Marina Michaelidou-Kadi was born in Limassol, Cyprus, and currently lives in Nicosia with her family. With a background in psychology and environmental conservation (BA, Boston University, PhD, Cornell University), she is known for writing children’s stories that promote compassion and environmental consciousness.
Her books have received a number of awards and distinctions locally and internationally, including two national literature awards for young children, the children’s book award by the Cyprus Bibliographical Society, the Peter Pan Prize of Sweden, selection for the White Ravens Catalogue of the International Youth Library of Munich, and special mention in the IBBY Honor List (International Board on Books for Young People). Several of her books have also been shortlisted for the children’s book awards of Cyprus and Greece.
The National Herald: How did you start writing children’s books?
Marina Michaelidou-Kadi: I always loved writing, but after I became a mother, I discovered the magical world of picture books. Every night we read together with my two young children, a routine that we all cherished. I was fascinated by the depth and beauty of picture books and at some point, I felt the need to communicate with children through writing my own story. From the beginning I knew that I would write about difficult issues that I felt children should be exposed to. I remember writing my first story, about a girl’s efforts to save a small forest from destruction, without knowing where this path would take me. Today, I feel grateful that I embarked on this journey and didn’t let my self-doubt take hold of me.
TNH: Which is the source of your inspiration when writing a book?
MM: I write about issues that concern me deeply, such as poverty and inequality, social inclusion, environmental degradation, and animal exploitation. Inspiration can come from many different sources – something I read in the news, a real-life story I heard, or even a memory from my own childhood. My book Sabel’s Red Dress, for example, was inspired by thousands of children who were forced in recent years to leave their homes behind and embark on a perilous journey, hoping to reach a safer destination. My book Nicolas and Elli talks about the bond between a boy and a zoo elephant, and is based on the life of a lonely elephant in my hometown zoo.
TNH: Which book is the one that influenced you in starting writing?
MM: Alison McGhee's book Someday, illustrated by Peter Reynolds, is one of the books that touched me deeply and inspired me to start writing. It is a book that in very few words, describes all the complex feelings of motherhood and reminds us that no matter how much we love our children, the future is theirs alone. I have also been inspired by the book Coming on home soon by Jacqueline Woodson, illustrated by E.B. Lewis, which shows the strong connection of two women – a girl and her grandmother – as they wait for the girl’s mother to return home safe, during a time of poverty and uncertainty.
TNH: How long does it take you to write a book?
MM: When an idea comes to find me, it consumes me every second of the day until it is expressed in writing. I usually need a couple days to write the story, but I return to it again and again, revising and rewriting, until I feel that it is stripped of all excess elements and that the story is down to its very essence. One of the stages that I enjoy the most is the collaboration that develops with illustrators and the creative process of watching the words turn into pictures. A picture book is, after all, a team project.
TNH: How do you ensure a picture book lends itself well to being read aloud?
MM: The truth is that when I am writing a story, I don’t channel my writing towards children. I believe that picture books, as a literary genre, are very similar to poetry in some ways and can touch children as well as adults. Having said that, when I finalize a story, I always read it aloud to my children and take their suggestions very seriously!
TNH: Do your heroes lead your way through the story or do you decide about their fate?
MM: I seldom know the ending of a book when I begin writing a story. As the story flows and the characters develop, the choices they make and the path they choose is ultimately their own. I often choose loose endings, where readers can reflect on the story and make their own decisions about the direction the characters will take.
TNH: How do you connect with your little readers and the writing community in general?
MM: One of the most satisfying parts of writing children’s books is the chance to meet and interact with children during book presentations and school visits. Their reaction and questions never cease to amaze and move me. Through this interaction I came to realize that there is no limit to the issues you can discuss with children, as long as you approach them with sensitivity and care. During the Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown that followed, it was wonderful to see writers around the world coming together and streaming live book readings for children who were isolated at home. It was a small, but powerful gesture, and I was happy to know that children enjoyed and looked forward to these readings.
TNH: Your children's books speak about social issues. Which is your goal in writing your stories?
MM: For me, writing is a form of resistance against wrong and injustice. I am aware that many of the issues I choose to write about are difficult and complex, so I try to approach these topics in a way that does not affect children’s optimism and hope for the future. My goal is to help children understand that they have choices: simple, everyday choices that can help make the world a better place.
TNH: Which are the most recent books you have published?
MM: Two recent books I have written are White uniform (Teleia publications) and Waiting for the Rain (Kalendis Publications), both illustrated by Renia Metallinou). Waiting for the Rain deals with the phenomenon of drought and climate change, through the quest of a young child to bring back the rain. White uniform is inspired by the real life story of a Cypriot nurse who lived through conflict and war, staying focused on her duty to help those in need. Through the life of this young woman, the story honors all those heroes who work silently and selflessly to alleviate human pain and suffering.
TNH: What's coming up next for you?
MM: Two Kind Words and a Smile is a new book coming out this Fall by Kalendis Publications, with the illustrations of Emilia Konteu. It’s a story that shines light on the timeless and universal problem of loneliness, and the different ways it can affect people of different ages and socioeconomic backgrounds. The book focuses on the parallel stories of several people who experience loneliness, whose lives intersect through small acts of kindness and compassion.
TNH: Do you have any advice for aspiring picture-book authors?
MM: Trying to get a story published can be quite challenging for new authors. I have kept a copy of all the letters I sent to publishers and their many negative replies, as a reminder of the obstacles I faced in the beginning of my writing journey. Some of these stories that were initially rejected were ultimately published and received literary awards. I cannot stress enough how important it is to preserve one’s confidence during this difficult process and stay true to oneself. But most importantly, try to find your own, unique voice. If your story moves you, then it is a story worth telling.