[Interview] Big Kids Wear Clothes: Interview with Olive Senior, author of Birthday Suit

Olive Senior, Birthday Suit 
We know her as the author of Summer Lightning and other applauded adult titles. Now, Jamaican writer Olive Senior has made her children's book debut with Birthday Suit, a picturebook about zipping, tying, fastening and fitting in. Kirkus Reviews described the book as "buoyant" and "full of phonic riffs that make [..] a terrific read-aloud." In this interview, Senior shares her love for rhymes and riddles, why it's important to see the world through a child's eyes and the special joys of writing for children.


Summer Edward: What was it like moving from writing for adults to writing for children? 

Olive Senior: Poems or stories for children tend to pop into my head and I usually just have fun letting them sing to me. But moving from that impulse to publication is quite another matter as the children’s market is bound with a lot more rules than the adult. The picture book, for instance, has to fit into a set number of pages which limits the number of words. A major consideration is how the story ends and what the children are learning from it. Of course language and vocabulary are also challenges as they have to be age appropriate. Birthday Suit as my first published children’s book was a learning experience but I had great teachers at Annick Press and a special joy was seeing the story come to life in the illustrations. I ended up enjoying the experience and I do want to continue to write and publish for children.

SE: What inspired you to write Birthday Suit ?

OS: Every family has a story of a child who doesn’t want to wear clothes, but in my story, I wanted nature to assist in the learning process. I got the idea for Birthday Suit while I was staying by the sea and I was struck by all the activity around me. So the reactions of the sea, birds, fish, and so on, mark Johnnie’s progress in the book. The artist’s interpretation reinforces this idea, for instance the Sun’s changes expression on every page. They say it takes a village to raise a child but in Johnnie’s case it also includes the sun, sea, land, and a lot of the creatures that dwell therein.

SE: Children's stories often have a lot of word play. Are you comfortable taking a more playful approach to language? 

OS: Word play comes naturally to me – I love rhymes, riddles, puns and word puzzles and I still remember a lot of nonsense verse from my childhood. I have continued to ‘play’ throughout my life and even my most serious writing will contain some element of humour and word play. When reading, it is good to listen to the rhythm of the language and learn as many words and their meanings as possible; knowing word origins helps too. If you cultivate words, from time to time they will spontaneously burst into play.

SE: How does viewing the world from a child’s point of view change the way you write? 

OS: A lot of my stories for adults are written from a child’s point of view. When I started writing I didn’t make a conscious decision about this, it just came naturally to me. Seeing the adult world through a child’s eyes gives a double layer to fiction because children in their innocence can see and speak of things they don’t understand though the adult reader will. I also believe that adult behaviour is shaped by childhood experiences so I will include such experiences even when the story is told from the adult point of view.

SE: Children who challenge authority, like the boy in Birthday Suit, are a recurring theme in children's literature. Do such children interest you as a writer?

OS: Children who challenge authority are the most interesting because they’re sure to generate plenty of action, as Johnny does in Birthday Suit. I don’t write about wicked or destructive children but about the ones who simply want some freedom to be themselves. So they find creative ways of challenging the world. Children in my stories tend to be verbal – they read and think and imagine and learn big words or puzzles or hard questions to throw adults into confusion – as the little girl in my most popular story does when she asks, ‘Do angels wear brassieres?’

SE: What do you think of the illustrations Eugenie Fernandes did for the book?

OS: My publishers blessed me when they found such a wonderful artist as Eugenie Fernandes to illustrate Birthday Suit. Her magnificent paintings complement every aspect of the story. She captured the colours and life on a tropical beach and added such whimsical activity on every page that the whole world surrounding Johnny seems to be in play. Each picture contains a great deal of material to engage young minds. As for Johnnie, it is as if the artist plucked him from inside my head. He is exactly the way I imagined him.

SE: Do you think adequate attention is paid to homegrown children's literature in the Caribbean?

OS: I can’t speak in general terms about Caribbean children’s literature as I am not aware of what is happening on all the islands. I grew up reading about English or American children since there was nothing about Caribbean islanders in our books. I am glad that children today are more fortunate. Even now I love to read books for children with a setting and characters that are familiar. My favourite Caribbean children's authors are Jean D’Costa and C. Everald Palmer and I am also happy to see new children's books coming from authors such as Hazel Campbell, Diane Browne and Martin Mordecai. I don’t see as much happening with picture books for the younger children. These books are expensive to produce and need large markets to make them commercially viable so we need to find new and creative ways to make this material available to our little ones. Sites like are really valuable in helping us to exchange ideas on how best to do this.

SE: How has living in Ontario affected your writing for children? 

OS: Nowadays I am based in Toronto and I travel a great deal but I also make sure that I continue to spend a lot of time in Jamaica which is the place where I have spent most of my life and which continues to be the source of my creative ideas. But I do find it enriching to be able to live and work in different places. Canada has given me opportunities for publishing which I would not have had in Jamaica and working with Canadian publishers and artists has really educated me especially to the requirements of writing for children.

SE: Do you have any additional children’s book projects in the works?

OS: I do have another picture book in production called Anna Carries Water. The unpublished story won the Helen Isobel Sissons Canadian Children’s Story Award sponsored by PACE (Canada). This is an organisation based in Canada that sponsors basic schools in Jamaica. Interested readers can learn more from their website This award is open to submissions from both Canada and the Caribbean. It offers a cash prize for unpublished stories reflecting diversity that are aimed at children under the age of 7. The deadline for 2012 has already passed but writers might make a note for next year.



About the Interviewer...

Summer Edward was born in Trinidad and lives in Philadelphia, USA. She is the Managing Editor and Kids Editor here at Anansesem. Her poems and art have been published in literary magazines such as tongues of the oceanBIM: Arts for the 21st CenturyPhiladelphia StoriesThe Columbia Review and sx salon.

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About Anansesem

Anansesem is an online magazine of Caribbean children's and young adult literature by adults and children. We strive to bring you the best in news, reviews and creative content from the world of Caribbean children's publishing.
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  1. Great interview...god to hear from the seniors - no pun intended - in the field on such a range of issues. Keep it up.

  2. Well, Senior is an established writer for adults, but we'd actually consider her a newbie in the children's literature field, this being her first children's book. Glad you enjoyed the interview though!



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