Petr Horáček is a world-known illustrator and author of countless children’s picture books which have been published in many languages. He is also a Czech who has, for over twenty years, lived in the UK with his English wife and two children. In the interview that follows he talks about his struggles with mastering English, his family’s trials and tribulations trying to bring up their two daughters bilingually in Czech and in English and, of course, his books.
You were born in Czechoslovakia in 1967 but have lived in England with your English wife since 1994. How would you describe the beginnings of your new bilingual life in a foreign country?
I met Claire in Prague during my studies at the Academy of Creative Arts. She came to Prague for a year as a postgraduate student. She already spoke a little Czech while I didn’t speak any English so we communicated mainly in Czech. The outcome was Claire speaking brilliant Czech and me still knowing hardly any English.
Claire stayed in Prague for nearly three years but then became homesick and took me back to England with her.
The beginnings were really hard for me. I did what I could to learn the language, attended English courses with au-pairs. I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to learn English well enough to be able to communicate but after about two years I could make myself understood and started picking up the phone at home.
I remember that even when I started publishing my books in England Claire had to correct every one of my texts. Actually, she still does so no change there.
You have two daughters, Cecílie and Tereza. How old are they? Were they born in England?
Both girls were born in England. Cecílie is 16 and Tereza is 18.
In a video interview I’ve seen you said that when your daughters were born your wife was making more money than you so you became a stay-at-home dad while she went to work. Did you talk about how you were going to talk to the children, whether you were going to bring them up bilingually in Czech and English?
It’s true that I stayed home with the girls. Claire worked and as soon as she got home we swapped. I then did some painting and Claire looked after the children. We never worried too much about who was going to do what. We both did whatever was necessary. I’m not a great cook and Claire is not great at cleaning. So Claire cooks and I clean.
I spoke Czech to Tereza to start with and she would reply half in Czech and half in English with a Czech accent. The biggest problem was that my English wasn’t getting any better. I worked at home and we spoke Czech. So I decided to start talking in English and slowly but surely the kids’ Czech deteriorated. In the end English completely swallowed us up.
Did you have any Czech books at home, did you sing Czech songs, tell the girls Czech rhymes?
I used to take the girls to various kids’ groups, met up with other parents and their children. There were lots of nursery rhymes and songs but they were all in English.
The girls had Czech picture books too, of course, they know Krteček, Bob a Bobek, Maxipes Fík… But like I’ve already said, I couldn’t quite handle it. I was battling with English and then started publishing books…it was a bit of a manic time…
How do your girls perceive their Czech side? Do they feel at least a little bit Czech?
The girls love the Czech Republic. We have lots of friends there who we visit in the summer and who visit us. They’re both really proud of their Czech heritage and tell everyone that they’re half Czech. Unfortunately, they don’t speak Czech and only understand a little.
Do you feel sorry that they can’t speak Czech? If you had another child now would you do anything differently with respect to their language upbringing?
I have to admit that I do have big regrets about the fact that I failed to speak to my children in Czech. I think I would have definitely tried harder second time round. Whether I could actually do it is another matter. It seems like the simplest thing. Sometimes I wonder if I could have succeeded had my English been better at the time. I really don’t know.
Some of my friends judge me because I failed to teach my girls good enough Czech. It’s normally people who themselves don’t speak a foreign language.
What would you say is hardest when it comes to bilingual upbringing?
To persevere and stick it out. When your kids understand Czech but answer in English it’s so easy to switch to English…
As I’ve been so lucky to catch you I can’t not ask about your books 🙂 I first came across them when my own children were a bit older and were reading Michael Morpurgo, Roald Dahl or David Walliams. How many books have you published so far and what sort of age are they intended for?
For a long time now I’ve been saying that I’ve published about thirty books. It might be more by now. I also illustrated a few for someone else but I mainly illustrate my own books.
I do picture books but also baby books and I’ve done a handful of pop-up books too.
It’s difficult to define an upper age limit. I know that older kids love my books just as much as the younger ones.
I’ve read that it was your daughters who inspired you to write books. What was the very first impulse that gave you the incentive to start writing and what was your very first book?
When Tereza was born a friend gave her a book by Eric Carle “The Very Hungry Caterpillar”. As a native Czech I’d never heard of this book and I thought it was just amazing! I still think that by the way. I wanted to do something similar.
They are board books and came out on the same day. I received the Books for Children Newcomer Award 2001 for them. And that was how my writing began.
Now that your daughters are older perhaps they might inspire to write a teen novel?
I studied painting, and illustrating is what I love best about my job. I started writing because I prefer illustrating my own things rather than argue with someone else. A picture book is its own special field. The text merely complements the picture and describes what wouldn’t fit in the illustration and vice versa.
Writing a novel is a completely different kettle of fish and I don’t have any ambition to follow that direction.
Your books were first published in English and only after a very long time in Czech. Do you translate them yourself? Is there anything typically English in them that has to be completely changed so that the meaning can be conveyed in Czech?
The translation of my books was quite an interesting experience. I was allocated a translator but it has to be said that not everyone who speaks a foreign language can translate books. I would have never believed how difficult it can be to translate a kids’ picture book that contains a few sentences!
It’s exactly how you said it. Some things are untranslatable. I always say that a picture book is like a poem. Sometimes, you have to completely rewrite the text to keep the meaning and rhythm. Rhythm especially is really important in a kids’ book. Lukcily I got on with the translator 🙂
My English publisher wouldn’t let a bad book out into the world. Getting the text side right takes literally months.
My books have been published in more than fifteen languages and I dread to think how well, or badly, some of them could be translated…
Your books are published by Walker Books, which is one of the most prestigious children’s publishers in the UK. How did you manage to do that?
You’re right in saying that Walker Books is one of the most prestigious publishing houses of children’s literature and I’m extremely honoured to have my books published by them.
How did I manage it? I was lucky 😉
Thank you very much for the interview
You can find the original Czech version of this interview on my website for Czech bilingual families here.