Rita is a new picture book series written by award-winning author Máire Zepf and illustrated by celebrated illustrator Andrew Whitson, also known as Mr Ando.
Rita's adventures take her on an imaginative journey, solving and understanding the issues facing pre-schoolers. She tackles her messy bedroom with the aid of a "super-sorting" robot, recruits a ninja to teach her skills and a Fairy Godmother to help her learn how to dress herself. The stories are full of fun and wonderful to read aloud, whilst Rita's exploits encourage lively discussion and interaction. Originally published in Irish, the books are now available in English and Welsh, produced by independent publisher, Graffeg.
Máire, introduced us to her charming and very funny character, Rita;
Tell us about the hero of your stories, Rita.
Rita is a little girl with very big ideas. Fiercely curious and boldly imaginative, her adventures take place entirely in her fantastical, and often funny thought worlds. She's a thinker of great sprawling playful thoughts and brings us with her to explore worlds of robots, dragons, genies, ninjas and brain-tickling questions.
The third, book in the series in Rita Wants a Ninja. What was the inspiration for a choosing a Ninja?
My readers inspired the choice of the ninja. In classrooms, in libraries and at literary festivals when I have been working with children on making their own stories, ninjas kept popping their sneaky heads up in our work. They inspired me to think and read about real ninjas - about mastery of body and mind, about historical techniques for invisibility and then, to remember the feelings involved in playing hide and seek. The pace and pitch of the books, and the regular discussion points make the books ideal for reading aloud.
Do you envisage a classroom of young listeners while you write?
My hope with these books is to stimulate conversation, whether that is with a child on a parent or carer's lap, or in the classroom. Picture books are such a powerful key to unlocking discussion and critical thought, and this is such a precious thing when it is shared in the spirit of adventure and openness. When writing the books, I left lots of space for Mr Ando's art to tell its own stories, but also for the reader to venture into their own thought-worlds together.
Rita has so far wanted a Witch, a Robot and a Ninja...and we are looking forward to finding out why she wants a Genie, a Dragon and a Fairy Godmother in the books publishing over the next few months. What else is in store for Rita?
Yes, there are six Rita adventures due to be published in English and Welsh, and in each one she tackles a different problem or theme - sometimes these are interpersonal (like sharing with her little brother in 'Rita wants a Genie'), dealing with emotional regulation (in 'Rita wants a Dragon') or looking at the reasons we wear the clothes we do ('Rita wants a Fairy Godmother'). Rita is a little further ahead in Irish, and we have just published 'Rita agus an Fathach' (Rita wants a Giant) with an environmental theme.
You were appointed the first Children's Writing Fellow for Northern Ireland (2017-19). What did the post involve?
As a Seamus Heaney legacy project, this role was designed as a sort of local children's laureate. I was tasked with encouraging and inspiring children as both readers and writers. I adored those two years spent travelling the country doing everything from readings with African drumming circles and nursery-school visits in my pyjamas, to live illustration events and interactive outdoor theatre. Paul Howard (illustrator of 'The Owl who was Afraid of the Dark') has just been appointed the third CWF, and I'm excited to see what his term with bring.
Apart from Rita of course, who is your favourite fictional hero?
There are so many! But it I had to pick one, I think it would be Granny Weatherwax, written by Terry Pratchett. She is an extremely powerful witch who is good but not nice, and whose mission it is to give people what they need, not what they want. I love imperfect characters, and Granny's cranky know-better-ness is so true of people we know and love that it is hilariously observed. I'm also very very fond of Roald Dahl's Big Friendly Giant.
Is there a book you wished you had written?
'Don't let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!' by Mo Willems. For me, this is a hot contender for funniest book ever. It interactively reverses the roles so that the toddler on your lap has to not surrender to the pigeon's pestering. I'm giggling as I write this, remembering my kids screaming 'NO!' at the book. It's a perfect example of a picture book taking real life stress and conflict between parent and child and allowing them to poke fun at it together.
One in three of all books sold is a children's book yet children's books only get 4% of review space in the media. Why do you think this is - and what can be done?
Many adults simply don't take children's literature, or children's concerns, seriously. As well as being unjust and wrongheaded, I find this fact really sad. For me, children's literature is a truly life-enriching artform, full of thought-provoking challenge and playful wisdom. There is a lot of intellectual snobbery out there about reading for all age-groups, and I think kid-lit falls foul of this. But the market reflects the real and booming interest in children's books. They are in a unique position because the readers of kids' books are not the buyers, but this is all the more reason we need high-quality and diverse book recommendations for all ages.
What does LoveReading4Kids mean to you? The lack of representation for children's literature in the mainstream media means that online reviews and recommendations are vital. LoveReading4Kids is a happy place to hang out - bright, beautiful and full of inspiration, just like the world of children's books.
The Rita series includes;
Find the books below, in English and Welsh - and we are giving away a set of the first FOUR books! Visit any of the book pages below to enter!