The Mapmakers' Race is an adventure story in the classic tradition, in which a family of four children are accidently separated from their mother and must fend for themselves. The race is to explore and map a route across the mountains, so the Santander children have to contend with the challenges of the environment, as well the competing teams who are prepared to play very dirty.
Eirlys says it’s the kind of story that she enjoyed when she was young.
"I loved books like Swallows and Amazons, in which children were allowed to be self-sufficient and have adventures. I hope readers of any age will enjoy it, but it’s junior fiction, so aimed at 7-12 year olds," she says.
We asked Eirlys about the role that humour, adventure and food in children's writing.
You teach at the International Institute of Modern Letters. Has this work informed your own writing?
I’ve learned a lot from teaching as it’s forced me to order, and articulate, my thoughts about children, and about story, and about writing. And I learn a lot from my students, as we think about their work, and their reading, together.
Teaching writing for children also means I read a lot of children’s literature and so I’m very aware of how many extraordinary and wonderful books are being published for children. This made finishing this novel – saying “this is good enough” – quite hard.
How important do you think humour and adventure is in children’s literature?
Humour is important in everything! And it’s important that children meet all sorts of humour in their reading. As well as poos and bums they need exposure to wordplay, puns, satire, surrealism – the whole gamut.
Children need all kinds of fiction, but books reflecting real life have come to dominate the junior fiction market recently, and traditional adventure stories no longer fit easily into the category of ‘real life’. Adventure stories are important for lots of reasons. Children need to be able to identify with characters who face challenges without the input of hovering adults, and not only survive but become more competent. They need to be able to imagine themselves being autonomous, taking responsibility, making decisions, dealing with consequences. But most of all, adventure is exciting! It’s boring for readers to only meet children in fiction whose lives are as constrained as their own.
Some reviewers have mentioned the fantastic descriptions of food contained within. Do you like reading about food, and did you enjoy writing these descriptions?
It’s true, I do like reading and writing about food! Food is important in books because eating is one thing everyone has in common. We all need to eat. And whether we’re eight or eighty, in Delhi or Dunedin, we all know what it feels like to be waiting for a delicious-smelling dinner to be ready when we’re hungry.
At the moment we’re running our #ReadNZ campaign to promote local books. Is The Mapmakers' Race set in Aotearoa, or anywhere else in particular? And which New Zealand children’s writers do you admire?
I think the #ReadNZ campaign is a brilliant idea. Everyone needs to be able to find the voices of their neighbourhood in books, and to see their own patch of the world. And of course, New Zealand writers need local readers to provide a market for their books.
The Mapmakers' Race is a New Zealand book, but it’s not set in New Zealand, or anywhere that you could find on a map. It’s a place with bears and wolves, that hasn’t been fully explored yet. However, if you were to picture the Santanders’ journey starting near the east coast of the South Island and crossing to the west coast, then you’ll be imagining landscapes similar to the ones that were in my head when I wrote.
There are so many writers in New Zealand producing fabulous work. I love Joy Cowley and Gavin Bishop’s Snake and Lizard, and I’m very impressed by Juliette MacIver’s verse (so hard to do). That’s Not a Hippopotamus is my grandson’s current favourite.
But Margaret Mahy will always be top of the list for me, for her joyful dancing with language, her celebration of chaos and creativity, and the sense of wonder that permeates every page.