Interview With Children's Book Author Karen York

Children aren’t interested in adult guidebooks

As anyone who has ever traveled with a child knows, it can be difficult to hold her interest while sightseeing. How do you make all those static buildings appeal to the imagination? It’s a problem children’s book author Karen York has faced many times. Her own kids “were totally unappreciative of the beauty of Venice,” she remembers with a laugh. “I thought if maybe another child could explain to them” what they were looking at, they might be more interested.

The idea stayed with her until she eventually decided to write a children’s book of her own. The mother of two and avid traveler who used to work for Lufthansa out of the airline’s Singapore offices self-published Susie and Tom Travel the World: Prague in 2009. The book has sold several thousand copies, and is now in its third printing.

With Susie and Tom, York has created her own child tour guides. Susie loves to read her guidebook, while Tom has a much shorter attention span and is always hungry. The pair sets out to enjoy a day in Prague with one particular and age-appropriate goal in mind: To find the treasure Susie’s guidebook tells them is located in Prague Castle.

“Children aren’t interested in adult guidebooks,” York explains. She wanted to make a more engaging book with many colorful pictures. She thought, “photos would be great, because photos don’t age.” Almost every other page in Susie and Tom is a large photograph of a Prague attraction: Charles Bridge, The Astronomical Clock, Old-New Synagogue, etc.

The photos taken by the American panoramic photographer Jeffrey Martin are notable for their lack of people. York wanted as few people as possible, and ideally, none at all in each picture. It took six months to compile all of the roughly 17 photos featured in the book. Martin and York often shot at odd hours or spent long intervals waiting to catch that ideal, crowd-less moment.

“It was next to impossible, I tell you!” York says of photographing an empty Charles Bridge. The site is notorious for attracting hordes of tourists. The author and photographer persevered until their luck held out just long enough for them to capture their desired and an incredibly rare moment of quietude. It was lucky indeed, for, “just after [we took the picture], 50 Italian kids came out of a nightclub!”

Superimposed over each photograph are original illustrations of Susie and Tom, she with her daisy backpack, and he, with his baseball cap. Prague local Jamie Fisher is the Canadian artist responsible for the two round-eyed children. “I was going to draw them myself,” says York, before admitting, “but they didn’t look so well!”

She may have been unable to tap into her artistic side, but York had no trouble drawing from another personal reserve: her love for her home city. The author who now lives in Luxembourg with her husband and children was born in Prague. When she was eight years old, her parents told her they were going on a two-week holiday. It would be years before anyone in the family returned to Prague.

“It took my parents eight years to plan their escape” from Communist Czechoslovakia, says York. “I didn’t know we were escaping.” Instead of the relaxing vacation on which she had been led to believe they were all embarking, York and her parents fled to Yugoslavia before making their way to Sweden, and eventually, Australia.

Although their journey was “travel under stress,” York derived something enduringly positive from the experience. “That’s part of the reason I love travel so much,” she explains.

She now speaks fluent English with an Aussie accent, but remains devoted to Prague. “Initially, I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a book on Venice,” she remembers. Yet Prague was simply the best fit for her first book. She now refers to Susie and Tom Travel the World: Prague, as “an ode to Prague for me.”

In 2013, York published her second book featuring Susie and Tom, Little Globetrotters Visit Paris. On the advice of several publishers she met at a book fair in Bologna, York did more than just rework the title of her series: She changed the format. Unlike Susie and Tom Travel the World, in which our heroes engage in a treasure hunt, Little Globetrotters is less a narrative and more of an activity book.

“I met some amazing, really talented people who said, often, children get bored when they travel. It might be good to have a little activity.” Susie and Tom still visit the major sites of the city, but now, each page features five interesting facts about the site, as well as a relevant activity or two: word scrambles and mazes and puzzles. This is the format each new book in the series will follow from now on.

Little Globetrotters is currently available at the Marriott in Paris, while Susie and Tom Travel the World: Prague is available here in Prague at the airport and several English-language bookstores, including Shakespeare and Sons.

There will be a third addition to the series, though York has yet to decide in which city it will take place. One thing, however, is certain: Though the format of her books has changed, York’s outlook remains unvaried.

Says the author, “If children learn more about the world at a young age, they’re less likely to be racist or scared. They’re more likely to be understanding.”

by Anna Storm - Prague.TV 27.02.2015

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