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Interview: Belinda O'Keefe talks about The Day the Plants Fought Back

We want to introduce you to some of the finalists in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children & Young Adults. Belinda O’Keefe is nominated for the Best First Book Award for the Best First Book Award for The Day the Plants Fought Back.

Belinda lives in Christchurch with her husband, two sons and two Russian blues. She is a freelance copy editor and the sub-editor of latitude magazine.

Belinda was shortlisted for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award in 2016 and 2017, and in 2019 she had her first picture book, The Day the Plants Fought Back published with Scholastic NZ. She gets most of her inspiration from her two boys, and her youngest son’s slime obsession gave her a light bulb moment for the plot of a junior novel, which won the 2020 Storylines Tom Fitzgibbon Award, to be published in 2021 with Scholastic NZ.

When she’s not working, writing or stuck in a good book, Belinda is eating chocolate, going to the gym, taming her garden, baking cakes and hanging out with her family.

Tell us a little about your book.

The Day the Plants Fought Back tells the story of two rascally boys who wreak havoc in the garden after being sent outside for misbehaving. They get a nasty surprise when suddenly the plants come to life and fight back – they’re faced with a gang of leeks, a fruit-firing cranberry bush and an army of corn. The message is to respect nature and where our food comes from, and to always behave because you never know who is watching!

What inspired you to write this book?

I love my vege garden, and the idea came to me years ago when my own two boys were arguing in the back yard while I was weeding the vege patch. The characters are ‘loosely’ based on my boys, although they don’t like to admit it, and would like me to point out that they’ve never destroyed my garden!

What was your routine or process when writing this book?

I seem to be more creative when I’m outdoors, so I took my notebook with me whenever I was in the garden so that when an idea popped into my head, I could jot it down before it disappeared. Needless to say, the notebook was in quite a sorry state by the end – pages smeared with soil and goodness knows what else!

If your book was made into a movie, who would you like to see playing the lead characters?

Roman Griffin Davis and Archie Yates (from Jojo Rabbit) would make a great troublesome pair!

What did you enjoy the most about writing (or illustrating) this book?

I loved playing around with the rhythm and rhyme – I wanted to make sure it was fun to read, not just for kids, but for adults too, so that bedtime stories aren’t a chore. I know some parents (me included!) who have been in the situation where they’re tired and just want to get the kids to bed, and end up trying to skip parts of the book to speed up the process, but you can only get away with that for so long!

As a kid I always loved rhyming, and I enjoyed reading books in rhyme to my own children. It has an almost musical quality to it, and always seemed to settle them when they were smaller.

What did you do to celebrate finishing this book?

I actually finished my first draft of this book about 8 years ago. It was the very first book I wrote, so I wasn’t too confident in sending it off to publishers. After countless rejection letters, it got shortlisted for the Joy Cowley Award in 2016, under the title A Mysterious Day in the Middle of May, which certainly boosted my confidence! Then a few years later I got the exciting news that Scholastic NZ would like to publish it, so we popped open the bubbly and celebrated with friends and family.

What is the favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

That would have to be Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. Her writing is beautiful – the way she poetically describes the simplest of things is spellbinding. It’s a story of survival, love, loss, sorrow and courage, told in the most captivating way.

What’s next on the agenda for you?

My junior novel which won the 2020 Tom Fitzgibbon Award will be published early next year, so I’ll be working through the editing process with Scholastic NZ, which I’m super excited about. I’ve also got several other picture books in the pipeline, and a couple of chapter books I’m working on at the moment too. I’m also keen to get back into school visits, but will have to wait and see when that can happen.

The winners of the New Zealand Books Awards for Children and Young Adults will be revealed via a virtual presentation on Wednesday 12 August. For a full list of the brilliant 2020 finalists click here:


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