From Saturday mornings’ pastime to children’s book series, Therese and Penelope Caruana’s project is growing steadily, with two illustrated stories already published and a third in the pipeline.
“The books are about a little girl’s life in Gibraltar and the morals she learns growing up,” says Therese, a successful author of fantasy novels in her own right. “Each page features a full-colour picture painted in watercolours by my six-year old daughter. Sometimes, for the more complex ones, I drew the outlines and she coloured them in.” Some pictures represent easily recognisable Gibraltar views, like the Holy Trinity Park, and Main Street.
At first, it was just an idea to entertain Penelope on weekends, then, as her pictures kept coming, and were colourful, precise, detailed and talented, Therese realised they were actually telling a story, so she added a few rhyming lines to comment the illustrations and collected them in a book, bedtime story style.
“It brings a big smile to her face.”
Both books feature a game at the end, for young readers to get actively involved. In the first book Penelope: Gibraltar girl with a twirl, Penelope learns how to use safely the playground from her father; in the second, Penelope: What shall I bake for daddy’s birthday cake?, Penelope learns that daddy doesn’t need a big party for his birthday, but just the love of his daughter and family. This book also contains fourteen easy recipes for children to make, simply following pictures and numbers.
Therese reckons the Penelope series is a “nostalgic product in which parents can reminisce about how their children used to draw”. And if their children are of Penelope’s age, they will be able to relate to the images and be inspired to draw their own.
“Penelope has her own imagination and tells me the stories she wants to draw. So I encourage her to paint what she fancies that day, and once we have enough pictures to string into a book, I write down the story, with her help.” Therese says. “She keeps the suggestions coming, and so far I am excited to have seen two stories printed. She’s already thinking about the tale of a dragon who behaves naughtily, but that it’s just because he needs glasses. Well, we will see.”
And it’s never too early to plan for a Christmas tale: “We are thinking about setting it at the nursery Christmas party, where Penelope is eager to help with everything, but forgets to share the joy with others. She eventually learns that Christmas is more fun when it’s done all together.”
The editing process is time-consuming, because the images have to be scanned into the computer, then, the wording is digitally added, and finally the pages are sequenced and paginated in child-friendly landscape-oriented full-colour format, now available in hard copy from Amazon, or at the John Mackintosh Library.
Therese reveals her success secret for a children’s story: “I think that any story’s imaginative content and resolution contributes to children’s skills at problem-solving. Every story also sets a standard of values. Children feel safe when the information offered to them by diverse sources, like parents, teachers, books, TV shows, is consistent. They like to know that they are growing up, and are intelligent beings praised for their accomplishments.” Repetition, positive reinforcement and reading out loud are pivotal strategies: “When children can guess ahead of the book, this gives them a sense of satisfaction. For instance, when I read the recipe book to Penelope, there is one sentence that is repeated on each page which she loves to read out loud herself. It brings a big smile to her face. I also think that children like it when the book’s pictures are relatable to what they themselves are able to draw.”
On the all-important issue of introducing children to reading as early as possible, Therese observes that it depends on the attractiveness of illustrations, as well as the toddler’s capacity to sit still and listen for the time necessary to leaf through the book. “Nowadays we are fortunate to have books available in multimedia, for instance in videos or cartoons, and interactive with sing-alongs. It can prove effective to act out the story as a role-play task. Or reverse the roles! Penelope has come to the age that she wants to read to me. So I lie down beside her and relax listening to her.”
“In order to create a better world for all, you must start by being better “
There’s a huge difference between adults’ and children’s views of the world, Therese admits. “Children don’t understand the politics and dangers of the real world, but I suppose if adults stopped and looked a bit closer through their children’s eyes, they would notice the more positive side, just like children do. In order to create a better world for all, you must start by being better yourself.”
From Penelope’s vision of the world as portrayed in her paintings, Therese has learnt that any item can be in any colour, and the more colourful, the better: “Penelope has such a lovely imagination that makes anything possible.”
This venture has inspired Penelope to explore storytelling in an active way, and she’s proud of the final product, and cannot wait to see book published. Therese explains: “She loves to be paid when copies of the books are sold online! When this happens, I give her the profits, and she saves them for personal expenses.”
There is a practical side to keep in mind, of course, when you are the ‘literary agent’ of a child authoress, such as the PR magic that Mum has to negotiate when “Penelope’s two-year old brother sits at the table with her, and flicks paint on her drawings, so I end up with bickering siblings…”