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Mari Nakamura

In this issue of Showcase, Mari Nakamura offers insight into the collaborative writing process by sharing her experience of co-authoring a picture book.

Behind the Scenes of Picture Book Writing

I recently had the honor of co-authoring a picture book, Lily and the Moon (ELF Learning <elflearning.jp/lily>), with renowned picture book author, Patricia Daly Oe. Like many other projects, this collaborative work turned out to be a nonlinear process, which involved a lot of discussion and numerous decisions to be made. In this short article, I will share the journey I took with my amazing collaborators.

I first met Patricia in 2009 at an ELT event where both of us presented our own books. We barely had time to talk but we felt that we shared some common thoughts and feelings on education. In 2010, we had dinner at a noodle shop in Tokyo, and our conversation led to a nostalgic talk about our care-free childhood memories. We both felt that children these days are missing out on some of the valuable experiences that we had in our youth, such as playing outside till it gets too dark to play, and engaging in imaginative play using simple materials. From this conversation, we thought of creating some picture books together along the themes of adventure and friendship. 

In early spring 2011, we had a meeting at an Indian restaurant in Tokyo. Somehow our meetings almost always involve dinner! I shared a very rough story idea with Patricia – a story where animals see different images on the moon but come to see the same image at the end of the story. I’d always wanted to write a story with the moon in it, but had trouble coming up with a coherent storyline. Patricia, with several picture books under her belt, came up with the great idea of making it an adventure story featuring several creatures traveling together to find a certain image on the moon. 

We decided to pick a ladybug as the main character of the story because of its round shape, just like the moon, and its contrasting size against that of the moon. We discussed whether we would include some cultural landmarks, such as Mount Fuji or the Eiffel Tower, and present them with what the people in those countries traditionally see on the moon so that children could also learn geography and cultural differences from the story. However, we eventually disregarded this idea because we wanted to avoid making the story too obvious, limiting children’s imagination as a result. After the meeting, we researched the different images people around the world see on the moon, which was quite a learning experience for us, and further discussed the story through email. It took longer than we had expected to complete the first draft, but our passion for the story never faded away. 

Once we finished the first draft of the story in early 2012, it was time for us to find a publisher. We knew that it would not be easy to find one given the general economic climate surrounding publishers. Fortunately, I had a personal contact with Eric Kane, the owner of ELF Learning, one of the most reputable education companies based in Japan. We brought the story to him with some sample artwork created by Patricia. Thankfully our proposal was accepted by ELF Learning, and the second leg of our journey started. 

Patricia, Eric, and I continued to collaborate online, while also working separately to use our own personal talents to add to the Lily and the Moon project. We wanted to make our picture book both appealing for native speakers of English and accessible for ESL/EFL learners. To meet this end, we worked together to revise the text numerous times. While we were working on this aspect of the project, Patricia created the illustrations for the book using her own handmade Japanese washi-art and light clay figures, which added natural warmth to the story. The innocent atmosphere and deep expressions created by Patricia’s artwork were later captured in the photographs taken by Etsuo Kawamura, a professional photographer based in Tokyo. Patricia spent more than five months making the artwork and many hours in a photo studio with Mr. Kawamura to supervise the shooting sessions. Eric devoted his time to the production of a video and song based on the story, collaborating with David Freeman and Deborah Grow. I, with some valuable input from Patricia and Eric, designed language learning activities to be included in the Lily and the Moon Education Pack. 

Lily and the Moon was published in June, 2013. Nothing delights me more than hearing from classroom teachers about how they have enjoyed reading the book with their students, singing the Lily song as a whole class, and engaging in fun activities based on the story. I have also been amazed at how many people have their own fond memories that involve the mystery and beauty of the moon. 

Looking back on this journey, I see it as an adventure full of discovery, which was only made possible with my professional friends’ passion and talents. And this sense of adventure, discovery and gratitude for friendship is what Lily and the Moon is all about. 

Acknowledgement:

Special thanks to Patricia Daly Oe <patricia-oe.com> for offering input for this article. 

Mari Nakamura has been teaching children and teenagers for over 20 years at her own English school, English Square <crossroad.jp/es/> in Kanazawa, Japan, while also providing teacher training sessions in major cities in Japan. Her publications include Lily and the Moon (co-authored with Patricia Daly Oe, published by ELF Learning), Phonics Farm (Macmillan LanguageHouse) and English Land (co-authored with Seino Akiko, published by Pearson). She has earned an MSc in TEYL (Teaching English to Young Learners), and is a lecturer in the Language Teaching Professionals TESOL Certificate (Young Learners) Program. She is also a regular contributor to the JALT TC (Teaching Children) SIG’s TLC (Teachers Learning with Children) Newsletter.

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