Melissa adores the magic of stories and spent a large part of her childhood escaping into books and a large part of her grown-up years discussing and writing them. She was an English teacher for ten years, and a journalist for another 10, but she’s been a writer her whole life and is very excited when she gets the chance to share her stories. She loves it even more than sharing cake – and she really likes sharing cake.
Melissa lives in Tanzania, East Africa, right now. She has lived all over the world and, although she is originally from England, she says her heart is African. She loves to take photographs, to sing and to hang out with her two children.
- How long have you been writing children’s books & what inspired you to begin?
The honest answer is, ‘I don’t know!’ I think I’ve always written them, even when I was a child myself. I have always loved stories; the ability to escape to anywhere and make anything happen is pretty addictive. But I began taking writing stories seriously around 6 or 7 years ago. Having been a journalist for some time I realized that the facts just weren’t as much fun as the things I could invent! I am always ‘working on a novel’, but the picture-book stories often take over as the ideas shape up and take on a life of their own, insisting that I write them them down. I love everything about the process – even the tricky parts where you question yourself.
As for what inspired me to begin… in many ways it was a sort of a drive, something that was always there. I’d spent my school years filling notebooks with poems (mostly terrible ones!) and stories and ideas. But I do remember having a bit of a career crisis moment somewhere between teaching and journalism and my dad asking me, ‘Well, what job could you do that you think would make you truly happy?’ and the answer popped out of me as a bit of a surprise to both of us: ‘I’d write books!’. Little did I know what a learning curve I was embarking on – one that will probably never end!
- What was the inspiration behind this new book (Sam’s Shadow Braves the Night) & what do you hope to accomplish through this book?
Sam’s Shadow emerged from a blend of two things really – first came a story set in the night time with a character called Imagination who was causing all sorts of problems. I had scribbled this in a notebook at around the same time as my son, then 3, had started waking up at various times of the night and having bad dreams. At the time I did not connect the two things but I did a huge amount of psychology research to try to understand what he was going through and to get him back to sleeping through the night with no anxiety. As part of this process we invented ‘the lovely stuff’ – a little bedtime ritual, after his story and before we turned out the light, which focused on all the lovely things (and people) he had seen, done, eaten, played etc that day. It not only solved the sleep issues and sent him off to sleep, focused on all the wonderful things in his life, but it stuck! He is now six and still requests that we do this most nights.
It was only when I found my old scribbles about Sam and Imagination that I saw the connection with my son’s bedtime anxieties that I began talking with psychologists and teachers about my story and that’s when I started to get excited about polishing this up and bringing it to life. When Lauren said she was on board and excited to create a totally new style of illustrations (compared to the work she did on ‘Hide & Seek Hippo’, which is also super beautiful) then I really knew it was the next story.
- How has the response of readers/parents been to the book?
Honestly, due to all the circumstances that have gone alongside the Corona pandemic, this story’s exposure has been very limited: from cancelled school visits and launch events, to the lack of postal service where I live and my own initial mental state in response to all the fear and anxiety around us, everything seemed to grind to a halt. However, we did manage the initial launch day – which was a really beautiful event and people were so enthusiastic and positive. We even had a little boy in a shadow suit who came to act out moments from the story – and guess what his real name was? Yup! – Sam! Plus, the carefully selected beta-readers (teachers, parents, psychologists and, of course, children!) were all so wonderful throughout the journey from first draft to launch.
Comments like this: “My 6 year old loved it. Love the activities. Illustrations are incredible and story flow is just so clever. Amazing! It also generated quite a lot of discussion and questions which was really nice. I can’t rave about this enough, I want to buy it now!“
Really helped to propel us forward!
In fact, some of my favourite comments have referred to the many conversations this story seems to stimulate with little readers – lots of questions and investigations.
“What a unique, beautifully illustrated story. Truly genius idea and so much in it to leave you thinking and questioning. Since engaging with the story it’s come up in many discussions at bedtime!“
Actually, I have created all sorts of science experiments around shadows and lots of creative challenges to help children explore the concepts this book raises and that’s been loads of fun.
The cat has also been a very popular side-character and the rhythm and rhyme has gone down very well, which I am so pleased about as this took so much careful work.
I am hoping that we can pick up again in September and revive the school tours we had planned for Tanzania, Kenya and England (and anywhere else anyone wants to invite Sam & Shadow!).
I also think, with all the pressure families are under in the midst of Covid-19 and the subsequent return to school etc that will now follow, that this is a good time to be talking about children’s mental health. Not that the story does this directly, but it is very present as a theme and the back pages offers a wonderful, proven, positive parenting solution for children who are dealing with any sort of night time anxieties in the form of ‘the Lovely Stuff’.
Even before Corona hit I was getting comments like this one:
“Huge congratulations on the book! – great concept and very current I think, especially in school with lots of focus on mental health, anxieties, positivity etc.“
- How has the current pandemic affected your writing & has it created new avenues for you to explore with regards to reaching readers and marketing & promoting your book?
Initially, although devastated over the cancellation of many of Sam’s Shadow’s events, I was sure this was going to create the calm I needed to work on my YA novel and it did, sort of. I have managed a complete re-plotting and around 20,000 words, so that’s a good start. However, I still have a long way to go and it quickly became clear that my two little ones needed more of my time than I was giving, so taking large chunks of time to concentrate just wasn’t an option. What I have been doing instead (in smaller chunks of time) is to edit the next picture book, create online schooling material for several schools in the UK, and release an eBook version of ‘Sam’s Shadow Braves the Night’ so there’s always work going on.
What’s been interesting is the way that ‘Hide & Seek Hippo’ (my first book) has re-emerged during all this. People have sent beautiful messages and pictures showing how much their children love the story. Also, in the context of the current state of the world and the vital learning so many of us are doing in support of Black Lives Matter, the story seems to have struck a chord and I am so happy to hear that. Its theme is centred around all we have in common and the fact that it’s these, not our differences, that build friendships so it’s a lovely message.
I wish I was better at social media, for the sake of both my book babies. I have felt that self-promotion in the midst of so much chaos and complexity didn’t feel right and have withdrawn rather than be a pioneer, finding new ways to reach readers – not the right approach, I now realize! Why? Because I am currently sleeping with over 1,000 copies of my beautiful book stashed under my bed! But I am getting back on the horse now and Sam and Hippo are emerging back into the world.
- Do you have any future projects lined up?
My third picture-book, which is due to go to print in August and is currently being illustrated. It is very different again. This time it was a commissioned work for a very specific task. I was asked to create a story to support children who have conditions that mean they need to take medication every day. It seems there is very little in the picture-book world that does this without being over explanatory, or using a great deal of ‘fight’ language to empower the child (the good guys, bad guys, super heroes, tackle, destroy, defend, attack etc) . What I was asked to write was something without race or gender, and without the bleakness that hospitals and doctors can bring.
What has emerged is a magical African fable about the River of Stories and a tricky Crocodile Weed that must be managed if the stories are to continue to delight everyone who comes to hear them. It is an allegorical tale with lots of supporting content in the back pages, but it stands alone as a lovely bedtime story regardless of the child’s state of health or level of interpretive understanding. I am very excited about writing something that I really hope will help families who are coping with the daily challenges and heartache of sick children. And even more so since I have seen the initial sketches from our illustrator – this promises to be a really beautiful book!
I will also be getting back to work on my novel – a dystopian story set in Africa in a city where Creativity is banned with a view to managing future conflict.
And, top of the list for right now, I want to re-book all my school tour dates and get everyone to fall in love with Sam and his lovely Shadow, the way I have.
Beyond that, I always have ideas bursting out of notebooks and I love the natural connections that come from life – I am currently preparing a photography contest entry (I’ve been out taking portraits of beautiful faces wearing masks during the days of Covid-19), whilst I work with a friend on her exhibition and helping another friend to edit her book. All of these projects inform each other and reach beyond what one person is capable of alone. I love the vibrancy of that and have been so grateful to all the wonderful people who have done the same for me in terms of support and adding their skills and insights. I actually have a theory that in this life all we can do is make memories and leave legacies – these projects are what I call ‘legacy projects’: heartfelt endeavours that educate and/or potentially leave a mark beyond our lifetimes, certainly beyond our egos. I love this – it is so inspiring and joy-bringing. That, for me, is what life is all about. That and the excitement of never quite knowing what’s around the corner. So the answer to the question is yes – many, many future projects! Bring it on!
Below are a few images from Melissa Kay’s picture-book, Sam’s Shadow Braves the Night
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Click the image to get a copy of Melissa Kay’s books on her website.