Sigi Cohen, author of There’s Something Weird About Lena, chats to Reading Time reviewer Shelley Stephens
SS: I found There’s Something Weird About Lena such a refreshing read, and a side-step from the usual picture book story. How did you come up with the plot?
SC: The plot for There’s Something Weird About Lena jumped into my head some years ago; in fact, around the same time I wrote My Dead Bunny. In my mind I was running through scary (but funny) ideas for kids and I thought about the werewolf genre which I personally enjoy, but with a twist – How about a were-hyena… called Lena? I was pretty sure the were-hyena genre was untapped and had not been done! I fancied the idea of a school bully who does not become the hero of the story nor even someone who goes through a transformative change for the better. A lot of my stories lean towards ‘shaggy dog’ endings; in this case a ‘shaggy-hyena’ ending where the bully doesn’t get her comeuppance and the schoolkids get the fright of their lives. No lessons learnt but some fun and good visuals along the way.
SS: I love that you challenged the stereotypical view that boys love scary stuff more and made your main character a girl. What made you choose Lena as the main character?
SC: Girls can be pretty scary, at least I think so! The protagonist – werewolf/hyena/bully was always going to be a girl; the idea of pocket-dynamo girl bullying the rest of the kids, with impunity, had, I believe, lots of potential for humour. At no time did I consider that the were-hyena would be the stereotypical male teen-wolf type character, or a hulking male bully with a chip on his shoulder. This character, Lena, revelled in her badness and, as things turn out (with the shaggy-hyena ending) she gets to continue her vile behaviour. Instead of Lena coming to a realisation that being nice is better, she gets to teach the good kids a scary lesson! I like to subvert the norm!
SS: Some might say your books are a little controversial for school-aged children. Do you read any reviews of your books, and how do you deal with bad ones?
SC: I like to get feedback and read reviews. Thankfully, the majority of reviews of My Dead Bunny were from reviewers who got the humour and didn’t take the gross bits and scariness too seriously. However, I understand that there were also those who felt it was inappropriate for young kids, that they should be shielded from topics such as death (and zombies), and who don’t generally appreciate dark humour in a children’s picture book. Most picture books are cute and have feel-good messages. Mine don’t, so anyone looking for something heart-warming would be disappointed. Children aged 7 and over tend to respond positively to my books. As for dealing with bad reviews – well, I’ve got to take the good with the bad and when you create something for the public, everyone is entitled to an opinion. That said, I think ‘Lena’ isn’t quite as confronting for kids as My Dead Bunny was.
SS: Are you working anything new at the moment, and can you tell us a little about it?
SC: I am working on a third book in the series that began with My Dead Bunny, i.e. a story with the same protagonists. Hopefully, it will get picked up, with James Foley to illustrate, and we will have a follow-up to There’s Something Weird About Lena as the last of a trilogy. But it’s just a work in progress right now.
I have two new books being published in early 2021; one is about vampires, but for younger kids than my previous books; the other is a departure from horror and the supernatural and is a straight, but humorous book about a bully and one kid’s effective way of dealing with the bully. It has a happy ending!
SS: What was your favourite rhyming picture book as a child?
SC: As I child I was greatly impressed by Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales for Children, a 1907 children’s book “designed for the admonition of children aged 7 to 14”. It is pretty dark and hilarious and I believe it would have influenced Roald Dahl’s writing. It contains such gems as “Jim: Who ran away from his Nurse, and was eaten by a Lion” and “Rebecca: Who slammed Doors for Fun and Perished Miserably”!! Certainly not the sort of book one could get away with nowadays, but it appealed to my ghoulish fascination as a child. These stories were written in rhyming verse. The Complete Nonsense of Edward Lear (written in the 1800s) was less gruesome, but also a favourite and contributed to my love of rhyme.
SS: If you weren’t writing picture books, what would you be doing?
SC: I believe having a creative outlet is so important. I work as a lawyer which is very stressful, so writing is a major de-stressor. I’d say if I didn’t work as a lawyer I’d be focusing solely on writing. I wish I could illustrate as well as write as this would really be the full package. I don’t know what I’d be doing if I didn’t write as this is my outlet. Writing picture books, especially in rhyme, can be very time consuming so it’s a luxury for me. I tend to write quite quickly but then spend months and months editing, chopping and changing and polishing, until the text can withstand no more. Then I know it’s done!
SS: Thank you, Sigi, and best of luck with your upcoming publications!
Read Shelley’s review of There’s Something Weird About Lena here.