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The Turnaround: Oliver Phommavanh on writing for kids

July 30, 2018

On the release of his new book Natural Born Loser, author Oliver Phommavanh tells us about his childhood and what drives him to write stories for kids.

After eight years, I’m so lucky to be still be writing for kids. I’m a natural born children’s writer because well, I’m still a big kid myself and also I want to be a champion for the weird kids out there. I want to be a voice for the kids who think they’re different and can’t fit in. Trust me, I’ve been there before, as a kid myself but also as a teacher as well.

If you’re judging my book from its cover (a big no-no but let’s go with it), you’d see that leader has been crossed out. You’ve probably heard of that term, natural born leader. Back when I was at primary school, I thought there were kids who were born to lead. They were smart, sporty, popular and belonged on the cover of a school brochure or newsletter. I did want to be a leader, prefect or school captain. When it came to nominations, I was tempted to throw my hat into the ring. But my hat was stinky and frayed at the edges. And there was no ring, even if there was, I would have missed and my hat would have landed in the bin.

As I watched the kids who did put themselves forward, doing their election speeches and convincing the school that we should vote for them, I wondered if I stood a chance. Sure, I was a class clown and could tell lots of jokes. But that was it. Entertaining yes. There was no way I could ever lead a whole school. Right? That’s what I thought. I was good for a laugh, but nobody would ever follow me.

So naturally, I thought of myself as a loser back in school. I had all the makings of a loser. I had a wild imagination and said random stuff. I was un-co at sports. I hardly had any friends, unless you counted books as friends. I was the opposite of what a leader should be like.

There’s a lot of me in Raymond, a boy who gets plucked out of nowhere to become a prefect. He thinks it’s too late to be a natural born leader. You can’t teach someone to lead, right? Well, Mr Humble, the new principal thinks he can. He has a lot of leadership books in his office. He even gives Raymond a poster with leadership tips on it.

So what’s the difference between a leader and loser? Maybe it’s self-belief. When Raymond gets his prefect’s badge, he doesn’t gain any special powers. He begins to believe in himself. Of course, his friends back him up too, but when his voice gets heard by others, his confidence grows. I had all these wacky ideas in my head too. But when I started putting them into stories and made people laugh, I thought wow…maybe I’m not so crazy after all.

I wanted to write a story about someone who owns their weirdness and makes their mark by being themselves. Spoiler alert but Raymond does discover why he got picked by Mr Humble to become a prefect. Raymond’s a relatable person who can get along with the sporty kids and nerds alike. It’s one thing being popular for your skills and talents, but I think kids like someone who inspires them because they’re just like them. So this book is for the leaders and so-called losers, and everyone else in between hehe.

Purchase a copy of Natural Born Loser | Read our review | Read an extract

Oliver is a young Thai-Australian writer for children. He has featured on panels at the Sydney Writers’ Festival among many other appearances at festivals and writing events as well as in blogs. He has worked as a primary school teacher and now spends his time writing and sharing his writing passion with kids, engaging them with humour. He’s also a stand-up comedian and has appeared on national TV and radio as well as at a number of well-known comedy venues such as the Comedy Store in Sydney. His first book, Thai-riffic!, was published to critical acclaim, followed by Con-nerdPunchlines, Thai-no-miteEthan in the Stuff Happens series in 2015, The Other Christy and, most recently, Super Con-nerd.



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