Being a mama is definitely the best job in the world, but sometimes between the teething and the tantrums we come across a problem that we just can’t find the solution too. That’s what happened to Martha Keswick when her son had a hard time learning Mandarin Chinese as a foreign language in Hong Kong. Frustrated by the lack of child-friendly books in Mandarin, Martha took matters into her own hands and wrote a collection herself. Her two series ‘Max and Mei’ and ‘Pangu’ are fantastic tools that make learning foreign languages fun, and ensure you’ll never hear the word ‘boring’ when your kids sit down to do their homework! We caught up with Martha, learned some Mandarin and found out her top tips on how to become a mamapreneur.
Were you always an avid reader growing up and how do you encourage your children to read?
Yes, I was a classic Enid Blyton fan and loved books as a child, always reading with my torch in bed at night and I studied English Literature at Newcastle University. I have 4 children (a 10 year old boy, an 8 year old girl and 5 year old twin girls!) I’m forever encouraging them to pick up a book by finding suitable stories they will enjoy to read by themselves. I also read bedtime stories to my children most nights. At the moment I’m reading my old copy of ‘Black Beauty’ to my elder daughter, which I studied for A-Level (ie published in 1991!) My husband is reading ‘Treasure Island’ to my son, while the twins (and I) are still enjoying picture books! When I was lucky enough to meet the children’s book laureate, Anthony Browne, he mentioned the appreciation of picture books and the reading of both pictures and words. Picture books are for everybody at any age, not books to be left behind, as we grow older.
Your stories make learning fun and easy, how did these books come about?
My son started learning Mandarin Chinese in Hong Kong when he was just 2 years old. I searched and searched for fun, appealing bedtime stories to read to him but couldn’t find many interesting books for children learning Mandarin as a foreign language. So I decided to write a collection myself. ‘Max and Mei’ was the first series for young children, and soon after my publisher David Tait from P3 Publishing, asked me to come up with a series for upper primary school kids, which resulted in the Chinese comic series, ‘Pangu’. Both series are now co-published by Cambridge University Press and are a part of Mandarin Matrix, an exciting suite of educational products that support Chinese language teaching and learning in a classroom environment. As a parent I know how difficult it can be to get children excited about foreign languages and I’m happy that I’ve created something that helps.
Where do you look to for inspiration?
The inspiration for ‘Max and Mei’ actually came from my son who was five at the time. He was best friends with a little Chinese girl named Bubble who lived next door and attended the same kindergarten. I based the 12 stories around their friendship and experiences, relating each tale to the Chinese Zodiac Animals. The plots are based on real life experiences too. In ‘Max and Mei meet the Monkey’, the monkey steals Max’s hat which actually happened to us at Monkey Mountain in Hong Kong. ‘Pangu’ is obviously much more fictional but I do often ask my children advice on ‘what happens next?!’
Any top tips for teaching children a foreign language at home?
It’s always difficult to encourage the children to actually use their Mandarin, as the word on the street in Hong Kong is Cantonese. So I try my best to provide a home environment where they are forced to use it. I speak to them in Mandarin as much as possible, have play-dates with Chinese speaking friends, watch movies in Mandarin and travel to Taiwan or Mainland China. At the end of the day it’s all about engaging with them and making it fun!
You saw a problem, found a way to fix it and created a solution, what are some of the biggest lessons you learned along the way?
You cannot actually force a child to learn anything if it’s boring, so you have to keep it exciting and part of their day-to-day lives. Many parents of children learning a foreign language are faced with the problem of trying to get them to read or listen to stories, which is ultimately the best way to improve a child’s level of Mandarin Chinese. Both the ‘Max and Mei’ and ‘Pangu’ series are set to change this through the charming bilingual stories and action-packed new comic books that will hopefully have children listening and reading of their own accord.
Do you ever get writers block and if so what is your cure?
Yes, I get writers block all the time!! The best cure is to turn off the Internet, stop opening up emails and log out of Facebook!
How do you balance working and being a mum?
Like many working mums I try to get my work done while the kids are at school as it’s almost impossible to get anything done once they get home. The school holidays can be quite a challenge in that sense!
Any advice for budding mamapreneurs?
It’s great for us mums to have creative pursuits and to be able to follow our passions. The best piece of advice that I have ever received was to take everything step by step, often the easiest part is coming up with a great idea, but executing it perfectly is where the real challenge lies. Ask for advice and always believe in yourself.
You can purchase ‘Max and Mei’ and ‘Pangu’ online here
Gorgeous photos of Martha courtesy of Lumo Photography