Annie Dennise Lumbao took up Creative Writing at the College of Arts and Letters, UP Diliman. She shifted to College of Fine Arts where she majored in Visual Communication and graduated with honors. But That Won’t Wake Me Up is her first children’s book written with her daughter Anelka and illustrated by Liza Flores. It won the Filipino Readers’ Choice award for best children’s book in this year’s Pinoy Reader Conference. She released Wishing Well early this year and has just finished Walong Baso ni Kuya Paquito under Adarna Publishing House. Annie is also a graphic designer of GraphicDesignPilipinas Inc., a family-owned business.
1. In writing children’s books, what are challenges you encounter?
Although it is not that simple, I find it less complicated than other genres. It is nice to capture the thinking of children, how they view things around them and how they express their thoughts rather lightly. Keeping in mind that the reader is a child, I want the story to be fun and engaging.
As a parent who practices storytelling at bedtime, I see how my children are amazed with imaginative stories with fun words and illustrations. The challenge is in crafting stories that are interesting to a child reader, with something to learn from but not in a didactic manner. To present learning experiences or values as their own discoveries embedded in the story rather than as instructions or sermons. In this way, reading grants them the freedom and encouragement to explore ideas on their own.
2. Describe your writing process. How does it all begin and what are the steps involved? Do share about how you collaborate with the illustrator.
Some stories present themselves as I talk to my children. When Anelka was little, she was worried she might not wake up early in time for school. When Eco was learning to eat a variety of solid food he didn’t like to eat rice, of all things. When he saw a fountain in a park, Eco asked for coins to throw in, only to wish for more coins. Whenever Eco is in the middle of play, in the middle of the day, he never wants to be sent off for a nap. When he is roaming around the house, I always have to remind him to wear his slippers. For all these occasions, a story comes to me.
There are some cases where I gather experiences from my own childhood too. When I start with an idea I want to develop but have no clear grasp of it yet, I read books and articles about it from wherever I may find the information.
Sometimes I pick up useful ideas from a movie, from a cartoon, or even from a conversation with a friend and I add that inspiration in some way too when it’s relevant and worth exploring. Sketching ideas on paper also helps for me to visualize the story or give a face to a character. Then I have to refine the ideas, put in a dialogue maybe and arrange the sequence of scenes that will unravel itself to the reader. When I finish a draft, I read and re-read and revise then ask for feedback from my husband, family and friends, and also from my own children. Then I submit to the publisher, whose editor could also have some input to improve the story and then do some more revisions until the final manuscript is ready to be served.
Illustration by Liza Flores. Image courtesy of Flipreads.com
I learned that illustrators prefer some freedom as they approach a story they have to illustrate. I respect that but I also make myself available for any questions or clarifications they might have. I am ever so willing to share my own vision for the story but if that would hamper the creativity of another, then it would be counter-productive to offer.
And it also helps to give your illustrator that confidence that you trust his/her talent and own contribution to what would be your book. A storybook after all is no longer just the author’s piece, but a collaboration of author, illustrator and publisher, so it helps if the author could loosen his/her grasp on what originally was his/hers for the betterment of the final output.
3. What are your writing habits? How do you balance your writing time with motherhood?
I don’t know which habits are good or bad. I have to have a notebook with me when I go out. Always. I’ve unnecessarily bought new notebooks and pens just because I left mine at home when I least expect I will be needing it.
In that notebook, I try to capture fleeting thoughts that may be useful. There are also sketches and scribbles, interesting phrases, contradicting statements, ideas to ponder on, lessons learned, story concepts, plans, grocery lists, to do lists, my kids’ drawings, tissue paper with a fascinating logo, and so on. My desk is also a mix of office supplies, books and magazines on design, writing, soccer, parenting, art, and even some confiscated toys (those that cause my kids to quarrel). I try to clean up everyday but this visual clutter sometimes helps me focus.
Annie’s “visual clutter”
I do my research from those materials as well and keeping them visible helps me not forget the things I need to remember. It gets to a point when you don’t want to look anywhere else (because you’ll lose time organizing everything) but to what you are working on and finish it. That, or I go out to have coffee and take advantage of the latest magazines they have in the coffee shop to make up for the cost of a single cup. Again, the strangers that surround me are also another version of visual clutter that gets me to focus on just what I am doing and then I’m in the zone, so to speak. (I think you just made me realize I’m weird that way.)
Motherhood. Hmm, it seems to fit well with my writing time and vice versa. It’s like inhale and exhale. I am a graphic designer as well and I work at home because, with my children still being young, I feel I am needed at home more than any company would need an employee in their office. So me and my family started our own company instead. I design identity programs, communication materials for print, multimedia and web media. I also do the copywriting or copy editing.
4. Many children’s books come with a “moral lesson” and serve as some sort of parenting tool. Some touch on sensitive topics like harassment, gender issues, single parenthood, etc. Are your books like that too? If yes, what sort of values do you wish to impart to the future generation?
Storytelling is really a great parenting tool. As I mentioned earlier, I’ve used stories in various occasions in my own home and with my own children. This seems to be the language they willingly listen to and get to understand and, for a parent, it is stress free. But so far, I’ve dealt with the day-to-day concerns of parent and child.
My books lean more towards the promotion of Philippine culture, values and traditions in subtle ways, rather than in-your-face. In doing so, I make children aware that our environment and media has made us worship almost anything and everything foreign. If stories could tell them how we used to be as a country, if stories could make them value their history in the midst of all-imported products around us, if stories can remind them of images of Filipino mornings (as in “But That Won’t Wake Me Up”), of sampaguita, rice, the carabao, the flag, the jeepney, games we used to play in our backyards or on the streets, if they have a sense of belongingness and responsibility for their own country, they will not be lost in this global environment.
Illustration by Liza Flores. Image courtesy of Flipreads.com
I read from a magazine interview Carlos Celdran saying something like “you have to make the past relevant to the present” and I realize this is a good way to present stories to our young, stories from past generations to be turned over to the next, as we also turn over Philippine culture and tradition to them in the hopes that they will value their heritage. Easily put, “embed culture” is my message to the future generation, for them to uphold the Filipino identity wherever they may be.
In writing stories for children, you also have to be responsible with the stories you impart as these are gentle learning minds you are interacting with and trying to enrich. If you were to introduce the world to them, in what way will they easily grasp it?
5. Who are your favorite adult and children’s books authors? What aspect of their writing do you admire?
Some that I recall, engaging me as a reader are:
Adult’s: Rene Villanueva, Bebang Siy, Cristina Pantoja Hidalgo, Gemino Abad, Jose Garcia Villa, Allan Popa, Raymond Carver, Brenda Ueland, Pablo Neruda, Denise Levertov, John Berger, Maira Kalman, Emily Dickinson
Children’s: Rene Villanueva, Virgilio Almario, Rhandee Garlitos, Genaro Gojo Cruz, Eric Carle, J.K. Rowling, Maurice Sendak, Dr. Seuss, Hans Christian Andersen, Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I like them for varying reasons but mostly for their good command of language (be it verbal or visual), power of their voice, and their competence in telling their own stories in their chosen genre and medium.
I see my daughter Anelka reading a lot of Geronimo Stilton books. That’s her first collection of books, given to her by my mother. (She calls her grandmother Lala. Lala spoils her with lots of books. I can’t bring myself to complain.) But she says her Stilton phase is done and that she likes the Monsters Inc. and Batman series.
6. What movies, tv shows, websites, do you enjoy watching with your kids? If possible, name specific characters, scenes, dialogue or articles, that you believe were written well.
Top of mind, the classic Snow White, Harry Potter, Meet the Robinsons, Finding Nemo, Monster’s Inc., Yo Gabba Gabba!, Phineas and Ferb. The list goes on. I just wish they also have what he had before, our very own, Batibot.
The over-used line in the house is “23-19!” haha! That’s from Monster’s Inc. We call that out when someone leaves his/her sock just anywhere. Mostly it’s my son Eco and I calling out to my husband and Anelka.
From Finding Nemo, I like the part(s) where Nemo’s father was always asked to tell a joke since he is supposed to be a clown fish. He fails several times to connect to his audience and make them laugh. But when he started telling his own story about finding his son, the story was easily a word of mouth sensation under the sea which eventually reached Nemo. It is very relevant to writers finding their own voice and making stories that are appealing to many readers. Of course it hit me only after the nth time of watching the movie with Anelka and Eco.
7. What advice can you give to aspiring children’s book authors?
Keep a notebook to record your thoughts, emotions, memories, experiences and open your mind to the stories that are passing right in front of you. Those may be the stories you can write well because they are authentic, truly your own.
Do not focus on labels such as ‘writer’ or ‘author’. Labels can hinder your creativity sometimes. Read a lot and know your responsibility to your readers too. Keep writing, even if you won’t publish it, even if you succeed in publishing it, even if your stories get rejected. Writing for yourself or for others are both enjoyable to do anyway.
Lastly, a word of caution: writing children’s stories is truly addicting.