By Agatha Rodi
Demetra Socratous is a primary school teacher, a drama facilitator, a human rights activist, and a peace trainer. She has obtained her degree in the Science of Education and a minor degree in French Studies from the University of Cyprus (2004). She also received a Master's degree in Drama and Theatre in Education (University of Warwick, 2007) and a second Master's degree in Arts and Culture Management (Rome Business School, 2017).
She was the Coordinator of the ‘Youth and Culture’ Workshop of Pafos 2017 Cultural Capital of Europe, as well as the co-Coordinator of the Cyprus Youth Network of the European Cultural Parliament. A short video on her voluntary work has been posted on the European website for the European Year of Volunteerism 2011.
Demetra also writes tales, short stories, and poetry, which have received prizes both in Greece and Cyprus. Her first book “Mary and the White Pea” deals with the topic of childhood cancer. Her poetry collection “Truths, Dreams and Peace” was nominated for the Cyprus National Children Literature Award 2017 and was awarded by the Cyprus IBBY - Cyprus Association of Children's and Young Adults' Books (2016). Those two books were awarded “Books of the Year 2017” at the 8th International Literature Contest by the Greek Cultural Association of Cypriots (Athens, 2018).
GCT recently had a chat with Demetra about her passion for writing children's novels.
How did you start writing children’s books?
Since I was a child I always loved reading books. While studying Science of Education at the University of Cyprus, I had the opportunity to visit schools; to work with children, and generally interact a lot with kindergarten and primary school kids. Becoming familiar with the children’s realities, experiences and challenges pushed me to reflect and unexpectedly start writing children’s poems, stories and tales. An inner need to share thoughts and emotions with children made me publish my writings.
Is there a particular book that influenced you to start writing?
I would say that two amazing books inspired me to timidly think of myself as a writer: ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry and ‘The Giving Tree’ by Shel Silverstein. When I came across those books as an adult, a teacher and drama pedagogist, I was deeply excited, touched and overwhelmed by the beautiful narration, the heroes, the great delicate images and the highly intelligent, sensitive and pure language, fulfilling my reading experience.
Where do the ideas for your books come from?
As a primary school teacher, a drama pedagogist, a human rights and peace trainer who is everyday interacting with children, I am deeply inspired by the children’s stories, everyday life, needs, questions, unique and innocent way of thinking, their conflicts and challenges. For instance, my first book ‘Mary and the White Pea’ was inspired by children’s need to understand what is cancer, and how we can deal both with the cancer experience and the young cancer patient. My second book ‘Truths, dreams and peace’ was inspired by the children’s pleasure to playfully recite and act out poems, combined with their desire to empower themselves in order to deal with both joyful and tough life situations, for instance, their parents’ love or divorce, immigration, gaining or losing friends, their fantasy and creativity, human rights and peace. My third book was written after meeting and connecting with imprisoned parents’ children who were having difficulties dealing with their parent’s absence, their short and rare visits in prisons, their psychological and emotional distress and the social marginalization and family stigma. Every time I write and publish a book visioning to approach carefully and sensitively a topic and thus providing solutions, empowerment, and comfort to children.
How long does it take you to write a book?
It depends on the story and how “ready” I am to write this book. Usually, I am keeping quick notes of an idea instantly born in my head. In the next few days or weeks I am just “engaging and playing” with those ideas, trying to create and define the plot, the characters, and their challenges. When I start writing it might take a week or a month, producing several drafts. Then I leave the story to ‘sleep and rest’ for several months. I get back to it again with 'fresh' eyes, making changes and corrections. Furthermore, I always share the story with a group of children and professionals acting as my ‘critical readers’ before finalizing the last publishing draft.
How do you ensure a picture book lends itself well to being read aloud?
This is part of a good collaboration with an experienced, creative and talented illustrator, who is open to receive new ideas. Usually, I ask children to be part of the small group of ‘critical readers’ for both text and pictures, in what ways they receive the story, the characters, and its meanings.
What about the process of editing and working with the illustrator?
Both processes are deeply creative and add value to the final result of the book as an object and as an experience. It’s exciting that both processes interact with each other. Often after the creation of the story’s and characters’ illustrations, the editing process might continue in order to change, diminish or empower the text providing the story in a more accessible way since much information is given through the pictures.
How do you connect with your little readers and the writing community in general?
I like to provide opportunities for little readers to physically meet, act and interact with me during presentations, storytelling and workshops. It’s a lovely experience for both the children and me to ‘present and act out’ the stories and take the role of the heroes. I love it when I receive their reflections and responses to the story. They also often send me their comments and feedback or queries about my stories and book on social media or my page on Facebook. Furthermore, I have many friends, colleagues and project collaborators who are part of the writing community (poets, writers, and children literature writers, academics, illustrators, etc.). It’s always a pleasure to meet them during book or children festivals, presentations, creative writing events, projects or just for coffee to share ideas and experiences on children's literature.
What Greek children’s book do you wish you had written?
I would say that I wish I had written my beloved autobiographical novel ‘A child counting the stars’ by one of my favourite writers, Menelaos Lountemis. That was the first literary book I ever read when I was 8-9 years old –becoming enchanted by the magic power of literature. The book shares a boy’s challenging journey towards knowledge and adulthood in order to satisfy his thirst and achieve his goal for learning; to make his dream come true, fully empowered by his determination and passion for education. Through beautiful language and vivid, expressive characters, the book promotes the children’s rights for equal opportunities in education and life. It really touches my soul and heart and speaks to my spirit every time I read it.
What's coming up next for you?
The truth is that I decided to focus on my third book ‘Dad in a cage’ for the next few months in order to organize workshops and storytelling both for children, adults, teachers, and psychologists. The story portrays the daily life of a girl whose parent is a prisoner, bringing up issues such as the parental dissociation and alienation; the need for communication and family ties; the psychological, emotional, social burden and stigma that accompanies both children and their families, and the return and reintegration of the confined parent into the family and the community. I already have written some stories on the topic of domestic violence, friendship, and joy, so one of those might be my next publishing task.
Do you have any advice for aspiring picture-book authors?
My advice is to stay connected with their own truth and passion and share their story with respect to children’s truths and understanding. Also, having an experienced, mentor listening and watching their work would be supportive and empowering for them in order to proceed successfully in their challenging path as picture-book authors.