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Belinda O’Keefe grew up surrounded by books. The Christchurch author of The Day the Plants Fought Back says that her mother read to her and her sister, Melanie, from the time they were born.
‘My mother’s an avid reader – almost a speed reader. I remember going away on holidays and she’d have an armful of books – she’d get through them all in a few days.’

She thinks she inherited her vivid imagination from her father. ‘He very rarely read to us – instead, he told tall tales of 40-eyed dragons, giant killer mosquitos, and a man with a removeable bellybutton! Always with great humour too; some of which has rubbed off on me, I think.’

Belinda began writing children’s stories eight years ago. The Day the Plants Fought Back was one of her first manuscripts, but it’s had quite a few tweaks since then. ‘My boys were little when I wrote it. They aren’t quite as rascally as the characters in the book, but they’re usually the inspiration for most of my writing!’

The idea for the story came one day when she was gardening. ‘Over the next few weeks I took a pen and notebook with me while I weeded. The notebook was in quite a sorry state by the end!’

The story is about two naughty boys who go on a garden rampage and destroy the vegetable patch, but get a nasty surprise when the plants come to life and fight back. ‘The theme behind the story is about respecting nature, and to always behave, because you never know who may be watching.’ Belinda thinks it’s important that parents enjoy reading to their children. ‘I always endeavour to write stories that parents will love too. Many of us have skipped parts of a book to speed up the bedtime process, but you can only get away with that for so long!’

Belinda has written several books in prose, but says rhyming seems to come more naturally. ‘As a kid I always loved rhyming, and I enjoyed reading books in rhyme to my own children too. It has an almost musical quality to it, which always seemed to settle them when they were smaller.’

Belinda often reads her manuscripts to her husband and children at the dinner table. ‘They’re my best critics, as they’re my target audience. They’re brutally honest, and will tell me what works and what doesn’t.’

Belinda has had two books shortlisted for the Storylines Joy Cowley Award – A Mysterious Day in the Middle of May, in 2016 (now The Day the Plants Fought Back), followed by another in 2017. ‘It was great to get that reassurance that my writing was of publishable standard; that recognition encouraged me to keep trying.’

Belinda cites the South Island Writers’ Association (SIWA) as another major contributor to building her writing confidence. ‘After countless rejection letters from publishers, I began to wonder if my writing was rubbish, but SIWA encouraged me to not give up. Their support and constructive feedback was, and still is, invaluable.’

When not writing children’s books, Belinda’s kept busy with her copy-editing business. After working with clients who were self-publishing, she decided to self-publish her own middle-grade novel, Trouble with a Capital T, which she had loads of fun writing.

‘My sons were into card collecting at the time, so the story’s based around a group of kids who are trying to win a grand prize by collecting the whole set. They run into all sorts of problems, involving a chainsaw, a cannibal, and a prank with stink bombs and a ride-on lawnmower.’

With such a wonderful, wild and wacky imagination as this, it’s certain that children, both here and around the globe, have much to look forward to in the reading of any story by Belinda O’Keefe. The Day the Plants Fought Back, written by Belinda O’Keefe and illustrated by Richard Hoit.

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