Having to say goodbye to a wise seal because of the character count – Interview with Kinga Maksai

She has become the author of four successful children's books in just five years, and in 2022 she published her first novel for adults, the psychological thriller ‘Most már biztosan hazaér’. The teacher of film/media and literature at the Illyés High School in Budaörs. We talked to her about the crucial role of illustrations in children's books, the process of making storybooks, the aspects of quality in children's animation and why she believes it is important for young generations to acquire the skills to consume media intelligently.

What path led from the cinematographic world to fiction? You have recently published three young adult novels ('Ismeretlen utakon' [On unknown roads], 'Erik és a legfelső utáni emelet' [Erik and the Top Floor After], 'Mia&Maja') and you’ve written a storybook ('Alpaka eltéved' [Alpaca gets lost]) recently. How did you get into the world of children's literature after film criticism?

Somehow, for me, books and film have always gone hand in hand in my life, although the emphasis has sometimes shifted this way and sometimes that. I wrote the first chapter of 'Mia & Maja' for a competition, and Cerkabella Books liked it, so we started working together. Many people say that my writings, the dialogues and scenes in them are film-like, which I take as praise. I think that's what today's kids' brains are wired to do, and so is mine.

While turning from page to page your storybook, it's striking how the short, punchy stories are rounded off with lots of spectacular illustrations. Why do you think the presence of illustrations in a children's book is so important?

It's not the illustrations that are important, but the presence of good, sophisticated, unique illustrations. Much of our knowledge of the world is made up of visual information. I think it has been said that we are exposed to as much visual stimulation every day as a medieval man in his lifetime. And children are particularly open until they can read, for whom the illustration and the text being read are naturally linked. Later, it colours, reinterprets and underlines what they read. I think older children, young adults would need illustrations, as well.

Detail from the storybook 'Alpaka eltéved' (2021)

Why did you choose this picture book format for 'Alpaka eltéved'? How was working together with Réka Hanga, the illustrator of the book?

I was approached by the publisher to write a story for their multi-volume series of learning-to-read, Spelling books. I could choose which animal will be the main character. I’ve been thinking a lot, I had many ideas, but in the end I chose one of my favourites, alpaca. I was told that there would be little text and a lot of pictures in the book, which presented some challenges. Most of the work consisted of pulling from the text and even having to say goodbye to a wise seal because of the character count. What is interesting, that after finishing the text, I only saw the finished version of the book. We hadn't agreed with Réka, so I was very curious to see what it would be. Thank God it was love at first sight.

What criteria do you think a good children's book should meet?

There is a huge variety of books, either by age or by subject, so it's difficult to answer this in general, but I'll try. First of all, of course, we need to clarify from whose point of view the book works well. For the publisher? Are they selling a lot of copies? Or is it good from a pedagogical point of view? Or do children like it? Or the parents?

As in all the arts, there are works of literature that are commercially successful. They sell like hot cakes. In the case of children's books, I think it depends on the extent to which the text or the concept captures the parent, in addition to or because of marketing.

But some of these books are not good texts from a literary, aesthetic point of view. And then there are those books that are excellent, original, have power, but only reach a few people because they deal with a tough subject or because they are not easy for parents to read. It is the same with illustrations. I love books that are aimed at the child, with text and illustrations. I don't like it when a text winkles at a parent and laughs at a child, nor do I like it when it doesn't say anything more than anyone describing the day of a kindergartener or schoolboy. A good story will enchant you, pull you out of your present, no matter which age group is targeted.

Some of Kinga Maksai's books published so far

And what do you think makes an animation for children work well? Do you watch animation with your son? Do you think it's important to watch them?

We watch tales, although I know this has long been a matter of debate. I think it’s okay to watch animation movies, but it does matter how much or what. As with adult films and series, animation for children can be both bad and great. It’s the parents job to lead their children to the more demanding ones. I think it’s also important that the parent watch each film together with his/her child, or at least be present in some way.

I believe the animation that works really well from a child's point of view is the animation that takes into account the specificities of the age group.

We’ve just rewatched 'Cars' and I was shocked by the number of sexual references and jokes for adults. These are not understood by the children, at most they confuse them. I don’t think this is good. But, to give you a better-known recent counter-example, the film 'Elementary' tells a very nice story, and doesn’t want to be friends with the adult.

Have you ever thought about combining film with writing, for example as a scriptwriter for a fairy tale film or animation?

My big dream is to write a screenplay. Ideas come to me from time to time, but I haven't dared to write them down yet.

Kinga Maksai on a roundtable discussion held at the 11th Primanima

Your most recently published novel, 'Most már biztosan hazaér', is a psychological thriller for adults, unlike your previous works. Why did you decid choosing the adult audience? How was writing this novel different from writing a children’s book?

I always thought I’m going to write for adults once, as well. It was during the covid that the idea for this book took shape. Some people were surprised when the thriller came out, not understanding what the change was. For me it's not a change, I'm interested in both directions, I don't think one excludes the other. In fact, I see more and more examples of children's authors writing crime and thriller novels.

It was interesting, by the way, that when I started writing, I had to warn myself from time to time that it was a thriller, because I tended to lighten up, to loosen up, to make jokes to take the edge off the overwhelming situations. Then I got into it

It was hard to get out of it, though, after a while it was as if I was living in two places, reality and the house in the book. So it was a relief to finish. Now, of course, I'm in another one.

Besides writing, you teach literature and media studies at the Illyés Gyula High School in Budaörs. Why do you think it is particularly important to teach these subjects today in 2023?

Without going into too much detail about all the problems in public education, I think that it is more important than ever that a young person coming out of secondary school is able to read texts, understand pictures and films. We at Illyés are in a very fortunate position, but I see that the situation is getting more difficult every year as far as the former are concerned.

We should be encouraging and teaching the children of a generation that has a smartphone in their hands at zero to twenty-four, and with it, they believe, all the knowledge and entertainment in the world.

These children and young people have a markedly different approach to life in general than, say, their peers of five or ten years ago. And this includes everything from the drastic transformation of the media to the emotional abandonment of children and the disintegration of education. In any case, that's what we're dealing with. So I think that, in addition to basic literacy in literature and film, it is of paramount importance to equip students with a body of knowledge and a willingness to think critically that, if not protects them from manipulation, at least increases their chances of being less deceived. The icing on the cake is if we can also create opportunities for them to experience the impact of art and to create for themselves.

Kinga Maksai at the Award Ceremony of the 11th Primanima

You will be part of this year's Primanima Children's Film Jury. What criteria will you use to judge?

I will definitely keep in mind the aspect I mentioned above, namely whether the film is really for children. I'm also looking at the story, the dialogue, the music, the visuals, everything that makes up a film. In terms of the story, it doesn't necessarily have to be something new, it can be cool when the filmmakers take a different approach to a familiar or often-used theme. One of my favourite animated films is 'My Life as a Courgette', which tells the story of a child in a children's home. Everyone has seen a film with this theme a thousand times, but this is different, much more powerful.

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