Children's books author Joanna T. Karachristos was born in California in 1959 of Greek parents. She studied at the University of California, Santa Cruz and continued her studies at the Kapodistriako University of Athens, where she lives and has worked as a teacher of Greek and English philology. She can be reached on Facebook: Joanna Karachristos Books and Guides, and her blog.
The National Herald: How did you start writing/illustrating children's books?
Joanna T. Karachristos: I was a bookworm from a very early age and there were books that I was so fond of I would read them over and over again. When I had my first son, I searched for children's books that would also be instructive, a medium for learning. Being Greek, I guess I had been influenced by the fables of Aesop, who wrote simple stories which exposed profound truths for all mankind.
As for the illustrations in my books, I am working with a promising young artist who happens to be a former student of mine. As a student, Evanthia Koukoreba impressed me with her diligence and discipline and the fact that she spent her free time during recess drawing. She participated in a group under my direction in a Panhellenic student competition with the topic Hellenes of Pontos; Memories and dreams, past, present and future. In this competition she created the illustrations for the first part of the comic book The Remarkable, Diachronic Pontian Diogenes, which won first prize in the category Project.
TNH: Which book is the one that influenced you in starting writing?
JK: As a young girl growing up in California I loved Louisa May Alcott. I cannot remember how many times I had read Little Women and Little Men. Through her literature I also became interested in the Transcendentalist Movement and American history, especially the Civil War, which led me to read the classic Gone with the Wind. While still in elementary school I read J.R.R. Tolkien's books starting with the Hobbit and have reread them many times. As a teenager I was very impressed with Harper Lee's To Kill A Mockingbird, to name a few.
TNH: How long does it take you to write a book?
JK: It depends. If I have been working it out in my mind for a while, it is easier to sit down and write it out. Sometimes my stories need research, which obviously takes more time. I did not realize how difficult it is to write a book for children. I found myself in a constant state of inquiry, asking myself if what I was writing was comprehensible for young readers.
TNH: Which is the source of your inspiration when writing a book?
JK: Having worked as a teacher for 38 years and having a dynamic Greek background, I believe this combination ultimately led me to write stories characterized by their didactic content. In other words, my first two stories for children, which have animals as protagonists and carry obvious pedagogical elements, can be compared to a fable. I am inspired by Greek history and especially mythology, and the ancient Greek language. It is such a rich, spellbinding culture.
TNH: How do you ensure a picture book lends itself well to being read aloud?
JK: One doesn't just `tell a story'. It has to captivate and carry the reader along. But more importantly, I believe it must touch the soul of the reader, elicit an emotion, or create a mental picture.
TNH: Do your heroes lead your way through the story or do you decide about their fate?
JK: I never start writing unless I have made a plan. I know what is going to happen from beginning to end. It is possible however, for me to make small changes as I go along.
TNH: How do you connect with your little readers and the writing community in general?
JK: I have not been given the opportunity to connect with my little readers except perhaps through Facebook. I would love to be able to meet with them here in Greece and to give them a walking tour of the beautiful area around the Acropolis and Thision based on the adventures of Melas, Gali, and Mr. Makris, while pointing out the archaeological and historical sites. I am sure that the children will find it enjoyable and it will be an unforgettable experience.
TNH: Children's books get the message across regarding social issues. What is your goal in writing your stories?
JK: The ancient Greeks had an answer to this question.
Aristotle: All people have a natural desire to learn.
Empedocles: Truly, learning cultivates thought.
Menandros: Education is one of the greatest achievements for mankind.
TNH: Which are the Greek children's books you wish you had written?
JK: I admire the writing of Penelope Delta: Τρελαντώνης, Μάγκας, Στα Μυστικά τού Βαλτου.
TNH: Which are the most recent books you have published?
JK: When I wrote my first published story The Dog and Pan's Cave (Ο Κύων και η Σπηλιά τού Πανός) I was working as an English teacher in Greece. It was when I was supervising for the Panhellenic university entrance exams that I got the inspiration for this story. Every day through the windows of the school I could see a large black dog on a terrace barking wildly. It occurred to me that it was common practice unfortunately, for many people to `abandon' their dogs on the balcony or roof of their homes and the only contact these animals had with their owners was when they were fed. I was also annoyed with the phenomenon of stray dogs and cats here in Greece. So I thought I needed to write a story about my concerns in such a way that they could reach children, and perhaps I could help them to understand how cruel this was. And in order to do this my protagonists would need to be a dog or cat in a similar situation. In addition, Greek history and mythology have always fascinated me, so I include them in my stories.
Initially I had intended to use this story in class as a reader where my students could see the English on one page and the Greek translation on the adjacent page to help them with their English. Then when I realized my students really enjoyed reading it (even though they were high school students), and after their insistent questions of what happened to the some of the characters I thought I needed to write a sequel, and so I wrote The Mystery of the Klepsydra (Το Μυστικό τής Κλεψύδρας).
The inspiration for the sequel came unexpectedly. I was doing some personal research on the death of the revolutionary fighter Odysseas Androutsos when I came across a reference to the Klepsydra spring and an intriguing discovery made by the Greeks then when they rediscovered the spring during the Greek War of Independence. This was the perfect background for the sequel and I incorporated this discovery into the story.
The third book I've completed, which has been accepted by the Ministry of Culture in Greece to be sold at the archaeological sites around the Acropolis (A Stroll with Melas, Gali, and Mr. Makris/Περίπατος με τον Μελά, Γαλή και τον κύριο Μακρή), is a short historical/archaeological guide for children of Thision and the Acropolis. I had decided to make a simple guide for my young readers who would like to follow the adventures of the protagonists of these two stories, that is to say, a walking guide. It can be used independently though, without having read the two stories.
TNH: What's coming up next for you?
JK: I have recently finished another guide about walls, rivers, and demes in Ancient Athens. It is not geared towards children but it is a guide which will “help to point out the locality of these sometimes unknown places that offer an exciting look into the past. It will also shed light on the lives of some historic Athenians and explain the importance of the demes in ancient Athens.” It is simple and concise, and written for the layperson.
At the moment, I am working on a novel about a young girl called Antianeira growing up in ancient Athens in the period after the Persian Wars and before the Peloponnesian War. It has a historical background of the events of the time and of life in Athens then.
TNH: Do you have any advice for aspiring picture-book authors?
JK: Keep writing. Also, keep in mind how you would like the world to be and what you would like to instill in future generations to make this a better world. We have an obligation to guide and instruct children today to be better adults for the future to come. If we can achieve this through writing then we are making a significant contribution to changing a possibly already predetermined, bleak future.