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Writers' Room: Mei Matsuoka on Children's Books

  • By Sam Sedgman
  • 16th April 2013
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Writer and illustrator Mei Matsuoka is the author of 'Footprints in the Snow' and many other books for children. She's also a tutor on Arvon's 'Writing for Children' course. We spoke to her about the unique challenges of writing for a young audience, the differences between English and Japanese storytelling, and why people are wrong to think degrees in the arts "are a cop-out".

What drew you to children’s stories and illustration? What appeals to you about this genre more than other kinds of art or storytelling?

As a little girl growing up in Tokyo, I was always drawn to picture books. My father encouraged us to read Tezuka Osamu mangas and we watched all the Miyazaki Hayao (Studio Gibri) animations as soon as they were released. In primary school I spent a lot of my time in the library, even my lunch breaks, where they had a brilliant collection of picture books, comics, mangas and illustrated books from all around the world. I saved up most of my pocket money to buy mangas – horrors and fantasies were a particular favourites. Sequential illustration played a big part in my childhood and I was always creating manga and stories of my own, some of which I have still kept.

Illustration appeals to me as a genre more than other kinds of art or storytelling because I am constantly amazed by the wonder and ability of how – using a simple idea – it can communicate a message to the majority of its audience, whatever their backgrounds or beliefs.

I think it’s important for art to be able to reach a general audience – not just those ‘in the know’ – and I enjoy illustration, animation and graphic design for that reason. All these genres communicate a message or story that may be concealed, but is not indecipherable. Children and adults can extract a different level of meaning from these messages – which is my own experience when re-engaging with old favourites from the past.

What’s the hardest thing about writing for children?

I have to stay conscious of the fact that I do not want to impose a certain way of thinking – which may be derived from my own experience – on to them. I suppose this doesn’t necessarily sound like the norm in children’s books, but I actually dislike stories that are actively trying to ‘educate’. It gives me far more pleasure to be inspired by a story and to think and wonder further about the meaning of it. I like the idea that “a new born baby is the ultimate philosopher” – uncorrupted by any outside influence and free to believe with no boundaries – and I try my best to nurture and inspire this gift with ideas, rather than close it off with so-called ‘facts’.

But as all persons of a certain age would struggle to free themselves of ‘what’ and ‘who’ they already are, it is also difficult for me to constantly keep myself in check and to write with this concept in mind.

You graduated from the Kingston University course in illustration – how important was that course to your development as an artist? How much do you think writing courses, or art courses, can offer?

The course at Kingston was vital to my development as an artist. I learned to see illustration in a completely new way and discovered amazing artists who continue to inspire me. One of the best things about the course was how they drilled into us the true importance of being able to really draw.

It’s often thought that an art degree is not a proper degree and that it’s a bit of a cop-out. But for me, I spent the whole three years completely immersed, working all hours and I still felt that I had so much more to learn. Writing courses or art courses can offer much if you are open to influence and are willing to put in the effort it takes to further your skills. The knowledge and inspiration that can be gained from other people, tutors and fellow students alike, can never be underestimated.

You’re a tutor on Arvon’s Writing for Children course. What kind of things do you teach on a course like that? Where do you start?

Footprints in the Snow, by Mei Matsuoka

It’s difficult knowing where to start on a teaching course – there’s so much to cover! The last thing I want to do is to limit ideas or to mark out boundaries. However, students often like to have these guidelines mapped out: things like standard formats, page numbers, layouts and the many rules and limitations that unfortunately encroach upon the world of children’s books – at least initially. But hopefully after that point they are able to experiment and move into more challenging, exciting directions and to constantly push boundaries.

On our previous course we taught students about the different elements that play key roles in picture books: the interaction between text and image and the possibilities that can have when combined together in this way, character creation, how best to manipulate the surprise element of a page-turn, and the idea of ‘synergy’ – the mysterious component that make those most adored books really special.

How do you feel about having your work translated?

It’s wonderful to have books translated and produced in other countries. Although I’m only able to do so in Japanese, the process of translating can be extremely creative and rewarding and the little that I have done, I’ve enjoyed. Although the author’s involvement may ensure the story keeps close to its original identity, sometimes it works in its favour to have an outside translator.

What differences are there in the way stories are told and perceived in Japan and the UK?

One particular difference that stands out between the way stories are told and perceived in the UK and Japan is in the way people interpret certain types of humour. Although the Japanese are big on humourous picture books, it’s hard to communicate sarcasm well – to say one thing but to mean another, knowing the recipient is aware of this cheeky deception. In Japan, it’s often taken to mean what the person actually said.

There’s a children’s book called I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen: the wicked humour, ambiguity and unsavoury ending all add to the enjoyment and charm of the story. But because of the uniquely cultural humour of its content, I think that it takes on a slightly new personality in translation. In the Japanese edition, a bold decision was taken to have it written entirely in the Osaka dialect, which is very different in feeling from the standard form of Japanese and adds a uniquely whimsical humour to the story.

How do you write? Where do you do it, when, how often, and what equipment do you use?

I find that writing often comes to me when I am on the go. I like letting my mind wander whilst out walking or on some kind of journey via public transport. I’m often inspired by something that I see or hear, which I scribble down in my sketchbook to be looked at later. When I want to get down to refining the final draft, I like to be sitting somewhere quiet, as I need the space to draw. I tend to think mostly in images, as well as words (especially at this point of the writing process) and of the interaction between the two, or even the intended lack of one or the other which can strengthen the message. Funnily, I also frequently come up with ideas right before I fall asleep – which can be a bit of a nuisance if it keeps happening when I’m supposed to be getting an early night!

I’ve heard you're learning Arabic – how's that going?

I absolutely love the calligraphy of the Arabic writing. The language itself interests me deeply as it is so different from both my mother tongues. (It also reads from right to left, which is a new direction for me! Japanese is traditionally read from top to bottom). However, I think that what I am most drawn to is the illustrative and beautiful form of Arabic. It is an extremely difficult language to master and I am picking it up slowly, but unfortunately I think it will still take a great deal more time.

What are you reading at the moment? And how is it?

A philosophical fiction novel called 36 Arguments for the Existence of God by Rebecca Goldstein. It was recommended to me by a previous Arvon student. I like philosophy in books and so far it is pretty good, although I have been stopping and starting with it far too much!

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