A Conversation with Loulou Szal


Loulou Szal, a teacher and homeschooling mother, is passionate about advancing the vocabulary of children and teenagers, and inspiring the same love of reading that has been part of her life through a wide range of experiences. She makes a point to personalize the books she signs, to engage young readers in the story from the first page. She believes that “as adults, we should show children how precious books are” and she follows through on that philosophy in many ways. It was a pleasure to talk with her and discover her perspective.

Interviewer: Joanna Celeste


Q: What inspired you to self-publish The Diary of Arnmore?

A: I had had my writing published in my high school newspapers and university papers. I loved having my work out there. After I graduated I went straight into teaching and so was busy.  I didn’t write as much ‘till my husband and I moved to Papua New Guinea for two years and ran out of books to read and borrow. He asked me to write something and read it to him, so I started The Diary of Arnmore.

When I finally asked family and friends to read it, they loved it and asked for copies when it was published. So, I began to look for a publisher. This is going back 24 years. The publishing market in Australia was small and limited. Back then you had to send printed copies by mail, with SASEs and this could take 6-8 weeks. I got some rejections and some encouragement from publishers who liked the story but didn’t publish what I wrote, which was fantasy [this is pre- Harry Potter].

So I decided to try overseas… it was even harder and more daunting to mail my story to people I would never see face-to-face and perhaps wait for a rejection. It was expensive and stressful. I didn’t trust an agent, was unsure of copyright, so I put it on the back burner.

We had children. Then came the Internet, so I tried to send my story off electronically, which seemed easier. One of the American publishers, Xlibris, kept up a steady contact. One of their reps called to say that they had been bought into by Penguin Books and would I be interested?

I checked the Internet for information of this merger and discussed it with my husband. He really believed the novel was a good one and we decided to go with self-publishing as it seemed to be fast and would cut out all the middle-men.

They had the published book in my hands within 10 weeks and it was a dream come true. It was just a long process and a mix of time, energy, emotion and trust to let the book go. Even to worry about what people might say. I had to be willing to take the good comments with the bad. So far, the comments have all been good.

Q: Congratulations. Your son, Jeremy Szal, is also an accomplished writer. What are some of the ways your shared passions have brought you closer?

A: My son is a great guy, he has always had loads of energy and so from the time he was a toddler, I always directed him to books to satisfy his restlessness and keep his attention. He is now 18 and writing is his hobby. We talk about books all the time. Books we are reading, writers and their styles, scripts, and books turned into movies. We talk about what we are writing, we critique each other and he often emails me his latest work to read. It doesn’t have to always be about books but the open communication is there. Since he was home-schooled most of his life, I have always been there and so we are close. He has other friends of course, but he and I are usually on the same page when it comes to books, even though he prefers Sci-Fi and I don’t.

He has actually thanked me on a few occasions for showing him how to enjoy books and writing and for sharing the high regard I have for these things, with him. I take it as a great compliment!

Q: That’s wonderful. I enjoyed your post “What I’m Reading…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/24/what-im-reading/) that shared some of your experiences homeschooling your daughter on the classics. As a school teacher, who also homeschooled your children, what are the benefits and pitfalls that you experienced teaching your kids at home?

A: Not many pitfalls at all really. When they were younger it was hard to make an appointment for a hair-cut or dentist for myself. Personal time comes only at 11pm, but we are a close family and that’s always meant a lot to us. I have been able to enjoy my career and be at home with my kids at the same time.

They also had the unique experience of traveling the world with us, exposed to tremendous culture: visiting places from the Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa to the Swiss Alps, the Pyramids, and the Colosseum. They completed a year of school in Europe and became fluent in German. The school system there was different and based more on how many ‘failures’ you made in class, not how many things you got  ‘right’; this is completely in contrast to my training and the sense that a child should be given positive reinforcement, not negative. It also curbed our sightseeing and so we took them out after a year [and they were grateful].

I have always taken care to see that my kids had the social activities to help their skills in that area. Hence my home has always been the base for group classes with other home schooled kids, and my kids were always involved in classes like piano, tennis, gymnastics, etc. for a decade, and we also held picnics in the park and the beach.
Q: Cool! Another fascinating post from your blog was “Reading and Writing Has Changed” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/08/14/reading-and-writing-has-changed/). How do you think our digital age has impacted education?

A: It certainly has. The digital age has had a huge hand in this. Of course, I want my information faster now too, but not at the expense of the beauty of the English language, or the written word in any language.

A friend, a young 21-year-old man, showed me a brilliant antique book he had bought in a sale, Cassell’s Household Guide of Every Department of Practical Life, being a Complete Encyclopaedia to Domestic and Social Economy, printed in 1869. It’s a step-by-step guide to daily living for the middle and upper-middle classes of British society. Guidance and instruction on every aspect of life, ranging in subject matter from bread-making to death in the household, even the treatment of insanity. It’s beautiful and hilarious at the same time but it is written majestically.

Page 49 discusses acceptable employment for women: “the opening of the situation of a librarian to educated gentle-women… in either public institutions or in private families of rank or wealth… the work is such that a lady of good attainments and education could undertake to enjoy. It requires no great physical exertion, no exposure to the weather and no hardship which the most delicate would shrink from.” Yes, the subject matter is outrageous, but how beautifully and poetically written. This quote is taken from a time when conversation was an art, which ranked quite high on the list of accomplishments. But today, children and many adults wouldn’t understand the way it is written, nor grasp the meaning. What is a “lady of good attainments?’ ” Yes of course, all this could today be said in a faster, more succinct manner, with words of fewer syllables, but what a pity.

As long as people are reading, it doesn’t matter, but we are losing the descriptive, larger words and replacing them with simple abbreviations, like LOL.

Here in Australia recently there was a lot of discussion about how students write essays for exams and whether they should be allowed to write in abbreviated form, just as they do in SMSes and emails. The answer was no, for now…. the world is moving too fast and many good things are falling by the wayside; good vocabulary and good spelling are some of the victims.

Q: It will be interesting to see where we go from here. In your post “Why Writers Write…” (http://loulouszalbooks.wordpress.com/2013/07/17/why-writers-write /) you shared some of the reasons why you write. Why do you teach?

A: I love it, always have. I am the second child in a line of six children. I’m the oldest girl. My youngest siblings are younger than me by 8-10 years. I spent a lot of time looking after them when they were babies and playing with them when they got older. Our parents were immigrants and we never had much so our school holidays were spent in local areas and playing in the back yard. Funnily enough, I found myself building little huts and dragging a table and chairs beneath it and playing schools with my siblings. I must have been only 10 or 12 at the time but we all enjoyed it, read a lot, did maths, played games, and became close. We still are. So teaching is all I ever wanted to do (apart from writing).

Q: Having self-published books for the Children’s and YA markets, how do you promote?

A: It’s difficult now to promote my writing, I have a few distributors who represent me and take my books around to schools and libraries. This week I was asked by one of these libraries to join their town’s annual book promotion festival, called ‘Paint the Town Read’. It is designed to encourage young children to enjoy reading and so I am thrilled to be a guest and visit. They have asked me to read Hungry Mr. Croc. So at the moment I can do small things like that, but my priority is my daughter’s education and I don’t want to take away from that.

Q: What age group is Hungry Mr. Croc meant to be for? I usually think of picture books as the 3-5 or 4-6 range but per U.S. guidelines the language would be far too advanced.

A: It’s an interesting point that you brought up. The book is too advanced for 5-6 year olds to read on their own, but it is good for parents to read aloud to their children. I suppose the level of understanding would depend on how much the child has been encouraged to read by both parents and teachers by that stage.

When I initially discussed the illustrations with the publishers, I did specify that the illustrations should not be too cartoon-like as the book was not written with very young children in mind, even while the concept is simple.

We discussed the realism I wanted as the writing was not meant to be for very young children. They sent me some preliminary drawings and I actually loved them, so decided to go with it. I do however tell people that they should read it to their children first.

I feel that the larger words are set into the story in such a way that the meaning of the words can be discerned by the construction or syntax of the sentence. The writing itself was advanced and I did that specifically because I like to bring a child’s reading level up, encourage a wider vocabulary, not lower the standard to suit the common speech of everyday life as some school reading kits had been doing here. These books were not platforms to better reading, but were unimaginative and stagnant.

I based my work on examples of writers like Dr Seuss, whose books have great pictures and also great vocabulary, and are advertised as “classics with zany stories, silly rhymes and crazy drawings for young readers everywhere.”

Or even the beauty of Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes.

These books were written when children read more and had a better vocabulary.

So I guess I’m old-fashioned like that, but as a teacher, I know it can be done: to raise the level of a child’s comprehension and reading ability by simply adding in a few new, bigger words. I read all of Dr Suess’s books to my son when he was a baby and I know that his comprehension of these books was good by the time he was 2 or 3. In fact by 3 he was reading The Cat in the Hat on his own. We took Dr Seuss with us everywhere (before iPads).

I just think we as adults aren’t trying hard enough or raising the bar, we have just lowered the bar and kept it there, from what I can see. There is nothing wrong in explaining the big words and reading on, the next time the book/ big word is read it, the child’s brain will make the connection.

Of course, I can simplify my writing, but I feel I would be letting the kids (and myself) down a little, when I know we could all do better.

There is my philosophy…

Q: That’s a fascinating approach. I love how you mentioned that writing allows you to travel in your head. How have your travels enhanced your writing?

A: I have always traveled in my head because in a crowded home (and quite a violent one) I needed my space and privacy and it was in my head. Better worlds where fathers were kind to their children and wives (hence a love of Enid Blyton stories). It’s calming to travel in your head and it’s a great escape with very little expense.

When I actually began to travel, I kept diaries. Traveling gives you the added advantage of really knowing a place, knowing the style, the customs, the smells—then you can bring them to life easier. I have written a novel about a school teacher working in The Solomon Islands in the early 1900s. Having been to P.N.G. I know how the weather is, the water, the customs, the lifestyle, the vegetation. Yes, I can Google it, but nothing beats being there. It’s like eating an apple and writing about it, or watching someone else on T.V. eat it and then trying to write about it.

I wrote another story about a holiday on the Spanish island of Mallorca. I know the town and even the street and house I set my story in. Traveling is a great investment for writing, it isn’t the answer to everything, but it certainly enhances your ability to be descriptive.

Q: Anything to add?

I wish more parents, adults, older siblings, and teachers knew the value of reading and the benefits in all areas of life that a good book can give… it is underestimated. No one read to me as a very young child, but I thank God for good teachers and libraries!!