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Children’s book author talks us through her latest title

Just in time for Easter, wordsmith Alix Burrell has come up with a deliciously off-the-wall treat for lovers of zany tales for children. She joins a long tradition of writers whose alternative children’s book characters have become bedtime staples. But what inspires Alix?

What makes a banker want to write children’s books?

I enjoy my career, but I have a great passion for reading and writing. It probably stems from being an only child and having to entertain myself with books and creative projects while I was growing up.

I’ve been writing children’s stories and wicked verse for kids since my daughter Heather was about three years old. She inspired me with her extraordinary observations and gave me glimpses of life through the eyes of a small child.

Tell us about your first two books, I Hate Peas and Nelly Catches a Cold.  

I realised very early on that kids love all things icky, and that books about pants, poo and sneezing were going to be easy winners. I Hate Peas started as a poem that I wrote to capture the funny side of the trials of getting Heather to eat different kinds of food. I got her to eat cress (elf umbrellas), salmon (pink princess fish) and squid (chewing gum fish). She used to love broccoli, but now she won’t eat it – she says it squeaks against her teeth.

Nelly Catches a Cold was inspired by the SARS epidemic a few years ago. I was on the MRT and surrounded by a worrying amount of hacking and coughing, when it occurred to me that the worst kind of sneeze would be from a very big nose, like that of an elephant.

I Hate Peas sold out very quickly and is now on its second edition. Nelly is more than half sold. Both are available at Tango Mango bookshop in Tanglin Mall.

Heather goes to school at UWCSEA, which is very community-driven, and I saw that my writing could be a charity project that Heather and I could work on together. All of the proceeds from my first two books go to the Tabitha Foundation, which helps the poorest of the poor in Cambodia. 

Tell us about The Chocolate Bunny.

It’s a rhyming story about a chocolate bunny that is given to a girl for Easter. The bunny protests as the hungry girl munches her way through him and there is of course, a wicked twist at the end. The illustrations are by freelance artist Paula Pang (www.puppetism.com), whom I found on the internet.

I think she manages to beautifully capture the essence of the little girl, and her depiction of the bunny is just adorable. I searched for ages to find the right illustrator, because I had a very fixed idea in my mind of how the bunny would look. Paula was very efficient and professional and it has been a delight working with her.

We hear you received a grant to publish The Chocolate Bunny: how did you swing government backing for such a black story?

I heard that the National Arts Council (NAC) sometimes gives grants for writing books, so I looked on the website, found the application and filed it online. I worked on a strategy that I thought would appeal to the NAC to diversify the book market in Singapore, while still keeping my goal of doing something for charity.

They gave me a grant equivalent to 50 percent of my total production and marketing costs, based on the proposal I submitted. I was very surprised that I got a grant for a book that was a little bit macabre and way off centre for the Singapore children’s market, but that is what I focused on in my marketing pitch for the grant – let’s move away from princesses and give the children what they want: more poo, sneezing and pants stories.

Who will be distributing the book?

I have been very lucky with distribution, but unlucky with distributors. Friends of mine have been champions at selling the books at Tabitha events, at the British Association, at community fairs and through various school charity projects. UWCSEA actually created business projects for its students to market the books to raise money for Tabitha.

I tried one distributor, but they took 60 percent of the proceeds, which is standard, and I found that bookshops continually ran out of copies that were not being replenished by the distributor – that was frustrating. Distribution is probably the biggest hurdle of the book production process.           

Any words of advice to others who would like to follow this route? And what comes next?

My main piece of advice is not to give up. The first publisher I approached told me that I was one of millions of mothers who thought they could write children’s books the minute they gave birth; and while that sounded harsh, I realised it was well meant and that publishing is a tough business. Now that I am on my third book, I can take that advice in my stride.

For more on Alix and her work, go to www.wickedgilly.com.