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In this edition of Learn From Your Peers, we're excited to share our talk with IPNE Board member Maria Kamoulakou-Marangoudakis about her debut children's series and book, The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City.
When did you know you wanted to write a children's picture book? What inspired you?
Three years ago I had no idea I would become a children’s author! That was one of many twists and turns my life took in the past 10 years. A recent cancer experience prompted me to “seize the day” and led me evaluate life on different grounds. After a period of restlessness and inner searching I felt the urge of addressing children. It was February 2013, during a bitterly cold and snowy New England night, when an idea sprang to mind as I was reading a Greek historical novel. Like a little yellow bulb, it flashed above my head. Why not write a children's book based on ancient Greece? That is how it all began!
Tell us about your work aside from writing -- did it influence your book at all?
Before relocating to the United States from Greece in 2008 I had a well-established career as an archaeologist at the Hellenic Ministry of Culture. Most writers draw inspiration either from their environment, or from their experiences. Myself, I drew inspiration from my love of ancient Greek culture, the values it represented and its literary accomplishments. I turned to my favorite ancient Greek comedy playwright for inspiration: Aristophanes. His plays are staged every summer in ancient theaters under a starry sky. It is truly an unforgettable experience!
My favorite comedy immediately came to mind: Ornithes, meaning The Birds. It constitutes the most fairy-tale-like of Aristophanes’ works and a good starting point. The play describes the adventure of two elderly Athenians who fled to the land of the birds in search of a better life and helped their feathered friends build a city in the clouds. As soon as I got hold of a modern Greek translation and a couple of adaptations for children, I plunged into reading. A year and a half later my first children’s book was born: The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City. It took an additional two years before I had the pleasure of holding it in my hands. It almost felt unreal and too good to be true!
So, you may say that cancer prompted me to become a children’s writer but it was my classical Greek upbringing that provided the inspiration.
Do you have plans for another book, either as a sequel or in its own?
As a matter of fact, I do. The Adventures of Hope & Trusty is meant to be a trilogy, at best. The second and third book will be again based on two very popular plays by Aristophanes. I would love to disclose the titles, but I haven’t made up my mind, yet. The second book is still in a very formative stage.
But, there is another book which I am currently working on: Arthur the Fly-Slayer, and the Forty Dragons. It is inspired by a folklore tale that my father used to tell me as a bed time story, especially if I happened to have a sick day home from school. I have very fond memories of my father returning home from work late at night and walking carefully into my room to check on me. Finding me awake, he would sit at the lower part of the bed and start narrating the tale of the forty dragons. Like a dry sponge, I absorbed every word. For me that was the best part of being ill!
The story of the forty dragons was a popular fairy tale in his birth town, south of Sparta. Unfortunately neither of us remembers the entire plot, so I had to improvise a bit.
Why do you feel compelled to share folklore and myth?
Thank you very much for that question! The reason I turned to ancient Greek theatre for inspiration wasn’t only because of my upbringing and my work. I feel that kids shouldn’t read only princess tales with prince charming who rescues the heroine from evil and they live “happily ever after”. We live in very turbulent times and millions of people are on the move because of warfare, hunger and poverty. The United States is located in a safe and sheltered part of the world, but my country, Greece, is in the midst of the worst immigration crisis in modern history. Our planet is in desperate need of peace.
Aristophanes experienced a terrible 30 year war (431-404 BC) between Sparta and Athens that left his city defeated, weakened, and humiliated. Through his plays he preached for peace, humanity, justice and dignity amongst people. These are timeless values that I felt compelled to communicate to modern day young readers. The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City developed as an alternative story to traditional fairy-tales. It doesn’t bear any reference to politics and lacks the spicy language of Aristophanes’ original play. It is an educational story about friendship, peaceful coexistence, cooperation and working together to achieve impossible goals.
The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City was created because you, as parents, and I, as a writer, are raising future responsible citizens and the next generation of world leaders.
Was your book originally written in Greek? Can you tell us about your process of translating the story.
The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City and its accompanying Activity Book were written directly in English, but the manuscript for Arthur the Fly-Slayer, and the Forty Dragons was initially written in Greek. It is intended to be a bilingual book. The process of translating the story was a tricky one. Greek is a very rich and flexible language. Every word has its own, unique meaning based on spelling. Can you imagine that we have 20 different words to describe the “sea”? I was faced with the great challenge of translating words that do not exist in English. I am not a professional translator, so I decided to use the Greek text as a base, and then re-wrote it very loosely adding a lot more details to the story, that are missing in the Greek version.
Do you have any unique marketing ideas for your book that could inspire others?
The main character in The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City is a migratory bird, of stunning beauty, that lives in Africa, Europe and Asia: the hoopoe bird. In order to promote my book I thought of searching for a hoopoe bird puppet. Luckily enough, I discovered a very skillful puppet maker in Poland, Alicja Piotrowska, on etsy.com (https://www.etsy.com/people/apiotrowska). She made a stunning puppet for me, which I carry to book shows and events. It attracts people to my booth and kids love to hold it and pet it.
Do you have any last tips or words of encouragement for other first-time children's picture book authors?
I would say be true to yourself by chasing your dream. Do not give in to difficulties. A first time author will have to overcome many unforeseen obstacles. Every twist and turn in his/her publishing journey is an endless learning experience. Allow yourself time to develop your story and look for experienced collaborators, especially a skillful editor, who can guide you along the way. Ask around for illustrators. You would be surprised whom you can discover, where you least expect it! Settle for someone you can work harmoniously with, who can share your vision and take it one step further. Like a modern day Ulysses, your journey towards publication will be a bumpy one, but when you reach your Ithaca, you, too, will realize that it was more fulfilling than the actual destination.
Photo, left: Maria with the New England based illustrator, Aspasia Tsihlakis Arvanitis at the Hartford Greek Festival.
You can find The Adventures of Hope & Trusty: Sky Cloud City here!