If you're a fan of children's publishing, it's very likely you've heard of Helaine Becker. The Toronto-based creator has authored over eighty books for kids of varying ages, garnering accolades along the way, including two Lane Anderson Awards and a Silver Birch Award.
Her most recent picture book, Pirate Queen: A Story of Zheng Yi Sao (Groundwood), introduces readers to the true story of Zheng Yi Sao, an early 19th century "pirate queen" who, after marrying a prominent pirate leader and sharing in his business, took over his entire fleet after his eventual death.
Over the next decade, Zheng Yi Sao would lead a charge of 70,000 men during her reign of domination over the China Seas, her power rivaling even that of the current Jiaqing Emperor himself. After her surrender, she amazingly negotiated her way out of prosecution, spending the rest of her days in peace until her own death in 1844.
Featuring beautifully textured illustration by Liz Wong, Becker's vibrant, well-researched storytelling brings this fascinating historical tale to life, producing an exciting, dynamic book that will capture anyone's imagination.
We're thrilled to have Helaine at Open Book as our Writer-in-Residence for June. Keeping checking back to our writer-in-residence page to read her thoughts and opinions over the next month, and get to know her better by reading her Kids' Club interview below, where she discusses the importance of telling women's stories, why writing for kids is a lot more challenging than people think, and the myriad new projects she's got on the go.
Tell us about your new book and how it came to be.
I’ve been a feminist since I was nine years old and someone said, “Boys are smarter than girls.” I was like, “What? Have you met some of the boys in my class? That’s just wrong.”
I thought sexism and racism would be gone when I grew up. But I was mistaken. Several decades on, I still see it, and feel it, and get mad all over again.
The truth is, girls – women – can do everything. And we have done all kinds of amazing things! But for some ‘mysterious’ reason, those stories have not been celebrated. In fact, they’ve been suppressed. Hmm…I suppose it matters who gets to tell the stories…
So when my son, knowing my intense feeling on this subject, shared a Reddit post with me about Zheng Yi Sao, I was gobsmacked. A female pirate with 70,000 under her command? The most powerful pirate ever? And no one had ever heard of her? No way was I going to let that injustice continue. Pirate Queen was born.
Is there a message you hope kids might take away from reading your book?
There are a few.
1) Women have done amazing things throughout history and are just as capable – sometimes more so – than men. Zheng Yi Sao, for example, was a way more successful pirate and entrepreneur than either her husband or her son – although both are better known today.
2) Zheng Yi Sao started from the very bottom. She was poor and uneducated with no opportunities whatsoever except the ones she made for herself. Yet she triumphed. She’s an inspiration indeed!
3) Point of view matters when it comes to telling stories, both fiction and nonfiction. Because I am a woman, I was interested in writing this story of a fantastic woman. Each of us needs to take responsibility for telling our own stories, and not leave it up to the powers that be.
Did the book look the same in the end as your originally envisioned it when you started working, or did it change through the writing process?
The first half of this book remains virtually unchanged from the first middle-of-the-night scrawl I put down on my bedside notepad. There were some changes that came about through the rigorous fact-checking process, but very few. It required even deeper research than I’d ever imagined, and some fierce arguments over accuracy and plausibility in the absence of primary documents.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments?
Coffee, and lots of it.
Do you feel like there are any misconceptions about writing for young people? What do you wish people knew about what you do?
Many people think writing for kids is easy – there are so few words, right? They also think we “dumb down” information for a younger audience. Neither is true, and reveals what I now see as a fundamental disrespect to children.
Just as adults vary in capabilities and interests, so do kids. If anything, writing for kids needs to be tighter and more intrinsically appealing – kids will not read a hundred pages of self-indulgent claptrap, and will let you know loud and clear if something is boring.
In nonfiction, the challenge is to write up-to-date, comprehensive and detailed information in such a clear way that even a five-year-old with limited world experience can understand the subject. Check out my book Monster Science if you want a thorough look at contemporary genetic engineering, neuroscience, forensics, and population science. Clear enough even for adults. And one more surprising fact: children’s nonfiction is often the place where new scientific developments get written about first. My books include information that was not available online at the time of publication. So, if you want to stay informed about science today, read kids’ books. So clear, even adults can understand ‘em.
What are you working on now?
Books take a long time from concept to publication, so I am always working on about a thousand things at once. I might be doing one or two first drafts, revisions on three or four more projects, copyedits and fact checks on a few more…
Here’s a sneak peek at a few projects coming down the pike:
In September, look for a new picture book biography about another amazing woman, Emmy Noether: The Most Important Mathematician You Never Heard Of (KCP) and a sweet humorous picture book called Alice and Gert (Owlkids) that’s a mashup of Aesop’s Ant and the Grasshopper with Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas.
Two more biographies are coming in 2021, plus a book about dinosaurs, the next instalment in the popular Porcupine in a Pine Tree series, a graphic novel for young kids, a middle grade fantasy, and a graphic YA biography.
Helaine Becker is an award-winning author who has written over eighty books for children. Her picture books include You Can Read, illustrated by Mark Hoffmann; Sloth at the Zoom, illustrated by Orbie; and Counting on Katherine: How Katherine Johnson Saved Apollo 13, illustrated by Dow Phumiruk. She has also written non-fiction, chapter books and poetry. She is a two-time recipient of the Lane Anderson Award and a winner of the Silver Birch Award and the Bank Street College of Education Cook Prize. Helaine lives in Toronto.