The challenges facing children's writers

Yesterday, I attended Writing West Midland's annual Writers' Toolkit in Birmingham. Started only a few years ago, as an opportunity for writers to get together over a coffee and swap ideas/support each other, it has blossomed into a full day of workshops and the chance to catch up with/meet other writers, editors, agents and writing professionals.

After an excellent and enjoyable keynote speech from Helen Cross (about the dos and don'ts of visiting schools),

DO get everyone involved!
DO get everyone involved!

I sat in on several workshop sessions and learnt much from each of them. My favourite was 'Writing For Children and Young People', despite the daunting theme being how many challenges that entails.

 

Juliet Clare Bell (author of picture books including 'Don't Panic Annika' and 'The Kite Princess') warned that, if you don't catch the children's attention in your first few words, then 'the riots will begin'! Take care what language you use - it needs to be correct for the age group you are aiming at. Research which subjects have been written about many times already. If writing a picture book, know how many pages are required to fit the publisher's format.

 

Rachel Levy (representing the libraries) told us never to preach to our readers. Children pick up on messages or morals in stories easily enough without having to have them hammered home!

 

Julia Eccleshare (reviewer in The Guardian and Centre for Literacy in Primary Education) perhaps demonstrated most just how much children's approach to books and reading has changed over the last decade and the challenges that has brought about for writers.

 

It used to be quite acceptable that a good book might take ten years from publication to becoming 'a hit' amongst its readers. Children would sit alone, tucked up in bed or in front of the fire or, in my case, up a tree in the garden, happily reading whatever they fancied. It didn't matter that no one else was reading the same story.

 

A tree a bit like the one I used to sit in.
A tree a bit like the one I used to sit in.

Now, children like to be part of a reading community. They want to read 'the book' everyone is talking about.

 

This seismic shift from the solitary reader to the reading community began with Roald Dahl's 'Matilda', which 'whizzed round schools like a fire-cracker' according to Julia! It was closely followed by the 'Harry Potter' series. Thank you, JK.

It would seem, according to Julia, that there are 5 BIG authors - Horowitz, Rowling, Donaldson, Wilson.... She didn't mention the 5th. Anyone any ideas?

 

But what about the rest of us? Where's our space in the scheme of things?

We've written 'the book', paid close attention to all the writing challenges that face us and conquered each and every one, but how do we enter in to The Community if we're not one of The Big Five? That is perhaps our greatest challenge.

 

In the good old days the author was just that - the author. They existed in their pages, but otherwise could lead a happy life of total obscurity if they so wished. Nowadays, the author is The Selling Point. He/she has to spend time creating and selling himself, as well as the book. Often, more time can be spent doing this than actually writing!

Julia gave Jacqueline Wilson as a great example of someone who created her own, home-grown market. In the 1980s, she went in to numerous schools and got children 'onside'. It didn't matter that their parents didn't get where her stories were coming from, the children loved them AND her. The author now has to be a salesperson too, constantly meeting their audience.

 

Julia told us how the Guardian publishes 40+ children's book reviews each year. However, when you consider how many thousands of children's books are actually published each year, this is just a drop in the ocean. Reviews will not 'make it' for you on their own. You have to get out there and sell yourself.

Selling at a book event.
Selling at a book event.
Selling at the NEC.
Selling at the NEC.

Whether we like it or not, if we want our books to get on the shelves (and then be taken off them and put in someone's collection at home) we need to have a public presence.

 

Personally, I love going in to schools to inspire (hopefully) children to read and write creatively. I enjoy my book events, but it does take up an awful lot of time and I have to admit to sometimes begrudging, just a little, the hours I could have been writing.

 

On a brighter note to finish - it was pointed out that, here in Britain, we have the world's leading publishers and authors of children's fiction. If it were right, as we keep hearing in the media, that children no longer have much interest in reading books, would this really be the case?

 

So go on, write that perfect story for young readers and get it out there. You (and it) might just fly!

Attempting to fly (with apologies to my cousin).
Attempting to fly (with apologies to my cousin).

Write a comment

Comments: 9
  • #1

    Julie Rowan-Zoch (Sunday, 18 November 2012 18:11)

    Great post Julie! Lots of things to consider, esp. whether of not you should be spending time comparing your work to the 'top five'! I'm interested - who put the workshop together?

  • #2

    Julie Hedlund (Sunday, 18 November 2012 18:30)

    Julie, it's comforting to know that we are all in the same boat - even on opposite sides of the pond. By the way, I did my master's degree at the University of Warwick, so I've been to Birmingham! :-)

  • #3

    Julie Fulton (Sunday, 18 November 2012 18:42)

    Small world, Julie! Hope you enjoyed it over this side.

  • #4

    Lucy Marcovitch (Monday, 19 November 2012 11:13)

    Really interesting post Julia! I'd love to come along to one of these events - do you have to join? It's very true about authors marketing themselves - I got zero support from my publisher in publicising my books, and everything I've done to promote them has been done by me alone! Heartening to know that Jacqueline Wilson did the same though.

    Surely the last of the big 5 is Roald Dahl (or do you have to be alive?)

  • #5

    Julie Fulton (Monday, 19 November 2012 11:36)

    The Writers' Toolkit is an anuual conference-style event. As far as I'm aware it's open to anyone. Writing West Midlands have a website - www.writingwestmidlands.org - where you can find all the details of events they run. I wondered about Roald Dahl too, but wasn't sure whether the author had to be with us still!

  • #6

    Jenny Heap (Wednesday, 21 November 2012 14:37)

    Very interesting discussion, Julie. I'd heard about the event, but wasn't able to go along. Writing West Midlands organise lots of different events and you can subscribe to an email newsletter from them.
    Re getting out there, I've been into my children's school a couple of times and really enjoyed it. I come away motivated and buzzing with ideas. But it is hard work, not just the visit but all the preparation to make sure you give them a really good experience. It would be quite nice to sit at my desk and have benevolent strangers ring up and beg to publish and publicise my efforts.

    I wondered if the 5th biggie was Michael Morpurgo?

  • #7

    Kevin Price (Wednesday, 28 November 2012 12:15)

    From my humble experience in bookshops I would say that it's David Walliams.............groan..............

  • #8

    Fiona Murphy (Wednesday, 28 November 2012 13:30)

    Thanks for all the tips and advice. I am disabled and try to show children that even with a disability other doors can open for you. It did for me and now I enjoy going into schools, inspiring children and doing book signings. I need an agent can anyone suggest a good one. 5th biggie Michael Morpurgo without a doubt.

  • #9

    Julie Fulton (Wednesday, 28 November 2012 14:11)

    I know what you mean Kevin!
    Good to hear your thoughts, Fiona. Your book 'Down the Plughole' looks great. I imagine all the children adore it. Regarding agents, I'm considering trying to get one now. I've been looking at several sites and reading up on different ones. Through SCBWI I know of some that come highly recommended - Celia Catchpole, Stephanie Thwaites (Curtis Brown) and Gemma Cooper (who I think has just moved from The Bright Agency to work with Molly Ker Hawn). You can find them all online, so do have a good read of their submission guidelines. Good luck!