Author of the popular I am Jack series as well as numerous picture books, short stories and young adult books, Susanne Gervay has devoted much of her life to social justice and creating engaging stories on issues that matter to our young people. Susanne Gervay is the regional coordinator for the Society of Children’s Writers and Book Illustrators (Australia East & New Zealand) and is continually on the move with various ambassador roles, and speaking engagements. Her ability to inspire young writers through her themes and engaging presentations is well known. If you ever get the opportunity to book the amazing Susanne Gervay for a school visit – take it!
Share Susanne’s answers to our five questions with your students and inspire young writers in your classroom to engage with social issues and write about the topics close to their own hearts.
Where do you get your inspiration, or your ideas, for your books?
Emotional engagement with ideas is the key. That way our unique voice comes to the fore. What piques my interest and heart, inspires my writing. It can be deeply serious like bullying which I wrote about in my I Am Jack books. Or searching for peace, which is the theme of my picture book Elephants Have Wings. Or refugees making a home as in the picture book Ships in the Field. Inspiration comes from my family, community, the world. Sometimes it is hilarious such as my father’s terrible jokes, or about friendship with all its simplicity yet complexity. Ideas come from the strangest places. From sitting under a tree and imagining I’m following Alice in Wonderland down the rabbit hole. Or trekking through mountains. Or walking along the beach. Kids give me so many ideas. They are funny and wise too. Ideas are about opening your mind to what is around you.
Do you have any tips for teachers to inspire young writers who might be struggling with the blank page?
Before beginning to tackle the blank page, it’s helpful to talk with kids about what they like and hate to do, what worries them and what makes them happy. Breaking the ‘ice’ through group and class sharing stimulates ideas for new writers. It also gives them confidence. I’d ask the children to write a list of what they are interested in – sport, camping, pets, the beach, the impact of fires and so on. This can be their starting point. I’d also have a series of images on scenes that children can refer to stimulate ideas.
Which of your books is your absolute favourite? Why?
That is such a truly difficult question. All my books are my babies and it’s like asking me which baby I love best. My favourite is always my last book. So I reluctantly say my favourite picture book is The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses. However, my new upper middle-grade novel Heroes of the Secret Underground will become my favourite when it is published. It reaches into the deepest part of me – part autobiography, history, philosophy with a splash of fantasy. It goes to the heart of courage and kids as heroes of change in a world that is so chaotic and threatening.
So why do I love The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses? It is a swashbuckling adventure, where carboard boxes become googly-eyed fish and even a pirate ship. Sammy’s a hero, like all kids, until the day he feels different. He gets glasses. His parents, teacher, and family are happy for Sammy because life is no longer blurry. So, the great miscommunication begins. The superhero is still heroic, funny, determined as he uses clever tactics and quick thinking to stay on top. But he’s losing his special powers, as he feels no-one hears or sees him at home and at school. Sammy’s self-esteem plummets until there’s a crisis where Sammy is alone, wearing his big blue glasses. Things have to change. Through humour, self-realisation and the indomitable spirit of kids, Sammy wins the challenge of change. Wearing his glasses, the heroic captain returns, leading his pirate crew on new adventures. That’s why I love this book – because kids deserve to be the heroic captain in their lives.
Which of your characters is your favourite? Why?
It has to be JACK from my I Am Jack books. Why? Because he is based on my son. Jack is a forever friend – brave, funny, smart, loyal, a sometime hero, an all-time kid – gets into scrapes, gets out of scapes – your best mate forever. He’s a character that travels with readers so they always have a friend beside them.
When you think about children reading your books, how does this make you feel? What do you want their ‘take-aways’ to be?
I think of their emails and what they tell me about their feelings and how my books impact on them. It is the greatest gift. Writing is such a long and difficult journey. Not only the craft to get your thoughts onto the page in a way that reaches readers, but the years involved without the knowledge that it will be published. It is a grand obsession to empower kids to they can be all they can be. That is the driver of everything I write.
These are a few of the emails I receive and you will understand why writing books is so important to me. I receive emails on all my books, but these are a few from kids in response to my I Am Jack books:
When I knew I AM JACK was true, I imagined myself in Jack’s shoes. I felt sorrowful and sad as Jack had to put up with bullying for a long time. It would have been a burden forever if I was Jack.
My son was a victim of a false gay rumour at a school camp … by a very gifted boy with his peer group which spread through his year. Why? My son was different-poor social skills but has a good sense of humour. They studied “I am Jack” this term. My son’s teacher told me that Patrick finished the book before the class did. Participated in the class discussion which he is normally very shy in doing all because he identified with Jack. Thank you.
Lisa (mother of Patrick)
I am writing about a current book I have bought and read, I AM JACK. I get bullied at school almost every day and it makes me sick. I just didn’t feel like going to school. I pretended to be sick and stay home for the day. I’ve talked to the School Counsellor, I’ve tried to tell my mum, I’ve thought of getting back at the bullies, but all these things don’t seem to work. But I AM JACK inspired me to tell everyone that I am being bullied. It makes me feel great and today I treated my mother with respect (I wasn’t doing that ….)
The cemetery scene really resonated with Maisam as both his parents died in Afghanistan. He is comforted by the thought that they are watching over him and that he can talk to them at anytime, just like Nanna and Jack do with Grandad.
Susanne’s newest book is the fabulous, moving timeslip novel, Heroes of the Secret Underground. Inspired by her own family’s escape from Budapest during The Holocaust, Susanne Gervay manages to weave historical fiction with fantasy as she takes Louie and her brothers on a journey back in time – to the winter of 1944 in Budapest.
More information about the wonderful Susanne Gervay can be found on her website.
Keep an eye out, too, for the teaching notes, put together by Kellie at Just Right Words, to accompany Shadows of Olive Trees, a beautiful YA novel written by Susanne Gervay.