Check Out an Author: Swapna Haddow
Jackie McMillan interviews the award-winning children’s author of the Dave Pigeon books, which was first published in 2016.
Swapna Haddow loves writing about boisterous animals and madcap adventures and is working with Faber & Faber, Macmillan, Oxford University Press and Scholastic to bring stories to young readers around the world.
Originally from London, Swapna moved to New Zealand with her husband, son and their dog, Archie in 2018, moving to Dunedin in late 2019. Swapna arrived here just in time to run a workshop at WILD Imaginings, a national hui for New Zealand Children's Writers and Illustrators, on writing junior fiction series. When she’s not writing Swapna is usually reading, taking in the stunning Otago vistas, or heading down to Granny Annie’s Sweet Shop for a supply of Jaffa Cakes.
I put some questions to Swapna about her books and getting published.
Q. Were the Dave Pigeon stories your first published books, or had you had stories published before?
A: I had been writing and sending out work to publishers and agents for a couple of years when I entered the Greenhouse Funny Prize in 2012. My work was shortlisted and I took the next couple of years to hone my craft and work on my voice before I entered again in 2014 and won with Dave Pigeon.
Q. How important was winning the Greenhouse Funny Prize in your journey to publication?
A. That win landed me my first book deal with Faber & Faber. Winning awards is a real boost to a writer’s confidence. Up until I won the Greenhouse Funny Prize, I had had little input from professionals in the industry on my writing. Many writers will be able to understand this and it often feels like you are trying to climb a mountain in the dark without a guide or a flashlight. A shortlisting, or a win, can finally feel like you have seen a signpost indicating you are heading in the right direction.
Dave Pigeon has gone on to win awards selected by teachers, librarians and children and I couldn’t be more proud to have our readership support the books in this way. It is a privilege to wake up each morning and do the job I love, so when the books win awards it feels like validation that I’m doing my job well.
Q. The Dave Pigeon series is very funny. What attracts you to humorous stories, and are there times when you find it difficult to write humour?
A. We are living in tumultuous times and it couldn’t be harder to write funny stories right now, but we need the laughs so I try to plough on. Humour has got me through many difficult times and when I’m writing it, I get to remove myself from the world for a bit and spend time with delightful characters, which is why I love writing funny.
Q. Dave Pigeon has a sidekick called Skipper. Which character do you relate to more?
A. Skipper is our reliable narrator—he’s key to the story. Dave is so arrogant and self-involved, he doesn’t have the insight to be a reliable narrator. When you write characters, it’s important to have balance and it is Skipper that balances out Dave.
I definitely relate to Skipper as a writer, but when it comes to biscuits, Dave and I are soul twins.
Q. Anthropomorphism—a big word I learned at library school—describes when animals and toys, etc., are given human characteristics, and it features often in children's books. Why have you chosen to make animals your main characters?
A. I love writing from an animal’s perspective. It’s good fun to give them voices and try and figure out what goes on in their heads. I don’t intentionally choose animals as my main characters—it seems they come to me more than I seek them out!
I am still growing as a writer and experimenting with my voice. I have written a young historical fiction with Scholastic UK, which publishes in 2021, called Torn Apart: The Partition of India, 1947. The story follows two boys and their journey during the time of India’s independence. This book differs from my usual style of writing but it was a very important story to me as an Indian.
Q. Were your favourite books about animals when you were a child?
A. I loved Charlotte’s Web as a child, but I read very broadly, and I loved humans as main characters as much as animals. I grew up reading everything I could get my hands on and I loved going to the library. The librarians soon got to know me and would put aside books by Roald Dahl and Nancy Drew mysteries, knowing how much I loved those books.
Q. Dave Pigeon is a series of four books. Are there more Dave books coming, or are you writing another series?
A. At the moment, illustrator Sheena Dempsey and I are having a little break from the Dave Pigeon books as we work on a brand new young series called Bad Panda; the first in the series publishes in 2021 with Faber & Faber. I also have a young series called Ballet Bunnies which comes out under my pseudonym Swapna Reddy and is illustrated by Binny Talib. It publishes later in 2020 with Oxford University Press (OUP). It’s a gorgeous ballerina series that was originally created in-house at OUP and I am super chuffed to have been able to write the series for them.
Q. Children's fiction series are particularly popular at the moment, and there seem to be lots written for new readers. What do you think makes them so appealing?
A. I think this area of fiction has been overlooked for some time. The gap between picture books and chapter books was bridged primarily by phonics and learn-to-read schemes, but children still want exciting, highly illustrated stories at this age. It’s a really exciting time for this age group with so many brilliant books now available to fill that void.
Q. What age group is your favourite age group to write for?
A. I love writing for younger children. My ego is out of control and I crave seeing my text illustrated, so I am always pulled to young fiction and picture books. I am thrilled that my debut picture books, illustrated by Dapo Adeola, will be published with Macmillan next year.
Q. What advice would you like to share with young writers?
A. My best advice would be to read and read lots. Read everything, even books that don’t normally appeal to you. You might be pleasantly surprised. Or you might prove yourself right. Either way, reading helps you figure out what you want to say and how you want to say it. So read widely.
Q. Tell us about any writers for children or young adults that you have discovered as an adult.
A. I have been trying to immerse myself in New Zealand writing since I arrived here and I have loved what I’ve discovered. Some of my favourite children’s and YA writers include Ella West, Elizabeth Knox, Vasanti Unka, Gavin Bishop, Emma Wood and Sacha Cotter amongst many more. I adore The Bomb by Sacha Cotter and Josh Morgan—it’s so visually stunning.
Thank you Swapna, we look forward to seeing you at the library soon*. We wish Swapna all the best with her new books; we are really looking forward to adding them to Dunedin Public Libraries children's collections. In the meantime check out Dave Pigeon and his mate Skipper's adventures for a bit of a hoot, (or a coo).