One On One

Kathleen Pelley

CWLA Press Author

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Why did you start writing for children?

Igrew up in Scotland, where everybody writes from a very young age. I started out loving stories even before I went to school because I'd listen to them on BBC children's radio, and that's where I fell in love with the sound of words. I love the way that words can paint pictures in your mind, and maybe that's why years later I came to picture books.

As a young woman, I went to university and studied history because I was interested in the stories of people from long ago. I eventually found my way into teaching, and of course I liked using children's stories in my classroom. When I came to America as an adult, I started to write because I was very homesick. I think you write about what you love, and it just so happened that I wrote the sort of stories that appeal to children. I've always loved fairytales and folktales.

What are the underlying messages of your children's book, The Giant King?

As a writer, I don't set out to deliver a message in a story. I think I write about something in the world that I love and that I want to explore. I like to think of it more as uncovering a universal truth rather than delivering a message.

But here's what triggered The Giant King, I suppose, in my mind. I remembered one of the studies my professor talked about while I was studying teaching. In the study, a group of teachers were given inflated IQ scores of their students. The researchers came back a year later and tested those students, and the students' tests improved to meet the inflated scores. The point of the study was to show that for the most part-- although obviously there are lots of deviations and other factors--children will act the way you expect them to act. That planted a seed in my mind. When I became a teacher, I didn't want to hear what other teachers had to say about my students at the beginning of a term. I didn't want to put a label on my students by treating them as a class clown or a shy violet, for example. So when I came to write The Giant King, I wanted to write about what happens when somebody changes as a result of how you treat him or her.

After I'd written the book, I discovered other themes that I didn't realize I was writing about at the time. One of the things I discovered was the theme of belonging. We've all got a fundamental need to feel like we belong. For me, growing up in Scotland with an Irish father made me feel as if I didn't really belong in Scotland. I later went to Ireland, but never felt as if I totally belonged there because I was called "the Scottish one." Then I met an American, married him, and went to live in England, where I didn't feel like I totally belonged because I was not English. And then some years later I came to America, and I didn't feel as if I belonged here either.

I think most people at some point in their lives have that feeling of not belonging. There are all kinds of different reasons one may have for not belonging--being too old, too sick, too young--whatever the label is. Those feelings of hurt can lead to anger and violence. So in a way, without me knowing it, The Giant King explored the whole idea of bullying from another perspective. Why do people bully? What hurt or anger triggers that? And why is the feeling of belonging so important? (For more on bullying, see "Mean Girls and Boys" on page 14.)

You've spoken about the family being the first place where children learn kindness. What do you say to children who aren't with a permanent family, or who feel like outsiders in their communities?

It's one thing not to belong later on in life, but I think to start out in your life feeling like you don't belong--that's very hard. When I read The Giant King at schools, I often say to children that writing can be very therapeutic. When you write about your feelings, there's just something that can be very helpful. And stories, too--not that they'll ever substitute for the people in your life or for families--can heal the hurt in your heart because good stories can give you a little glimpse of beauty. In other words, stories can't take the place of people or love, but they can empower children to be more than somebody who doesn't belong. They are one way for children to walk a mile in another man's moccasins. Stories help us transcend the barriers of age, culture, religion, class, and politics. In the end, I think stories really make you feel more eager to live.

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