I'm excited to present this interview with Mio Debnam! Mio is a children's and young adult book writer and editor, and the regional advisor of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) Hong Kong. Read my conversation with Mio below to learn all about her work, SCBWI Hong Kong, and the children's and young adult book scene in Hong Kong.
Please share your love story with children's and young adult literature. :o)
My love of books started when I was just a tot – my parents read to me a lot, and I loved hearing stories. With regards to reading, I think I can pinpoint the birth of that interest, to when I was about six, and I had my tonsils out.
You know how, for many kids, the only silver lining to a tonsillectomy is limitless jelly and ice cream? Well, sadly for my poor mother, I hated both, and went on a hunger strike. To persuade (bribe!) me to eat liquidized soup, Mum went down to the second hand bookshop and bought me the full set of Enid Blyton's Secret Seven series... I can't remember what I did with the soup, but the books I devoured... and asked for more!
By the time I was better, I had read every single Enid Blyton book in the shop - a considerable number - and was ready to hit the library and bookshop to expand my horizons. I haven't stopped reading voraciously since!
As well as the manuscripts I read for work, I read a wide variety of published books: from picture books, to MG and YA novels, graphic novels and adult books – both fiction, and non-fiction. I read them partly to keep up to date with the market, but mostly for pleasure.
I can’t remember really ever ‘giving up’ children’s books, but I did go through a period when I read mostly adult literature in my late teens and twenties. However, I renewed my acquaintance with children’s lit with a vengeance about sixteen years ago when my first child was born – it is so wonderful sharing all my old favourites and discovering new treasures with her, and with my son too.
I know some adults turn their noses up at children’s books and think them somehow inferior, but just because their language may be simpler, and they may be slightly shorter, doesn’t mean they aren’t any less well written, or less gripping, or that they don’t deal with many of the ‘real’ issues that affect us all, be we young or old. Perhaps the recent spate of cross-over YA/Adults hits means that others have become aware of this too – I hope so!
What was your path to publication as a writer for young readers?
I can’t remember when I wasn’t scribbling stories! I wrote little stories and poems all through primary and secondary. I was the editor of the school newspaper in secondary school, and when I went to university in the UK, I worked on the college newspaper too. However, I’d always thought of writing as something one could only do as a hobby, so after I graduated, I turned my sights away and worked in finance - for over a decade. Somewhere in the middle of that decade, the urge to write started to niggle, and I began going to writing workshops and critique groups... I got my first story published in a literary magazine almost by accident, when the chap running a short story workshop submitted it for me... First I knew of it, was when I got a phone call from the acquiring editor – what a rush that gave me!
I’ve always written for both adults and kids, but I have always preferred to write for kids. Maybe it’s because I remember so clearly what it was like to be a kid, how I felt, what I thought... Arrested development? Maybe!
I sold my first middle grade historical novel about ten years ago, but it was never published as the company folded - very disappointing. But since, I have had a middle grade fantasy (Earthxia – Cash City published by The Big Picture – sadly out of print now), several educational readers (including Pirates of Cheung Chau – which was the most popular of the six I wrote) and four picture books published (of which Jifu’s Twist of Luck published by Haven Books is the best known).
[Mio doing Jifu's Twist of Luck readings at bookshops:]
What are your (literary and non-literary) influences and inspirations as a writer?
So many books have made me laugh and cry, shout or whimper. They have all been inspirational, but it’s hard to pinpoint one. But my biggest influences are my writer friends - most of all, the many people who have supported and encouraged me in the SCBWI family – in particular, those who have been in the critique group with me for so many years. It's their insight, their friendship and their encouragement which have kept me writing.
You are also an editor. What led to your becoming an editor? What are some of the books you edited?
When I gave up finance to spend more time with the kids, I decided to go back to my great love – literature... I wasn’t sure one could make a living as a writer of fiction, so retrained as an editor.
I did courses, and also worked with some good editors, watching what they did, and asking them to look over what I did, to learn the ropes (mostly as free labour in exchange for knowledge!). Being the critique group coordinator for the SCBWI group for about six years also helped me hone my sense of story/editing skills.
At first I did all sorts of editing: from copy for charities, magazine work and business and technical stuff, I took anything and everything on, to practice and improve. I did tons of work, and took any courses that came my way, including online courses... and slowly managed to migrate to the good stuff – fiction! I’m lucky in that I can now pick and choose the work I do, and can specialize in children’s literature, though I do take on occasional adult projects if they pique my interest.
I've worked on a whole bunch of disparate books, from a biography (for adults) to dry business text, from textbooks, to picture books, to novels (both for adults and for kids).
Most of the stuff I've done in the last five years has been for young readers – from picture books for toddlers to teen novels.
The most recently published book I edited was a YA thriller called The Spider’s Web – set in Hong Kong. [Ed. note: The Spider's Web was published in Hong Kong October 2009. It will be published in the US and Canada May 2010.] It was fun to work on, and it's a great read too, thanks to the author Adrian Tilley's tight plotting. In coming months, the same publisher - Haven Books, under the Young Haven imprint - will launch another two books both MG/early YA which I've edited.
The first, which is called Chase to the Brazen Head, is a seat of the pants adventure story with Chinese historical themes, by Greg Payne. The second is a fantasy set half in Ancient China and half in Lancashire by an author called Peter Cain.
Another project I worked on recently as an editor, was a series called Kids4Kids 2009. This series started with a competition, where primary aged kids wrote and illustrated their own picture books – sometimes alone, sometimes in a group. Three winners were picked for publication. The kids/schools who participated in the project have undertaken to sell the books, once published, so that their proceeds can be given to charity. This year’s recipient will be Room to Read.
It was a privilege to be able to work with such talented kids. The quality of some of the writing was amazing.
You were editor-in-chief of two daily children's newspapers for four years. Can you tell us a bit about those newspapers and your experience working on them?
The two newspapers are called the Daily7 and the Daily10. They are aimed at primary school kids – and their goal is to get the kids to read for ten full minutes a day (apparently the average length of time an adult spends reading the paper each day). We cover news around the world, as well as having in-depth feature articles. In the fun weekend edition, we feature art and writing from readers, as well as games, jokes etc.
I'd been an editor for many years when I got this job, but I'd never worked on anything daily, with such a tight deadline before, so it had a steep learning curve!
It was a great experience... lots of fun, and also the content was very interesting – I know all sorts of obscure facts now and I’m pretty good at Trivial Pursuit!
The hours were tough though, and I found myself working longer hours than when I was in the financial markets, so after four years, I took a back seat, and went back to fiction editing. I am glad I did the job though, because, apart from learning that writer’s block disappears when you haven’t got the luxury of time, I learnt to be really tough with myself when I was writing. The tight wordcount of a newspaper column means that every single word has to count for something.
The best bit of the job was the fact that there was so much interaction with the readers. They sent in their art, asked questions, and sent in their writing, for consideration to be published. I love working with young writers!
Do you consider yourself more of a writer than an editor? Or more of an editor than a writer?
In recent years, if you look at my output, I’ve been more of an editor than a writer due to time constraints, but I’m hoping to make more time for my writing in 2010. I miss writing!
How would you define children's literature and young adult literature in Hong Kong? What are the challenges and rewards of being a writer for children and young adults in Hong Kong?
The scene is small, but definitely growing! We have a number of small presses who publish children’s books in English, and a larger number who are working in the Chinese language. The good thing is that because the market is much smaller, the publishers here are far more approachable than they are in the US or UK – and more willing to help writers work with their material until it is up to scratch. However, the challenge for most writers in HK is becoming known outside of Asia!
Who is the best-known children's book writer in Hong Kong?
There are quite a few writing and illustrating in Chinese, but although I’ve flicked through several of them on the shelves, I’m not very up to date with their names (I can’t read Chinese!), so I’m going to talk about English books...
Hong Kong’s bestselling children’s author, is without doubt, Nury Vitacchi. He writes for all ages, and is a lot of fun to read! His latest books - the Jeri Telstar series, are illustrated by Eamonn O'Boyle, who also illustrated many of his picture books. He is known internationally for his Feng Shui Detective series.
The other author I should mention, although she is not strictly Hong Kong is Roseanne Thong (she’s presently living in the US – but she had a lot of China based picture books published by major US publishers whilst living here).
What are the current trends in children's and young adult publishing in Hong Kong?
I think the trend is, sadly, away from picture books, which are expensive to produce, and more towards novels, especially those which may have crossover appeal. However, I think the picture book will never completely die!
In terms of Chinese language publishing, I think things are looking rosier. Many years ago, I’m told, it used to be the case that parents had no patience for fiction and reading for pleasure. They bought only educational books for their kids... so as a result, even the fiction which was produced was didactic and not fun to read. I think of late however, there has been a trend towards more reading for pleasure, and whilst a lot of that need has been filled by translations of books which have been hits abroad, there are now university courses in Chinese for writers and illustrators of picture books, and also the first ever Chinese language picture book competition was held this summer, so hopefully the writing and illustrating culture will continue to grow.
What is it like to be the regional advisor of SCBWI Hong Kong? What kind of work do you do for this role? Can you tell us about some of SCBWI Hong Kong's activities this past year? What are some plans for next year?
Being the RA of SCBWI is wonderful – it has allowed me to meet and exchange ideas with all sorts of literary people, both those aspiring to be writers and illustrators, to those who are well published, to industry professionals.
To date, as an RA, I’ve planned and organized events through the year. I look after the books, keep track of the members, oversee critiques and act as the conduit of news etc to the SCBWI family around the world.
This year has been extremely busy for us (and for me in particular!) so I’m happy to say that within the last couple of months, two very capable members have agreed to take on the positions of critique coordinator and event manager... phew!
You asked for a rundown of what we’ve done... well, apart from a very active monthly critique group, we’ve had a number of other events:
January: Social dinner – where apart from catching up and networking, we shared our favourite children’s books.
Feb: We invited Laura Rennert, Senior Agent of the Andrea Brown Literary Agency USA (the top agency for children’s lit) to HK, to give two talks open to the public, as well as share a members only lunch with us.
March: We had a series of members only dinners, starting with a dinner talk with award winning Aussie writer, Susanne Gervay, then one with Elizabeth Laird (another award winning UK writer of MG/YA) and Tony Ross (he needs no intro!).
April: A public talk with writer illustrator Barbara McClintock followed by a members only dinner with her.
May/June: just the regular critique meeting
July/Aug: summer hols
Sep: Autumn social with a mini workshop on breaking writers block.
November: a 2 day event including personal one on one critiques/talks/dinners (some public, some members only) with Alvina Ling – Senior Editor at Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, NY.
[Members of SCBWI Hong Kong with Alvina Ling:]
And later the same week, a dinner talk with Chris Cheng – another award winning writer and educator from Sydney.
[Members of SCBWI Hong Kong with Chris Cheng:]
We’re quiet in Dec – just our regular critique meeting, but in 2010, we hope to have a New Year social (maybe with a small craft workshop). We have a dinner planned with Canadian Author Deborah Ellis in early Feb, then dinner with some of the visiting lit fest children’s book authors in March... and if all works out, we’ll be inviting an Art Director from a big publisher in NY to come for an Illustrators’ Day in early June.
I haven’t thought any further than that!
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing the last round edits of a MG novel, have just started first round editing of another YA thriller, and am evaluating a fantasy novel – all for work. With regards to my own writing, I’m editing a pic book and have a MG novel in progress. I’m also working on a commercial writing project too, but can’t talk about it quite yet!
Thank you so much for sharing, Mio! I wish you the very best for your writing and editing.
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