Interview: Leila Boukarim on Writing Children's Books for Grown-ups

One of Leila Boukarim’s first books was a true labour of love. The mum of two found herself at a loss with her first-born, who she later realised was a highly sensitive child. The term, first coined by psychologist Elaine Aron, refers to “children born with a nervous system that is highly aware and quick to react to everything”. The genetic trait makes them particularly susceptible to emotional distress due to environmental stimuli such as crowds, loud noises and sudden changes. She resolved to find storybooks featuring characters that her son could identify with but there were none, so like any good mother, she wrote her own.

All Too Much for Oliver was thus published end-2015 and since then, Leila has produced several other books, including Aidan Finds a Way. She has also worked hard to spread greater awareness on this topic by sharing her experiences extensively on her websites Sensitive and Extraordinary Kids and My Quiet Adventures. Today, the Lebanese transplant draws ideas from other aspects of her life and a desire to tell simple but meaningful stories that resonate with all ages. Goguru spoke to Leila ahead of the launch of The Child with Big Dreams, written by her as one of Marshall Cavendish Children's new personalised book titles.

You started writing books for highly sensitive children after realising there were not many books addressing them; that was a few years back. Has there been greater awareness of the highly sensitive child since then?

The short answer to that question is yes, absolutely, but we still have a long way to go. Back when we were struggling with our little one, desperately searching for answers and finding none, never once did anyone even suggest that the issue might simply be that our son was highly sensitive. Even Google failed to do that. Today, the highly sensitive community not only exists but is growing. There are lots of great books on the topic, two movies, online forums, support groups, and articles published on an almost daily basis. If you’re looking for answers today, chances are you’ll find them.

The problem is, however, some parents aren’t looking for answers. I still, too often, see parents insist that whatever it is their kids are going through, they will outgrow it. That’s just simply not the case, though. High sensitivity is built into our DNA; it is a character trait that stays with us for the rest of our lives. Yes, we do learn to live with it, but trying to force your child out of it will likely result in damage that even years of therapy won’t erase. So while I am incredibly grateful there is greater awareness and people in general are more open to accepting high sensitivity as a legitimate cause for certain behaviours, there is still much to be done.

Leila Boukarim hosting an interactive live reading event.

You have also written other books, such as Hello Goodbye Little Island which talks about the difficulties of relocation and having to deal with the loss of close friendships. What inspired you?

The first draft of Hello Goodbye Little Island came to me shortly after a good friend of mine had to leave Singapore. I knew I would have a hard time dealing with her not being there anymore, but the fact that I was completely devastated, and for a long time, surprised me. I spent my childhood moving from country to country and from school to school. I have had to say goodbye to so many friends that I thought I’d have been used to it by now. But I learned when my friend left that having to say goodbye to someone you care about deeply is just not something that gets easier, no matter how many times you do it.

Over the past few years, I have had to help my children through painful goodbyes of their own, and it’s never an easy thing to do. It’s painful and tearful and just heart-breaking every single time. But it is our current reality. And not just for us here in Singapore but in this increasingly global world we live in today. People are constantly coming and going, and in writing Hello Goodbye Little Island, I hoped I could help young readers understand the importance of strong, meaningful friendships, and show them that goodbyes are not forever.

What do you think makes a good children’s book? What do you hope to achieve with your books?

A good children’s book delivers a moving, meaningful message in 500 words or less without preaching, changes you in some way, and leaves you with a desire to read the same book over and over again. A good children’s book is not a book for children but rather an artistic masterpiece for everyone to enjoy. Before starting on this journey of writing for young readers, I never could have imagined the complexity of crafting a good children’s book. Telling a story in two thousand words is one thing. But to tell that same story, and deliver it with the same intensity and meaning but with only five hundred words is a challenge I wasn’t quite prepared for. Words become incredibly precious, the story distilled to its purest form, and I think that’s just beautiful. With my books, I want to tell stories that mean something to children and grown-ups alike. I want to encourage empathy and trigger meaningful discussions, be it through stories that are serious and heart-breaking or laugh out loud funny. That is the goal I set out with every morning when I sit down at my desk.

Draft of a page from The Girl with Big Dreams, one of two personalised book titles offered by Times Publishing.

Draft of a page from The Child with Big Dreams, written by Leila Boukarim and illustrated by Barbara Moxham, her long-time collaborator. This is one of two personalised book titles offered by Times Publishing.

You are a mother as well. Do you involve your children in your creative process?

I do! My kids are so well read that they are capable of formulating solid opinions about the texts that they read. My five-year-old can tell me after we’ve read a picture book, what he liked and why, what he didn’t like and why, and what he thinks could have been improved. Both my kids can identify representation of diverse characters and the lack thereof, stopping to question why all the characters in a certain story are male. They understand how art is meant to complete the words of a story, and not just illustrate them. When I write a draft, I always run it by them and ask for their honest opinions, because they have opinions, and they are good.

Also, a fun thing we like to do while we’re on vacation is come up with good storybook ideas together. We’ve come up with some really good ones that we have yet to develop.

You are also a book lover. Are there any authors or books that particularly inspire you?

There are so many authors and books that inspire me, I wouldn’t know where to start if I had to list them all. Books are such an integral part of our family life. Our tiny home is full of them, and we have a whole shelf dedicated to borrowed library books that are renewed on a weekly basis. We read as a family every single night, and the books we choose include picture books, middle-grade novels and comics (sometimes all three in one night).

Right now, and I say “right now” because this will change, my favourite picture book authors and illustrators include Jon Klassen, Oliver Jeffers, Rebecca Cobb, Julie Fogliano, Francesca Sanna and many, many more. I love picture books that make me laugh hard every time I read them, like I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen, Ooko by Esme Shapiro, and The Princess and The Pony by Kate Beaton; books that give me goosebumps like Extra Yarn by Mac Barnett, The Uncorker of Ocean Bottles by Michelle Cuevas, After The Fall by Dan Santat, and A House That Once Was by Julie Fogliano; books that move me to tears like The Journey by Francesca Sanna, The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, and One Wave at a Time by Holly Thompson. Some of our favourite middle-grade novels are Peter Brown’s The Wild Robot and The Wild Robot Escapes, and Katherine Applegate’s The One and Only Ivan. A comic series we absolutely love is Judd Winick’s Hilo. I’m also a big fan of graphic novels and see them as incredibly powerful storytelling tools. Two of my absolute favourites are The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi.

You shared in one of your Instagram posts that you are currently working on a children’s book about the Armenian genocide, can you share with our readers a bit about that?

This is a project I’ve been working on for a few years now, one that is very dear to me but that has proven to be the most difficult by far. For one, the topic is a heavy one, and my research has often led me to very dark places, leaving me lying awake in my bed on many occasions. But I have never wanted to share a story as badly as I’ve wanted to share this one. As the mother of two young boys who bear an Armenian family name, I have long struggled with how best to tell my children about their history; about their great-grandfather, a survivor of the genocide. That was what initially pushed me to write this story.

I am a strong believer in the power of picture books and the effect they have in shaping our children and eventually in changing the world. With this book, I wish to achieve two things; show young readers that refugees are simply people who have lost everything, and tell the Armenian story, the survivors of whom are now gone; a story which is still denied by too many. And I hope that one day, I will. 

Get the perfect gift for the budding bookworm in your life with Marshall Cavendish Children's personalised books, now available on Goguru. The Child with Big Dreams is a celebration of the rich, vibrant and limitless inner world of a child's imagination. Each book is unique; you get to choose the name and gender of the protagonist and write a special dedication that will be printed in the book. The uncoloured characters allow your recipient to make the book truly their own! 


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