Posts tagged Melinda Szymanik

An Interview with NZ Post Children’s Book Awards Finalist Melinda Szymanik

wintersdayThe NZ Post Children’s Book Awards finalists were announced this week, and I was thrilled to see Melinda Szymanik’s wonderful book A Winter’s Day in 1939 was on the list.

“Adam is 13 years old and lives with his family on a small farm in rural Poland. It is 1939 and the war has just broken out. Russians invade Poland and confiscate Adam’s family’s house and farm. They are sent to live with another family nearby, but are then moved on and put on a train for a Russian labour camp as refugees, prisoners of Russia.”

If you haven’t read this book, you should rush to your library or bookstore now! You’ll be gripped by Adam’s story, which is based on what actually happened to Melinda’s own father. So while you’re getting engrossed in what happens to Adam, you’ll be amazed to know that it’s all based on truth and the things described in the story really did occur!

I asked Melinda a few questions about her writing, and this is what she told me:

TANIA: Congratulations on being a finalist in this year’s NZ Post Book Awards! A Winter’s Day in 1939 was also named as a Storylines Notable Book this year. How are you feeling, and did you have any idea your book would be so widely acclaimed?

MELINDA: I am feeling beyond thrilled. And I am so happy that I have had this opportunity to introduce readers to a little known side of World War 2. You always hope people will like what you have written but this kind of response is like a dream come true.

TANIA: How did you research the book and how long did it take?

MELINDA: My father made about 20 pages worth of notes which I referred to continuously – these provided the main underlying structure of the story. Details were added by referring to books, information gathered off the internet or from my parents. I was keen to focus on a single experience and I think this makes ‘Adam’s’ story a more personal one for the reader to connect with. Research was an ongoing process throughout the writing and the book took me roughly 18 months to two years to write.

TANIA: A Winter’s Day in 1939 is based on your father’s real experiences during the war. How do your family feel about the book? Are they pleased his story is being told?

MELINDA: My family are very happy with how the book turned out. My mother was always telling me to write my father’s story. In the end I saw it as an opportunity to honour his experience and his bravery and they feel the same.

TANIA: Have you visited any of the places mentioned in the book?

MELINDA: No, but I would like to.

TANIA: What new books have you got coming out, and what are you working on now?

Melinda Szymanik

Melinda Szymanik

MELINDA: I have a new picture book coming out in July (The Song of Kauri, Scholastic) which is a little like a Maori myth and is about a Kauri tree. The illustrations by Dominique Ford are stunning. There is also a Maori version of this book. And I am currently working on several new stories at the moment – another historical story based on the Polish orphans who came to New Zealand in 1944 (it’s the 70 year anniversary of their arrival this year) for an intermediate aged audience, and a young adult fantasy story.

Thanks a lot, Melinda, for answering my questions, and good luck with the awards.

If you want to know more about Melinda and her wonderful books, check out her blog site by clicking here.

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Guest Author: Melinda Szymanik on A Winter’s Day in 1939

Today we’re joined by the wonderful Melinda Szymanik, author of the powerful new book, A Winter’s Day in 1939.  Based on her father’s experiences during World War II, A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds. Melinda has written a really interesting post for us about why and how she wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939.

Why and How I wrote A Winter’s Day in 1939

When the Soviet soldiers come and order them out, Adam and his family have no idea where they are going or if they will ever come back.  The Germans have attacked Poland and the world is at war. Boarding a cattle train Adam and his family embark on a journey that will cover thousands of miles and several years, and change all their lives forever. And mine too. Because Adam’s story, the story told in my new novel A Winter’s Day in 1939, is very much my Dad’s story.

I often heard fragments of this story from my dad when I was growing up.  It was shocking, and sad, and amazing.  My Dad’s family was forced out of their home and taken to a labour camp in Russia. It was freezing cold, and many people died from disease or starvation. Even when the Soviets finally let them go, they spent weeks travelling around the USSR , were made to work on Soviet farms and were still hungry and often sick, with no idea of where they might end up next.  As a child growing up in a peaceful place like New Zealand it was hard to imagine the real dangers and terrible conditions my father experienced.

I didn’t get to know the full story until I was grown up with children of my own and was regularly writing stories for children.  I wrote a short story, also called A Winter’s Day in 1939, based on a single event I knew fairly well  from my Dad‘s childhood – when Soviet Soldiers first come to order them off their farm, the only home my father had known up till that point in his life. The story was published in The Australian School Magazine.  I showed the short story to the publishers Scholastic who liked it too. They wondered if I could turn it in to a novel.  This was a chance to tell my father’s story. By now I knew it was an important story that should be shared

Luckily my Dad had made notes about his life during World War Two; about twenty pages all typed up.  However I know people’s real lives don’t always fit into the framework of a novel and I knew I would have to emphasize some things and maybe leave other things out.

I read and researched to add the right details to the story. And asked my parents lots of questions. How cold was it in Poland in January 1940? Who or what were the NKVD? What were the trains like? What are the symptoms of typhoid? How do you make your own skis? Some information was hard to find. Some of the places that existed in the 1940s aren’t there anymore. And people didn’t keep records about how many people were taken to the USSR from Poland or what happened to particular individuals. But what I wanted to give readers most of all was a sense of how it felt to live that life.  So this then is the story of a twelve year old Polish boy in the USSR during World War 2 that all started on A Winter’s Day in 1939.

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A Winter’s Day in 1939 by Melinda Szymanik

Taken from their home, forced to leave their country, put to work in labour camps, frozen and starved, Adam and his family doubt that they will ever make it out alive. Even if they were to get away, they might freeze to death, or starve, or the bears might get them. For the Polish refugees, the whole of the USSR becomes a prison from which there is seemingly no escape.

 

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a story of family, the harsh realities of war, and the fight for survival against the odds.  Adam and his family are ripped from their safe, comfortable life in Poland and transported to prison camps in Russia, in freezing conditions and with little to eat and drink.  They get transported in dirty, stinking train carriages with a stove and a pipe as a toilet, live in cramped barracks with many other families, and are forced to work for the good of Russia.  People die of exposure to the freezing conditions and disease is rife.  In these conditions you need to have to will to survive, and for Adam and his family, this is what is keeping them going.

The story is narrated by Adam, so you see everything through his eyes.  You feel how much he wants to survive and how important his family is to him. You get a real sense of how desperate their situation gets as time goes by, especially when it comes to food.  When a clerk at one of the evacuation centers apologizes to Adam for the lack of food, Adam says ‘He sounded sorry about it but that was no help to us.  You couldn’t eat ‘sorry.” You want so much for Adam and his family to survive the war and be able to return home, but you don’t know if their story will have a happy ending.

One of the things that stands out in Melinda’s story is the sense that Adam, his family, and the other refugees around them, hadn’t done anything wrong, yet they’re treated the way they are.  Adam says this himself, ‘We were being punished but I hadn’t done anything wrong.  None of us had.’ These people have been thrown out of their homes and sent to prison camps for no reason what so ever.

A Winter’s Day in 1939 is a war story that hasn’t been told before and it will have an affect on readers of all ages.  Stories like Melinda’s help us to remember all those people who died during this horrific period of history and I’ll certainly remember Adam’s story for a long time.

4 out of 5 stars

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Figuring out your main characters is just as important as figuring out your plot.

So you have worked out a plot. You know how your story starts and where you would like it to end but before you can begin writing it pays to think about your characters. I have some rules that will help you write great characters and also help you write great stories

1) Don’t have too many. Lots of characters are not only confusing to write about, they are confusing to keep track of when you read

2) Its often less important how they look (blue eyes and blond hair is unlikely to have any affect on how they solve their problem and achieve their goals in your story) and more important how they behave. Are they polite and respectful, angry, sad, or rebellious? Are they good at art, maths, good with friends, awkward, or shy??? Do they watch a lot of tv, or read a lot of books? Are they sporty and adventurous? Do they pick their nose, obey their parents, lie, or avoid their homework?

3) Little details can tell you a lot about a person. Do they wear nail polish to school when the school rules forbid it? Do they wear odd socks because home life is disorganised or they think it looks cool? Is that scar from an accident or where they were marked by their enemy? Do they sniff a lot (allergies, bad cold, bad habit?)?

4) The better you know what kind of person your main character is the easier it is to figure out how they are going to deal with the problems you throw at them in your story. Are they the kind of person to solve their problems alone or will they get friends to help? Do they have special skills or talents or are they brave and determined?

5) In the best stories the main character will change or learn something as they solve their problem. Maybe they are a loner who needs to work with others to fight the bad guy. Or perhaps they have to overcome their shyness or their fear. if you have an idea what that change is it will make it easier to write the story.

6) The right name can make a big difference. Calling your character Myrtle or Arthur will have a different affect on your reader, compared with calling them Hannah or Josh. Voldemort would never skip, sing nursery rhymes or smell flowers but then Suzy is unlikely to use the killing curse.

7) Don’t be afraid to have your character behave or react as you would behave or react. It helps make them more real to your reader.  My characters often have bits of me in them but because I mix in some qualities I would like to have and then add a few other qualities no one can tell which part is which.

8) No one is perfect. Your character shouldn’t be perfect either. The best characters have good qualities as well as bad qualities.

Good luck with your characters. The better you know them the easier they will be to write about and the more fun they will be to read about.

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Tips on plots

A good plot makes for a satisfying story. Good plots have good beginnings, good middles and good ends. They usually start with a problem (or an event that creates a problem) for the main character(s) to solve and  we follow the plot along as the character(s) try to solve the problem or take the steps necessary to solving it, until they sort everything out at the end.

I don’t plan my stories out in great detail before I get started but I have a good idea of how I want the story to go and what my ending looks like. Just like the reader, I enjoy being surprised by the story as it develops, but knowing where I am heading makes the it easier for me to get the story to work. For me, knowing who the main character is helps me write the story. If I know the kind of person they are it is easier to figure out what they are going to do in certain circumstances. And knowing what ‘kind’ of story I am telling helps as well. If its horror I know they will maybe be facing some fierce scary monsters in the dark, at night. If its suspense then I don’t know what the monster looks like but they make a lot of loud noises, throw a big shadow and make my character sweat and tremble. If its action then I want my character running, jumping, and maybe fighting. If its fantasy then I get to imagine special powers and special creatures and decide whether they are good or evil. Knowing all this makes it easier to write a good middle. So before you start writing you need to know

1) What the ending (solution to the problem) is

2) What kind of person your main character is

3) What kind of story you are going to write

The best endings are the ones where we have all the information/clues to work it out for ourselves but we are still surprised. It doesn’t work so well if your ending relies on new information not already in the story.  And just like our main character(s), our plot needs a personality. Is it gutsy with a sense of humour? Or serious and athletic? Or is it chatty and relaxed? Nervous and worried? This is the story’s voice and if we can have the same voice all the way through, despite the ups and downs of the characters adventures, no matter how dark or dreadful things get, then the reader has something to rely on as they follow the story through to the end. Writers have to be surprising and reliable all at once!

Next time I’ll talk about creating great characters

Happy writing  !

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A great writing challenge for keen writers

Here is a little something I am involved in. If you are a primary or intermediate school student you should check this out. Lots of fun to be had, prizes to win and writing skills to benefit. Go to it y’all.

FaBo Story 3 has now launched at http://fabostory3.blogspot.co.nz/ and we’d LOVE you to write with us. As it’s the beginning of the term and you’re all busy, we’re giving you a bit longer to write your first chapter and email it to us (deadline 27 July).
 
FABO STORY 3 begins with a letter posted on the blog on Monday 16 July – a letter that threatens to disrupt the biggest sporting event in world history – the TITANIC GAMES.
Who wrote the letter and to whom? Why would they make threats? It’s your job to write a follow-on chapter. YOU decide what the story is about, who the characters are, and what happens to them next. Write the next chapter in the story (up to 1000 words) and send it tofabostory@gmail.com in the body of your email (not as an attachment) by 5pm on Friday 27 July. The winning chapter will appear on Monday 30 July at the same time as a chapter by one of the children’s authors. From then on, every week is another episode in a big, dark writing adventure.
 
By the end, you will have used your imagination and sleuthing skills to figure out who the villain is and how to stop him or her from destroying the Titanic Games. Are you ready to compete? Let the Titanic Games begin!
 
As always, there will be prizes, so start working on your medal count now.
 
Go to http://fabostory3.blogspot.co.nz/ to read the letter that kickstarts your story about the Titanic Games.
 
GOOD LUCK. : ) Start reading, and start writing.

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A story to read

An important part of writing stories is editing. Even the most famous authors who have written many books go over their work again and again fixing mistakes and making good writing better. At the moment I am rewriting and editing a novel to make it the best it can be. Going through 50,000 words is keeping me busy so while I do that I thought you might like to read a short story I wrote a few years back. You are the first children to read it 🙂 Hope you enjoy it.

An Everyday Mum

By Melinda Szymanik

“I’m sure my mother is an alien,” Thomas said as we came down the hill toward my place.  “I don’t know what planet she’s from but she’s just the weirdest.”

“Oh?” I said.

“She’s gone all strange since we moved up here, lighting candles and buying crystals and reading tea leaves and stuff” he said.

“Ah,” I said.

We parked our skateboards by the back door and walked into the kitchen.  A batch of homemade chocolate chip biscuits lay cooling on a wire rack.  Their smell filled the room.  Mum had been baking again.

“Those look really good.  Let’s have a couple,” said Thomas.

“Nah, my Mum’s got supersonic ears that can hear me taking something out of the kitchen that I’m not meant to.  You watch,” I said opening the fridge door and bending down to the cans of fizzy drink on the bottom shelf.

“Nathan, what are you doing in the fridge,” a voice called out from a distant room in the house.

“I’m just thirsty Mum.”

“There’s perfectly good water in the tap.”

“Yes Mum.”

“Wow,” said Thomas.

Thomas was my new friend.  He’d moved in round the corner from our house and just started at my school.  We had a heap of things in common, like skateboarding and collecting old Spiderman comics and secretly reading books.  I’d just been over to his place and now, for the first time, he was visiting over at my place.

I was showing him round the house.

“This is the kitchen.  Cups and stuff are in here.  The loo is in there,” I said pointing to the toilet door as we walked down the hallway, “and that’s my sister, Ruby,” I said pointing at her lying on her bed dressing her doll.  She poked her tongue out.  I just stopped myself from poking my tongue back.  I laughed instead and Thomas laughed too.

“Go away,” my sister shouted.

“Nathan!  Don’t tease your sister,” my mother’s disembodied voice floated down the hall.

I took Thomas upstairs to my room and we ended up playing on the computer out on the landing.

After a while we got sick of computer games and went back outside.  Mum was hanging out the washing at the rotary line with her back to us.  Thomas and I picked up our skateboards as quietly as we could.  I should really have been doing my homework by now but we were having too much fun.

“If you’re going for a ride on your skateboard Nate, could you get me a carton of milk please?  There’s money in my purse on the kitchen bench.”  She hadn’t even turned around.  She was pegging out a big sheet and she’s not very tall. It looked tricky.

“She’s got eyes in the back of her head,” I said to Thomas.  Thomas gave me a funny look.

“Should we help her with that sheet?” he asked.

“No its okay, she’s got a third arm as well.”

Thomas’s head whipped back round to stare at my Mum.  She still had her back to us but the sheet was now perfectly pegged out on the line, stretched taut, flapping in the breeze.  She was bending back down to the basket, a shirt already draped over her shoulder as she picked out a towel.

I poked him in the back.  “I’m only kidding.”

We rode our skateboards down to the skate park, but my wheels kept jamming up.  I jumped off and picked my board up, turning it over to check it out.  Someone had stuck plasticene in the ball bearings of one of the front wheels and I knew who the criminal was.  “That little witch!” I exclaimed.  “She’s always mucking my things up on purpose.”

Thomas was impressed.  “My little sister would never think up anything as good as this.”

“Barbie’s gonna pay, man.  It’ll be a quick trip to the hairdressers for her,” I said in a funny voice.  Thomas laughed

But I was annoyed.  We had to forget the skateboarding and go straight to the shops for the milk.  We spent the thirty cents change on some lollies.  It seemed fair after what Ruby had done and I thought Mum wouldn’t mind once I’d explained.

 

When we got back from the shops we could hear Mum singing in the kitchen.  She sings a lot.  We’re used to it and she’s not too bad at it although the songs are a bit old and crusty.

My hand was on the back door handle when she called out, “I can make some hot chocolate with that milk for you two if you like.”

“Do you want something to drink?”  I asked my new friend.

I looked at Thomas.

“What’s wrong mate?”

“Your Mum’s in there,” Thomas said biting his lip.

“So?”

“It’s like she’s from outer space, or something,” he said, dead serious.

“Don’t be silly.  None of those things I said before are true.  She hasn’t got supersonic ears or eyes in the back of her head.”

“I know, I know,” Thomas said.  “It’s just…”

“She’s just a great Mum,” I said.  “And she makes the best hot chocolates.  You’ll see.  Come on.”

We went inside and I introduced Thomas properly to my Mum.  She smiled and said hello and took the milk from him with a thank you.  She had jeans and a t-shirt on.  She looked like an everyday Mum and I could see Thomas relax.

“I wish you wouldn’t call your sister names,” she said, as she put the cooled biscuits in a tin.

“She messed up my skateboard,” I complained.

“I’m sure I can fix it,” she said.  “I’ll have a go after I’ve made dinner.  I’ve left some biscuits for both of you even though you’ve already eaten.”  Thomas’s mouth was hanging open in surprise.

“How does she do that?” he whispered incredulously.

“You’ve got a red tongue from the lollies you goober,” I whispered back with a laugh.  “She’s just very observant.”  But it was lucky that Thomas was tipping his head back to drain the last of his hot chocolate from his cup when Mum’s third eyelids slid across her eyes as she was chopping onions.  Because it wasn’t his Mum that was an alien, it was mine.

The End

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