Last year we decided to do it the English way, on December 25th, which meant that we enjoyed Christmas eve simply having a nice dinner and taking more time to just talk to each other without a thought for presents.
For most people Christmas has become a commercial event that is often associated with the stress of getting the right gifts, so I wanted to focus on a story that is not about the presents but about spending time with the people you love and having fun together.
Throughout the Tovi the Penguin series, I take Tovi and his friends on little adventures where they spend time together, learning, sharing and having fun. It was a natural step to write a story about Christmas and share a little of the holiday spirit in a fun way. I think seasonal books such as this one or maybe one about Halloween are both fun to read and to write!
I love this season and to me Christmas always brings back images of Christmas carols and the traditional Christmas markets back home in Germany, which have a special holiday feel with all the Christmas lights.
What are some of your favourite Christmas memories?
I don’t have one ‘favourite’ Christmas memory, but I have always loved going to church and coming home to see the twinkling lights on the Christmas tree. My whole family would down together and we'd listen to Christmas carols playing in the background. When my grandmother was still alive, she made it even more special.
Now I live in France and I have my own family, where we will start our own new Christmas traditions.
This is the second Tovi book. What drew you writing for children?
I’m a graphic designer by trade and I work on packaging design for everyday products. The work itself is very regimented and I realised a while ago that it was when I am designing products for children (such as sun lotions for kids) that I am really in my element.
As a freelancer, I sometimes have time between different jobs and so I started to illustrate for children and then after a while I got the idea of doing a Tovi the Penguin book, based on an illustration I did of a penguin and a buffalo.
I have always been a big fan of children’s books and the illustrations in them and since moving to Paris in France have been lucky enough to be able to visit the ‘Salon du livre et de la presse jeunesse’ every year, a big book fair dedicated to children’s books in Paris, which only served to inspire me further to follow my dreams and become a children’s author and illustrator myself.
Tovi the Penguin books are about friendship and sharing a moment together, and realizing that sometimes not everything goes according to plan, but that in the end it doesn’t matter. I mainly want the books to make people smile and for them to share the story with each other.
What other writing credentials did you have prior to writing this book?
I never really aimed to be a writer, so Tovi the Penguin is my first attempt! I do however have 8 years of professional experience in graphic design. Tovi the Penguin was first and foremost about my love for the design and bringing my characters to life. To me, the way I write is a little like creating a storyboard for a commercial. I want the books to be educational and entertaining, with a little twist to keep the reader guessing.
How long did it take you to write the first book?
It took me about 8 weeks from the first draft to the publishing of the book, although I already had many of the characters designed. Once I have an idea it tends to flow quite well and it certainly makes it easier that I love doing them!
Who helped you with the editing?
The most important is my husband, who is very good at finding the little things that don’t quite work in my stories. He also helps to inspire me if I have a blank. His parents are also a great help, as they both have backgrounds in English literature and languages. In the past they ran a small educational publishing house called Linguapress.
I had a lot of help from people outside my family when I first started, notably from Caroline Curtis, a London based editor who believed in Tovi the Penguin and gave me great tips on how to write the stories. But in the end, everyone who is close to me tends to see the first PDF drafts of the stories and I take their comments and suggestions into account when I edit the drafts.
Did you try the normal route and try to find a traditional publisher to handle your book?
I tried to find a traditional publisher when I first started my book about two years ago, but it wasn’t as developed as it is today. Since then I found new motivation and ideas after my daughter was born in 2013.
What inspired me to go for the self-publishing route instead of waiting for a traditional publisher was the fact I wanted to be the author and the illustrator of my book. I’m not sure a traditional publisher would have been interested in a non-experienced writer. I wanted to keep the books with my own artwork and text. In other words, I want to be the creative director of the project without losing control.
What type of publicity do you do to promote your book?
I created a Facebook site for Tovi the Penguin where I promote my books. I also provide learning materials for kids that you can download for free.
I use social networking websites to tell people about by books such as ‘messageparis.org’ forum or the great children’s blog ‘lesenfantsaparis.com’. I had a special giveaway of 3 books where people had to come up with a new title for a future Tovi book. I really enjoyed all the ideas people came up with.
Goodreads has been a fantastic platform to get my book in front of booklovers. I did a giveaway of 5 books on my first book and I am currently doing a giveaway of my second book Tovi the Penguin – goes away for Christmas, which will end on December 1st 2014.
Finally, I’m planning to give workshops to international schools locally where the children can learn how to draw Tovi and learn more about my work and what it takes to be an illustrator.
What do you know now about writing/publishing that you wished you had known sooner?
I’m a big fan of self-publishing and createspace, but sadly the on-demand books are not popular when you want to be in big bookshops who don’t tend to work with on-demand publishing houses. So my dream of being at the ‘Salon du livre de la presse jeunesse’ in Paris is probably unattainable at the moment, as is seeing my book in a major bookstore chain. However, wanting to achieve this dream gives me with the motivation to find a publishing house for Tovi the Penguin one day.
Writing and illustrating for me means doing what I love and I would certainly encourage anyone who is thinking about it to give it a try. There is no more satisfying feeling than to see your creation and your project come to life.
The best piece of advice I could give is that while starting a project of your own will always mean putting a little of yourself out there, you shouldn’t be scared of doing it as this is also what will inspire you to keep going when it gets tough. One of the biggest lessons I learned was to not be embarrassed about what you create and to be proud of what you have done.
That's all for today's interview. If you would like to learn more about Janina and her writing, here's some ways to do that.