I’ve always approached the Myrtle books by imagining how a child would feel while reading our stories. I want to capture their voice, make them feel heard, and write stories in a way that resonate with them for years to come.Lauren Reyes-Grange
Cynthia Reyes and Lauren Reyes-Grange, authors of the Myrtle the Purple Turtle series, spoke with NFOTA’s Kim Aubrey about writing for children, the origins of the Myrtle series, and their passion for reading in schools to encourage inclusivity.
In this series we feature interviews and discussions with Individual Artists, Leaders of Arts Groups and Organizations, Civic Leaders, and other Arts Lovers in our county.
KA: I have to start by saying how much I love your Myrtle the Turtle books. The stories come alive with clear, thoughtful writing and gorgeous, playful illustrations. You both live in Clarington, Ontario, your illustrator, Jo Robinson, lives in South Africa, and your editor is based in the U.K. How did you assemble such an international team? And does the distance in locations present any challenges?
CR: Thank you for loving the Myrtle books. We very much appreciate your comments. To complicate matters more, the person who recommended Jo is a literary blogger in the UK who read the manuscript, loved it and urged me to publish it as an illustrated book! Time differences are tough when dealing with an illustrator whose daytime is our nighttime, but we somehow make it work. Lauren is also better at some matters than I am, so she deals with the illustrator and I deal with the editors (one of whom is in the UK and one in the US).
KA: Cynthia, tell me a little about Myrtle’s origins. I understand that you wrote the first version of Myrtle’s story thirty years ago when Lauren was a young child.
CR: At nearly 5 years old, Lauren was ostracised and even bullied by her classmates for having a black doll. She quickly learned that if she wanted to be included, she had to leave her beloved doll at home. This hurt her. Realizing that young children often don’t know better, I decided to work on strengthening Lauren instead.
I was an executive producer of children’s TV programs on the CBC, and had experience creating stories for children. So I sat down one evening, wrote the first draft, read it to Lauren the next day and between the questions she asked and the suggestions made by her older sister and father, Myrtle the Purple Turtle became her favourite book. Years later I would realize how much a story about being different (and friendship) boosted Lauren’s self-esteem.
KA: Lauren, how has becoming a mom affected your approach to writing the Myrtle stories?
LRG: I’ve always approached the Myrtle books by imagining how a child would feel while reading our stories. I want to capture their voice, make them feel heard, and write stories in a way that resonate with them for years to come. Becoming a mum myself, I don’t think it’s really changed my approach to writing. I mostly feel even more motivated to write books that reinforce the importance of inclusion, so parents have access to books that enable important dialogue with their children, and my daughter Vivian never runs out of stories that inspire her.
KA: When did the two of you first take the Myrtle books into the schools? How has your experience sharing Myrtle’s adventures with school children surprised or moved you?
CR: We received invitations to read the very first book to children. I was still struggling with injuries from an accident, so partnering with Lauren on these visits was a godsend, as well as providing an added dimension – after all, she was the original Myrtle!
LRG: We are always delightfully surprised by how engaged the students have been during our readings. They always have a lot to share, based on what they’ve personally experienced being the person who is left out, what they are observing at school, and instances where other students have made the effort to make them feel included. The older students are always interested in learning about the writing, illustration, and publishing process. We always leave these readings feeling very inspired by the students we speak with.
KA: What are kids most interested to know about Myrtle and her friends? What questions do they ask? Have their questions or reactions had any influence on Myrtle’s more recent adventures?
LRG: Almost all of the Myrtle books are inspired by the children we’ve met during our book readings. Myrtle’s Game was inspired by a young girl we met who told us a story where she wanted to play a game during recess with her male classmates and they excluded her because she was a girl. Myrtle Makes a New Friend is a combination of the stories we heard from many children on what they experienced as the new kid in the school. And “Ben the bird” in Myrtle and the Big Mistake was inspired by our real-life friend Ben who strives to be inclusive, is always looking out for his peers, and looks for opportunities to make other kids feel included. Needless to say, the kiddos we meet with are constantly inspiring our stories. We are so grateful for them.
KA: The French version of Myrtle the Purple Turtle is called Vertu la tortue violette. How did you come up with the French name for Myrtle? What was that process like?
CR: Myrtle is quite real to Lauren and, in fact, our entire family, so giving her a different name was a challenge. At first, we couldn’t imagine her as anything else but Myrtle. Then we realized that “Myrtle” is a difficult name for French-speakers, so we agreed. Our translators are a former educator and his wife, Jean Long and Jessica Charnock, who love the books. We did a call out for names and in the end, the one they suggested became the title.
KA: How long does it take to complete a Myrtle book from idea to publication? And have you started working on the next Myrtle story?
LRG: It usually takes about 6-10 months from ideation to publication. This includes brainstorming story ideas, crafting the dialogue, collaborating with our illustrator to create the imagery, our marketing and PR efforts, feedback from first readers (and edits where required), as well as publishing the book.
We are always chatting about potential new story ideas, and plan to have another Myrtle story to share by the end of 2022.