Award-winning author and illustrator Mélanie Watt believes books can empower kids. She created her first book 12 years ago, while she was still a design student, and since then, she has written and drawn over 16 children’s books, including the Scaredy Squirrel series.
Recently, Mélanie partnered with the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation, a program that contributes to needy school libraries in Canada. Since its creation in 2004, the foundation has donated $13 million and one million books to schools in need.
Mélanie speaks to ParentsCanada about the lessons kids can learn from her books and how she became a children’s book author and illustrator.
ParentsCanada: As a child, how did you get interested in reading?
Mélanie Watt: As a child, I was a visual kid so I was really interested in picture books. One of my favourite things was to have my parents read me a story and have that family time. But, as I got older, I tried to make my own versions of these stories and draw my own pictures.
PC: Why did you become a children’s book author?
MW: As I became older, I didn’t aim to become an author or an illustrator. I actually went into business administration. I didn’t focus on that for long because I realized that I wanted to focus on something more artistic and get back to the roots of what interested me when I was a kid. So I went into graphic design.
PC: What inspired you to create the Scaredy Squirrel book series?
MW: I grew up with a very cautious family. Not just my parents, but aunts and uncles who would warn me about everything, even riding a bike. I thought it would be fun to talk about the topic of facing your fears. That was the starting point and it developed into something more about our society of fear and what we see around us.
PC: What lessons can kids learn from the Scaredy Squirrel books?
MW: The most important thing that I would want kids to learn is that knowledge is power. The more that you know about something you fear, the less you fear it. I want them to question what’s in the book because there is a lot of irony and exaggeration. I think it’s empowering for kids to have their own opinions about what they think is a real fear and a false fear – something that is not based on any information at all.
PC: How can kids identify with Scaredy Squirrel?
MW: Everyone has those fears that block them from doing things and wanting to take risks. One of the important lessons in Scaredy is that if you don’t face your fears, then you’ll never know what you are capable of. But, Scaredy books aren’t saying that you have to change everything about yourself – you just have to make those baby steps. You just have to do a little something everyday and you’ll get there.
PC: How have these books helped you in your own life?
MW: These books have helped me a lot! Part of the Scaredy personality is based on myself and things that I have to work on. The ironic thing about this book and the success of it, it made me get out of my “tree” [her studio]. It made me go out there, travel, meet a bunch of people and face my fears about public speaking.
PC: How important are books for a child growing up?
MW: It’s important because it’s empowering to kids. It gives them access to a world that can trigger their imagination. It’s about literacy, but it’s also about exposing kids to art, which is equally important.
PC: Why did you decide to bring your voice to the Indigo Love of Reading Foundation?
MW: Indigo is doing an essential job to give kids access to books at school and at home. I wanted to be a part of that to shed light on it and help spread the word. We hope to get kids really inspired about books.
PC: What tips can you offer parents trying to get their children interested in reading?
MW: 1) Humour. I find that humour definitely helps. Kids find a way to play as they’re reading. Make it a fun activity.
2) Questions. Parents should let their child question what happens in the books. It sheds light on certain issues that kids might have and open the discussion with their parents.
3) Open Discussions. Reading a book is one thing, but opening new discussions around it – that’s the cool part. It can go both ways. It’s not only about kids having fears, it’s about kids knowing that their parents are human and they have fears too.