Behind the Scenes Interview: Making children’s books with Maria Cleary

Reading Maria Cleary’s stories makes you wonder how she invents her loveable and funny characters, and how she comes up with such memorable stories. I also wanted to find out how she can juggle being the Series Editor of Helbling Readers, Helbling Young Readers, and the writer of readers and EFL culture courses at the same time. We talked about writing and editing stories and course books, and she also gave us some good advice about writing stories.

Her latest young reader, Skater Boy (illustrated by Lorenzo Sabbatini), has been nominated as a Finalist at the Language Learner Literature Awards by the Extensive Reading Foundation.

Here are five young readers and two culture courses written by Maria:

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Helbling Readers Blog (HRB):  What inspired you to write Skater Boy? Where do you get the ideas for your stories?
Maria Cleary: Believe it or not, I came up with Skater Boy in the local skatepark. I was sitting watching my younger son, and one idea lead to another. Most of my stories develop like that, from something I’ve seen or heard, and then I start playing ‘what if…’

HRB: What came first, writing or editing?
Maria: I’ve always written for myself, either a diary or bad poetry or ridiculous rhymes. Professionally I became an editor first.

HRB: What was the first story you edited?
Maria: It was a children’s story, many years ago, which I horribly over-edited.

HRB: What do you like about an editor’s job?
Maria: Reading, reading and reading. It’s great to read a raw text and see all the ideas there, then try to make it work even better without anyone realising. I also love checking details, making sure that things are ‘true’; if a story says that someone gets a vital text message in a certain tube station, then you have to make sure there’s a reception there.

HRB: What is your pet peeve as an editor?
Maria: I don’t really have any, apart from tight deadlines. 😉

HRB: What do you like most about making books?
Maria: Ohhh, that’s a hard question. I like everything about making books, from the initial idea to the smell of fresh paper from a newly printed book. If I had to choose I suppose the challenge of finding the perfect balance between words and pictures.

HRB: Do you have a writing process?
Maria: Not really. My stories usually come from an idea, which I then jot down and try to develop. I usually say the sentences aloud as I write, changing words until they sound right. And there’s usually an element of comedy or fun in the stories, I think we could all benefit by seeing the funny side of life.

HRB: Can you give some advice to young writers?
Maria: Read as much as you can. There is so much to be learnt from other authors. Listen to what people say. The people you enjoy listening to generally have a nice turn of phrase. Look at what is happening around you, there is such wonder in small things.

HRB: Do you prefer writing readers or ELT course materials?
Maria: Uhmmm 😉 Two very different areas. I prefer writing fiction when I have inspiration, or when the process is flowing well. However there is nothing like the challenge of writing classroom materials. Every spread has to work in all aspects, language, activities, artwork and design. You need to make things easy for the teacher, yet interesting for the students.

HRB:  Is there a story you would really like to work on?
Maria:
I hope one day, when I have time
To work on a story using rhyme.

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