AUTHOR INTERVIEW: Naomi Hunter
This week I'm delighted to welcome author (and publisher at Empowering Resources) Naomi Hunter to my blog. Naomi writes gentle picture books for children which address difficult issues they might be facing, such as losing a loved one, being abused, or seeing a parent deal with depression.
The latter topic is addressed in Naomi's book Even Mummy Cries, which is beautifully illustrated by Karen Erasmus. In the book, three children talk about just how much their mother loves them, and how she shows them this. However, sometimes, "Her face turns pale and the warmth in her arms gets taken away," and "It's like we are ghosts and she can see straight through us."
Even Mummy Cries is a good book for adults to buy children who have a loved one in their life with depression or other mental illness, as it shows them that another person's unhappiness is not their fault, and demonstrates some of the ways in which people can change when battling their own demons. At the back of the book, there are also links to helplines around the world for children to call if they are worried about a family member or friend, or need to talk about their own feelings.
With Mother's Day coming up this weekend, this is the perfect time to celebrate mothers, and to acknowledge that as much as they all try to stay strong and happy all the time, this just isn't possible - and is made even harder when depression, post-natal depression, and other issues need to be dealt with.
Now let's here from Naomi about her writing inspirations, creative processes, favourite books, and more...
Can you tell us a bit about your books, and the themes/issues they explore?
My current four titles are A Secret Safe to Tell, Even Mummy Cries, Finding Heaven, and Marshmallow Dreamers.
A Secret Safe to Tell was released in 2014. It is a nurturing and empowering story of a little girl who learns that it is safe to tell a deep and worrying secret, that it is important to trust her heart even when an adult is confusing her with their touching. This debut picture storybook opens the communication about body safety, heart health, worries, abuse and secrets for children and their caregivers, parents, families, educators and their communities.
A Secret Safe to Tell was nominated and shortlisted for the ABIA’s Best Children’s Picture Storybook from a small publisher in 2015. It transformed thousands of lives from children to adults, including many children feeling safe and free to disclose their current sexual abusive situation after reading it, finding instant validation and comfort.
A Secret Safe to Tell has been translated into Complex Chinese in Taiwan and Simplified Chinese in China. Collaborating with the amazing Rafiki Mwema organisation, we fundraised to produce a beautiful Swahili/English bilingual version with stunning African style illustrations to support children in Kenya and Tanzania who have been sexually abused. This was a huge success and the children found so much comfort in my story, knowing they are not alone in this. I donated all the copies to Rafiki Mwema for their fundraising and we are hoping to do the same here in Australia for our Indigenous community.
We also hope to see A Secret Safe to Tell translated into hundreds of languages to reach as many children and families around the world as possible. It is only through empowering education that we can actually make a difference with the horrifying child abuse statistics.
Even Mummy Cries was released in 2016 and it was also nominated and shortlisted for the ABIA’s in the same category as A Secret Safe to Tell. We took our daughter to the gala event in Sydney last year, which was amazing for her. She was able to meet Andy Grifiths, who she loves and Lauren Childs, the creator of Charlie and Lola. Jeremy and I were pretty excited to meet Jimmy Barnes and to hear him sing. I felt very lucky to be a big part of the industry.
Even Mummy Cries is a gentle book reassuring children that they are not to blame for any sadness experienced by their parents. They are always loved and treasured. It also encourages parents and caregivers to openly express their sadness with their kids without feeling guilt or shame. This story is helping many families navigate the situation of a parent journeying through tough physical or mental health challenges, separation or divorce.
I have two new titles just released and I am super excited to share them with the world! Finding Heaven is about a little girl called Summer whose brother has just passed away. She is sad and misses him but is so sick of crying. Everyone around her says that he is in heaven, so she draws her own travel map and sets of to find her brother! She discovers something truly special and profound… that heaven is in her heart and that her brother is always with her.
Marshmallow Dreamers is a wild, fantastical adventure about Marli and Max, identical twins who ride magical, imaginary unicorns by day, defeating scowling creatures and monsters with their fierce bravery. But at nighttime, they become huddled in fear by night terrors who invade their dreams. It is a fun-filled, sweet story about these two characters discovering their inner marshmallow power and transforming their fear into fun.
Tylah’s Truth is in final illustrations/design phase and it is looking amazingly divine! It is a beautiful journey of self-worth and discovery, finding the courage to go within and face yourself and the thoughts that sabotage how we perceive ourselves.
It is an artistic expression of a young person navigating isolating thoughts and feelings, anxiety, depression, body issues, self-worth and how they pull themselves through it, encouraging everyone to find their own unique, inner-beauty. It is a very special story that I hope will help many young people tackle these issues.
The next two titles are in rough illustration phase: The Visit is a gentle tale of a family of siblings and their dad journeying to visit their mother who is in jail. She made a big mistake and has to spend time away from the family. It is an endearing story to help those children who are in this situation of visitations, and will provide an excellent platform for discussion about empathy, understanding and for any child who hasn’t experienced this situation to grow compassion and understanding.
Please Say Hello is a gorgeous tale of how important it is to smile and acknowledge people, especially the elderly. It tells the rhyming journey of Benny who has a close and extremely connected bond with his grandparents who live just down the street until one day, his dad has to take a job overseas. This upsets and devastates Benny who is in disbelief that he will not be living near his beloved granny and gramps, but also of the thought of how lonely they’ll be without him. The book reminds the reader to ‘please say hello’ to the older folk they see in their day to day lives.
I have many more ideas for books to write and share with the world too… these are just the ones that are in production phases!
What was the inspiration behind writing your stories, and did they change much as you were writing them?
My first picture storybook, A Secret Safe to Tell, was inspired by my own personal journey with childhood sexual abuse and then navigating the unrelenting and deeply challenging healing process as an adult survivor. I wrote A Secret Safe to Tell out of the hope to help others through this isolating and tabooed experience. My absolute motivation was that if I helped just one child feel less ashamed, less alone, less afraid and more supported through sexual abuse, then I would have done something beautiful with what had happened to me as a child. What followed since its release has been an incredibly overwhelming and incredible response of just how my story has positively impacted so many.
It changed slightly as it ventured through the editing stage. Attention to detail was extremely important to ensure that it could be the best, most appropriate and reachable story that also stayed true to the intention behind it. I draw upon a lot of personal experience. My life has been filled with content rich, life-evolving opportunities and I guess my heart is always open to grow and learn from them.
I am a qualified Primary School Teacher and my knowledge in this field has absolutely aided in my awareness of how to reach children and adults with my writing style. I definitely discovered and understood the obvious gap and the essential importance in the availability of nurturing, empowering and educational books that didn’t shy away from addressing sensitive topics. This inspired me to do something about it!
How do you hope readers will connect with your book, and/or what do you want them to take away from them?
I am passionate about writing exceptional books for children and families that empower, educate and nurture them through sensitive and challenging topics. After my trauma-filled childhood experiences, I learned of the isolation, the fear and the debilitating challenges that come when dealing with them as an adult.
My hope is that through my books, children, parents, educators and caregivers can use my stories to provide a platform of essential, healthy, age-appropriate conversations that transform lives, encourage meaningful conversations and create positive change.
Biggest challenge in writing your stories, or in getting them published?
The biggest challenges for me include… Imposter syndrome! Feeling like I can actually write well and achieve the perfect project outcome for what I am hoping for is huge for me. I want my work to be soft and gentle, open meaningful dialogue, create change and connectedness, and always help children feel validated and valued in their experiences. I set an incredibly high standard for myself!
Facing the fear of failure… I work hard at overcoming my fear of failure so I can then put my work out into the world! Writing is such a deeply personal experience and sharing it publically takes such huge courage!! It is an honour to be producing books that help make a diference in people’s lives and it is a responsibility that I hold deeply in my heart and nurture with pride.
Reading reviews… It is a reality that you cannot make everyone happy or like what you produce so that is something I have had to make peace with. Everyone comes to your story with their own personal experiences, emotions, opinions and readiness, so hearing how my work impacts others is sometimes a challenge that makes me nervous. Even with the thousands of positive and overwhelmingly heartfelt messages of gratitude for my books from happy readers, I can sometimes miss truly hearing these because of my fear of letting people down.
Touchy Subjects... It is important to me to always be true to what I care most about writing about and this was a huge challenge in the beginning. I questioned and doubted myself to the absolute finite core when deciding to publish A Secret Safe to Tell. I am so proud of myself for moving through the doubt because I know that I have helped thousands upon thousands of children, teenagers and adults through sharing this story with the world.
Sometimes the greatest fear brings about the most reward. I was so worried about upsetting people because that is what I was conditioned to be concerned about, but in actual fact, my work brings liberation and freedom, safety, comfort and support! So I’ll stay true to producing work that I am passionate about even though it is seen as ‘riskier’ publishing material in this industry. It is evident that it’s what parents, teachers, caregivers and communities are searching for.
Are there any tidbits from the publishing process of this book that you could share with regards to working with the illustrator, or publishing through your own company?
The best attitude to have, in my opinion and experience, is to venture in with an open heart, without ego and with a collaborative spirit. It is this mindset that absolutely produces the best possible outcome for your work. I love working with a supportive team, allowing everyone to share their ideas and visions openly.
People thrive when their voice and vision is allowed to be expressed and valued and it is during these sharing opportunities where powerfully awesome ideas grow! Publishing is a constantly evolving and challenging industry! Don’t be fooled into thinking that as soon as your manuscript begins the production phase that it is smooth sailing… It is actually the beginning of hard work! Rewarding, but deceivingly hard! Believe in yourself and your work.
Do you have any suggestions on ways parents, teachers, librarians, booksellers and readers can get more out of the book?
I have always found that kids love to be included and they love knowledge. They are not afraid of tackling topics that adults may find confronting or uncomfortable. They are wiser and way more capable than we realise. We need to respect their openness and use it to help nurture their understandings of people and the world. They are little powerhouses that deserve the best possible support to grow up knowing and respecting themselves, each other and their environment. It is our responsibility as their adult caregivers to provide them with these opportunities to learn and feel safe to learn about all topics! Be open and honest with them and they will be better humans for it!
Can you let us in on any sneak peeks into your next books or other projects?
It is an exciting time for Empowering Resources, with 12 current titles released and several more in the production stages. We are now distributed by New South Books which shows the major inroads we are beginning to make in stores, libraries and schools around Australia. We are so passionate about producing high quality, beautifully written and illustrated storybooks to nurture, educate and empower children and their families.
A Secret Safe to Tell has been picked up by a Melbourne theatre company and is in the process of being adapted into a stage show. This is super exciting and I cannot wait for opening night!
Do you have a favourite children's book (or top three) that you can never get enough of? What about a favourite book character?
Oh yes for sure! More like a fave author and series… As a young reader, I absolutely loved Emily Rodda’s Teen Power Inc. series and collected and read them all! I was lucky to meet this lovely author (Jennifer Rowe - Emily Rodda is her pen name) at the Australian Book Industry Awards in 2015 when my book was nominated and shortlisted for Best Children’s Picture Storybook of the year. It was an absolute delight to meet her in person and thank her for the gift she gave me in the creative escape of that series. And her reply was something that deeply resonated with me too… “You never, ever get tired of hearing a reader thank you for the books you’ve written!’
What influences do you think shape your writing?
Definitely my past. Being a mum, and having been a primary school teacher too. I am always encouraged by people who comment so positively on our parenting choices/style, so I feel that I have a lot to offer in that respect and then to transform these ideas into meaningful stories in a creative and effective way that reaches my audience is such a fulfilling feeling.
What got you into creating books?
I always dreamed of doing something important in this world and helping in some way. Authoring came to me naturally after studying primary-school teaching and then becoming a mum. It was through this journey that I realised the huge need for well-written, nurturing, age-appropriate, welfare-based children’s books and discovered such an obvious lack of availability and access to them. My passion grew to write and produce beautiful books so that I could help as many children as possible.
Where do you do your writing, and do you have any particular rituals in your creative process?
No set rituals actually, I just know when there is a burning idea and then characters begin to grow in my mind. They bounce around in my mind throughout days, weeks, sometimes months or a year before I even can write anything down about them. I usually write at my laptop and each story is different… sometimes I’ll write the entire story in one sitting while other times it’ll come out in sections. My heart always knows when the story is ready to be written though. I spend a lot of time in nature either hiking, paddle-boarding, running and doing yoga, which is where the story develops and grows organically.
Do you have some tips for other creatives?
I guess the most important aspect of writing is self-belief… If you believe in yourself, you’ll write and that is the most important element of the job! And… write! Don’t be shy, get writing! It is important to leave judgement and critique behind and just go for it.
What about a favourite word or quote?
I am really loving reading and learning from the inspiring Maya Angelou lately and two of her quotes truly resonate with me and the way I try to live each day… “Try to be a rainbow in someone’s cloud”, and “If you don’t like something, change it. If you can’t change it, change your attitude.”
Can you tell us something not a lot of people know about you?
I love being in nature!! I secretly think I am a dolphin and wish I could live in the ocean… Or be one of those incredibly massive old and wise trees in a rainforest! To live amongst the purest, cool air with that undeniably ancient wisdom would be fascinating. Imagine all the lives, the animals and the stories they have been witness to… Now that is incredible!