Authors at Play: group interview

I asked five authors—Matt Ottley, Rukhsana Khan, Jennifer Cervantes, Charles R. Smith Jr. and Kashmira Sheth— three questions related to childhood play, and their answers were as revealing as they were inspiring. Many years later, they sure haven’t forgotten how to play with the same abandonment as their younger selves! I thank them for inviting me to join their games and adventures! I had loads of fun!


Do you believe that your experiences of free, unstructured play as a child have influenced your development as a writer? What particular elements of your childhood do you feel you’ve carried over with you into your adult life?

Matt Ottley: I had an unusual childhood in that I was born in the highlands of Papua New Guinea at a time when that part of the country had only recently been discovered by the outside world. One of my parents’ friends had been the first Australian to walk into the Western Highlands of PNG and make first contact with the indigenous people there. When I was a toddler it was not easy for my parents to obtain the kinds of toys that most children from developed countries have access to and so my first toy box was a box of bottle lids and old food containers (cleaned, of course!). My mum reckons this is the reason I have such a vivid imagination.

Rukhsana Khan: Having grown up on little else but unstructured play, I think having that time to amuse myself definitely factored into my development as a writer. As new immigrants my family grew up extremely poor. We didn’t have a lot of money for toys. In fact, we would get a toy once a year on Eid. As a result, we made games out of household things: toilet paper rolls held together (we didn’t have tape!) were binoculars, egg cartons were cash registers, a couple of times we got boxes of chocolates and the crinkly sheet of indented plastic where the chocolates had rested, became a very nice typewriter when I turned them over (the sound when I pressed the shapes sounded very much like the clicking of a typewriter!).

One of my and my siblings’ favorite games was “chair.” I’d be a chair and my sibling would take turns sitting on my lap, pressing buttons on my arms that would do different things, like massage their neck or tickle them. And we also played crab, where one of us would sit with our legs wide apart waiting for someone to step in range so that we could snap our legs together and trap the person.

We lived in a heavily wooded area, and we often went into the ravines to explore and play in the creek. I can still see the dappled sunlight filtered through the canopy of leaves, and smell the earth of the path.

Some of my earliest memories are of telling myself stories when I couldn’t fall back to sleep after waking up from a bad dream (my father was quite intimidating and hated us children coming to disturb him and my mom at night). I always started with Little Red Riding Hood, and then halfway through I’d remember there was a wolf in the story, and get scared again, so I’d have to switch to another story. More often than not I’d end up making up my own stories. I definitely draw on all these and other childhood experiences when I’m writing my books.

Jennifer Cervantes: As a child, I spent a lot of time imagining and creating. I can vividly remember asking “what if?” which led me on so many adventures. Once, I ran away all the way to my front yard. I had my pillowcase filled with my world belongings and I set up camp, including a fire pit without the fire. I skewered eucalyptus leaves with long scraggly branches (pretending the leaves were fish I’d caught) and cooked them over my imaginary fire pit. These kinds of experiences have certainly contributed to the way I can still see the world through that little girl’s eyes: the wonder, adventure, imagination, and magic are all still there and absolutely contribute to my writing.

Charles R. Smith Jr.: Growing up, I didn’t have all the technology that exists today for kids, so my friends and I played lots of sports in the streets and made up our own games at recess. This fostered confidence in my own creativity because, unconsciously, I learned to trust my creative instincts. An element from my childhood that I carry with me today is the sense that I don’t need others in order to be entertained. I learned to enjoy being alone without being lonely, and to use my imagination to entertain myself.

Kashmira Sheth: The time I spent daydreaming and being lazy has definitely played a large role in my development
as a writer. I believe the brain needs to have the luxury to wander in order to focus. When I was young, I used to spend many monsoon afternoons on the ebony swing in my grandparents’ home and make up stories and characters. I didn’t have many toys but was fortunate to have many friends.

My family’s love of sharing stories (oral as well as written) is something I have carried with me into my adult life. I loved being transported into a strange time, place, and predicament, and I still do. My writing allows me to take myself into different situations, and to bring my readers along with me for the ride.

Can you think of a few examples of children’s books where playing figures prominently or is key to the story?

Matt Ottley: One of my favourite books is Sarah Perry’s If, which is all about imagining the world in a completely wonderful and bizarre way. What if mice were hair, or if frogs ate rainbows, for example. The classic example of a picture book that is really about play is, of course, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. One of my own books,Albert’s Rainy Day, is about the boats and trucks and a space ship that Albert makes out of his bedroom furniture one rainy day.

Rukhsana Khan: It’s funny but I don’t think ‘play’ features all that strongly in most children’s books. Maybe it’s because kids would rather do the playing than read about it? Most stories I remember involved action, doing things. Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia comes to mind as an imaginative, playful story.

Jennifer Cervantes: Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boyby Gary D. Schmidt is filled with the pleasures of play on the beach and  the imagination of a young boy yearning for something more.  Katherine Patterson’s Bridge to Terabithiais a classic book based on the discovery of imagination and where it can take you.

Kashmira Sheth: These titles come to mind right away: Cat in the Hat by Dr. Suess; May I Bring a Friend? by Beatrice de Regniers and Beni Montreso; Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh; Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing by Judy Blume;Beezus and Ramona by Beverly Cleary and My Garden by Kevin Henkes. My own picture book, Monsoon Afternoonabout an afternoon of play between a young boy and his grandfather, is also a good example of a book where “play” figures prominently.

Now let’s play pretend… We’re kids, and I’m new to your neighborhood. What game would you invite me to play and where do you imagine our game taking place?

Matt Ottley: Well, I’d suggest that we collect a whole lot of cardboard boxes and join them up to make a submarine, then we’d stock it with food, books, drawing stuff, maybe a potplant and someone’s guinea pig. Then we’d sail off to an amazing deepwater adventure where we’d see a pod of a hundred whales and a gigantic squid. We’d probably have to fight off a sea monster or two and then we’d emerge on an island that has a huge waterfall and a tall mountain in which we’d build our hideout. The island would also have a long flat bit on which we’d build the airstrip and a bit behind the mountain where we’d make the farm. This would all take place in my backyard, but it would really take place in the ocean and on the amazing island!

Rukhsana Khan: Let’s play in the backyard! First, we’ll play Red Rover. We’ll brace ourselves and try not to let Debbie come through our ranks. After that, we’ll play Crack the Whip to see who “flies off” first! Then it’s on to Mother May I? – I get to be mother! The fence is home.

If we had a skipping rope we’d sing and skip to 300! Then we’d play soccer, baseball, frozen tag… and when we got tired we’d play Red Light, Green Light. And Snail – although I might have to explain the rules of this one to you: we form a long chain with our friends and I lead everyone into an inner spiral (if you could see from a bird’s eye view you’d see we’re forming the shape of a snail) and then, when I and the second person in line get into the very middle, we hold hands and put up our arms to form a bridge. The third person in line goes under it and becomes the one to lead us out, spiraling in the opposite direction. It’s a LOT of fun!

Jennifer Cervantes: First, we’d build a fort out of old tarp and tree branches between the mesquite in the desert; this would be our invisible home base where only we had the magic to see it. Then we’d identify our special powers and code names before settling on our mission.

Charles R. Smith Jr.: I love sports, so I would invite you to play baseball, basketball or kickball since lots of other kids would be involved. Even if you “don’t play sports”, when you’re with a group of kids that do, it becomes a great way to make new friends.

Kashmira Sheth: I’d invite you to play Pirate Chase on the swing set in my backyard. Our game takes place in the ocean (playground mulch) and the swing set is our ship. We’re the good guys chasing pirates, or maybe we turn into pirates and are chasing a ship with rich cargo. Come on, let’s just try it. It’ll be fun!


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