Creative non-fiction writer Maria Gill was last week announced the 2020 winner of New Zealand’s top literary prize for children’s writers, the Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture award.
Given annually since 1991, the award honours lifetime achievement and an outstanding contribution to New Zealand publishing for children and young adults.
In this interview, Maria tells us about her work, what's on her bedside table, and her best tips for reading aloud.
You’ve published a large number of books for young readers, and you’ve also worked as a teacher. How does your background in education shape the way you write?
When I’m sending a proposal to a publisher, I will often outline how the project fits into the curriculum. While I’m writing the story, I am thinking of my audience and the most common environment it will be read in i.e. schools.
So I’m thinking what will hook kids in if they’re reading it for entertainment but also thinking how they’ll use it if researching for a school project. It’s why I’ve often included timelines, mini biographies, and other social studies tools.
Afterwards, I write teacher notes for the book and that’s where my teaching skills really come to the fore. I often include Readers Theatre scripts so that kids can read aloud an excerpt of the story; it gives them a deeper understanding of the historical story. Plus it’s great fun when they act it out with me when I’m giving an author talk presentation.
You’re one of our Writers in Schools. How long have you been visiting schools, and what do you like about that work?
I jumped into visiting schools right from the first book 15 years ago. I was a bit nervous at first but have since visited hundreds of schools and love giving interactive, entertaining and informative talks. My goal has been to get more kids reading non-fiction so I’m showing kids who might not pick up a non-fiction book for enjoyment how interesting these books are.
I use roleplay, readers’ theatre plays, quizzes, questions, PowerPoint and videos to give a more in-depth look at how books are made, what’s behind the story, and so kids take-away a deeper understanding of the subjects covered in the books.
You coordinated a website called Kiwi Write4Kidz for a number of years. Can you tell us a bit more about that?
When I started out, I wanted to hear authors talk and do workshops but there was nothing out there for children’s authors on a regular basis. Storylines was doing a fabulous job with yearly events, but I wanted something monthly that I could attend. So, I decided to do it myself with a team of budding authors. We’d organise author events, workshops and attend events together. We kept it going for 13 years but stopped it when our writing lives became too busy to keep it going.
99 percent of our members, including the committee, were beginning authors at the start, but by the end over 50 percent of us were published authors. We still meet up for lunches, at literary events and we’ll probably be lifelong friends.
You’ve written books for children on everything from earthquakes to dogs. How do you decide what you’ll write about next?
My favourite type of writing is creative non-fiction so I’m always on the look-out for stories that would suit that style of writing. I jot ideas down and suggest them to publishers. Also, nowadays, publishers will sometimes suggest a theme. For example, New Holland suggested I write a book on earthquakes and Scholastic asked me to write a disaster book (coming out mid-year). It’s often when I’m researching a book that I get ideas for future books.
We recently published a piece on our blog about parents reading to their children. Can you share with us some ideas for how parents can help spark a love of reading in their children?
Kids love it when you put ‘on the voices’. So tell the story with flair and flamboyance. Go to the library and as well as letting them pick out books, find books (fiction and non-fiction) on subjects they’re interested in but also expand their world and pick books on things that are going on in their community, country and the world. Try out all sorts of genres. Don’t think just because they pick out just one type of book that’s all they’re interested in. That’s just what they’re comfortable with and it’s your job to expand that world.
Which books, poets or other writers have been special to you in your life? And, which children’s books?
I loved Margaret Mahy’s clever, quirky stories. Her description of the sea in The Man Whose Mother was a Pirate is the best I’ve ever read. Henry Lawson’s poetry about the Australian countryside, while growing up still stay with me. (Though, I read his biography recently and it put me off him a little bit.) Love Fleur Adcock’s poetry, too. Favourite non-fiction books were Gerald Durrell’s stories about growing up in Greece and starting a zoo. I review New Zealand children’s books for kidsbooksnz.blogspot.com and we’ve got incredible talent in this country. So I’ve always got lots of books on the go and I enjoy receiving those weekly parcels of fresh books.
What are you reading right now, and have you got any book recommendations for us?
Haha, so I’ve got a few on the reading pile. Lost Wonders: vanished creatures of Aotearoa by Sarah Ell, illustrated by Phoebe Morris; a non-fiction book that really hooks you in. It’s a book I’ll dip in and out over a long period because they’re so much to take in. Those Sugar-Barge Kids by Jon Tucker – about a group of kids living on boats. Reminds me of Enid Blyton and my childhood staying in a bach with two families up North. An adventure story kids will enjoy. And I’m reading a ton of books for my Masters’ in Creative Writing research project.
Books I’ve reviewed and read that I recommend include: New Zealand Nature Heroes by Gillian Candler; for young conservationists. Really well written and thought out. And I’m a huge fan of Bren MacDibble, Rachael Craw, and Brian Falkner’s books so I’m always looking forward to see what they’ve got out next. Ben and Rachael have books in progress. Brian’s got a new one coming out very soon called Katipo Joe, which sounds fabulous. And in January, I read Sue Copsey’s Wife After Wife and loved it; an enjoyable light but clever read that hooks you from beginning to end.
What’s next in line for you, Maria? Any new book projects in the works?
Ice Breaker: An Epic Antarctic Adventure illustrated by Alistair Hughes has just come out. Alistair’s watercolour pictures are just stunning. It’s a nail-biting adventure that 8-14-year old kids will enjoy.
Marco Ivancic is finishing illustrations for Disasters in New Zealand and How we Respond. It’s coming out with Scholastic mid-year. Marco is a genius at action scenes. I’ve included historical and right up to December 2019 disasters. I’ve written them in creative non-fiction style so kids will find the stories captivating. I’m also finishing another book for Scholastic but that won’t come out until 2021.