Meet the Author: Sean Taylor

Welcome to Elephant Notes . . . our periodic take on some of the ideas, issues, and news impacting parents, children, and reading.

February 2020

We were extremely fortunate to interview Sean Taylor for our February Author of the Month. Sean has won numerous awards and written over 50 children’s books throughout his career. In his spare time, he visits schools helping encourage young children’s imagination. He says, “it’s now clear to me that going on adventures to wild, new, imaginary places in stories is as important as learning how to spell.”

Elephant Books couldn’t agree more!

For The Snowbear, Sean teams up with illustrator, Claire Alexander, who has written and teaches her own course on illustrating children’s picture books. Claire’s charcoal crayon illustrations are sparse, but convey the sense of wonder and adventure in the children’s faces after a fresh snowfall. Their big round heads are sure to delight your young reader.

In this winter story, Iggy and Martina awake to find a blanket of new snow and their adventure begins. A gentle reminder from their mother is forgotten when the children sled further down the hill then they planned. Fortunately, their Snowbear comes to the rescue.

We hope you enjoy learning more about the book and its author even if we left one important question unanswered in our interview. Is the Snowbear real? What do you and your child think?

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You have written over 50 books for children; was being an author always your career plan?

When I was a teenager, my school held what they called a ‘Careers Evening’. You could ask to meet someone who did a particular job – an engineer, a vet, a lawyer, or something like that – and they would try to get along a professional from the area of your choice. I asked to see an author. (They found one too!) So, yes, I suppose I had an idea that this was something I wanted to do.

But it wasn’t a ‘career plan’. Writing books is not the sort of work that you can plan out very well. How could you know what you’d end up writing? How could you know how it would be received!?!

My path to becoming a children’s author involved doing lots of other jobs along the way (teaching, publishing, journalism, work in community arts, among other things.) And just about all the authors I know have zig-zagged where they are, like this. What’s more, writing for a living is a journey that involves false-starts, failures and rejections as well as the uplifting flashes of inspiration and the projects that become books. So was being an author always my career plan? It would be more truthful to say: ‘being an author has meant choosing to walk a long and winding path.’

You spend a lot of time working with children in schools to awaken their imaginations. Has this work helped inspire some of your books?

I wouldn’t be writing books for children if I hadn’t done the work in schools. Teaching came first.

In the early days I mainly wrote poems for adults. As a local poet, I was invited into schools to help children have a go at writing poems themselves. Working in schools, with all the learning-adventures, dramas, comedies and emotions that go on in them, was what first made me write for (and about) children.

I came to write books specifically set in schools (my Purple Class series for 7-10 year olds, for example.) And many other pieces of writing have been sparked by the funny, truthful and inspiring things I’ve heard school children say, or seen them do.

Where did the idea for The Snowbear come from? Was there a real Snowbear?

I’m sorry to say there was no real snowbear.

Strangely, I wrote the story when I was living in Brazil, where my wife is from. I remember it was a very hot afternoon (33 or 34 degrees outside!) So how was it possible to imagine myself into such a wintry story? Partly childhood memories. We got snow quite often when I was a child growing up on the south-western edge of London.

The Snowbear‘s opening lines:

‘When Iggy and Martina went to bed, everything was the same as usual.

But snow came in the night.

Snow. Then more snow.

And when Iggy looked out of the window, the whole world was white.’

are exactly what I remember a fall of snow being like.

But it wasn’t just my memories of snowy days that made it possible to write The Snowbear. I also tapped into beautiful, magical ways that winter has been depicted in other people’s writing. For example, Tove Jansson’s Moomin Valley series (a huge influence.) and the book I mention in the dedication, at the start of the book: The Fox and the Tometen by Astrid Lindgren.

My dedication reads:

In memory of Astrid Lindgren and Harald Wiberg.
Their book The Fox and the Tomten took me into the snow,
and left something inside me when I came back.

The child-like illustrations in The Snowbear really bring you into Iggy and Martina’s sledding adventure. How did you and the illustrator, Claire Alexander, find each other and work together.

It’s usually the publishers who pair up picture book authors and illustrators, and this was the case with The Snowbear. My editor at Quarto Publishing, Matthew Morgan, suggested Claire might be the one illustrate the story. I couldn’t have been happier with the idea.

If there was some magic in my story, Claire’s illustrations brought it to life threefold. I love Iggy and Martina – the children at the heart of the story – their busy togetherness in the snow, their apprehension when things go wrong, and their wide-eyed speculation at the end.

On the surface, The Snowbear a sweet story about two children who want to enjoy some fresh snow, but they run into some trouble when their sled goes just a little too deep into the woods. To us, however, it seems like a story meant to inspire the imagination. What do you want young children to take away from your book?

I’m glad you see it like that! Because it’s what I intended, when writing the book. I wanted The Snowbear to be a page-turning adventure. But I also wanted it to be a story about how vivid the imagination can become when children are playing.

Iggy and Martina make a snowman which becomes a snowbear. They get into trouble. The snowbear comes to life and saves them. But how much of this actually happens? How much is imagined? I don’t know. Perhaps Iggy and Martina don’t know!

The easiest stories to sell to the publishers are the knockabout, laugh-out-loud ones. So I’m always extra-pleased when a more reflective and poetic book, like The Snowbear, gets chosen for publication. The second picture book that Claire Alexander and I published – Humperdink, Our Elephant Friend – is in the same vein. And I’m hopeful we’ll be working on a third book soon.

Do you have any “talking points” or suggestions for parents that might help create an interesting discussion after reading your book?

At the end of The Snowbear, what do you think actually happens?

Does the snowbear melt?

Or is it down in the woods and still alive?

What is the best part about being a children’s author?

I’m lucky. I like all of it. Even the windiness of the path.

When you look around at the current state of kids and reading, what are the biggest challenges for parents or opportunities to address?

There’s more competition for young people’s attention than ever before. So parents have to work at keeping alive what’s special about books and reading.

And it’s worth it – for the sake of our children’s well-being.

The famous 18th century writer, Samuel Johnson, said, “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.” When you’re reading, your mind is much more active than when you’re looking at a screen. You have to step inside characters and imagine their experiences and emotions. You learn to empathise. That’s just one of the very important things that develops in our minds as we read.

I think of the literature for young people as something like a campfire. Children are drawn to it. It warms their hands. It warms their hearts. It puts colour in their cheeks. It delights them. For generations and generations, brilliant storytellers, writers, poets and authors have made sure there’s good wood on the fire, and parents, in turn, have shown their children the way to it. And there’s a wonderful opportunity to do that every night. The best way to encourage a lifelong love of books (and all that comes with it) is simply to read to your children as they grow up. I’ve written specifically about this on my blog:

And I’m pleased to say I’m still reading to my eldest, even though he’s just turned 13.

Are you working on anything new we can look forward to reading?

I have a trilogy of monster picture book stories coming out from Bloomsbury. They’re funny and have been illustrated by the brilliant Fred Benaglia. Look out for the first title: Monster! Hungry! Phone!

I have a collection of poems for under-7’s coming out with Walker Books in 2021. It’s called The Dream Train. The poems are all about night-time, sleep and dreams.

I’m engaged in a fruitful collaboration with a scientist and environmental campaigner called Alex Morss. We wrote a book published last year called Winter Sleep. It combines a bedtime story set in snow-covered woodland with a whole lot of fascinating information about what animals do in winter. Alex and I are finishing work on a follow-up title called Busy Spring.

Lastly, I have a new picture book coming with Jean Jullien (who illustrated Hoot Owl, Master of Disguise, and I Want to Be in a Scary Story.) That one’s called How to Be Cooler Than Cool!

Sean thanks for sharing so much with us about your work and how you came to be a children’s author. We love The Snowbear and look forward to the multiple titles you have coming up on the horizon!

If you’re interested in learning more about Sean Taylor, you can visit his website here. To learn more about his collaborator, the illustrator Claire Alexander, you can visit her website here.

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