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Sarah Brennan: Read and Write with a Plan

November, 2013
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0j7a8188Pin Yin Panda, Sybil Snake, Oswald Ox and Rhonda Rabbit…Children at Shanghai United International School Hongqiao Campus have loved these interesting characters created by popular children’s author Sarah Brennan in her Chinese Calendar Tales series. Some students even dressed up like these characters for the character parade during the school’s Book Week. Luckily, they were also able to meet up with Brennan on campus, listen to her reading from her book and also her talk on “How to Write a Really Riveting Story.”

Brennan is also very excited about her visit to schools in Shanghai and is already looking forward to her visit next March with her new book - The Tale of A Dark Horse.

“It’s about Emperor Han Wudi (BC 156-87) and his conquest to the west and the heavenly horses. Because I got very interested about the Silk Road, I wondered how the Silk Road began,” said the author. “I am sure the kids have learned about the Silk Road, but they could learn even more from this book. I am hoping that by the end of the series the kids will have a knowledge of some of the most interesting parts of Chinese history, some of the big characters in Chinese history and also some of the folk stories. Chinese history is very rich and very beautiful.”

In an interview with LittleStar Magazine, Brennan told us of her love for playing with words as a young child and how her dream to be a children’s author came true. What’s more, she offered some great tips on improving kids’ reading and writing abilities.


LittleStar: What do you really enjoy about being a children’s author?

Sarah Brennan: I love being with children. I love their energy, their enthusiasm, their innocence and their openness to ideas. I want to give something special. I hope they remember these stories when they grow up. They will remember the history, and they will remember the fun. I also like to make them interested in things. I love helping kids to love books because books are so important.


LittleStar: There are many children who love reading and writing. Will you encourage them to be a published author in the future?

Sarah Brennan: Yes. I think so. When I was lawyer, I used to be paid a lot more. But I was always unhappy because it wasn’t creatively fulfilling. So whenever I got a bonus, I spent it on paintings or books or something like that because I was trying to make myself happy. Now I am really happy. It is busier and very challenging to get the books to distributors and to promote the books. My books are now in the UK, in the States, Canada, Australia, Singapore and they are in China. It’s very hard work, but because I am doing what I love, which is working with children and working with words, I am utterly satisfied. And it’s one of those curious situations where I think that the people doing creative jobs, like artists and writers, are deeply happy.


0j7a8091LittleStar: If one child wants to be an author, what should he do?

Sarah Brennan: You have to be a good reader. You have to read a lot of books, and you have to read critically. When you are reading, don’t read just for enjoyment. Work out what it is that makes you enjoy that book, and why that story works for you. Have a look at it in terms of the principles of story planning, that is, how the beginning works, how the story ends. It does not have to be hard work. Just keep observing the books you read. By this way you become a critical reader, and then you can become a good writer.

You also need to keep a journal or a notebook. Be an observer wherever you are. Great places for writers are airport lounges, because you can look at people and you can imagine, where are they going, what jobs they are doing. Make up little stories in your head all the time. You are excercising your imagination but also you are giving yourself ideas for stories at the same time.


LittleStar: What kind of books do you read? And what is are your reading habits?

Sarah Brennan: As I get older I am actually reading non-fiction more. They say when you get older you tend to drift into the other side, the unexplored part of your personality. I never used to read history books. Now I read a lot of history books. I love history. I love reading biographies always, particularly biographies of writers, biographies of powerful women. I am a great believer in strong powerful women, so I read books about them. I find that the more books you read about the same subject, or slightly related subject, you start building up an understanding of the history. I find it very pleasurable to be able to do that.

I usually read in the evening. Because when you are a mum and you have a kid, you are so exhausted by the end of the day, what you just want to do is turn on the TV and watch something absolutely rubbish. It is such a waste of time. My husband is a great reader. So what we do is we will just play nice music and read books. Books will rescue you from stress.


0j7a8113LittleStar: Can you give some tips to the parents who want to get their children to read?

Sarah Brennan: The No. 1 thing parents can do is that they have to be reading themselves. This is what a lot of parents find difficult. They have to model reading to their children. Because kids usually do what you do. You are their model of what it is to be a grownup. Do it regularly. Also, read aloud to your kids, especially when they are little. But even when they are getting older you can still do it. This is because kids will then associate reading with your attention and your love, and then they will love books. You can also really guide their reading this way.


LittleStar: How to choose books for children?

Sarah Brennan: Give your kids a reading allowance, so they get their pocket money, and then they get a reading allowance that can only be spent on books. It’s a great way to get kids onto books. And in the bookshop, let them spend their allowance on whatever they want. It can be completely rubbish as far as you are concerned. Let them do it. And then you buy them the better books as well. Pick a subject they are interested in, or go to librarians because librarians are a huge source of information. Search online. Also, make sure they have a bookshelf in their room. Don’t let kids have technology in their bedroom. The bedroom is where they read.


LittleStar: How do you like reading books on a Kindle?

Sarah Brennan: Well, I have got mixed feelings about Kindle. I think Kindle is extremely useful in places where it is hard to get hold of books or if you are travelling, or you are out of space for a bookshelf.

I have a problem with reading from a cold hard tablet because it doesn’t necessarily replicate the peace, quiet and stillness that you need. For me, Kindle isn’t a book while books are beautiful objects. Personally I have tried to read on a Kindle and I can’t do it. It feels like hard work. That may be generational. I don’t know… My kids say they prefer the real books but don’t have problems reading on Kindle.

The question is, at end of your life, do you want to look back on your bookshelves stuffed with books that are old friends, or do you want to look at a screen with an index of the books you have read? I think books look much more beautiful!


LittleStar: A seven-day plan is what you suggest all students do to improve their writing skills. Why are making plans so important to a writer?

Sarah Brennan: Planning is crucial. A lot of children think it boring to have a plan for writing a story. They don’t want to do it. But it actually makes it very easy to write a story that’s in great shape when you write it. It makes the editing process a lot easier. It means you are consciously paying attention to important elements in the story such as the setting and the characters.

If you make notes of that, your story starts inhabiting your head. By the time you sit down to write it, you know where the story is going. You write it very fast.


LittleStar: Can you recommend some great short story writers to our readers?

Sarah Brennan: I have got a lot of favorites – Roald Dahl, Michael Morpurgo, Katherine Mansfield, Ted Hughes, Edna O’Brien, Tim Winton, Julian Barnes…


LittleStar: Can you tell us more about the writing competition on your blog?

Sarah Brennan: The next competition on my blog is going to be writing a poem about Christmas. I am looking for beautiful language, style and something that’s different. For the past competitions, I have received entries from children around the world, including Beijing and Shanghai. I even get  entries from a South African girl living near Cape Town!

I do find kids participating regularly. And I actually watch how their writing improves. Practice makes perfect. If you don’t practice your writing a lot, it’s never going to get better.

The deadline is likely to be the second week of January 2014.




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