We are delighted to welcome Candy Gourlay, author of Tall Story, Shine, Bone Talk and Is it a Mermaid? to discuss her new biography First Names: Ferdinand (Magellan). Candy won the SCBWI Undiscovered Voices, her books have been included in National reading promotions and initiatives and it is a real pleasure to welcome her to the blog.
You've worked on fiction, picture books and Ferdinand Magellan is your first information title. Did its creation require a different approach and how did you set about this?
Yes! Ferdinand Magellan is my first non fiction book – but I definitely used novel writing techniques such as rising tension, a three act structure and character development to create the story. Funnily enough, I do about the same amount of research for my fiction. The big difference between Ferdinand and my other books is that it was very much a team effort. I worked closely with the lead editor Helen Greathead (who, I swear, does not sleep) and Rosie Fickling. And when it came time for illustration, the research continued – for example, we had to find the right picture references to make sure the indigenous people were portrayed respectfully ... and plausible (a lot of the picture references from the 16th century are suspect!). At one point, the wonderful illustrator Tom Knight
had to draw what the ship toilet seat looked like! I found a museum photo of one from a wreck!
It was also much faster than I normally work. I wrote it in two months and the text was edited and ready for proofing within a year ... I have been known to take years to write the first draft of a novel! I was so impressed with Tom who managed to produce so much complicated artwork so quickly!
How did the idea first come about and can you tell us a little about the book?
DFB created First Names as a biography series to put children on first name terms with both historical characters like Abraham Lincoln and contemporary figures like Malala Yousafzai. My editor Helen Greathead asked me if there was someone I would like to write about for the series and Ferdinand Magellan immediately sprung to mind. "Ferdinand" as we refer to him in the series is an extraordinary person who lived during extraordinary times. Against many odds, he led the voyage that became the first circumnavigation of the world (even though he did not survive to complete it). There's a penguin named after him as well as a galaxy! He has given his name to the passage he discovered linking the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean. Heck, it was Ferdinand who named it the Pacific, but for a long time it was called Magellan's Sea. He was also the first European to land in the Philippines, where I was born.
Because Ferdinand "discovered" the Philippines, he is the first historical figure Filipino children are taught about in school. Growing up in the Philippines, I was taught that Magellan's arrival was the beginning of our history, as if nothing had happened before Europeans came to Southeast Asia.
So for me, writing this little book has been hugely important.
The book details a lot of global figures including Eratosthenes, Aryabhata, Ibn Hazm and many more. How much research was required for the book?
LOTS! I don't think you can discuss Magellan without understanding the context of his journey.
When structuring a novel, I have to make sure that nothing happens randomly: that cause and effect drive the plot forward. It was the same writing this biography: Ferdinand would not gone on the journey if he had not defected to Spain. He would not have defected had he not been mistreated by the Portuguese king. He would not have had such a high opinion of himself had he not been a highly regarded veteran of the wars conquered the Indian Ocean. He would not have wanted to go on his journey had not grown up in a Portugal where explorers were regarded as rock stars. There would have been no explorers had the Ottoman Empire not choked off the spice trade and the silk route. And so on.
How conscious were you of creating a 'global historical perspective' rather a politicised one? Were there challenges involved with this?
I deliberately use "The Age of Exploration" instead of " The Age of Discovery" out of respect for the peoples that suffered invasions during this period. As a Filipino, I am acutely aware of how this era has been portrayed in history books – these heroic explorers discovering weird peoples. The explorers wrote narratives that dwelled on the strangeness of the cultures they encountered and it would be unfair to take these writings verbatim. Of course we don't have the writings of these indigenous folk to tell us how they felt, but the design of the First Names books allowed me to give them a voice.
I was learning as I went along. I didn't want to tell Ferdinand's story in isolation, as a novelist, I felt that his story would only make sense if I made sense of his world. I didn't know about the Portuguese armadas that pillaged the continents on either side of the Indian Ocean. I didn't know of the elaborate societies that traded with each other in Southeast Asia. It was very exciting, I felt like an explorer myself!
Because this is a children's book, it was important to write about Ferdinand's childhood ...but there is very little information to be found. All I knew was that he was an orphan and he lived in Porto. So I researched what happened to orphans in that era ... and was astonished to discover that the Age of Exploration meant many orphans were shipped off to Portugal's new outposts in newly discovered lands! And I found out that Porto was where the ships used for Portuguese exploration were built. Imagine growing up and seeing those ships heading out to the unknown!
What was the most surprising fact you discovered in writing the book?
I had been researching the European drive to reach the East Indies before I realized: the Philippines was the East Indies!
The other surprising fact was how multicultural Spain and Portugal were during the Age of Exploration. There is a painting called The Chafariz d'El-Rey (King's Fountain) (download the photo here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King%27s_Fountain#/media/File:Chafariz_d’El-Rey,_c._1570-80_(Colecção_Berardo).png
) set in a Lisbon dock. It shows a crowded embankment, including many black people, some wealthy, some poor. I realized that Ferdinand's desire to travel might also have been driven by seeing so many people from foreign lands and wondering where they came from. I wish we could find out more about the painting.
The toppling of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol powerfully demonstrated the importance of how we communicate history and educate this. Do you feel there is the need for change and in what ways could this be achieved?
Absolutely. History is a many-sided narrative – as can be attested by the Filipino experience of reading our story through the prism of our conquerors who repeatedly commented on our ugliness, the darkness of our skin, our strangeness and our indolence. The usual reading of this story dismisses as bit players the indigenous people whose lives were changed forever by explorers. It's high time our children are taught to read this narrative critically, ask questions and do the work to find the answers.
Examining the impact of the Age of Exploration on its victims, does not diminish Ferdinand's achievement. In fact, realizing what a human figure he was, tormented by low self esteem and rejection, made me feel empathy towards him, and yes, made me admire his achievement all the more.
Writing this book, I was constantly thinking of the children I meet during school visits. What will children of African heritage feel when they read about how Vasco Da Gama fired cannons willy nilly on the African kingdoms on the shore? How will children of Indian heritage react to the destruction wrought by Portugal on India's Western coast? And I thought of children in my native Philippines, who have no idea of the Philippines' pivotal moment in the Age of Exploration.
Ferdinand was published during Lockdown, what challenges did this present and has it led to you exploring different ways to encourage engagement with the book?
I had 28 school visits and speaking engagements booked and Lockdown cancelled them all! Children's authors, who make their living via these bookings, are looking at a difficult year (or two!) ahead. I honestly don't see author visits happening in the coming months. Like a few other authors, I've begun creating videos of my presentations in lieu of visiting schools in person. I've just finished one for Ferdinand and boy, I've learned a lot of things. Without the thrill of a physical presence, I imagine children will struggle to watch a continuous author presentation, especially if it is via Zoom. So I've tried to make mine lively, with quizzes, lots of visuals, and even a comedy song (that's a screenshot of me from the video, with my trusty giant beach ball globe that took me two days to inflate)! A teacher's guide is available as a free download and the videos will be available for rent on my website http://candygourlay.co.uk
What is next for you?
I am currently working on my next novel but it's all still very rough and it's impossible to say when it will be published. This year, I do have a small book for younger readers with Stripes' Colour Fiction Series. It is called Mike Falls Up and it is illustrated by the wonderful illustrator Carles Ballesteros, based all the way in Chile! I can't wait until it's out!
Thank you so much for having me. People in the business discount these series books but you can tell that Ferdinand is a book that is very close to my heart. I feel privileged to have worked on it!