Monday, February 17, 2020

Author Interview: Elisavet Arkolaki

I'm so excited to welcome Elisavet Arkolaki on my blog today! She is the author of picture book WHERE AM I FROM? which is illustrated by Platon, a graffiti artist.

I met Elisavet through our debut group, and it's been fascinating to watch the process of her book. I was so fortunate to get to read her book in advance. Without further ado, let's get talking! (As always, I'm in the bolded, green text.)

Hi Elisavet, Welcome to my blog! Can you tell us a little about yourself and how you came to write children's books?

Hi Janet, thank you for inviting me here. I was born and raised in Greece, my husband in Norway, our first kid was born in Malta and our second in Norway. We speak three languages at home. I also lived in France and Spain prior to becoming a mum, and most European winters with the kids have been spent in Thailand. I grew up in a monolingual and rather monocultural society, where other languages were taught as 'foreign languages', thus the way I experienced the world during my formative years was very different from our children's. Thus, it's very high on my list to better understand their world view and offer them adequate support on their journey. My favorite medium to explore emotions, concepts, and ideas has always been writing thus it was only natural that I've now turned to write children's stories. I also curated a complimentary guide titled 'How to Raise Confident Multicultural Children' as a resource for parents, caregivers, and teachers which they can download by subscribing to my newsletter list HERE.

Wow! That is an impressive mix of countries, languages, and cultures. So I have to ask . . . I'm guessing you speak Greek, Norwegian, and English in your home. Is that right?

Yes. My husband speaks Norwegian with the kids, I speak Greek with the kids, and the common family language is English. 

So amazing. Well, I love that your kids are at the heart of your writing. Can you tell us about your book?

Through stunning murals by artist Platon, ‘Where am I from?’ will take our young ones on a quest in search of common origins. It's a fun story, crafted for preschoolers and early readers. It portrays children with different racial and ethnic backgrounds, living in countries from all six inhabited continents. The children gather together and try to find a universal answer to the question 'Where am I from?', an answer which isn't true just for them but true for everyone.

I feel that this book helps promote the idea that, in the end, when it comes to the very basics, we're all connected. It's during early childhood that many of our attitudes and beliefs towards others are shaped, and we form a perception of the world around us. It is therefore at this young age we should start introducing these ideas if we want our kids to grow up and create a better world than we have done so far.  

I wholeheartedly agree. We all have so much in common no matter where we happen to live. What inspired you to write WHERE AM I FROM?

Living an international life, I find it hard to answer 'Where are you from?' even if I grew up in one country. Almost half of my life has been lived abroad, my husband is from another country, we communicate and have formed our relationship and so many friendships in 'foreign' languages. 'Where are you from?' is truly a difficult question for so many people, and it implies you're not local.

If you had asked me "where are you from?", for instance, the first time I moved abroad, I would have answered from Greece. I would have probably done the same the second time I moved to a foreign country. Since then, things have gotten blurry. I still answer from Greece, but only for the sake of simplicity. In my case, it's not a question that makes me feel uncomfortable, I just don't know how to answer any more in a way that won't sound like an essay. Being pointed out as a foreigner is not an issue for me but if I find it confusing, how would a child feel? How will my children feel when they are asked this question? Children are vulnerable. They need to blend in, be part of the group and they need to feel local.

Once questions starting popping up at the dinner table about our countries of origin, the places we've lived, where our families and friends live, our travels, and the countries of the world, I felt I needed to be proactive and prepare them for the future. Soon other people would ask them questions. So I came up with the story Where am I from?.

However, the actual thread that began this story is found on a backpacking trip in Australia back in 2009 while I was riding a bus and listening to a local radio station. A journalist was asking tourists "Where do you come from?" I heard all sorts of cities and countries until he approached a mum and her young boy. He asked the boy ‘So, where do you come from?’ The boy replied the obvious, ‘I come from my mum’s belly’. I never forgot that phrase. It was genius in its simplicity. So this is from where I started developing this story: from the very end of it.

That answer is genius. We are all connected, and sometimes it takes a child to see it. Speaking of children, I love how the children in your book have come from all over the world. Are any of them inspired by children you know?

When I was writing the story I chose countries from all 6 inhabited continents. The choice was made based on countries that are dear to me like Malta and Norway where my children have been born. I chose countries where friends of mine have been born or live like Venezuela and Nigeria. Others are from countries like China where I would love to visit one day, plus I felt the words would flow nicely within the story. Australia, as mentioned, is where the seed for this story got planted.

Then, in order to check whether there was indeed a market for such a book that would be illustrated entirely with spray paint graffiti murals, I ran a Kickstarter campaign. It would be a very time consuming, costly, and difficult project so we needed to make sure people would be interested in it, and that it was worth the effort. Because of that, all the kids that you see in the book are based on real kids. Their parents commissioned the art, and all characters except one are based on people of mixed cultural heritage; even the mum and the baby characters. 

That is so cool! What a gift from those parents to their kids. So in conjunction with that, I love that they all travel by animals or mythical creatures. Why did you decide to do that, and how did you choose their animals?

This was actually the editor's idea while we were working on the structure of the story (developmental editing phase). Originally, I had included the lion, the troll and the kangaroo, but there weren't animals and other creatures in every scene. She suggested it would really fire up the imagination of the kids and would make the book more interesting both visually and from a narrative point of view, and I agreed. I wanted us to use characters and landmarks that were part of the fauna, the history, the culture and/or mythology of each land like the gorgeous Chinese dragon, the jaguar in Venezuela and the troll in Norway.

I love that! And thank you for the sneak peek for my readers! Good thing for editors, right? So what takeaway do you hope readers will get from your book?

My wish is that the children will grasp how beautiful, colorful and diverse our world is. I hope they will discover that we all have common origins that go far beyond arbitrary borders on a map, borders which often move. There is, indeed, a universal answer to the question 'Where am I from?' I would also love this book to initiate a dialogue between adults and children about art and the different mediums and tools people use to express themselves. Street art, in particular, is a very powerful medium to express ideas and reach out to the broader public. I love that most of the graffiti has been painted in schools and the kids will get to see gorgeous art every day. 

The art is brilliant, and those kids really are lucky! How did you come up with the idea of using graffiti art for the images? It's so beautiful and I really wish I could see the originals!

It feels like everything is connected. Early 2009 I wrote my very first commissioned magazine article as a correspondent from Barcelona, Spain. It was a piece about Miss Van, a street artist from France who has been residing for many years in Barcelona. I grew up in a big city, Athens (5,000,000 people), and I've been influenced by urban art. I've always loved graffiti in its pure art form. Fast forward to 2017: I was toying with the idea of having my first children's book illustrated with street art and discussing it with Platon, the husband of my oldest childhood friend, who's a very talented street artist.

From a creative standpoint, and to our knowledge, spray paint graffiti has not been used as a medium for illustrating a children's picture book in English. And I can totally see why. Not only does it require an enormous amount of time, but it's also very physically challenging to be out there painting so many walls, and not just for the obvious reasons like having to stand up for hours. Did you know for instance that spray paint attracts mosquitos? lol.

Umm, no. I did NOT know that. Yikes!

Also, having a background in marketing, I sensed that graffiti art would help us bring the message across in an effective, powerful way, that would also make the book newsworthy. As a side effect, it could challenge the belief shared by many that street art is just 'vandalism'. I remember an online 'argument' on Facebook with a guy who commented under a photo of one of our murals that 'this is not graffiti', and when I asked him why he said that, he replied, "cause this is art." There is still this misconception that graffiti is just ugly tags.

Clearly, graffiti can be beautiful, and your book is already changing minds! And I just love getting a glimpse of the real-life image as painted on the wall.

Okay, one last question. Here on my blog, I have a fascination for personalized license plates. What do you think the children in your story might choose for a personalized license plate (even though they are definitely all too young to drive!)? (And do they have personalized license plates in Norway?)

That's a funny one :). My best guess would be 'Future Global Citizen'. I have no idea if they do personalized license plates in Norway. Is it a thing in the USA?

Haha! Fair question. But it is definitely a thing in the USA. 😊

Thanks so much for stopping in. This was all fascinating! Wishing you and your book all the best! And to all my readers, please find Elisavet's social media links below, as well as links for where you can get your own copy of WHERE AM I FROM?

Elisavet Arkolaki is the author of the graffiti-illustrated children's picture book WHERE AM I FROM? (Faraxa Publishing, early 2020). The trickiest question you can ask Elisavet and her family is ‘Where are you from?’ because they are from everywhere! Passionate about travel and inspired by global learning, she raises her own children in between countries, cultures, and languages. She writes to build cultural understanding and sensitivity in young children while they are still eager to learn.

You can follow her on TwitterGoodreadsFacebook, Instagram, and her Website.

WHERE AM I FROM? is available through Amazon (Hardcover, Paperback, Kindle) and Faraxa Publishing 

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