Author Karen Collum talks children’s books—and why they matter
Writing a children’s book is simple, right? A couple of hundred words, a few illustrations. Done. Well, no.
Manifest alumna Karen Collum is the author of four illustrated children’s books. Part of her success comes from her training as a teacher and her experience as a speaker and storyteller (and her role as a mother of four). Signs Publishing Book Editor Nathan Brown asked Collum:
Why did you start writing books for children?
I’ve always had a passion for children’s books. Throughout my career as a teacher, I used picture books in my classroom every day. I’d always harboured a secret desire to write and, one day, I plucked up enough courage to try.
“Try” undersells your success. Tell us about your writing and publishing projects.
I’ve had four picture books published. Fish Don’t Need Snorkels and When I Look at You are both published by Autumn House, the Christian label of the Seventh-day Adventist publishing house in the United Kingdom, while Blow Me a Kiss and Small and Big have been published in Australia. Along with picture books, I have a few novels for children on the go. I also write scripts and poems and performance pieces for churches and schools as needed.
What makes a good children’s book?
For me, a good children’s book resonates with a child. They see themselves among the pages, but they also experience something beyond themselves. My favourite stories are those that empower children to make the world a better place.
They look simple and easy to write, but how much work goes into writing a picture book?
The short answer: lots. Some books percolate in my mind for years before I even begin the writing process, while others start on paper and I work them into shape over time. I can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years to get a picture book manuscript just right. With only 500 words to tell a story, each word must earn its place in the manuscript.
What interaction have you had with those who illustrate your books?
Not a lot. I sometimes speak with them for the first time at the book launch. It’s important they have the freedom to interpret the book and create a strong visual narrative to sit alongside the text. Among my books, I especially love the playful illustrations in Fish Don’t Need Snorkels and the colour palette and collage feel to the illustrations in Small and Big.
What inspired you to write Small and Big?
I’m often inspired by real-life events. I was finishing a swimming lesson with my three boys, who were small at the time, and I was pregnant with our fourth baby. All I wanted to do was get home and get everybody fed and into bed for a nap. Jacob, one of my twins, suddenly disappeared from beside me. I went to find him and was about to growl when he looked up at me with his big, blue eyes and said, “Mummy. Look at this beautiful leaf.” In my haste—my desire to look only at the big things—I had almost missed the joy of something small. I then chose to enjoy the beauty of the leaf with him and set aside my agenda for a few moments. It was a beautiful moment of connection. The book explores what friendship is like between two people who are different and how their differences enrich each other’s lives.
Why does this kind of book matter?
As a picture book author, I have two audiences: parents and children. Small and Big is an important book because, when it is shared with a child, the child might identify more with the characters of Small or Big, but I’m hoping the parents identify with one of them, too. The concept of celebrating our differences and valuing each other’s strengths is something I hope will benefit all my readers, young and old. I firmly believe stories can change the world.