Today I caught up with Keilly Swift, debut author of The Tigon and the Liger, who is also managing editor at the much-lauded children’s newspaper, First News. She told me all about what makes tigons and ligers special and why they are a good symbol for those who feel like they don’t fit in. Keilly also shared some writing tips she received from the brilliant Michael Morpurgo – read on to find out!
Congratulations on the publication of your new picture book The Tigon and the Liger! Can you tell us what it’s about?
It’s the story of a tigon (a cross between a male tiger and a female lion) and a liger (a cross between a male lion and a female tiger) who are bullied for being different. Their lives change forever when they become friends, begin having fun and learn to celebrate their differences.
Do tigons and ligers really exist? What made you decide to write about them?
Yes, tigons and ligers do exist, but they are very rare indeed. They are usually found in zoos or wildlife parks where tigers and lions are more likely to meet. I was inspired to write the story after working on a feature about hybrid creatures for an educational magazine. The subject is a controversial one, but I saw tigons and ligers as wonderful symbols of how we all sometimes feel we don’t belong and the characters of Tyler and Lyla began to take shape in my mind.
What do you think of Cosei Kawa’s illustrations for your book? Which is your favourite illustration?
Cosei’s illustrations are absolutely stunning, they add depth to the story and bring the characters to life in ways I couldn’t have imagined. I love his use of colour, the small details he’s added and the different perspectives he uses, such as the spread where Tyler goes off on his own which Cosei has illustrated looking down from the top of tall trees – Tyler looks so small and alone and it really emphasises how lonely he is at this point in the story. I also love the opening picture of Tyler and the pyramid of big cats showing Tyler and Lyla playing with their new tiger friend – it’s so lovely to see them having fun!
At Lantana, we feel that this story might speak particularly to children from a mixed race background. What message do you hope readers will glean from your story?
Yes, I certainly think that the story might appeal to children from a mixed race background. However, I hope it speaks to anyone who has ever felt different or like they don’t fit in (which must be everyone at one point or another!). The underlying message is that what makes us different is what makes us special and that everyone should be accepted, and accept themselves, just as they are.
You grew up in the Bahamas before moving back to the UK when you were nine. What was it like splitting your childhood between two countries?
Did you ever feel torn or out of place? Although I definitely stood out at my school in the Bahamas, with my fair skin and blonde hair, it was when we moved back to the UK that I felt more out of place. I remember being teased for my Bahamian accent and the different words I used (such as candy for sweets, sidewalk for pavement, etc.), as well as feeling out of my depth at school because the curriculum was so different here. I desperately wanted to fit in and would practice my English accent every night!
Do you think it’s important that children have access to books that represent cultures, world views or family arrangements other than their own?
Children are naturally curious and I think it’s vital that they read books that teach them about different cultures and ways of life. It not only means that they’ll grow up with an open mind, but also that they’ll be open to so many more wonderful cross-cultural opportunities, from travelling and studying to new friendships. A lot of the problems the world faces today could be solved if diversity was celebrated and everyone grew up with an appreciation and acceptance of different views and ways of living.
Congratulations also on recently becoming a mum! Has this wonderful event given you a new perspective when it comes to writing for children?
Thank you! My baby girl is just over three weeks old at the moment and she isn’t sleeping very much at night, which gives me a new perspective on everything! I’ve worked in children’s publishing for a long time and I think that becoming a mum has made me even more passionate about helping children understand the world they live in and promoting a culture of acceptance and tolerance, as bullying is an issue that affects far too many young people.
The Tigon and the Liger is in rhyming verse. Is this your preferred writing style or did it just seem right for the story?
I love writing in rhyme and it definitely felt right for this story as I think it makes the underlying message more accessible. It’s certainly challenging to tell the story you want to tell and ensure the rhyme scheme works, but it’s so satisfying when it all comes together and you strike upon the perfect rhyme!
Do you have a favourite picture book (that’s not your own!)?
I love Room on the Broom – Julia Donaldson is the master of the rhyming story! I also treasure my Japanese picture books, such as Little Daruma and Little Tengu, that I bought while I was living in Japan – they really helped me with my Japanese language skills and also to learn about Japanese culture and various traditions.
Finally, can you give any aspiring authors any tips for their writing?
The wonderful Michael Morpurgo once gave me some great advice that has stayed with me – he said not to rush, take time to work out what you want to write about and give the idea time to develop in your head before putting pen to paper. Develop your own style of writing by reading and writing as much as you can and then, when you start your story, let your imagination run wild – you can edit it later. The Tigon and the Liger was originally twice as long as it is in the finished book and there were lots of drafts in between, so don’t be afraid to keep rewriting something until you’re happy with it!
Thank you, Keilly!