It’s not often that you find picture books about healthy competition, and certainly not with wombats!
Ratha Tep is a frequent contributor to the New York Times and has reported from Paris, Milan, London, Zurich, and Dublin. She is now looking to create new worlds of her own, in which animal characters navigate their foibles and frailties with humor and spirit; Wally the World’s Greatest Piano-Playing Wombat is her debut picture book. She lives in Dublin, Ireland. You can learn more about her at her website.
WALLY THE WORLD’S GREATEST PIANO-PLAYING WOMBAT is the story of a wombat who is thrilled to play the piano. He is so fascinated by it that he wants to be the best in the whole world, but one day he meets a wombat who is better than him. How does he handle that? Well at first he tries to work harder and harder to increase his marketability. There are plenty of hilarious hijinks in store here as the plot takes several twists and turns I didn’t expect. I’m betting that this is a story young readers will love to read over and over again.
Me: Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? How did you get from Cambodia to New York to Ireland? When did your interest in picture books start?
Ratha: Thanks so much for inviting me onto your blog, Jena! It’s an honor to be here. And what a great question to start off with. I’ve lived all over the place. My parents and I moved from Cambodia to New York when I was a baby. I then spent my teenage years in Minnesota, made my way to Philadelphia where I majored in English and Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, and then moved back to New York where I worked at different magazines as a reporter and editor in my twenties.
But when my husband got a job in Switzerland, we took the plunge. We moved to Zurich, in between the lake and a field of sheep, and I wrote about architecture, design, and travel, mostly for the New York Times. Then we moved again, also for my husband’s job—this time to Dublin, where we live in a creaky, 180-year-old house by the sea.
Writing, stringing words together in some form, has been the only thing I’ve ever aspired to do. But it wasn’t until I had my first child that I thought of picture books. Then I became a voracious reader of the genre. For awhile, my older daughter had this habit where she wouldn’t eat a meal unless I read to her, so there were days when I read five picture books at breakfast alone. Five books times three meals a day, plus at bedtime… you do the math! We read all sorts of picture books, and I fell in love with the genre—not just for what each book contained, but for the moments of connection they created. As Matt de la Peña so aptly put it, picture books “are a reason for a child to be close to a parent and a parent to be close to a child.” I realized I wanted to write my own picture books, tell the stories I wanted to tell, and create these moments of connection for others.
Me: I love that Wally the Wombat loves to play piano so much that he immediately wants to be the best at it. Then you threw in a little healthy competition. Wonderful! What gave you the idea?
Ratha: Wally and his story of competition was very directly inspired by my older daughter’s first attempts at the piano at age six. She picked it up quite fast, and started claiming—without ever seeing anyone else play—that she was the world’s greatest piano player. That sentence really stuck with me. The hyperbole was spot-on six-year-old language. But I also started wondering what would happen when she saw someone who played better. Would she get jealous and give up? Or would it inspire her?
Me: Wombats who keep trying to best each other at what they love seems like a complicated plot, yet you write it so simply and smoothly. Did your manuscript undergo many revisions or was it always in this state?
Ratha: I had so many revisions! I revised it at least 50 times! The one-upmanship structure never changed, though, because I thought that was really fun. But there were versions when Wally and Wylie had different, um, talents (for lack of a better word) including pole vaulting and somersaulting, versions with more text, and even a version entirely in rhyme! But in the end, I stripped the words to their simplest state to let the artwork pack its punch.
Me: I love that. What is one thing that surprised you in writing this story?
Ratha: Writing the whole story was wild! Coming from a journalism background, I always fretted over getting every single fact correct, and triple- and quadruple-checked everything I wrote. So it felt completely freeing to just make stuff up. It was a very joyful process, and I suppose that was the most surprising aspect of all.
Me: What does your writing process look like?
Ratha: I didn’t have a writing process for Wally besides writing, rewriting a ton, and having A LOT of people read it. At first, I approached picture-book making very naively and sent off some stories to agents after having only my husband read them. (Not a good idea!) When that didn’t work out, I made a 180 with Wally and became very open with the text. I joined a critique group, and sent the manuscript off widely—to my childhood friends, my neighbors, you name it. I wanted to get as many viewpoints and suggestions as possible. That was really key to helping me improve the text for the better.
Me: The illustrations by Camilla Pintonato are so playful. I love the colors that help to distinguish each character from the other. What were your favorite illustrations?
Ratha: I adore the illustrations! I love so many of the spreads that it’s hard to choose just one. But if I had to single any out, I would say my favorite is the one where Wally first notices Wylie play. It seems fourth-wall breaking in a way, since I like to imagine that Wally is just happily doing his own thing (outside of the book). But, alas! He spots Wylie, and he’s pulled back into the book, as I hope readers are, too. I also love the very last spread for the same reason, but this time both Wally and Wylie are shocked!
Me: Any advice for other new picture book writers?
Ratha: Early on in my attempts at picture-book writing, I went to a Guardian Masterclass in London on writing children’s books. There were some great speakers, and I think it was Alex Milway who said that it was unlikely that any of us would land the first, or the second, or even the third story we sent out… but maybe we might land our 12th. At that point, I’d only written one story, so it was quite the bummer to hear! But he was right. You hear a lot of “keep writing” being thrown around. But I think it’s also important to distinguish what you should keep writing. As I’ve mentioned before, getting critique is so important, and super helpful with revisions. At some point, though, if a story doesn’t get bites, it’s good to be flexible and set it aside and move on to another story.
That is great advice Ratha. Thank you for stopping by my blog today.
Dear readers, if you haven’t had a chance yet to track this book down, I highly recommend that you do so. When kiddos love something, they love it with their whole heart, and without rhyme or reason. That is the same sense of passion that the characters in this book have. Throw in competition, one-up-man-ship, and the humor abounds. I think it’s safe to say that young readers will love this story. You won’t want to miss it.