Interview with Scaredy Squirrel author Mélanie Watt

Kid-lit superstar Mélanie Watt talks to Today’s Parent about her beloved books and tells us why she sees a bit of Scaredy Squirrel in everyone.

TP: What’s your writing/illustrating process like?
MW: It starts with an idea and then I sketch. I draw on paper and add the colour on the computer. All the outlines are drawn and scanned by me and the colour is done digitally.
With Scaredy, I start with graphics and that’s what builds the story. With Chester, it’s kind of different because I start at the beginning and it’s action-reaction, and it leads up to something. But I try to keep a theme in mind, and whatever comes out — whether it be a text or a joke or a visual — I work from there. It’s like a puzzle.

TP: Do you ever get writer’s block?
MW: Yeah, I try to work on something else. Actually, when I began writing the third Chester story, I was supposed to be working on a Scaredy book, but it was just not working. And that’s where the idea of Chester writing his own story came from because he gets writer’s block.

TP: What inspired Scaredy’s traits?
MW:
Well, I’m kind of like that — I grew up in a very cautious family — and I think people can relate to that. Everyone knows someone or has had these moments where they’re very afraid to do things. I just thought it was a nice topic to explore because if you don’t risk anything, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. But it’s weird how life brings you full circle. You write something about fear (or not leaving your tree), but the project brings you out more; it makes you meet new people, makes you travel, makes you open up.

TP: What inspired Chester?
MW: I wondered what would happen if you want to write a story and a character pops in and says, “No, this is not how you’re doing it” and just tries to take the attention. Kind of like siblings. I have a younger sister and I remember we were always struggling for the attention of our parents. “Who can do this? I can do that!” I also grew up with a cat and when I did my homework, she would climb over my papers and mess it all up.

But once I got a letter from a class that had drawn two circles of the personality of Chester and Scaredy, and what merged together was control freak. I thought that was super, but it made me think I’m this major control freak. If you look at all my characters (the bunny and Foxworth, the salesman), there’s a control issue with all of them.

Do you have a favourite character?
MW:
Scaredy and Chester are my two favourites. These are characters that come out at different parts of your life; they express something that you’re feeling on a subconscious level you don’t always know it. It’s like therapy. Sometimes I hear the characters talking in my head because that’s how I build the story.

TP: What kinds of feedback do you get from kids?
MW:
They talk about ideas for other books. Sometimes they have drawings of Chester or Scaredy. Today a little boy said “What about Scaredy underwater?” and I said, “That’s so cool! What would he be afraid of?” And they get all excited. I think that’s what’s fun about Scaredy: They’re all graphics and lists so kids can easily get into that mind frame and start building their own ideas.

TP: What advice do you have for kids in overcoming their own fears?
MW: I always say that knowledge is power; the more you know about something, the less you fear it. So school is good! Stay in school and keep studying. I love it when kids say that Scaredy is exaggerating because it’s a good question (even for adults) to ask ourselves about the society of fear that we live in. What should we really be afraid of and what’s been kind of set up? Like how white do we really need our teeth to be? These are the different types of fears that we don’t even notice anymore; we just go with it.

TP: Do you have any advice for kids who aspire to create their own books?
MW: Make your own book because that’s pretty much how I started. I was at university and I did a project about colour and I invented Leon the Chameleon. And I did an actual mock-up with paper and scissors and that’s how it started for me. When Scaredy came out, it just gave me the confidence to go in a different direction and that’s really where I have more fun. Even when I was writing Scaredy, I had this feeling like, “What am I doing? What is this?” You always have that little voice in your head that can help you or stop you from doing things. So have to have the courage to try things and if it doesn’t work out, it doesn’t work out, but at least you tried.

TP: In your next book, Scaredy ventures into the world of camping. Can you tell us a bit about that?
MW: I did some camping this past summer and got to relive it as an adult looking at how kids react to it nowadays. I was really fascinated by the fact that kids want to stay connected. They want their technology; they don’t want to go outside, necessarily. When I was young, it was the opposite. We were outside playing more, whereas today’s generation might be more used to being connected and maybe don’t know how to adapt to the wilderness. It’s a different relationship and I wanted to explore that. Scaredy doesn’t want to go outside because he needs to be connected; he needs to do his things in the way that he knows how to do them, but he discovers the advantages of letting go.

TP: What other adventures do you see Scaredy participating in?
MW:
To space would be cool. In the city would be nice. I’d like to make a safety guide for Halloween; kids ask me a lot about Halloween.

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