cake?

I have a gorgeous recipe for sour cream lemon cake. I’m planning to do it tomorrow for a few of the favourite men and boys in my life.

I loved how much Harsu cared about the children that Daama kept adding to the “family.” He was a wonderfully caring character.

How many brothers and sisters do you have?

There were four of us, two much older than me, one younger.

I really enjoyed the time travel aspects of the story and reading about the different places Harsu and Daama visited. Have you travelled to lots of different places in the world?

I’ve been to a few: the USA, Mexico, the U.K., France, Italy, Spain, Austria, Switzerland, Finland and Denmark. Oh, Australia and Fiji.

And where is your favourite place?

My very favourite place is New Zealand.

If you had a time gate to travel through, what time-period would you visit? Who would you most like to meet?

I would love to visit Elizabethan England and meet two famous playwrights, William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe.

I’d also love to visit New Zealand before anyone came to live here. It would be beyond marvellous to hear this country brimming with bird song.

Are you a Sci-fi fan?

Catalogue link for The sparrowI love it. I used to read heaps, though not so much now. These days I like adult sci-fi such as The Time Traveller’s Wife and The Sparrow

Did you study History at school?

History was my second favourite subject.

And your first favourite?

English, English, English. And Drama.

My daughter was given a copy of Go Girl for Christmas. I really enjoyed reading about some of the wonderful New Zealand women I’ve always known about, and learning about many that I didn’t! It must have been a wonderful book to work on!

Go Girl

Who did you most enjoy writing about?

It truly was a wonderful book to work on. I learned a great deal about some women I’d not heard of beforehand, like choreographer Parris Goebel and tennis player Ruia Morrison.

It was a challenge to figure out the best way to tell everyone’s tale. I particularly liked writing about the artist Rita Angus. In the end I decided to tell her story backwards, starting with the cottage she lived in when she was old and ending with when she was only just old enough to hold a pencil.  

And it felt like a great honour to be able to write about some of NZ’s amazing Māori leaders like Dame Whina Cooper and the astonishing warrior, Ahumai te Paereta.

Who did you find the most rewarding to learn about?

It became a curious way to see an overview of NZ history. When the book started coming together, it was exciting to see how NZ women from all cultures so often went out of their way to help other people.

Sometimes they helped simply by doing their best at whatever it was they were good at and giving a wonderful example of how to keep going.

Was there a woman that you especially looked up to when you were younger?

My mum! She’d been a primary school teacher. She had a real knack for finding something she knew would interest my brother, my sisters or me. Quietly she would set it within reach and leave us to explore it. For instance she was forever putting books near me that would extend me in some way or other.

I’m looking forward to reading more of your books! Thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. 

Thank you, Bronwen. These are some great questions. They’ve made me think! I have to add that since I was tiny I’ve admired librarians. They’re guardians of knowledge, always generous in welcoming children and grown-ups into the treasure house.

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