Moon and Sun: An interview with Melinda Szymanik

Missbeecrafty interviews award-winning New Zealand author, Melinda Szymanik about her latest picture book, Moon and Sun.

Missbeecrafty: Moon and Sun is a lovely picture book and Malene Laugesen’s stunning illustrations really bring your words to life.

I’m curious how you go about writing a picture book, when you aren’t the one drawing the pictures?

The story idea is the thing from which everything springs, and the most important job is to find a really good one. I think less about the pictures when I first start writing, spending all my efforts on making the story work and getting my ideas across through the text in an engaging and accessible way. But even though my forte is words I am conscious of the fact that a big part of a story’s accessibility will also be through the artwork. So I know the text needs to enable a different picture for each double page spread, and that not everything needs to be spelt out in the text because the pictures can do some of that work. I know that the words need to talk about things that can actually be pictorially represented and that the resulting artwork will need to be appealing to the audience. And I’ve learnt all that through reading a LOT of picture books, and through the trial and error of writing a lot of picture book stories 🙂

Do you have a strong idea of what the pictures should look like, or do you leave that entirely to the illustrator?

I try not to have too strong an idea about the artwork because I know my limitations when it comes to artistic skills. I really don’t want to influence or limit the illustrator so I say very little about what I think could be in the pictures and it is unusual for me to talk at all with the illustrator when they are working on the book. Someone with incredible skills like Malene is going to come up with much better ideas than me and I would only say something if there had to be something in a picture that wasn’t mentioned in the text or if I felt my words had been misunderstood (and this has never happened over eleven picture books). As a writer my job is to write the text so well that the illustrator gets what I’m on about and runs with it.

The story is one that I’m sure many kids, especially younger siblings, will relate to. Are you a younger sibling? Can you tell us more about your family?

I am the youngest of four (two sisters and a brother) with a bigger age gap between me and the rest of my siblings, and being so much younger I always felt like I would never catch up to the others. They would always be wiser and more mature and more stylish and interesting than I could ever be. I also have three children of my own, but with my two daughters it has been so interesting to see them swap the roles of Moon and Sun at different ages. In the end I’m not sure it’s always the younger sibling who feels like Moon, I think we all secretly feel like her sometimes. And I think the story reflects that because Sun has her insecurities too.

So you, like Moon, sometimes felt that you lived in someone's shadow?

Oh definitely when I was growing up. I think it’s just human nature to feel that way, and it’s good to be reminded that we’re not less or more, just different, and that that’s a good thing.

Sun tells Moon that the world would be lost without her. What would you be lost without?

I’d be very lost without the people I love the most. But I’d also feel like a rudderless boat if I couldn’t write.

Sun reminds Moon of what makes her special. If Sun were to tell us about a special talent of yours, what might she tell us about?

I like to think I write pretty well, but I’m also a good cook and have some serious sudoku skills.

Moon & Sun

You've written quite an eclectic mix of books! I had fun reading some of your earlier books, especially two deliciously dark and funny lupine tales. The Were-Nana is another story about a younger sibling. Having a mischievous teller of tall tales for an older sibling myself, I really enjoyed Simon’s come-uppence at the end! Did you have anyone in mind when you created his character?

Hah, the Simon character resonates with a lot of people. My eldest sister (eight years older than me so often the unfortunate baby sitter of the rest of us) liked to tell us a few spooky tales when Mum and Dad were out and she was in charge. But I think we all have the capacity to tell each other stories for the fun of seeing the other person’s reaction and there is definitely a little bit of Simon in all of us (and a fair bit of Stella Rosa as well). Simon is the poster boy for the power of storytelling 🙂

I also enjoyed Sharing with Wolf, especially the twist in the tale. It was much darker than I expected! Can you tell us more about the ideas behind this story?

The story was partly inspired by the housing/rental issues we have been experiencing but I’ve also always felt that wolves have had a bad rap with people blaming them for all sorts of bad and violent things over the centuries. Real wolves seem much more noble and unassuming creatures and I have a bit of a soft spot for them. I meant to rehabilitate the wolf in my story but unfortunately there is no denying they are still an apex predator. At least they never pretend to be anything else and if only Lamb had stopped listening to the sound of his own voice and listened properly to the Wolf ‘things’ might have been avoided.  

Of all the books you’ve written, is there one are you especially proud of, and why?

I love all my book children but I’m especially proud of the ideas in my picture book Fuzzy Doodle, and of my novel A Winter’s Day in 1939 which is based on my Dad’s experiences – I feel so honoured I got to tell his story.

Can you tell us what you’re working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new secret picture book project which may or may not be related to another book of mine. It may all lead to nothing or could be something very fun indeed. Wish me luck.

What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

I love reading books – picture books, children’s novels, YA novels, grown up fiction. I like exercising my brain with jigsaw puzzles and sudoku, and exercising my body with long walks (good for story thinking too). I like watching movies, hanging out with my family and travelling to far-away places when that is possible.

What were your favourite books when you were young? And what are you reading now?

I was a voracious reader when I was young and I have many favourites, including Where the Wild Things Are, all the Fairytales, The Sneetches and Other Stories, The Outsiders, The Lord of the Rings, A Wizard of Earthsea series, The Dark is Rising series, The Little House on the Prairie series, the Flambards books, anything Margaret Mahy, and many, many more that I just pored over and gobbled up and stored inside me. I’ve just read Dawn Raid by Pauline Vaeluaga Smith, which is terrific, and so topical right now with the call for the Government to apologise to the Polynesian Panthers over the treatment of Pacific Islanders in the 1970’s, and now I’m reading Gullstruck Island by Frances Hardinge which is amazing – I love her books.

Catalogue record for Where the wild things areCatalogue record for The outsidersCatalogue record for The sneetches and other storiesCatalogue record for A Wizard of EarthseaCatalogue record for Dawn raid

Finally, the past year has been a strange one! Are there any experiences you’ve had or things you’ve learned in the last year that you’d like to share with us?

If you give bread dough a little extra time to rise it always turns out better. This can also probably be said of story writing. And strange times can have strange effects on creativity – it’s best just to roll with it and be kind to yourself.

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