Justine Laismith is a UK-based scientist and author of her children’s books. Her new book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree will be published in May this year. We are delighted she agreed to an interview with us!
Hi Justine, please tell us about yourself!
I grew up in Singapore and studied Chemistry in London. After I completed my PhD, I worked in the pharmaceuticals industry. Since then I have also worked in the chemicals and education sectors. I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was in industry, I wrote scientific papers. While I did write fiction occasionally, it really only took off around the time when I returned to Singapore in 2010. There I entered a local writing competition. As a winner, my children’s book The Magic Mixer was published. It’s a chapter book about two women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). By that time, I was already in the midst of writing my second book. This was the encouragement I needed to keep going.
When I’m not writing, I enjoy taking pictures of nature and buildings. They help me crystallise my thoughts on the setting in my stories. For example, my debut middle-grade book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree was penned after a trip to China. It will be published by Aurelia Leo in May 2019.
We are looking forward to seeing your new book Secrets of the Great Fire Tree this year. Can you tell us more about the book and how it came about?
I returned to Singapore after living in UK for twenty years. Even though I had left UK in the summer, it struck me how, in Singapore, the place is teaming with life. Not because it is a bustling city, but because there is growth everywhere I look: the tall trees with buttress roots, the thick waxy leaves, the climbers that form green veils and the ferns that live on other trees. The long absence from Singapore meant I saw this tropical country with a new set of eyes. Instead of taking my surroundings for granted, I appreciated their uniqueness, in particular, the many magnificent tropical trees in Singapore. While I have read books set in tropical forests, they tended to be about survival in the wilderness. I wanted to highlight some of the unique trees instead. So the Great Fire Tree was born.
As for the main characters, the story came to me over the dinner table during Chinese New Year. I was told this story:
A group of charity workers had found a little boy living on his own. He had a pig. His parents had gone away to work and his sole responsibility was to look after the pig until his parents’ return to celebrate Chinese New Year. He lived in a mountainous area, and his house was the only one in the area. They reckoned he was about six years old.
It wasn’t a first-hand account, and I never verified the story’s details. But it moved me. To leave behind a six-year old and let him fend for himself for an entire year, the conditions at home had to be desperate.When I delved deeper, I learnt about left-behind children. I wanted to share this knowledge with the world. This was how I starting weaving a plot around the Great Fire Tree.
Would you tell us about your childhood reading – what you read, what you liked, where you found the books?
I used the library a lot. I borrowed books on Chinese folklore because I wanted to know more about my heritage. These books were usually bilingual, but I preferred to read the English translations because I am a faster reader in English. Other than that, I read a lot of the Mr Men series and Enid Blyton’s books. I loved her Magic Faraway Tree series as well as her boarding school series. Funnily enough, despite her popularity, there were very few Enid Blyton books in the libraries. So I had to use my pocket money to buy them even though books were very expensive in Singapore. When I outgrew Enid Blyton, I went on to classics such as those by Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott as teachers always encouraged us to read them.
In my teens, I fell in love with the writings of a local Chinese author Liang Wenfu (Liang Wern Fook 梁文福). He published his debut book Once (曾经) when he was in his late teens. It was a heart-felt collection of his prose. His musings were about down-to-earth things like school life, friendships, and career choices. What blew me away was his ability with words. They were ethereal, both in style and content. He could take the most mundane activity or conversation and tease out a value from it; be it contentment or love, he made me see how beautiful our world is, and how transient these things are. I could relate to the situations he described, because, I too had been to that place or done that same old routine task many times. Through his poetic words I saw things in a different light. I felt his joy and appreciated those moments the way he did.
I believe the title Once (like Once upon a time) was chosen because the book was a record of his teenage life in Singapore. It’s a romantic title itself, showing how much he treasured those carefree days. He went on to publish several more books. Today he is a highly respected Chinese professor and renowned song-writer.
Could you say a few words about the world of children’s books in Singapore today?
Books remain expensive in Singapore. But we are very fortunate to have an excellent library system. There is a plethora of children’s books to borrow from all over the world and available in our four official languages (English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil). It is no wonder that the libraries are always busy even though they open seven days a week and close at 9pm every night.
As I mentioned earlier, we were encouraged to read the works of many famous authors. The problem was that they were all set in the West talking about places I didn’t know about. As Singapore is a tiny, bustling tropical city, it was hard to appreciate the changing seasons or the vast distances in America or England or even dark and dreary winter nights. There was always a disconnect with what I read and what I knew. However, with the efforts of local publishers like Epigram Books, there are now more local authors, like Adeline Foo and A. J. Low, writing stories that local children can appreciate.
You are a professional chemist who also writes for children, though not necessarily about chemistry. Recently there have been complaints as to how scientists and professors are depicted in children’s books – typically male and a bit eccentric, shown in the lab and away from the rest of the world. Would you like to comment on this?
I agree. When I first came up with The Magic Mixer, I wanted first and foremost to remove this stereotype of scientists. What I had not realised was how few children’s books featured women in STEM. Nevertheless, there is now a huge movement to encourage girls into STEM, and more books are being published each day to address this imbalance. The Miscalculation of Lightning Girl by Stacy McAnulty and Brightstorm by Vashti Hardy are two examples of intelligent females in STEM who are neither eccentric nor reclusive. Nor do they wear thick glasses, wear a white lab coat and have crazy hair. Even in the Roger Hargreaves series, they have brought out Little Miss Inventor. With this awareness, I am confident that more will be published in the future.
Many thanks for sharing your time with us, Justine!
Read more about Justine Laismith on her blog.