Today is my spot on the blog tour for Secrets of the Great Fire Tree by Justine Laismith. I’m so excited to talk about this magical little tale, one that is both charming and touching. My thanks go to Olivia at
This book is about a boy named Kai, who is told that his mom will be leaving to work for a family in the city, in order to provide for their family. He will stay in their village with a neighbor, and won’t see his mom for a year. The story follows his choices, and what he’ll do to bring his family together again.
In many ways, this book was very sad. Kai is dealing with many changes, and misses his mother terribly. It’s balanced well, though, and never becomes too much. The caring people in Kai’s village help with that.
Being an American, there were some cultural things that I wouldn’t have understood without the glossary of words, and short explanations that were scattered throughout the book. I found it very interesting, and it’s always cool to learn about the way things are in other places.
The magic is more of the everyday kind than fire-breathing dragons, but it was magical nonetheless. This is a great book for upper elementary aged kids.
Q and A with author Justine Laismith
– Who are you?
I grew up in Singapore and studied Chemistry in London. After my PhD, I worked in the pharmaceuticals industry. Since then I have also worked in the chemicals and education sectors. I’ve always enjoyed writing. When I was in industry, I wrote scientific papers. While I did write fiction occasionally, it really only took off around the time I returned to Singapore in 2010. Then I entered a local writing competition. As a winner, my children’s book The Magic Mixer was published. It’s a chapter book about two women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.) At that time, I was already in the midst of writing Secrets of the Great Fire Tree. This was the encouragement I needed to keep going.
– When did you want to become an author?
I first wanted to be a writer when I was seven. However at school I never did well in languages or literature. When it came to choosing subjects, I would have had to make the difficult decision of choosing what I liked, or what I was good at. My teacher saved me from this. She had expected me to take the Art/humanity subjects because ‘girls are better at them, and boys are better at Math and Science.’ Right there and then I chose the science options to prove a point. Over the years, even though I pursued a science career, the enjoyment of turning blank pages to words never left me. I continued to write poems and stories as and when they came to me, but they were for my eyes only. I also channeled this into my work and wrote scientific papers on my research. After some years, I took a career break. With a break from science, the logical part of my brain took a back seat and let the creative side of my brain dominate. I started writing in earnest.
-What inspires your work?
My inspiration comes from all around me. I now pay a lot of attention to my surroundings and how it makes me feel. Then I challenge myself to describe it in words. When I watch a movie or show, I don’t just take a seat and enjoy the ride. I think about what makes me root for the characters, or hate them. I also analyse how and why two personalities who started off with nothing in common come together as the story develops. When I’m out and about, I take pictures of nature and buildings. You can check them out on my instagram account (www.instagram.com/justinelaismith). The collection might seem like random lots of pictures, but they help me crystallize my thoughts on the setting in my stories.
-Can you tell us how Secrets of the Great Fire Tree Came About?
I grew up in Singapore, a country proud of its multicultural identity. This exposed me to a plethora of languages and Chinese dialects. I’m also part- Paranakan, which is a unique blend of two cultures: ethnic Chinese who speak and practice Malay customs. To give my heritage its representation, I subtly incorporated these diversities in a story that’s supposed to be set in China. A native Singaporean might spot these ‘anomalies’. Nonetheless, because I wanted to make this story authentically Chinese, I carried out a lot of research. I enjoyed going right back to my roots. Ultimately, the Chinese diaspora’s experience of their culture will be different from the indigenous Chinese. Part of this research included a trip to China, where I made several notes about their lifestyles. I’ve documented them in a series of blog articles (www.justinelaismith.wordpress.com/great-fire-tree/setting).
What are you most excited to share when it comes to Secrets of the Great Fire Tree?
I am most excited about sharing the rural life in China. As I mentioned earlier, I see myself as a third-culture kid, who never really knew her roots. China holds a quarter of the world’s population and consists of over fifty ethnic minorities. Naturally, I cannot tell everything in one story, but I hope I managed to give a flavor of this fascinating culture.