Kathleen Pelley was born in Glasgow, Scotland, but spent most of her childhood summers playing on her grandparents’ farm in Ireland. Her passion for stories stemmed from listening to them on the radio during the BBC children’s story hour. Later, her gentle Irish father fanned the flame even more by feeding her his tales of fairies, leprechauns, and banshees.
She is the award-winning author of 7 picture books and hosts her own storytelling podcast, Journey with Story. Kathleen enjoys sharing her passion for literature with people of all ages and backgrounds, using her experience as a former elementary teacher, a narrator of books for the blind at Colorado Talking Book Library, a regular presenter at Regis University Student Teachers’ classes, and as a storyteller at a low income school for over 20 years.
What led you to becoming a writer?
Growing up in Scotland with an Irish father, I was fortunate enough to inherit the Celtic love of stories from a very young age. I earned my degree in HISTORY from Edinburgh University – I never really remembered all those dates and facts, but I always remembered the STORIES of all those characters like Bonnie Prince Charlie and Florence Nightingale. After moving to the States many years ago, I began narrating books on tape for the blind and storytelling at a low-income school here in Denver. And around the same time, I began to write children’s stories because I found that was a great way to try and heal the homesickness that I felt from leaving my native land.
What motivated you to write books for children?
I was an elementary teacher for several years in Scotland and loved teaching Drama and Writing to my students, and once I had my own children, I found myself wanting to write the kind of stories I was reading to them. People think children’s books are easy to write, because they have so few words and simple plot lines, but actually a good Picture Book can be a challenge to write because it is about distilling some beauty or truth to its finest essence – so that, long after the last page is turned or the final word uttered, some bolt of beauty or whiff of wonder should linger with you, like a sweet perfume wafting in the breeze.
Why did you make parenting a focal point in Happy Mamas and Happy Papas?
I did not set out to make parenting a focal point per se, but rather to explore this notion of “happiness.” Wisława Szymborska, a Polish poet, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature, maintained, “poets if they are genuine must keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.'” Each poem (and I would add each picture book) marks an effort to answer this question.” I wondered a lot about what happiness was and how best to define it, because for many years I used to run a mother/daughter book club at my home and no matter what story we discussed, whether it was Tolstoy’s, “The Two Brothers,” or a classic fairy tale such as Jack and the Beanstalk, it seemed we always circled back to this whole notion of happiness. What was it? How did our main character find it…. or lose it? Were rich people happier than poor people? These were the kinds of questions we grappled with.
Around this time, I also noticed too that there was a bounty of books on this topic and one of them, The Pursuit of Happiness by William O’ Malley referred to the ancient Greek definition of happiness as the evolving of a soul. This description resonated deeply with me, because of course, happiness is never actually static, but rather continually unfolds and evolves over time, and seems much more connected to the interior life than the exterior life.
O’Malley also mentioned watching his Golden retriever swimming in a pond to retrieve his ball, and how the dog would literally continue swimming and retrieving to the point of utter exhaustion. Why? Because he was in his element – doing what he was born to do, to swim and to retrieve.
That was my “Aha” moment, because it seemed to me that we humans are born to do two things -to love and to create. And what can be more loving and creative than – MOTHERING!
I wrote Happy Mamas as a way of exploring the myriad ways human and animal mamas love their babies over the course of a day and to show how mothering and happiness are inextricably entwined. Any mother will tell you that what she wants most in all the world is for her child to be happy – and that happiness is completely and absolutely related to – GOODNESS – to the evolving of a soul.
And of course, CWLA, the publisher of this book, is a huge advocate for adoptive and foster mothers (and fathers), who know full well, that we do not need to be a biological mother, or father in order to “mother” or “father” a child.
After I had written Happy Papas, CWLA and I decided it was only fitting to follow up with a Happy Papas and show how the act of fathering is also linked to creating and loving and happiness.
Why did you make kindness, inclusivity and belonging a focal point in The Giant King?
Well, again, I think I set out to write a book about “belonging,” because, growing up in Scotland, with an Irish dad (and all my relatives living in Ireland), I never really felt as if I totally belonged there. But when I went to Ireland to visit my cousins and aunts, they all called me the Scottish one, and so I never felt as if I really belonged there either. After I married my husband (an American) we moved to England, and yet again, I did not feel as if I belonged there at all. Fast forward a few years later, and I arrive in America: we may speak the same language (sort of), but there are all kinds of cultural differences that I found quite challenging to deal with. So – you can see this theme of “belonging” was one very close to my own heart, and sparked the idea of my book, The Giant King.
As an elementary teacher for several years, I was also very intrigued with the notion that our expectations of children is crucial in how they develop, and if you constantly look for the good or “the king” in them, you will find it. In my story, Rabbie succeeds in taming the giant with kindness – a perfect example of Gandhi’s admonition, “BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.”