BLACKBURN-born children’s author Christina Gabbitas, who has ambitions to set up a reading festival in the town, spoke to Lancashire Telegraph reporter Harriet Whitehead about her journey and what inspires her to write.
Christina Gabbitas started writing stories when her children were babies but filed them away for 17 years.
It was her son William, now 18, and his battle with dyslexia which went undiagnosed for years, which encouraged her to give publishing a go.
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Now the former Blackburn College student makes her living from writing with her popular Felicity Fly series of picture rhyming books, as well as campaigning to get more children involved in reading festivals.
She recently published a new book, Triangular Trev and the Shape Idols, which helps children learn about mathematical shapes through music. The book has been nominated for the People’s Book Prize.
The former fundraising manager had a background in business and finance before she decided to publish.
The mum-of-two said: “I first started writing my stories when my children were babies. I put them away and thought I would do something with them later.
“It was 17 years later when I thought ‘I am going to give it a go’. I thought if I’d fail at least I can say I tried and I have never looked back.
“I love what I do. I visit many schools and encourage children to read and write. The testimony you get from the children is second to none. It is so uplifting.”
In 2013, Christina set up a national initiative encouraging children aged seven to 11 to write an eight-line rhyme.
The rhymes are judged and the best 50 are published in a book with a different theme each year. “The inspiration came from my son who has dyslexia but was misdiagnosed by two primary schools. He had a poem published and it gave him confidence,” she said.
“I want to give children confidence. I tell them not to worry about the spelling but just to use their imagination. I tell them without imagination we would not have inventions. You have to be able to imagine something for it to happen.”
Christina, who lives in North Yorkshire, was also recently named Woman of Achievement in Education at the Yorkshire Women of Achievement Awards.
She said her inspiration comes from her own childhood.
“When I was little I was very shy. I was scared of anything that moved and of the dark. I write about these things to try to help other children.
“I used to love reading rhymes. My books are written in rhyme which comes from my own childhood experience.”
Spike Milligan is also a big influence with his Book of Silly Poems one of her favourites.
The author said writing has helped her overcome her fears, including flying.
“I have got lots of pads and I just jot down ideas. I can’t really write at home. I write in cafes or on aeroplanes which takes my mind off the flying.”
To relax she runs and is in the process of running 30 10ks to raise money for Childline and the NSPCC as well as training for the London Marathon.
The author has worked with the NSPCC to encourage children to speak up about sexual exploitation.
Her safeguarding book ‘share some secrets’ is aimed at children aged five to eight encouraging them to think about secrets they should and should not keep.
“The idea came from hearing and reading about child sexual exploitation in the media. I spent two years researching it and time with an abuse lawyer,” she said.
“I wrote it and set up a crowdfunding page to fund it before contacting the NSPCC who said they loved the story.”
It has been distributed through the NSPCC’s school service and is being made into an animation.
Meanwhile she is busy promoting her new book Triangular Trev and the Shape Idols, which follows the adventures of Rectangular Reg, Equilateral Eric and Isosceles Irene who take part in a talent contest judged by a Simon Cowell-like character.
“All the characters are given different accents or sounds. It helps the children engage and parents can have a bit of fun,” she said.
“For children that are struggling they can listen and read along. That is what engaged me to read. I used to love listening to the sounds of the voices.
“Triangular Trev addresses maths with music. All of these characters meet up and play a musical instrument. They make up a song which is judged by a Simon Cowell figure. They sing about who they are. It is a fun way for children to learn the maths terms used.
“I was not good at maths when I was younger and these words used to scare me. I thought if you can put them into a song and make them fun they are more likely to remember them.”
And work will continue on bringing the first children’s reading festival to Blackburn this year after she set up an organisation to give children from all backgrounds an opportunity to go to a reading festival.
Her first one will take place in Yorkshire and she is hoping to see one in Blackburn in October.
She is working to promote literature festivals with a younger element.
She said: “There are more than 350 literature festivals in the UK and only 10 per cent of those are for children so I decided to set up the Children’s Reading Festival to try to encourage them to do more for children.
“They are often in more affluent areas and I wanted to bring them into more towns and areas where children do not get an opportunity. The aim is to give all kids an equal opportunity to access books. It will bring children together and encourage them to bring parents too.”
Christina is looking for a venue to hold the Blackburn festival in as well as volunteers. Visit www.childrensreadingfestivals.com.