The Picture Book Buzz - Interview with Susanne Gervay and Review of The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses
“I love being an author,
creating stories that can change your world.”
~ Susanne Gervay
Susanne Gervay, "grew up in beautiful Sydney with my older brother Thomas and younger sister Elizabeth. My parents were refugees who escaped from war, communism and terrorism in Hungary. They hoped to be accepted by a democratic county. Australia offered them a new home. I married an engineer and became a teacher and educational consultant. I have two wonderful kids. But life gets complicated. My father died of cancer, my marriage broke down and I got cancer. But life is about meeting challenges, friendships, being all you can be. So, I started writing for my children, so they’d laugh and feel safe. Then I started writing for all kids, parents and everyone."
The author of sixteen books, Susanne's newest picture book, The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses released yesterday.
Happy Book Birthday!
Welcome Susanne (and friends),
ME: Tell us a little about yourself. (Where/when do you write? How long have you been writing? What is your favorite type of book to write?)
SUSANNE: A writer is born. It doesn’t mean you are a good writer, but it is something in your DNA. I arrived in this world as a writer. Today I write on my laptop. Gone are the horrible days of typing and correcting and retyping. The computer is a gift where I can edit as I go along, where I can google information to validate an idea.
Did you know that a goanna, that huge lizard has two penises? I discovered it in Google, and it slipped into my middle grade novel Super Jack (Kane Miller Books). It’s very funny.
I write social realism, about real kids, families and situations, always with a splash of humor, splash of fantasy sometimes, underpinned with research. For example, for my young adult novel Butterflies (Kane Miller Books), I spent a year researching the emotional, social, psychological, and physical impact of burns on young people, their families and community. It was a tough journey, but when I wrote Butterflies, while fictional, it had to be created on a bedrock of truth. Speaking at the World Burn Congress in New York to burn survivors, soldiers who had been through the ‘fire’, families, the incredible firefighters, and medical teams about the power of Butterflies to create hope, was the most moving experience of my life.
Is writing young adult novels my favorite? I don’t know. I just get thrown into a story and it takes me on the rocky ride of creating something that matters. So, my favorite type of book to write is one that matters.
I like that answer - write what matters. What is something no one (or few) knows about you?
As a little girl, the bathroom was my secret place to talk into the mirror. It was the only room in the house with a lock on the door. I’d stand at the washbasin and pour out my deepest feelings. I didn’t understand why my loved parents argued. I didn’t understand why there were terrible wars. If I was a child today, I’d still speak into the bathroom mirror about my parents and war, but I’d add climate change now. Children have deep thoughts but can’t articulate them yet. That’s why I write stories, so they have a ‘friend’ to help them find their way.
What a great image. And thinking back to the books I loved a child, totally true, With 16 books ranging from YA to PB, how hard is it for you to switch between these three genres? Do you have a favorite genre and/or, heaven forbid, a favorite among your books?
Of course, all my books are my favorite. I don’t think of genre when I write. If something amuses me or moves me, my journey begins.
However, the I Am Jack novels (Kane Miller Books), hold my heart. They are inspired by my son when he was bullied at school. He’s so funny and smart but he began to lose his belief in himself. So, I wrote I Am Jack for him, parents, teachers, and friends because kids need to know they are champions and they must believe in themselves. It’s now used by many anti-school bullying organizations which is deeply satisfying.
I am sorry for your son, but what a gift for so many other children. What was your inspiration for The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses?
I come from a family of glasses – so it’s close and personal. I remember being upset by wearing them, but I needed to see. Every photo of me as a child, teen, and young adult is without glasses. Some kids are cruel about them as well. Make mean jokes with all that rough and tumble of the school yard, kids can focus on your glasses. It often isn’t about the glasses, but something that they can point too to make you a scapegoat.
I wrote The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses (EK Books) because glasses are a gift to kids with sight impairment. Because other kids should embrace kids with glasses or any other difference. Because as you’re developing your sense of self, you’re vulnerable. Glasses or any difference, needs to empower you, not undermine who you are.
We are all unique and should celebrate that uniqueness in each other. Who was your favorite author, illustrator, and/or favorite book as a child?
I was 12 when I discovered The Witch of Black Bird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare. I read and re-read it. In April 1687, 16-year-old Kit Tyler leaves her home in Barbados after her grandfather dies and a 50-year-old man tries to marry her. She goes to Wethersfield, Connecticut to live with her Aunt Rachel, Uncle Matthew, and her 2 cousins , Judith and Mercy, in their Puritan community. So begins a story that challenged me to think about superstition, religion, courage, love. I fell in love with the renegade hero Nat of course.
Is there anything special you want your readers to know about The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses?
Vision is so important as children and teens develop. In The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses, through a joyous and real character Sammy and a diverse classroom of kids, readers engage in the story and the issues of vision.
Vision problems are secretive, incremental, and make school very hard. Children usually can’t tell there is anything wrong as they assume everyone sees the world as they do. It effects their sport, reading, taking notes from the whiteboard, falling over, and recognising people in the distance. It can lead to inaccurate labelling of children as slow learners, lacking confidence, or even troublemakers when they actually have an undetected vision condition.
A boom in childhood myopia – or short sightedness – is a major contributing factor with more children than ever at risk of developing poor vision through a variety of factors including increased screen time and decreased ‘green time’ that is, time spent outdoors.
It is crucial for children to have a full eye examination with an optometrist before starting school and then regular visits as they progress through primary and secondary school, as part of their general health regime.
Children and teens with glasses face adjustment to wearing them. It can be hard to look after glasses and keep track of where they are. It can make children and teens feel different. They can be teased and identified as different. Kids may refuse to wear their glasses. It’s important that children feel included when they wear glasses and even feel like a superhero.
[1 in 5 children suffer from undetected vision problems. For information: Good Vision for Life https://goodvisionforlife.com.au/]
I didn't realize so many had vision issues. Definitely something that needs a bit more awareness. What was the most surprising thing for you about The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses? Perhaps something in the illustrations, reader reception, or something you learned about yourself.
I was surprised at the originally of the illustrator’s retro theme, with a realistic yet comic book overlay. The illustrator, Marjorie Crosby-Fairall, has embedded that sense of what every child wants in the retro style with the superhero shadows – to be their own superhero.
It is a return to the 1950s style and meets that yearning for another time, with a modern presentation. I want to be my own superhero too – embrace the world on my own terms with values that matter.
I wonder if there ever was a "kinder, gentler time"? But I think we should all aspire to being our own superheroes. How does The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses differ from Elephants Have Wings (2018), Gracie and Josh (2013), and Ships in the Fields (2012)? Do they have a common theme?
My picture books are all driven by empowering kids to embrace the world as champions. So many children are afraid as media bombardment overwhelms them and makes them feel very small. It is true that the world is filled with challenges, but there are pathways that kids can embrace.
Elephants Have Wings is a peace book, where children and adults celebrate the beauty of the world, identify the threats of war and environmental disasters, find the ‘elephant within’. What is that elephant? It’s their vision for the future – love, harmony, inclusion … whatever pathway they are empowered to follow.
Gracie and Josh is about children celebrating each day, the give and take of sibling relationships, facing challenges such as illness, and knowing today is bright. Gracie and Josh came from a request by Variety the Children’s Charity who helps families, where children have disabilities and life-threatening illnesses. They told me that many families ‘fall apart’ as they meet these challenges and asked me to write a picture book that supports them. So, I wrote Gracie and Josh.
Ships in the Field is a personal story of my family who escaped from Communism to find home in a democratic country like so many others. They were in refugee camps in Europe for a long time. They wanted to go to America, but they were happy that Australia accepted them. Ships in the Field is about hope and that family, working hard with the view to the future in a democratic land.
The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses like all my books is about giving children a voice and meeting challenges. However, it is unique too. It deals with self-esteem in the face of feeling different. It also brings to the forefront the importance of looking after your sight from an early age. Finally, I love Sammy the main character!
Okay, I am officially in awe. I love that your books all aim to empower kids. What/who is your greatest source of inspiration? (as a child or now as a writer.)
My father has and continues to be my inspiration, even though he passed away long ago. He is in so many of my books. In my I Am Jack books, he is the grandfather, the wisdom-keeper. His courage, commitment to family and the best in humanity, humor and ethics is what ground my writing.
Sounds like the perfect muse. Any projects you are working on now that you can share a tidbit with us?
My new book is a middle grade/cross over young adult, that will be published July 2020 by HarperCollins 360. It is the toughest book I have ever written. It took 4 years to write and it is part memoir, history, philosophy, ethics, and a grand quest. Three kids growing up today in a historic hotel run by their Hungarian grandparents are haunted by secrets of the past. As they search for answers, they climb higher and higher to the top of The Grand Hotel, where they time slip to Budapest 1944, where they meet their grandparents as kids. Like a thriller, they race for survival to uncover the truths and find answers to take back to the present.
The working title is The Glass House, but the publisher isn’t happy with that. I’m on a search for another title.
I CAN'T wait to read that. It sounds amazing. Is there anything about writing, illustrating, or publishing you know now that you wished you had known when you started? Or something you are grateful you did not know at the beginning?
I wish that the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) was well established here when I began my journey as a writer. While everyone says that writing is a solitary life, it is not. Yes, you are alone when you do the actual writing. However, there are critique groups and editing and processes during the writing. It is filled with community, readers, writers and illustrators, school visits, festivals, and a rich and varied life. I wish I had understood the importance of the writing community in the first years.
I am grateful I didn’t know how hard the road to publication is.
Do you have any advice on surviving rejections, managing bouts of success, or anything else for authors or illustrators?
When you have a network of other writers you are less prone to ‘collapse’ when you face rejections. They are your supporters.
Everyone is in the same situation, until they aren’t. It can be hard to watch others zoom ahead with publications and you are still trying to get published. However, imagine you are an Olympic swimmer. They are the best athletes in the world, yet only one gets the gold medal. So, it is about the journey and you have to hold onto that.
Disappointment can make you more determined to get better and better or it can destroy your writing. You have to be brave and keep going.
Never take success for granted. Publishers change, there are new trends, you may not get enough sales. There are many reasons for success to falter. Enjoy it while it is there.
Finally, use your success for long term good. I am a writer ambassador for, Room to Read, bringing literacy to now more than 16 million children in Asia and Africa. I am a literacy ambassador for many campaigns. I am a Role Model, for Books in Homes, bringing books to indigenous and disadvantaged children in Australia and I participate in many awareness campaigns from anti-school bullying to inclusion for children with special needs. How good is that!
Well said. Pay it forward and pay it back to the kids and other writers. What is your favorite animal? Or one you are currently enamored with. Why?
I used to have goldfish. I’m not enamored by them, although they are funny to watch. I just lost my little budgerigar (or Budgie in the states) who would tweet all day long. I miss Buttercup. You guessed it; Buttercup was yellow. I loved Brownie my dog, but he died of old age and I couldn’t bear having another puppy to lose. I used to have a rabbit called Peter, but he drowned in our backyard pond and is buried in the garden with, Brownie, my goldfish, and Buttercup.
But my favorite animal is the elephant, because they are big and gentle (well, if they don’t step on your toes), very clever, have families and empathy, inspire faith and are endangered. Elephants are at the core of Elephants Have Wings.
Sorry about your budgerigar. And I suppose your family has to be glad you don't live in Africa! Thank you, Susanne for participating in this interview. I enjoyed the chance to get to know you better.
For more information about Susanne Gervay, or to contact her:
The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses
I got the immense honor to have Susanne Gervay read the PDF of this book to myself and Vivian Kirkfield when we attended the Australian SCBWI Conference this spring.
Susanne's passion, for empowering children to own who they are, was amplified by her lively and heartfelt reading. Kids who get to participate in her author visits and reading will be very lucky indeed!
The Boy in the Big Blue Glasses
Author: Susanne Gervay
Illustrator: Marjorie Crosby-Fairall
Publisher: EK Books (2019)
Glasses, vision, humor, and self-esteem.
Synopsis (Barnes & Noble):
Sam doesn't like his new glasses. They make his ears hurt. His parents say he looks handsome in them. But Sam just wants to look like himself. His teacher doesn't recognize him; she says he must be a new superhero. But Sam doesn't want to be a superhero. He just wants to be himself. At least his best friend George recognizes him and thinks he looks okay. Sam does everything he can to lose his glasses but they keep being found. And then things get even worse, and Sam has to cope with googly-eyed turtles and giant penguins! Eventually, with a bit of confidence and a lot of humour, Sam finds out that wearing glasses isn't so bad - and people still like him just the way he is after all.
I don't want glasses.
My parents say that I look very handsome in them.
I don't want to look very handsome in them.
They make the back of my ears hurt.
What I loved about this book:
Yes, this is a book about empowering children to accept their differences and their necessity for glasses, or other things that set them apart. But what I LOVE about it is the way Susanne created an underlying message to the adults to be aware of what you say to a child.
Sam needs glasses, but he doesn't want them. His initial concerns and dislike of his glasses are exacerbated by the adults in his life. Grandma declares, "Who's the handsome boy in the big blue glasses?" When Sam tells her "It's me, Sam," she replies, "It can't be. You're so handsome." [As if he wasn't handsome before?]
Text © Susanne Gervay 2019, Image © Marjorie Crosby-Fairall 2019.
Grandpa wonders, "who the superhero with glasses is" and Aunt Tory asks, "Where's Sam? I can only see this handsome boy." While all well-meaning, Sam's family just reinforces the notion that the glasses make him different. That they can't see him when he wears them. This problem makes perfect sense, of course, to a kid who admires and dresses like Superman. Afterall, "no one recognizes Superman when he wears his glasses."
I love Susanne's subtle (or maybe not too subtle) suggestion to adults to think about what they say to kids. Kids don't have the experiences to be able to understand the intended "humor" that Sam's family is trying to use to make him feel better about his glasses.
Text © Susanne Gervay 2019, Image © Marjorie Crosby-Fairall 2019.
Things aren't any better at school. Sam's teacher asks, "Who's this handsome boy?" Then, horror of horrors, she calls Sam to the front and asks the class what is different about Sam. When has singling out a child, even if the intention is to diffuse a potential problem, ever been helpful? When only his best friend answers, Sam's convinced no one else recognizes, or worse yet, "sees" him.
Wait till you see the adorable and ingenious way that Susanne and Majorie bring this all to a satisfying and rewarding ending. Marjorie's brightly colored, expressive illustrations contain so many fun additional elements. Including: a chart that reads, "I don't want glasses" in the traditional tiered and decreasing size of typical eye exam chart; a classroom anyone would love to be a part of; and Sam's Superman shadow and matching stuffed friend. You just can't help but sympathize and root for Sam.
Overall, this is a great book for kids discovering they need glasses, for working through empathy in classrooms and schools, and for reminding adults to be aware of what and HOW we talk to kids. One that I think would be a welcome addition to any library.
- make your own "superhero" glasses (https://picklebums.com/free-printable-crazy-glasses/);
- check out Susanne's study guide (https://www.sgervay.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/EK-Books-Teacher-Notes-The-Boy-in-the-Big-Blue-Glasses-16-March-2019.pdf);
- create your own pirate ship out of boxes or color Sam's pirate ship (https://www.sgervay.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/BBBG-Pirate-Drawing.pdf); and/or
- check out the book trailer (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bPHTcE5GLZw&feature=youtu.be).