Even more advice
Even more advice: can you stand it?
Books for young children are usually short. Young children themselves are usually short. This leads to an assumption that children have small brains and that writing for them is easy. The reverse it true. Young children have large, active brains, and writing for them is enormously difficult. It is even more difficult than writing for adults since only the best is good enough for children—the best words in the best places, and the best characters in the beststories. Where do we begin?
We need to read children’s books ourselves
Before we begin it is useful to familiarise ourselves with books which are on sale and are currently adored by children. If we do not, we might find ourselves writing books similar to those we ourselves read long ago when we were children, most of which are now outdated, outmoded and entirely forgotten. It is also extremely useful to read and re-read the books that have passed the test of time—books which remain popular today, fifty, twenty, ten and even five years after they were published. These are classics and they have much to teach us. It is also useful to recall the stories and folktales we listened to and loved as children, the stories that we have remembered into adulthood. What do these classic stories have which other books lack?
A good picture book for the young child has most of these qualities:
- One of two themes: ‘the stranger comes to town’ or: ‘the quest.’
- Characters whom readers care about deeply
- A universal theme that speaks to any child, anywhere in the world
- Perfect words in perfect places
- The delight of happiness
- No preaching
- Subtle signposts to living in a social world
- An impact that affects the heart of the reader or listener
- Strange, original, or unexpected use of language
- A complex story that requires the mind to be attentive to detail, to be active in problem-solving, to roll through tunnels of prediction and meaning-making, and to tumble down hills of emotion and up again
- Or for very young children, an original pattern created by rhyme, rhythm or repetition
- Children saying: ‘Read it again! Read it again!’ when the book is finished.
Where do the ideas come from?
The above list is all very well, but the question most often asked of writers, as if it were a deep secret to be dug up and displayed for all to see, is: ‘Where do the ideas come from?’ The best ideas, in my experience, do not come from our heads. They come from our immediate lives, or from memory, and then they are molded by our imaginations into grand stories that affect the hearts and minds of others. Stories created solely from the imagination have a flatness about them. They are usually about things that don’t matter much. They are here today and gone tomorrow. No one remembers them into adulthood.
However, when we read the classic stories that make us laugh aloud or cry, or shrivel with fright or hug ourselves with happiness, it is my hunch that we could, if we tried, track the main idea down to a pivotal moment in the writer’s life—or several pivotal moments. These classic stories have the quality of ‘difference.’ They are here today, and here tomorrow, and here the day after, since children’s books and folktales which are loved and remembered do more than entertain for a while: they move children profoundly, and having done so they take up residence in their hearts and stay there. They are remembered affectionately, sometimes word for word, into adulthood.
To find an event that could be a good basis for a story it might be useful to write down, or tell a friend, or other people in a writing group, about a strong emotional experience remembered from childhood, and start writing with that event in mind. This way, the first draft will not be drawn entirely from the imagination, which will mean getting off to a good, heart-felt beginning.
For instance, here’s an anecdote from Tanzania, in Africa. It’s a true story that was later given more shape and definition to make it a story suitable for publication. Both examples appear below:
When I was a little kid my parents went away to the city to work and I stayed with my grandparents in their village. One day we went off to visit my auntie who lived in a village about three kilometres away. The path to my aunt’s village was very sandy and the grass was so high it curved over the path.
My grandfather led the way, then came my grandmother, then me. We set off.
After a while I smelt something. I thought the smell would go away as we walked past—whatever it was, but it didn’t. I didn’t like it. It made me scared. I told my grandfather I could smell something that was scaring me and I asked him if I could walk between him and grandma. “Of course,” he said. So I moved into the middle and we went on. But I could still smell whatever it was and I was still scared. I tried to be calm but in the end I told my grandfather that I was really scared. “What are you so scared of?” he said. “I think there’s a lion following us,” I said. We all turned round and sure enough on the narrow path behind my grandmother was a lion.
My grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes and gestured with his arms said quite firmly: “Go away! You’re frightening my granddaughter. Be off with you!” And the lion turned and walked away. It was incredible! I’ll never forget it.
Story for publication:
Rosie was a little girl who lived in a village with her grandmother and her grandfather because her parents had to work far away in the city. Rosie loved her grandmother very much but she loved her grandfather even more.
One day her grandparents decided to visit Rosie’s auntie who lived in a village about an hour’s walk away. They set off. The track to the auntie’s village was soft, and sandy, and narrow. On either side of the path the grass was so high it curled over, like a cool green roof.
Grandfather led the way, next came Grandmother, and last of all, little Rosie. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air was calm. The world was full of peace.
After a while Rosie thought she could smell something she didn’t like. She hoped it would go away. Her heart beat fast. She was scared.
But on they walked. They walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.
But still the smell remained. Rosie’s heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared.
“Grandfather,” she said, “I’m scared. Please can I walk in the middle, between you and Grandmother?”
“Of course,” he said.
So Rosie moved into the middle between her grandmother and her grandfather and they walked, and they walked, and they walked. As they walked no sound could be heard. The sun shone. The air seemed calm. The world seemed full of peace.
But still the smell remained. Rosie’s heart beat faster. She was scared. Really scared. Really, really scared.
Finally she said, “Grandfather, I’m really frightened.”
“What is it that frightens you, little one?” asked her grandfather kindly. “I think there’s a lion following us,” she said.
They all turned around. It was true! Behind Grandmother was a lion, following after them along the narrow path.
Grandfather stood in front of the lion and looked into his eyes. He pointed down the path and said quite firmly: “Lion! Go away! You’re frightening my grand-daughter. Be off with you!”
And the lion turned tail and walked away.
Which only goes to show that lions, like men, understand Swahili!
Who are we writing for?
It must seem self-evident that we are writing for young children. Perhaps a better question is who are we not writing for?
We are not writing for ourselves, are we? Nor are we writing to impress critics. Nor are we writing for academics. Nor for teachers. Nor for parents. Nor for our adult friends. Nor are we writing for the children we once were—those children no longer exist: they have grown up and become us. We are writing for children who are young now, at the beginning of the 21st century. We are writing for young children the world over, who are seven years old or younger.
Let us be honest: why are we writing?
We need to be honest, right from the start, about why we want to write for children. If we intend to moralise, teach a lesson, patronise, categorise, marginalise, or show off our own brilliance, we are doing it for the wrong reasons and we’ll need to reassess our motives. We are not writing academically de-constructible literature. Nor are we writing as therapy to eradicate our guilt about the world and what we have done to it.
We are writing instead to conjure young children into loving reading; to inform them; to entertain them; to enchant them; to comfort them; and to affect them. In our writing we are aiming to provide escapist delight but we will probably be able to rattle children’s values and assumptions a little at the same time. For example, we might say to them through a story: ‘You think you rule the world? Think again, sweetheart!’
Of course in the end we will always aim to provide children with universal ideals and possibilities, and make them feel good about themselves and their world—they are too young to be allowed to feel otherwise.
Writers of good books for children are always, simultaneously, good teachers of reading and writing, whether they are aware of it or not. Good books ‘teach’ reading more easily than the bad books. So it is important for us to write sentences that are not only gorgeous but easy to understand as well, and to use as much rhyme, rhythm and repetition as possible. We do not need to water down the level of individual words, however, since children need to hear as many different words as they can before they encounter them later, when they are reading by themselves.
When we picture an adult reading one of our books to a child, one of the aims of our writing should be to enhance the relationship between the reader and the child being read to, through the story we have written—to help them love each other even more than they do already.
And finally, to be brutally honest, let us not forget to admit that we are writing also to make money—it would be foolish to do it for nothing—and to leave our mark on the world, and raise our own self-esteem. If we admit all this, and know why we are writing, we can move along.
What should be taken into consideration?
If we want to write for young children it is essential to stay in touch with childhood, either through memory or through contact with the real live children in our communities. If we lose touch with children—or our own memories of childhood—we will not have in our hearts and minds all the information we need to write well.
For example, we need to understand the nature of children’s interests and their emotional needs. We need to know the difference between their literary needs and their literacy needs, and to be able to fulfil both those needs at the same time.
It is useful also to know what kinds of ideas might challenge their thinking, based on the society they live in at the start of the third millennium. It is polite to consider the ethnic group they belong to, which gender they are and which religion they adhere to, if any. When we write we will not necessarily be hide-bound by all this information since that might cause us to self-censor too much, which might in turn lead to write seriously bad, banal stories which bore kids to death. Having said that, we should be as open-minded as possible. We need to be able to share ideas across cultures, after all, to avoid indoctrination in one direction or the other. Access to different kinds of information is important to individual development and to our understanding of other communities.
So although we have to pay attention to religion, ethnic group and gender to target specific groups, we mustn’t let this destroy our artistic goals. Questions such as: ‘Will my reader be offended?’ should not constrain us, in the end, nor limit our creativity. We might wish to write about another religion, ethnic group, or gender in such a way as to provide enriching and surprising elements for our readers, allowing them to become open to new ideas and other people’s perceptions of the world.
For example, at the beginning of the 21st century we need to consider gender stereotyping. Is it any longer appropriate to have the females in the story only in the house, the kitchen, and the garden, and caring for the family? Might it not be possible to make the main character a female—a bold, exciting, brave, decision-making female, who has adventures and wins through, in spite of adversity? This would provide excellent role models for today’s girls.
Any stereo-typing should be avoided, such as making children who wear glasses into weaklings who are brainy but hate sport; or old people being made doddery and incapable of caring for themselves; or disabled people being pitied for what they can’t do, instead of being celebrated for what they can do; or people of a certain race or religion being mocked for who they are and what they believe.
Of course we need to consider the maintenance of the solid cultural values that underpin the society in which we live and write. Sensitivity and respect are essential. Acknowledging this sensitivity without falling into the trap of stereotyping is a difficult balancing act, to which much thought should be given.
Finally we have to keep in mind the fact that adults will do the buying and reading of the books we write. The words will be channelled through an adult reading aloud to a child. Pleasing the adult is certainly important and must not be forgotten, but the child is more important and must never be forgotten.
Children are so clever it is startling
Little kids are as bright as buttons and they are perceptive about being talked down to. They loathe being patronised. Their critical faculties are highly developed, much more so than most adults realise. In fact they are altogether smarter than most adults give them credit for.
They love the challenge of fascinating, ‘difficult’ words. They adore rhyme, rhythm and repetition. They like the thrill of a really riveting story. Because they are young, they do of course have a comparatively limited concentration span which we must take into account. And even though they are clever and confident they do need constant reassurance as to their safety in a turbulent world.
Here are some of the things that delight children that we might weave into our stories:
- noise and laughter
- fright and drama
- food and friends
- pets and animals
- being loved and feeling safe
- magic and fantasy
And here are some of the things children are ambivalent about, which we might also weave into our stories:
- older children
- going to bed
- the dark
- settling in to a new place
- learning new skills
- not conforming/looking stupid
- feeling left out
Taking the illustrator into account
Now that we understand the nature of children and childhood, what interests children, and why we want to write for them—and now that we have come up with an excellent idea—certain practical aspects of writing need to be clearly understood, such as the number of pages required and how to work with an artist.
The printing process means that a picture book is always thirty-two pages and many of those pages are pictures. We need therefore, to cut our text ruthlessly in order to keep the story under 500 words if possible. There is no room for much more text. Little children will often look at the pictures and then say: ‘Turn the page! Turn the page!’ so there simply isn’t time to read a lot of text on a page.
It is important to keep the pictures in mind. We DO NOT have to say everything in the words. The pictures might tell as much as half the story, which means much of the setting and tone, let alone the plot, can be left to the illustrator. We need not write anything that can be shown in the illustrations. Illustrators love the challenge of filling in our blanks, as it were. We should try not to make life too hard for the illustrator, upon whom so much of the success of our story will depend. For example, a story about chickens is difficult to illustrate because it is hard to create and differentiate expressions in chicken’s faces.
The publisher will choose the illustrator, and work with the illustrator, and instruct the illustrator. It is not the business of the writer to interfere in matters of illustration, no matter how much writers might wish to impose their will. Writers write. Illustrators illustrate. Each has to be given the appropriate professional space and respect. Imagine how we would feel if illustrators told us how to write. . .
The following hints are hints only, not commandments, since they cannot always be obeyed, nor are they always appropriate.
The need for trouble
At the start of a story we need to be as direct as possible. It’s a common sin to beat about the bush, and waffle on for too long. We should attempt to say who, when, and where in the first two sentences, and then begin to state the problem. We have to solve a problem during a story otherwise we have no trouble. Without trouble we have no plot. Only trouble is interesting.
For instance, if the main character is not stopped from achieving his or her goal, the story is boring. If a child has lost her mother and goes to find her she could come up against difficulties and again and again and not find her mother until the very end of the story. We need to feel some anxiety for the main character in order for a story to work.
Rhyme, rhythm, and repetition
There is an option to the theme-and-trouble story, especially when we’re writing for very young children: picture books for that age group can swing from the stars on rhythm alone, or rhyme, or repetition or a combination of all three. Young children are mesmerised and enchanted by a predictable pattern of language that is fun for them to say and pleasing for them to hear.
For instance: (this is a play on my book Tough Boris)
There was once a jackal called Nasty.
He was dirty. All jackals are dirty.
He was mean. All jackals are mean.
He was sneaky. All jackals are sneaky.
He was lonely. All jackals are lonely.
He was lazy. All jackals are lazy
He was secretive. All jackals are secretive.
He caused trouble. All jackals cause trouble.
But when a lion ate his dinner, the jackal cried and cried.
All jackals cry, and so do I.
The need for excellent characters
A story-book (as opposed to a merely rhyme-and-rhythm book) is always tedious without well-drawn characters: characters whose highs and lows and final triumph tug at the heartstrings of readers and listeners. If readers and listeners do not care about the main characters and cannot empathise with them, the story will fail.
Showing the story, do not merely telling it One of the famous maxims for all writers is: ‘Show, don’t tell.’ Rather than describing, and explaining, and stating, and enumerating, we can instead show what is happening, and how characters feel about what is happening, through character’s actions and their speech. What they do and say can explain a great deal of the story and cuts out the need for long-winded description.
For example we will not say: ‘Granny was a wild, brave woman. At home she was untidy and sometimes absent-minded but it was different when we went camping.’ Instead we will decribe the untidiness by painting a picture of it, in words. We will show the absent-mindedness by saying how and when she was absent minded.
Consider the theme
After trouble and characters we must not forget a theme, either, such as: ‘All big brothers are a pain.’ A book without a theme is an arid book.
Ensuring there is passion
Finally, to ensure that we have something really worthwhile to say we can test ourselves by asking ‘Is this a “so-what?” story, or will it last forever?’
Reading aloud is essential As we write we ought to read aloud constantly what we have written—each paragraph, each sentence, each clause and each phrase, since we are writing a book that will be read aloud. We need to be obsessed, even fanatical about placing the best words in the best places so our stories are, in the end, rhythmically perfect.
For this reason it is wise to spend as much time on the rhythm of the first and last lines than on the whole of the rest of the book put together since the first and last lines are the most important. The first sentence will grab and hold listeners and readers, and the last will provide a lasting sense of deep contentment.
Rhythm is the greatest challenge
Rhythm is the hurdle which most often trips the amateur writer, let alone the writer who is experienced. Rhythm is the festering sore in imperfect drafts. It must be cured, totally. The amateur writer believes rhythm can be almost right but ‘almost’ is never good enough. Only perfect rhythm will do, and only reading aloud will show us whether the rhythm is perfect.
Keeping up our courage
We must not get too discouraged over drafts that do not seem to be working. After all, why the hurry to be finished? A picture book of 500 words may take two years or more to perfect, and may consist of over forty drafts. Most problems, even the problem of rhythm, are solved eventually by choosing a different word here and there. Gustave Flaubert put it like this: ‘Tout le talent d’écrire ne consiste après tout que dans le choix des mots.’ [All writing talent lies, after all, only in the choice of words.]
Learning from a master
George Orwell has a useful list of strategies to use when we are stuck for words and drowning in literary swill: ‘A scrupulous writer, in every sentence he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus:
- What am I trying to say?
- What words will express it?
- What image/idiom will make it clearer?
- Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
And he will probably ask himself two more:
- Could I put it more simply?
- Have I said anything avoidably ugly?’
Learning how to be dissatisfied
The most important quality in writers is the ability to be dissatisfied with what we have written. Dissatisfaction creates the essential discomfort that will eventually lead us back to the manuscript to attempt yet again to craft our work to perfection. The least effective writers are the most immediately satisfied writers. They do not understand the need for dissatisfaction nor do they know what to be dissatisfied about.
So how do we know when something is not right in writing? Here is a revision of some of the elements about which we need to be vigilant and dissatisfied as writers:
Only trouble is interesting; and character is everything. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
‘…Stories that begin in character and conflict are bound to be more interesting than stories that do not’ (Gardner, John. On Becoming A Novelist. New York: Harper and Row, 1985. p.55) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
‘Many powerful stories are based on the thwarting of a main character’s deepest needs and yearnings.’(Ruler, R. and Wheeler, S. Creating The Story. Portsmouth: Heinemann, 1993. p.20) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
‘In nearly all good fiction the basic—and all but inescapable—plot form is: A central character wants something, goes after it despite opposition (perhaps including his own doubts) and so arrives at a win, lose or draw.’ (Gardner, p.54) If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
‘The difference between the right word and the wrong word is the same as the difference between lighting and a lightning bug.’ Mark Twain If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Show character and plot through speech and action: do not tell. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing has been re-written. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing is full of surprises. For example: ‘The sight of him … rolled a fat ball of irritation into the cool cave of her day …’ If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing is totally correct. If this is not happening it is a cause for dissatisfaction.
Good writing adds to our quality of life by revealing life to us. And if this is not happening it is another cause for dissatisfaction.
And that’s it! Whew! All the best! Mem xxx