I'd like to introduce all of you fabulous readers to Filipino children's book author Russell Molina. Russell has just won two - TWO!! - Philippine National Children's Book Awards for penning Tuwing Sabado (Lampara, 2009), a picture book about a unique and touching father-son relationship, and Lub-Dub, Lub-Dub (Bookmark, 2008), an excellent biography of the founder of the first pediatric hospital in the Philippines. (Click here to read reviews of the books.)
I hope you enjoy reading my interview with Russell below! I think you'll find his thoughts on writing children's books inspiring. I sure did!
Why do you write children's literature?
I have so much respect for children. I think they are the most original and most creative thinkers in the world. They are never afraid of challenging convention and breaking rules. Every single day, I strive to be like them -- be child-like in the way I approach life. I think you get truly insightful ideas just by seeing the world through their eyes. Stories are conversations and they are my way of making a connection. I write children's books to take in some of that child-like magic and energy.
Children are also the toughest critics. If they hate something, they rarely hold back. So asking them to spend a couple of minutes just to read your story can be a tall order. That's a good motivation -- knowing that you have a tough audience that is hard to please. That is why whenever I start to write for them, I think of two important words: SO WHAT? Once I'm ready to answer that question, that's the only time I start to dive into my story.
Can you please guide us through your writing process? What happens after you ask SO WHAT? and dive into a story?
I do not really follow a system when I write. Different stories, especially when research is involved, present different processes. What is crucial for me though is the thinking more than the writing. The most challenging part is the moment when you let the ideas simmer inside your head. Some call it the incubation period.
For me, I always think of the characters first. I do not even begin to explore the whole plot or paint an ending if I know I don't have the characters' profiles right. I think about what they look like, what they eat, what they wear, how they respond to certain situations, how they talk -- details like these are very important in giving depth to your characters. They become real. They become believable. And children respond better to real characters with real emotions. Sometimes my characters write the story for me. If you really know your characters well they will dictate the plot and even the ending of a story.
I also write for a real person. I do not just write for 6-12 year olds. I write for a boy in our neighborhood. I write for this little girl in the playground. I write for the little Russell inside me. Together with knowing your characters, you also need to know your audience well. You can only capture the humor, the language and their sense of play if you anticipate how they would respond and react to your words. If you know your character and your audience already, everything will fall into place.
What inspired you to write Tuwing Sabado?
I've always wanted my stories to open new doors for children. I see my books as avenues through which children can discover new things about their country, their culture, their environment and in a large part about themselves. In Tuwing Sabado, I presented a concept of a family that is beyond the ordinary. I think the whole idea of a Filipino family is now evolving. Even family structures, roles and relationships are changing. So there is really no one way to paint a picture of a happy home.
I also wanted the story to provide a voice for those children who have suffered discrimination. I hope children affected by this fear of judgment and rejection would pick up this book and realize that they are never alone in this world and that there is nothing wrong with being different. I hope they find solace in the fact that a parent's love really knows no limits.
What about Lub-Dub, Lub-Dub? You chose a wonderful way to write the biography of Dr. Fe del Mundo. Where did you get the idea for the story?
I believe children do not really distinguish books based on labels like non-fiction or fiction. When it comes to picking books, I think their rule is simple: Will I enjoy this? That's my premise in writing this story. By blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction, I can present Dr. Fe del Mundo's life-story in the most enjoyable manner. Instead of just doing a list of accomplishments, I wanted her experiences to be relevant to the young readers. That is why I took on a more personal approach by using a child as my storyteller.
How does it feel to win two National Children's Book Awards?
Initially, I felt extreme pressure. An award does that to a writer sometimes. Whatever you write post-award will now be judged against that new standard. Whenever you write something new, you'll have that nagging voice asking "Is this worthy of an award?" So instead of being confident, you become a little insecure with your craft. But I guess that's the whole point of the 1st National Children's Book Awards -- not to write for awards but for the reader's enjoyment. By creating a list of good reads (with no ranking), a new yardstick has been created with the young reader's need back in focus.
It is such an honor to be a part of the 1st National Children's Book Awards and I hope that my books will be instrumental in inspiring other writers to take that leap and weave more magical stories for children.
Thank YOU, Russell. And congratulations on your awards!