Eoin “Benji” Bennett is the successful children’s author of a series of picture books; Before You Sleep, Adam’s Pirate Treasure, Adam’s Amazing Space Adventure and Adam Saves Christmas. Benji has enjoyed significant success with his books that are read-aloud favourites with parents and children.
The protagonist in these series of books, is named and based on Benji’s son Adam who died at four years of age of a sudden vascular tumour in August 2007. Benji began to write Before You Sleep after the death of Adam to convey an important message to parents to treasure every moment spent with their children.
His writing style involves fun and bouncy rhymes to tell each of Adam’s adventures. Benji’s verses are accompanied by vibrant illustrations by Roxanne Burchartz, who has illustrated all the books in the series so far. The book has become a best-seller and has gone on to win the Dublin Airport Children’s Award: Junior category at the Irish Book Awards in 2009. Before writing his first book, Benji worked for Vodafone and had no writing experience. In an interview with Ireland AM, he stated that played piano for twenty years and dabbled in writing lyrics to songs before applying writing to children’s books.
Benji was kind enough to take some time to talk about his books and what inspired him to write….
As a first time writer, how did you begin to write Before You Sleep?
I’m probably different from a lot of writers in that I never thought I would be a writer, it never really occurred to me. It started when I lost my son Adam when he was four years of age and, as a way of remembering him and showing how much I loved him, I started writing little rhymes on scraps of paper. Three or four weeks after he died I began taking out the laptop and typing those little scraps of writings and it really just started from there.
Did you find writing the book a cathartic experience?
I did. There were a lot of things that helped. For example the support from my friends and family, those feelings and emotions all went into the book. Writing the book was a way of remembering Adam by having him go on all these little adventures. It’s really a product of the love we felt for Adam and a way of keeping those memories alive. It was a cathartic experience, absolutely, and all these things sort of fell together like a jigsaw puzzle, which resulted in the book.
Had you planned on writing more books in the series? How did you find writing the next three books in the series?
It’s funny, the first book I actually wrote, which hasn’t been published yet, was Adam’s Camping Adventure. I had gone camping with Adam that summer just before he passed away. Out of writing that then came soon afterwards Before You Sleep, then I sort of said to myself why don’t I write a story about Adam flying around the planets and I wrote Adam’s Amazing Space Adventure. From the time he died in August up until December that year I had probably written about five or six little adventures.
When I began writing it started to give myself some sort of peace and comfort. I had a job with Vodafone at the time and I thought I could still do something with these stories, maybe publish a few books and it would be really nice if people wanted to read them. That’s really what it started of as being. I also thought, while Vodafone were very supportive, I kind of needed to escape the corporate environment at that stage. I didn’t know how until after Before You Sleep and the success of that book so I reckoned if that went well why not publish another book. I ended up getting a redundancy from Vodafone the same month Before you Sleep won the Irish Book Award and soon after I launched my second book. So I had moved from the corporate world to being an author and by that transition I had already a few milestones to my name. To be honest it all happened very naturally.
Where did you get your ideas for the stories from? Where they inspired by true events?
In Before You Sleep there are eleven different scenes; each one with “I love you more than Christmas, space, Halloween,” and so on. Unintentionally, I had created eleven different ideas for further books so the Christmas scene became the basis for the book Adam Saves Christmas. I’m a huge Christmas fan as well, all the spirit of Christmas and love and family went in to the book so that was an easy one.
I’m forever having little treasure hunts. Myself and Adam spent a lot of time on the beach playing pirates so that was the basis for Adam’s Pirate Treasure.
I’ve also always had a fascination with space as a child, I would lie down and watch satellites in the night sky. I fell in love with my wife Jackie when Halley’s Comet came around in ’86 and Halley’s Comet was featured in Adam’s Amazing Space Adventure.
Everything I’ve written about, in one way or the other have been drawn from things that happened to me in the past.5
Are you working on another book in the series? How long would you like the series of books to continue for?
The next one I’m working on is about Adam flying around the world to look at the Seven Wonders, which presents lots of opportunities for beautiful imagery. It’s basically his search for the most wonderful place in the world and, like my other books, I want it to convey the important messages of love and family and happiness.
Regarding how long the series will last for, it’s hard to know what the future will bring. There will certainly be eleven adventure books and that will keep me busy for the next three or four years. After that, as a self publisher, I’d love to be in the position of looking at other peoples work and publishing that but that may not be for awhile.
What would you consider the key ingredients to a good children’s story?
I played a game in a school I visited recently with one of the junior classes and I said lets make a story. So I asked them four simple questions; Who is the story about? What do they want to do? Where do they want to go? Why do they go there?
So they made up Holly wants to go shopping so she goes to a flower shop and decides to buy flowers for a wedding she is going to. So those few simple questions led on to a lovely story the kids made up and they added more and more elements. Asking who, what, where, etc., can lay down the foundations for a good story for kids.
Would you have any advice for first time writers/ writers approaching writing for children?
Just start writing. My last draft of each of my books has been completely different from my first and I think if you have a good idea and you just start writing that’ll guide the way there. For me it’s easy writing for kids as in I’ve always had a natural bond with children, to interact with them and come into their world. I think that to write for children you really have to inspired by them. Rhyming is also a good style of writing for the age group my books are aimed towards. An ability to rhyme and link rhyming sequences together into a cohesive plot is needed. If the rhymes don’t have proper structure or sounds then the child knows it’s wrong and is put off. Illustrations are huge part of it also.
Could you describe the process of collaborating with an illustrator? How did you find working with Roxanne on the series?
I wrote a twenty-five page brief for Roxanne about Adam; his mind, his spirit, his friends, everything about him. And she had a brief for each page on what I was looking for. You need to communicate what you want on a page so that the illustrations are relevant to the text. Funnily enough the first time I met Roxanne was after she completed the illustrations on my fourth book! That’s why the brief is so important, I learned this from my marketing days. A good strong brief will get you the results you want. What came out of it for me from Roxanne was absolutely amazing.
You have have been playing piano for a number of years. Would your interest in music influence you in your style of writing?
Funny you ask that, I used to be able to make up lovely melodies with the piano but I could never lay down any lyrics! If the illustrations were the music and my text were the lyrics then I could work that alright but not with the piano. I do think rhythmically it helped, I always try and make sure the rhymes are sort of bouncy. You could have a line with the same number of syllables as the other but it doesn’t work. But change one word to one with a different sound without changing the number of syllables and it fits. So I would say absolutely that music helps my writing.
Would you ever consider writing for older children or doing adult fiction?
It would be nice to continue writing Adam as he grows up. The character is now six so I would like to develops books in which he is older and the books are novels rather than picture books. I would also love to write about my journey with these books. I do find writing for children so much easier but maybe some day I can cross into writing for adults.
Finally, how has your success and winning the Irish Book Award in 2009 impacted the lives of you and your family?
It was important to use to win the award as an acknowledgment to Adam. I kind of really needed to win that award, not because of what it would do for book sales, but for the whole family and what the book meant. It has pushed open a few doors into other markets, such as WHSmiths in the UK and Amazon, so that in those markets you are an awarding winning author on your first book. So people talk to you, they look at the book and they would perhaps take the book into stock. I like to think that this could happen anyway because of Adam but wining the award has helping a lot and given me that edge. It can be hard for a self-publishing author to get their books into the shops and this accolade means that people take you that more seriously.
For me, it really endorsed what I was truing to achieve with the book, telling people about Adam and spreading that message of love, hugs and kisses within the family and that has really meant a lot to us.
Adam’s Printing Press is Benji’s publishing company. It has gone on to win the Export Marketing Award in the Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Enterprise Awards 2010. Benji supports children’s charities such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and Barretstown child charity, with donations made to these charities with revenue from his books. He currently lives in Blackrock with his wife Jackie and their children Harry (9), Robbie (4) and Molly (2).