Everyone knows that books can inspire – but two Hunter authors are hoping their words will also empower young readers with the sense they can do anything.
Writers Jess Black and Sophie Stokes have drawn on their own childhood experiences for their latest picture books, creating stories designed to encourage the next generation of children to follow their dreams.
Jess said her book, Bold Australian Girl – was a reaction to the mass-marketed stereotypes that pigeonhole girls and boys along gender lines.
Featuring stunning illustrations from Swansea artist Fern Martins, the book tells the story of a young Indigenous girl, whose mother whispers words of wisdom to her while she brushes her hair.
“Bold Australian Girl came about for a few reasons. I had a three-year-old and a five-year-old daughter when I wrote the story (they are six and eight years now) and it was partly a reaction to the messages that girls are inundated with to look a certain way, rather than do a certain activity,” Jess said.
“For example, at Halloween the boys have a plethora of superhero costumes to choose from, girls get offered a pretty witch costume (in mass marketing). The emphasis is on how they look, not what they do. Top: Jess Black. Above: Bold Australian Girl by Jess Black.
“So there were these messages that I wanted to create a counter argument to, but also because my childhood involved a great deal of time running around barefoot or riding horses. I didn’t grow up in the country but I spent a lot of time outdoors getting dirty.
“I think that Bold Australian Girl is about encouraging girls (and boys) that they can do anything and that it’s okay to be different.
“If kids can see a thing then they can imagine being it. I hope that both girls and boys take away from the story that the dreams they have for their future can be a reality. Sure, there will be hard work along the way but anything is possible.”
Jess has certainly made a success out of following her dreams, with the Carrington author having published more than 30 junior fiction titles, as well as two children’s picture books.
“I have a background in theatre and television, all for kids. It wasn’t until I had worked at Scholastic as a buyer for their Book Club that I felt I had a really strong grounding in children’s literature,” she said.
“I didn’t have kids of my own back then so I had to immerse myself in the books they loved in order to understand the market and appeal. I finally found the courage to write a story of my own and it has all gone from there.
“I really enjoy the actual writing, especially when I have breakthrough moments with the story and I manage to solve story problems. I love going into schools and spending time with kids and hearing their own ideas for stories. They always blow me away with their creativity.
Getting to chat to a child who has read a book of mine and hearing their opinion is wonderful – I could do that all day.
They’re always refreshingly frank in their opinion and that’s valuable for me to hear (not to mention, entertaining!).”
Fern Bay author Sophie Stokes also loves hearing about children who have read her books – although meeting them face-to-face can be a bit more of a challenge as many of her picture books are sent to schools in Tanzania, Fiji and Greece.
Sophie Stokes at an orphanage in Mbeya, Tanzania.
“I started writing children’s books when I was on a volunteer trip to Tanzania in 2015,” she said.
“I had gone over to help in the orphanage located in Mbeya, Tanzania. There was a young lady on team and we got on like a house on fire!
“As we chatted about our hopes and dreams, we both realised we would love to write a children’s book with purpose. We had both noticed a lack of culturally relevant books available to the children in Tanzania and the books that were available, educationally they were not up to scratch.
“So as we sat in that humble lounge room in the middle of Africa, we penned down the first of many drafts of the book now so lovingly known as Kula Chakula is Hungry. Today, this book is being enjoyed by the children in Tanzania, Fiji, Greece and Australia.
"The most fulfilling aspect of writing a children’s book is when you get news from faraway lands and the teachers are telling you their students love the book and constantly ask for that one to be read in class."
“You know the kids have connected and you are honouring their culture, their language and their way of life.”
Sophie’s books are specifically written for particular cultures, addressing issues that are relevant to children in those countries and using language and illustrations that reflect their lives. They are all written in English but feature subtitles of the local language, such as Swahili, Khmer and Greek.
“The way we come up with the story ideas is we look at that country, usually we have a personal connection with that country and look for possible issues we can address on a child’s level. For example, Sokha Goes to School is about safety for kids on their way to school as trafficking is a huge problem and we address this in the book on a kid’s level,” she said.
“They are all culturally relevant to the corresponding country and are subtitled in the local language of that country.”
Sophie has recently published her third picture book, A Visit to the King’s Garden – which deals with cultural-influenced notions around gender equality.
“My latest book has been floating around in my head and heart for many years,” she said.
“Growing up in Australia in a Greek home was challenging and even confusing at times. When we went to school we were Australians and when we came back home we were Greeks.
“We were living out two different cultures and so when I wanted to play competitive soccer, it was not allowed. You know in those days, girls learnt how to cook and clean and boys did whatever they liked! Because of this, a lie crept into my thinking that boys are better than girls.
“A Visit to the King’s Garden is about a young girl who loves to play soccer with her brother in the backyard but when it comes to competition soccer, her father does not allow her to play, but her brother is allowed. She goes on a journey of discovering she is significant and has purpose.
“I believe many cultures will be able to relate to this story, on so many different levels.
“It’s a book that says your value doesn’t come from your culture, what you do or don’t do, your value comes from whom you are and you are unique and what you have to offer is wonderful… whether you are a boy or girl!”
Visit www.jessblack.com.au to find out more about Jess and her books or log onto www.insofiaskitchen.com.au/exousia-publishing for more information about Sophie’s stor