Chris and Amy Oler are the creators of the Molly and the Magic Suitcase series. Today I take some time to get to know more about how they started and their thoughts on travel and books. We will also find out what inspires their stories and what’s next for Molly.
I’ll add some comments in bold italics a few times throughout.
Tell me more about you and your wife. What made you want to start writing/illustrating travel books for kids?
Travel was always an interest of mine. I always looked at travel as an opportunity to experience something new. The writing side of it comes mainly from my love of reading. The magic of books, I always thought, was both the story and being transported to different places and times. The more vivid the setting, the more I was drawn into the story.
Amy has drawn all her life, as long as she can remember. She illustrated cartoon series for fun and for the school paper. Later, she was an intern for Marvel Comics and became very interested in the Disney style. She always wanted to illustrate a children’s book series and the inspiration struck when we took our (at the time) one-year-old daughter Molly to Florida.
Molly crawled into my suitcase as we were packing. She bounced up and down a little as if she expected it to take her for a ride. I said, “Look! There’s Molly and her magic suitcase!” Amy immediately seized on that as inspiration.
We talked about the first book for six months before we started work. Amy and I both have a background in publishing, so we knew what decisions needed to be made and how to go about it. We wanted the books to be stories, mainly, but also informative. The Molly and Michael characters were easy: they largely take after our real Molly and Michael, though the characters are older. Four additional months later we published Molly Goes to Rome.
Why did you pick Rome as the first destination? What do you think is a good first international trip for families to take with their kids?
The main factor was I’d been to Rome. We really didn’t consider anywhere else for the first book. My experience in Rome was life changing. The city itself is a maze of wonders. There is history in every wall, and plenty of stories. Plus, a former coworker of Amy’s is from there, so we had access to an ideal contributor. Our second book set in Rome, The Shield of Horatius (a chapter book mystery), was further helped by a soccer teammate of mine from Italy.
Based on the books we’ve done and the hours and hours of research, if we were to take our kids overseas today we’d very likely go to Copenhagen. There are plenty of great destinations, but that would be our first. Tivoli Gardens, the puppet shows at the Rosenborg, the children’s part of the National Museum, and all of the Hans Christian Andersen-related activities make it a great destination for kids. I should mention Lego, too, because everyone in our family loves Legos!
So far Molly and her Magic Suitcase have been to 10 destinations around the world. How do you decide where she travels next?
We made a conscious decision early on to feature destinations that didn’t have as much coverage. We had some help in this decision. Before we settled on our second destination, an elementary school librarian/media specialist told us she’d rather see books on places that weren’t as well known. That’s why we skipped Paris and London. Besides, the first time we had a look at photos of Barcelona, we were sold. There is so much to love about it.
It’s a little different now. Through sheer coincidence, all of our first five destinations were notable cruise ship destinations. We contacted a couple of cruise lines and are now affiliated with a major one. They use our books in their youth programming. Our sixth book was originally going to be the Sydney book, with Puerto Rico planned for the seventh. Our friends at the cruise line told us they’d love to see the Puerto Rico book first, so we switched up the calendar.
All our destinations so far are also cruise ship ports of call. Honestly, there aren’t many places out of reach of cruises these days, so it’s easy. Baltic Sea cruises even feature day trips to Berlin. Cruise accessibility is never a deciding factor, but one we consider.
The main factor is always whether we’re interested in the destination and whether there is a feeling about it. Prior to the Copenhagen book, we looked at Stockholm, Oslo, Helsinki and Tallinn. Copenhagen stood out; we just had a better feeling about it.
Molly’s tour guides show her many sides of the destinations she visits. It’s not just about seeing the sites, but also experiencing some of the local culture. What are the things you always try to experience when visiting a new place?
Food is a big one. Amy and I had a couple of sublime food experiences while traveling. We are always eager to share the food from each place. Plus, Amy loves Thai food. She had a cooking lesson from our Thai contributor to Molly Goes to Thailand. That’s the thing about the way we approach these books: we meet people who have great stories to share. Occasionally, our new friend/tour guide character speaks with their voice. Sometimes you can’t replicate the feeling someone has when they talk about where they’re from, so the best thing you can do is quote them.
Games and sports are big, too, particularly when they are unique. Each place has something different to offer. Some of these games are known, but they are local passions nonetheless so we share them. Others, for example, the children’s game elastico in Italy and sepak takraw in Thailand are things we learned about through interviews. On a personal level, I’ll jump into a pickup soccer match anytime, anywhere. Whatever opportunity a place offers, I’m up for trying it.
Local culture includes language and that is an important element of our books. I witnessed firsthand how different a place can be when you know the language. I was in Innsbruck, Austria and overheard some older local gentlemen grumbling about our presence. An order was placed in German and the surprise and welcome at hearing that completely changed the atmosphere. I always try to reflect local dialects in the text, but it is sometimes a challenge, particularly with Molly Goes to Shanghai.
What have been some of your favorite experiences while traveling?
Amy and I went to Las Vegas on our honeymoon. We went horseback riding in Red Rock Canyon, spent an afternoon at the Valley of Fire State Park, and ate at some amazing restaurants. One of the “sublime” experiences I referenced earlier was eating at Wolfgang Puck’s El Postrio.
I went to Europe as a teen in 1990 just before Italy hosted the World Cup. The itinerary was ambitious: Munich, Salzburg, Innsbruck, Venice, Siena, Rome, Pompeii, Sorrento, Florence, Pisa, Nice and Monaco. I appreciate that trip more and more each year.
Beyond that, learning to scuba dive in Puerto Vallarta was something I’ll never forget. Driving down the Pacific Coast Highway, skiing in Colorado, rafting in West Virginia, Amy and I finding an exquisite meal in Hilton Head, the first car trip with our kids to Florida, mountain biking in Marin County, Taos…these are all experiences I am thankful for.
Did you travel a lot growing up, and if not, what made you interested in travel?
We didn’t travel in the international sense other than the trip I mentioned. My family didn’t go on that one and that sort of put an added responsibility on me to document the trip so I could share it. But we traveled a lot as a family. We have close relatives in Florida and spent a couple of weeks with them each year. We skied in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Colorado with another family. Disney was a big factor, too. I’m one of those (and Amy is too!) that still looks at Disney as something magical.
My family also had a lake cottage. It wasn’t travel in the usual sense, but it wasn’t exactly home. I spent at least two entire summers there growing up, and every weekend of the other summers. I still compete in a sailing fleet there. It’s probably another reason why I equate travel with activity. Travel is a
What’s your dream destination and why?
Amy’s dream destination is just about anywhere in the South Pacific. I doubt many would argue. Yes, there are the beaches, the incredible colors of the ocean, but there is also the island culture. Experiencing this is a must wherever we go and we’re both anxious to learn more. There is always something to learn even if most of your vacation hours include a hammock and a book.
My dream destination changes with the wind, but at the moment I’m drawn to historical sites. I would love to see Ephesus in Turkey, as well as Istanbul. I would love to return to Rome and share it with my family. When I taught English in an international school, I had three students from South Korea and that is another place. I’d consider any of these a dream destination.
What are some of your favorite books that inspire children to travel?
I’m an advocate of any book that piques a child’s interest in any activity. The books don’t necessarily have to be about travel, they can just be set somewhere. I wanted to see Rocky Beach from Robert Arthur’s The Three Investigators series, but it’s fictional!
One book that had a strong impact on me at a later age was Jung Chang’s Wild Swans. The descriptions of some of the natural beauty of China left me with a keen desire to travel there.
When we published the Rome book, I had little knowledge that other series existed. Our kids just weren’t to that age yet. Since then, I’ve looked at some of the other series in the kids travel genre. I’ve spotted several on your site that look excellent. (Thank you!) For our part, if we inspire kids to want to travel, that’s fantastic. Our real goal, however, is to make them feel like they’ve already been there.
What benefits do you see for young ones to learn more about their world through books?
The main benefit is a knowledge that different perspectives exist. That is it, at the basic level. There is common ground in how people celebrate life: through music, through sport, through food and festivals. What’s more is that through books you experience this through another’s eyes. As kids grow older, it will be easier and easier for them to deal with a world where, in terms of information, everyone is a next door neighbor.
I know you very recently published Molly Goes to Rio de Janeiro, have you already thought about her next destination and, if so, can you give us any spoilers?
I already have! Molly Goes to London is our next book. Beyond that, Molly and Michael visit New York City in the twelfth book. Expect them to visit somewhere in Africa in 2017. We also have our eyes on Kyoto, Vienna, Berlin, Singapore, and Mumbai. We covered Mumbai somewhat in The Story of the Suitcase, but it depicted the city as it was more than 100 years ago. (Can I put in a vote for Berlin!)
Please tell us more about yourself and include any links to social media outlets.
Both my wife and I attended DePauw University. We met there, but probably never had a conversation until more than ten years after we graduated. I was a political science major with a particular interest in international politics, as you might imagine given the books!
Everything really led up to the books. The jobs I had were, more or less, a progression of writing experiences, including editing books. Before starting our business (COLOR Marketing & Design), I taught in an international school for four years. The school remains an important link to finding people to interview for the books’ destinations.
Our main series website is www.mollyandthemagicsuitcase.com. There are games, a blog that shares more information about the various destinations, and links to where our books are sold. I also have a site, www.chrisoler.com, where I talk about travel and writing. My most recent posts are all about that trip to Europe I took so long ago.
Find Molly and the Magic Suitcase on Social Media
- Twitter: @COLORMktgDesign | This is usually our most active channel. I mainly share things related to #familytravel.
- Instagram: @MollyandtheMagicSuitcase | We share both illustrations from the books and personal photos from travel.
- Facebook: ‘Molly and the Magic Suitcase’ and ‘Author Chris Oler’ | All updates on our books, illustrations, and other items of interest are on the Molly and the Magic Suitcase page.
- Goodreads: Chris Oler.
- We update on LinkedIn and Google+ as well. It’s easy to find us!
Thank you to Chris and Amy for giving us some insight into your process and thoughts. I also wanted to add that if you (the reader) haven’t read the author’s website yet, I suggest you do. This post dedicated to the Molly and the Magic Series suitcases discusses what they want to do in their books.
Come back tomorrow and read my review of their latest book, Molly Goes to Rio de Janeiro.
This post is part of Molly Week!
Enter to win a chance to receive the latest book in the Molly and the Magic Suitcase Series, Molly Goes to Rio de Janiero. Details below.