For my Writing 4 Children column in Writers’ Forum this month, I interviewed Sibéal Pounder about the differences between writing for children and writing for adults.
She writes for age 7+ and is the author of the Witch Wars, the Bad Mermaids series, Beyond Platform 13 (which is the sequel to Eva Ibbotson’s The Secret of Platform 13) and Tinsel, which was launched on Oct 29th 2020.
Sibéal explained writing for children is different from writing for adults for a few reasons. First of all, they are much harder to impress. They are busy people and unlike adults who will slog through a book hoping it gets better, kids are quite happy to chuck it at four pages deep and move on. You’ve got to hold their attention, impress and entertain them from the off.
Another reason writing for children is different is they are more vulnerable as readers. I don’t mean that to be patronising, I think kids are often smarter than adults. It’s just when adults read a book we do so with a lot of context about the world already in place. We read with a clear understanding that the author’s experiences and views may inform the content, and we come to it with a robustness and a critical eye.
Adults see books as something they read, children see books as somewhere they go. They learn from what is said and how characters are portrayed, what roles they are given and how they are treated. It’s a huge responsibility to write for children – the stories can shape how they think and feel, and you have to be very careful with that.
Two books I’d really recommend on the topic are Why You Should Read Children’s Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell. And Sway by Dr Pragya Agarwal, which is about unconscious bias – I found it hugely useful and eye-opening. I’d really recommend it if you’re a writer, especially a writer for children.
Each book presents its own challenges. It doesn’t get any easier! I wasn’t a big planner as I felt it was quite restrictive, but I did plan Beyond Platform 13 in great detail, down to each chapter, because it was an Estate project and Eva Ibbotson’s family and the publisher had to approve the outline before the work began. I found the planning transformative and really enjoyed working that way, so when it came to writing Tinsel I did a lot of planning. She revealed:
“Mrs Claus has always fascinated me. Everyone knows who she is and yet no one really knows her at all. If you ask a child to tell you a fact about Santa, they’ll have facts coming out of their ears – everything from his impressive skillset to his snack preferences. Mrs Claus is usually met with, ‘Um, she’s Santa’s wife.’ And, ‘She’s old.’”Sibéal Pounder
What we know about Santa (the commercial version of him – the large jolly man in the red suit with the sleigh and elves) came about mostly in the 1800s, including the introduction of Mrs Claus. It got her thinking about how women were seen back then and how in many ways Mrs Claus is a relic of those times – a mere background character, known and yet completely unknown, in a world that didn’t imagine much of women. So she decided to find her story. Tinsel is that story – it’s the story of young Blanche Claus. And it turns out, a long time ago, we all got the Santa story a bit wrong…
I think Tinsel stands out because it takes everything we know and tells the story in a different (and hopefully funny) way. With Tinsel a lot of the comedy came from playing around with what we know now about Santa and having the reader know more than the characters. It’s set over a hundred years ago when the Santa story began and, after delivering the presents, Blanche reads the newspaper reports and exclaims, ‘They think I’m an old-bearded man called Santa Claus?’ Carol the elf assures her, ‘It’ll never catch on.’
Tinsel has quite a small cast (if you don’t count the thousands of elves all called Carol), and I wanted to have a sense of underlying balance in the book as it explores issues around gender bias. So I wanted every character to have a counterpart. Blanche and Captain Garland are counterparts, for example, because they are both adventurers, Mr Krampus and Carol, because they are the two most powerful characters in the book. It was fun to add that extra layer – I don’t think anyone will notice it but it provides a balance, I think.
When writing for children make everything bigger. Make the world you’re writing bigger, the characters bigger. Sometimes when people write for children they make the story small because that’s how they think of children. But kids have big minds and want big adventures – make everything bigger.
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