Today I’m delighted to welcome the talented author of children’s books, Belinda Murrell. Belinda is now working on her 23rd book with Random House Australia and has become a best-selling and internationally published author with a legion of loyal fans. Popular series include the Sun Sword Fantasy Trilogy and Lulu Bell for younger readers, as well as several historical time-slip stories: The Sequin Star, The River Charm, The Locket of Dreams, The Forgotten Pearl, The Ruby Talisman and Ivory Rose, which have won several awards over the years. Welcome Belinda! What made you choose to write for kids (as opposed to adult fiction)?
About twelve years ago I began writing stories for my own three children – Nick, Emily and Lachlan. They were all voracious readers and we loved sharing books together. I wrote a fantasy story for them, filled with all the things that my kids loved about books – codes and puzzles, mystery, magic and adventure. Four children set off on a dangerous quest to save their family, save their land and find the royal sun sword. It took me two years to write the book, and when it was finished I sent it to Random House to see if they might be interested in publishing it. I was absolutely thrilled when they not only said yes, but offered me a three book contract. That series – my Sun Sword Trilogy was a best-seller, released in the USA and still sells really well, and I have gone on to write 26 books since then.
I have always loved children’s literature, and studied it as part of my degree at university. However I think what I love most about writing for kids is that children are absolutely passionate about the books that they love. So one of the joys I have now is that I get hundreds of emails, photos, drawings and letters from kids as far away as Norway, Singapore and New York, who love my books, which is really inspiring to me.
I also have a real sense from these letters, especially those I receive from parents and teachers, that my books can help to change the lives of children for the better by encouraging kids to love reading, helping them deal with everyday problems in their lives or helping improve their academic results through reading. I really don’t think I’d get that huge sense of achievement from writing for adults.
How important is it to encourage children to read and does it help them to read books they really enjoy?
Of course it is hugely important. In recent years there has been much academic research done on children’s literacy and educational outcomes, showing that reading for fun improves children’s academic performance across all subjects. Reading for pleasure several times a week was linked to improved vocabulary, spelling and comprehension but more surprisingly to improved mathematics, by helping kids to understand and absorb new concepts, promoting self-sufficient learning and leading to overall greater academic progress. So basically reading makes kids smarter! So my first priority is always to write books that kids will love – to write books that are fun, exciting and magical.
Where do your ideas come from?
I get my ideas from everywhere around me – from my children, from my own travel adventures, from incidents that happened to me as a child, from stories people tell me or information I read. Anything can spark the seed of an idea, which my imagination then grows into a story. For example, my Lulu Bell series is about a girl growing up living in a vet hospital, just as I did as a child. However it is set in a fictional place called Shelly Beach, which is very much based on Manly and the Northern Beaches. Lots of the adventures which Lulu Bell has with her family, friends and animals are inspired by my own children’s experiences at home, school and on holidays. This series has been hugely popular, published internationally and even translated into Afrikaans, Portuguese and Turkish which is such a thrill.
Being a children’s writer these days involves so much more than just writing. What are some of the other aspects to your career?
As well as writing and researching my books, a huge part of my time is taken up with associated events such as school visits, literary festivals, bookstore signings, running creative writing workshops, doing media and blog interviews, answering letters from readers and doing regional book tours, so each year I speak to literally thousands of children. From my perspective, when I spend much of my time locked in my office writing, it is so lovely to get out to meet keen fans, and to talk to kids about what excites and inpires them about books. I always love getting letters from my readers telling me how much they enjoy my books, but it is even better to meet them in person. It is also lovely to introduce new readers to the books.
I’m really passionate about the importance of children’s literacy, and the power of reading to change children’s lives. For this reason, I am involved in several literacy charities such as Room To Read (promoting literacy in third world countries), Books In Homes, and many children’s literacy events such as Bookfeast, Big Book Day Out, and Children’s Book Council (CBCA) events. Each year, I co-ordinate the CBCA Book Week Lunch with the Stars with over 200 children from various schools and disadvantaged kids from Stewart House who sit down for lunch with 20 authors and illustrators for a day of bookish celebrations.
More recently I have been involved with helping refugee and asylum seeker children to write their stories as part of the Sydney Writers’ Festival My Story project. The kids who attended these writing workshops had all had very traumatic experiences – leaving their homes, fleeing war and violence, coming to Australia on tiny fishing boats, being held in detention – yet they were all so delightful and full of joy. It was a hugely emotional and inspiring experience. So I definitely think that I have the best job in the world!
How do you balance the importance of historical accuracy and entertaining storytelling in historical fiction?
This is a tricky one. Firstly, it is very important to me that my books are as historically accurate as possible – and I do often get people writing to me to check tiny details. For example, were egg beaters invented in 1895? Or would a 15 year old girl really drive a circus truck without a license in 1932? So it’s important that I do thorough research over many months and double check my facts – reading memoirs, historical texts, letters and interviews, and visiting the settings. However I also believe that my primary purpose is not to deliver a history lesson. My primary motivation is to create a vivid world and to write an enthralling story, which children will want to keep reading. So the history needs to be accurate, but I need to tread lightly so that the story is not bogged down by the facts.
What are you working on now?
At the moment I am writing a new book in my time-slip series to come out next year, which is called The Lost Sapphire – set in Melbourne during the 1920s, which is an historical mystery with hints of a long ago curse, about an abandoned old mansion, the fascinating family who lived there and their secrets – so that is keeping me very busy.
Visit Belinda’s website is www.belindamurrell.com.au