by Polly Ho-Yen and Sojung Kim-McCarthy
What inspired you to write The Girl Who Became a Fish?
I start off most of my stories by doodling. I jot down absolutely anything that comes into my mind - the good, the bad and most definitely, the ugly - and then from there, I see if anything strikes me that I want to develop into a story. I love to share this technique with young writers when I am in schools and I’ve had the privilege of seeing the formation of some truly fantastic ‘idea doodles’ in my time.
Once, I was doodling live for a class, to model the process of ‘idea doodling,’ when I made a pattern in front of them of repeating, curving lines that resembled fish scales. I was thinking aloud, saying that perhaps there could be a story about someone turning into a fish, but that the person is afraid of water. I remember so clearly turning towards the class and saying, ‘I think I’m going to write that one next, actually!’
I have a deep love of wild swimming in cold water - it’s one of my very favourite things to do. I find it so absorbing, exhilarating and freeing and I think I wanted to capture some of that feeling for my main character, Ita, in the book whilst there’s so much she’s dealing with in her own life.
How would you suggest primary teachers use this book?
I’d love teachers to use the book in any way their students might enjoy reading it and they are the experts in that. Perhaps they have a class who’d enjoy it being read to them as a story-time at the end of the day, or they may have an independent reader who might like to get lost in Ita’s transformation.
I believe this story could be a good jumping off point to encourage discussion from students about the fears they are facing or have faced in their own lives. It’s a difficult thing to talk about and in the story, Ita is absorbed by the discovery she can change into a fish and her old fear of water and swimming, whilst finding it hard to verbalise the other changes in her life she’s dealing with - her family have moved to a new town, she’s yet to have made friends and her dad is away a lot caring for her Grandma. This might also be a way in for teachers to talk about this complex way us humans have of dealing with our emotions and talking, or not talking, about them.
Though I know wild swimming with a class would be an impossible feat, it’d be fantastic if schools might be able to find any wild water spots or wild places near their school and spend time in that environment. It might just be a corner of a park, or even a tree taking over a pavement - but if there was somewhere, even in a city, where pupils could interact with nature and notice their responses to it, this would also be an interesting way to use this book. When Ita, in ‘The Girl Who Became a Fish’ discovers the snaking river off a path, off a passageway, in her new home town, it has a magical, transformative effect upon her. I wonder how primary students would interpret their experience.
What motivated you to begin a career in writing?
I was a primary school teacher when I started my writing career and I’m not sure I would be a writer today if it weren’t for working in that school. The students I worked with were incredibly sparky individuals and I loved the community of our school and its families. A motivator was trying to write a story that the kids I was teaching could see themselves in - I wanted to reflect their reality, although I also added some very out of this world stuff (!), it was important that there was a honest, genuine real-life root to my writing.
What are the major influences in your work and how do you decide on your subjects?
I’m very much led by my intuition of what I feel excites me to write. This is incredibly important to me and though part of me wishes I had worthier ambitions of choosing subjects and considering influences, the truth is that I’m led by the story and all of that seems to follow.
Why do you think writing for this age-group is so important?
Writing for this age-group is so important because reading in this age-group is so important! This is when the bed rock for reading for pleasure can be formed - a skill so important I feel we’re only at the beginning of understanding its significance. It’s been brilliant to see the work being done around empathy and the research around reading for pleasure being a marker for future success, and I wonder if we’re only at the start of fully understanding why stories are so vital to us when we are young and how they set us up for the rest of our lives.