Better known for his politically engaged work, writer and Maltese literature lecturer Adrian Grima has just launched two books for children.
“In a lot of ways, writing for children allows for more freedom than writing for adults,” Adrian Grima tells me when I ask him why he decided to delve into children’s literature for his recently released duo of books: a collection of poems called Vleġġa Kkargata and a collection of four short stories called Din Mhix Logħba.
His answer is prompt and crisp, betraying the fact that perhaps, this isn’t exactly a spontaneous endeavour but something he engaged in with the meticulousness of a true artist and the analytical insight of a literary academic – his day job being a lecturer of Maltese literature at the University of Malta.
“It was freeing… but in some way it was also a lot harder. Perhaps it was harder for me than it would be for other writers…”
Widely published in translation worldwide, Grima has been releasing poetry at a steady pace ever since his very first collection – It-Trumbettier – appeared in 1999, while also publishing countless academic papers.
And at the end of each summer, he helps to captain what is probably Malta’s most dynamic literary experience – The Malta Mediterranean Literature Festival. Situating itself in evocative locations – it started off at the Couvre Porte in Birgu before moving to Msida Bastion Garden in Floriana – the Festival is a celebration of Mediterranean writing in all its diverse panoply: with writers from North Africa to Greece and everywhere in between reading work in their native languages, regaling visitors with a vivid picture of the cultural and social spirit of countries that remain – even if we tend to forget this – our neighbours.
A writer who shoots so wide, and who’s so intimately aware of the tensions and conflicts that characterise the contemporary literatures of our neighbouring countries, is probably the last person you’d expect to pen book ostensibly geared towards children – and it’s a reaction he has been faced with ever since he declared his decision to some of his acquaintances.
“It’s quite funny – they would say ‘how is it that this engaged writer is suddenly writing children’s literature?’ But the truth is that I don’t see all that much difference between a child’s perspective and an adult’s perspective when I’m writing, at the core of it… and the worst thing you can do when you’re writing for children is to ‘descend to their level’. This is a very patronising way of approaching it, and it’s not an authentic way of addressing children at all: no child actually wants to be ‘reminded’ that they are children, but to be addressed as equals…”
It’s a common truism that authors sometimes discover a spark for children’s literature – or, at least, writing about children – once children enter into their own lives.
Was this the case for Grima too?
“Oh, absolutely,” he says. However, his elaboration on this is slightly less predictable.
Perhaps it’s once again a reflection of his academic pedigree, but more than arising out of a spontaneous urge to write simpler prose and poetry, Grima’s new direction was inspired by other writers as much as anything else.
“More than wanting to write stuff for my own children, the fact is that I suddenly came into contact with so much great literature for children,” Grima says, citing the work of Michael Morpurgo (War Horse) as an example.
“I mean, how can you read Dr Seuss, for example, and not be tickled to write something in that vein? I must also credit fellow writer Clare Azzopardi [who is distinguished for he De Molizz], who pushed me to go in this direction… which was unfamiliar ground for me up until recently.”
So what can readers expect from the two books?
First of all, over and above the content itself, the books are beautifully embellished by oil-on-canvas paintings by Karen Caruana, depicting delicately grotesque illustrations reflecting the subject matter of the poems and stories.
“Karen’s work was introduced to me by a mutual friend, and I instantly thought her style would be perfect for book illustration,” Grima says, confessing that the paintings – “and they are bona fide, oil-on-canvas paintings” – will be an instant hook for readers.
But Grima has also made an effort to make his words as dynamic as possible. When our conversation – perhaps inevitably – swings to the topic of the relevance and popularity of poetry in today’s world, the first thing Grima flags up, particularly in relation to writing for children, is the infectious joy of being able to write in rhyme.
“The simple fact that you’re ‘allowed’ to write in rhyme was very liberating, and I think adults secretly enjoy it,” Grima says with a smile. “When I posted one of the new poems on Facebook, a slightly older reader commented with something along the lines of: ‘How refreshing, to read a new poem written in rhyme’…!”
But according to Grima, poetry is at its strongest in performance, and nowhere is this more true than when reading out to children.
He recounts his experience of reading poetry to schoolchildren with palpable joy and, contrary to what may perhaps be a common perception, he found them to be anything but listless when faced with verse.
“Of course it’s a different story when it comes to poetry that’s limited to the page, but in performance it works so much better than prose – you can liven it up with rhyme, and actually read a poem from start to finish, as opposed to having to present an extract of prose. And with all the readings I did I found children to be very intuitive, and receptive. An example: during an activity for kids at St James Cavalier, there was this one kid who was really engaged throughout the entire activity – I could tell he was really going for it. Then, as we were approaching the end, he just stood up and said: ‘OK, that’s it. Time to go’. And I think this is true of many children: they will tell you exactly what they think, if you allow them to.”
But engaging a young audience isn’t just limited to poetry, and even reveals that some of the works in the new books were selected with help from the young participants themselves.
“The title for the story called ‘Fabbrika tar-rikordji’, which is about young sweat-shop workers, was actually suggested by one of the students, with a pretty broad consensus from her classmates… so if anyone thinks that the title sounds too ‘adult’ for an anthology of works for children, I can tell them that it came from a 10-year-old girl…”