Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

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It’s easy to write a children’s book isn’t it? From the enormous numbers of new books now appearing, and the added opportunities provided by Ebooks and self publishing, it looks as though it could be an ideal career for anyone – a piece of cake?

It could be, if you genuinely love reading

The publicity given to some of the major children’s publishing successes of recent years has encouraged many more people to have a go. These days the market seems to be wide open – but what makes the difference between this year’s popular hit and a classic that is passed down from one generation to another? 

First, Joan Aiken suggests, you have to be absolutely dedicated to your craft:

600books

So you need to draw on your own experience – which were the books that you loved as a child, the ones that you have read and re-read, the ones that have stayed with you, and that you would love to pass on to children of your own? What do you love about them?

These days there are all sorts of degree courses in the study of Children’s Literature; in the USA ‘Kid Lit Cons’ and book bloggers abound; the proliferation of the industry has been so immense in the last century that it is hard to know where to begin, but Joan Aiken would say your FIRST and most important step is to READ!  Yes, all those books you loved as a child, but also current recommendations from book sites, from the children of families you know, or the favourites of your own children which you probably know well already – reading aloud is one of the very best tests of a great children’s book!

Look at the classics that have endured and see what they share.  There are common roots leading right back to the beginning of the industry; most of the major writers of the last two centuries will happily acknowledge their debt to their predecessors, and to the books they themselves loved reading. 

Mark Twain claims to have got the idea for The Prince and The Pauper from  “that pleasant and picturesque little history-book, Charlotte M. Yonge’s  The Little Duke,”  and he goes on to say of one his successors: “I doubt if Mrs. (Frances Hodgson) Burnett knows whence came to her the suggestion to write “Little Lord Fauntleroy,” but I know; it came to her from reading The Prince and the Pauper. In all my life I have never originated an idea, and neither has she, nor anybody else.” 

Good writing comes from wide reading, and not being afraid of the influence of the great writers that came before you; the best writers happily acknowledge their sources. If those six hundred books have already been written, you should certainly check out the competition!

Wtowrite stories

Joan Aiken’s The Way to Write for Children quoted above, is stuffed chock full of wonderful snippets; as well as her own thoughts on writing she includes excerpts from all sorts of writers she has loved (or found absurdly lacking!)

Home-schooled until the age of twelve she learned an enormous amount about her craft from reading everything she could get her hands on, and then she was encouraged by her mother to imitate those writers, to try for example re-writing the Bible in the style of Shakespeare, or to work out how, with the minimum number of words, she could create a truly terrifying ghost story in the style of Edgar Alan Poe…

One of her most successful story collections,  A Necklace of Raindrops was originally written to commission from a basic word list – and of course this spurred her on to see how she could bend the rules! The Cat sat on the Mat…yes of course but then what happened?

If you understand why you love what you read, then you can learn to love what you write – the key to good writing is first of all to be a dedicated reader.

* * * * * * * * * *

Read his top ten Aiken quotes from The Way to Write for Children

In this gorgeously illustrated blog from Tygertale

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3 thoughts on “Writing for Children – a piece of cake?

  1. Lots of words of wisdom here, Lizza, loved it.

    Always felt that Struwwelpeter‘s appropriation of ‘merry’ and ‘funny’ lacked any credibility — especially the story of Little Suck-a-Thumb. Luckily as a child I never made an associative leap from thumb-sucking to nail-biting, saving myself further trauma and nightmares!

    • Irony intended! Joan wrote some funny (and rather bitter!) parodies of children’s books written either to a formula or with deliberate moral intent eg. ‘brown furry male talking vegetarian animal’ who learns to get on with his fellow creatures by attending a tea party…almost sorry she didn’t write some of them!

      • I’ve just reviewed ‘The Winter Sleepwalker’ after a recent second read and realised this exact same thing — Joan often eschews the simplistic ending which assumes the wicked get punished, the good prosper and all the loose ends get tied up. And definitely no pious morals! A lovely collection.

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