Category Archives: Writing 4 Children

An interview with… Mo O’Hara

In my Writing 4 Children column this month, I interview children’s book writer Mo O’Hara about writing comedy for middle grade series books.

Mo O'Hara5

She explained that she was inspired to start writing children’s books after she took a course in writing for children. Now My Big Fat Zombie Goldfish series are bestsellers here and in the US and her new series My Fangtastically Evil Vampire Pet is doing quite well too.

Mo told me:

“I definitely draw on my own experiences for all my writing – comedy included. Remembering all your embarrassing moments is a great place to start.” (Mo O’Hara)

In the feature, Mo explains how written comedy is different to stand up.  For Mo the story and the characters come first and then the jokes come out of the situation. She always starts with characters that are funny.

Mo with toys of her book characters

She did this for her graphic novel launching this year – Agent Moose. Originally the main character was a mouse who is a master of disguise. But the idea wasn’t working and did not seem funny at all She put it away and one day it hit her – a 7 foot tall moose that can hide anywhere is just more funny. The comedy just fell in place because of the character.

Agent Moose

Mo’s writing tip for other writers who want to write comedy is to write with a knowledge of the vocabulary of the age range of your reader. Kids are capable of getting the meaning of a word through context and they love funny words too – ‘Discombobulate!’ for instance. Also repeated words that are explained through context are funny sometimes. 

“If you get a kid to laugh it’s because at that moment, they had a genuine reaction and thought it was funny. That’s the emotional response I want. That’s why writing funny for kids is more rewarding for me.” (Mo O’Hara)

Her most important tip is ALWAYS read all comedy aloud. She explained that sometimes what you think is funny when it’s written loses something when spoken. It pulls up the flaws in timing.

Find out more about Mo O’Hara and her books on her website: www.moohara.co.uk and on Twitter @Mo_Ohara

To read the complete feature you can purchase a copy of #220 Feb Writers’ Forum from your nearest good newsagents or order online from Select Magazines.

An interview with… Tracey Mathias

In an interview with Tracey Mathias she told me all about how her children’s fantasy series was first published in Germany and how she got it into children’s hands in the UK.

tracey author pic

She started writing in 2005 and as a crime fiction addict and had a vague ambition to write but no real direction or conviction. That summer, whilst she was working at a children’s music school she found herself writing some last minute song lyrics, and had the sudden inspiration that she wanted to write for children.

At the same time, she had an idea for a story that wouldn’t leave her alone. Over a week of sleepless nights she sketched out a rough plot for a whole novel and gave herself a year to work on the story. By the end of the summer term, she had completed the first draft of A Fragment of Moonswood, and her brain was seething with plans for volumes two and three of the Assalay trilogy – an otherworld fantasy about a land with a hidden past, facing political and ecological breakdown. She wrote the other two volumes – The Singing War and Weatherlord – over the next three years.

books german covers

The first volume of the trilogy went on submission in the UK and overseas in mid-2007. In one of the most bizarre couple of weeks of her life, she got a quick succession of offers from three German publishers. Her agent was hopeful that this would be quickly followed by a UK deal – but over the next months, rejection followed rejection, including a couple of annoyingly near misses. Tracey explained:

“I was left with an odd sense of half success, half failure. Yes, I was a published author (and unpacking your first box of author copies is thrilling whichever language they’re in!) but I was dogged by a sense of unfinished business that didn’t go away. Friends kept asking when they could read my books in English. ‘Why not self-publish?’ was a frequent suggestion, but for a long time, I clung to the hope of a conventional UK deal. “Tracey Mathias

Then, in 2015, Tracey was invited to speak to a school workshop on fantasy writing. She read the opening of A Fragment of Moonswood to a class of year 6 children, and at the end of the session, one of the boys came up to her, handed her a scrap of grubby paper for her autograph, and asked, ‘Miss, when can I read your book in English? Because I really like books like that…’

Tracey told me that this was a bit of a lightning moment! She decided pretty much on the spot just to go ahead and pursue the option of self-publishing and started to research options.

“Self-publishing is definitely a demanding route to take. It’s great to be independent and in control – but the flip side of that is having to tackle a wide variety of often quite technically detailed tasks that call for very different skills. Some of them suited me. Others, emphatically, didn’t.” Tracey Mathias

Tracey’s tip for children’s book authors who are considering self-publishing is to start by taking a long, hard look at what this is going to involve. It’s important to have a clear sense of how ‘self-publishing’ breaks down into different tasks, and how you’re going to tackle each, where you want or need help, and where you want to devote your energies.

The Assalay trilogy is published by Erika Klopp – part of the Oetinger group in Germany and can be ordered in any bookshop and on Amazon in the UK and is also available to buy from Barnes and Noble in the US.

In 2018, Tracey got a traditional publishing deal with Scholastic with her very topical novel Night of the Party. It is about withdrawing from the EU and Britain is governed by a far-right nationalist party. Its flagship policy is the British Born edict, which allows only those born in Britain to live here. Everyone else is an ‘illegal’, subject to immediate arrest and deportation. ‘

Tracey Mathias

You can find extracts and links to Tracey’s books on her website: www.traceymathias.com and follow her on twitter @traceymathias. 

You can read the complete feature in Writers’ Forum #190 Aug 2017, in my Writing 4 Children column. 

An interview with… Cath Jones

Cath Jones writes picture books and early readers. I interviewed her for the January 2020 issue #219 of Writers’ Forum about the importance of early readers and how they differ from picture books.

Cath fb post

She explained how early readers usually form part of an educational reading scheme. They are aimed at readers of any age who are learning to read. Each publisher produces their own set of early reader guidelines or instructions for authors to use. These are usually based very closely on the Department of Education publication: Letters and Sounds (anyone can download this free of charge). This sets out very clearly, level by level which letters can be used, the type of vocabulary, complexity of sentences etc.

Cath told me:

“I try really hard to make my early readers stories funny and unexpected. One publisher told me that my stories are too quirky and another that they are too crazy. But children love that and so do I. I’ve had about twenty accepted for publication so far, with three different publishers.” Cath Jones

Cath explained it is important to keep the story interesting enough to engage an early and reluctant readers. Using appropriate words for the different ability levels can be quite a challenge. She told me she always tries to come up with a surprising twist at the end.

“When I write stories I have two aims in mind. I want to keep the reader interested enough to keep them reading on and more often than not, I want to make them laugh. The majority of stories I write are humorous and maybe a little quirky: a zebra who grows beetroot, chickens that knit, owls acting as hats.” Cath Jones

How I set about writing an early reader, depends on whether it is a higher or lower level book. For the lower levels, I have lists of all the words that are appropriate to that level. I study the lists and try to create a story (very often humorous). The story might have as few as 70 words and none of them more than three letters long. It’s like doing a puzzle. It’s a challenge but very rewarding. For the higher levels there are fewer restrictions so I just try to write the best possible story to engage a reader. One reviewer recently described Chicken Knitters as being as good as any early chapter book.

cover The Chicken Knitters JPEG

She revealed that when she first started writing stories for children, she had no idea that there were rules. She joined a local writing group and was amazed to discover that there were hundreds of books on the theory of writing.

“Getting rejections is never easy but other writers encouraged me not to give up. I remember author Jane Clarke telling me that it was those who persist who get published. She was right! In the end, all that effort paid off. In the space of a few months I had eight early readers accepted and my first picture book, Bonkers About Beetroot.” Cath Jones

Her inspiration for writing Bonkers About Beetroot was her own allotment. She also used to run school gardening clubs and for a number of years she managed a community allotment. So it’s really not surprising that gardening is a frequent theme in her stories. At the community allotment, she ran some really fun projects, including story sack making for families. She made a purple stripy zebra out of Fimo with the kids and close by was a bed of beetroot. Instantly she knew Zebra had eaten too much beetroot. The idea of a beetroot eating zebra just wouldn’t go away. It stayed in her head for years, quietly composting while she got on with life, growing vegetables and writing many, many stories.

Bonkers About Beetroot Cover LR RGB JPEG

Her writing tips for readers who may be interested in writing for the younger age range is it’s really important to know who you are writing for. Think about the age group that might read your story and ask yourself what they are interested in. If they are beginner readers, make sure your story gets going fast and keep up a good pace. If they get bored they won’t read on.

To find out more about Cath Jones and her books check out her website: @cathjoneswriter

You can read the complete feature in #219 Jan 2020 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

An interview with… Cathy Cassidy

I interviewed Cathy Cassidy for my Writing 4 Children double page spread in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, in 2016. She revealed some of her writing secrets and tips.

WF-CC5

Cathy explained to me writers do not really get to choose the voice or genre they write, it is more of an organic process.

I’m not sure you get to choose your voice or genre… not always, anyway. I have always worked with and for young people, as an art teacher, a teen mag agony aunt, a journalist etc… that age group did and still does fascinate me, perhaps because it was a part of my life I didn’t manage especially well. When I finally did work out how to write a book length story, it turned out to be young teen rather than the YA I had envisaged. 

Cathy Cassidy

Most of Cathy’s readers fall between the ages of nine and fourteen and she calls the genre, ‘real-life, growing up’ books, as she often tackles quite difficult themes. But generally her books are about family, friendship and fitting in.

Cathy told me that she thinks the most important thing for any writer is to find your own voice and find your story, and then stay true to it

Don’t assume that children’s books are somehow less important than those aimed at adults, because that’s not the case. Often, the books we read as children are the ones that shape us, the ones we remember forever… let’s make them awesome!

Cathy Cassidy

Her top tip on writing for children is to write from the heart, and put everything you have into what you’re writing. If this means re-arranging your to-do list for the day, do it – writing has to come first, for the duration of the book at least. Set yourself a challenge to write a certain amount each day – it may just be 1000 words, but if you stick to it, those words will soon mount up. And when you start to doubt yourself and feel like throwing your laptop out of the window, don’t. 

Her message is write because you love it, because you can’t help it, because you love words and stories. Don’t do it for fame, fortune or an easy life, as those things are most unlikely to happen.

I’m lucky enough to write full-time now, but when I say full-time I mean it… sometimes it is seven days a week, and I can’t recall a break where I didn’t bring my laptop with me. If you love something, put all have into it… it’s worth it when you love what you do, I promise.

You can find out more about Cathy Cassidy and her books on her website: www.cathycassidy.com

An interview with… Peter Bunzl

For my Writing 4 Children slot in the national writing magazine Writers’ Forum I interview Peter Bunzl about his Cogheart series, published by Usborne.

PBfeature

Peter told me his inspiration to write the Cogheart ‘steampunk’ Victorian adventure series, was sparked when he was reading about real clockwork robots that existed in Georgian and Victorian times. They were called automatons and were incredible pieces of engineering. Here is an example of some of them from youtube so you can see how amazing they are.

Automatons were built to do simple tasks like write their name or a few lines of poetry, or play an instrument, or a card trick or some of them were clocks with moving figures on. Peter wondered, what would happen if the technology back then had got so good that they could make clockwork robots that could do everything and anything. Robots made of bits of metal that were almost human and alive. Could they feel and think? Could the spark of life ever exist inside them? What would that mean for their inventors and owners? And what kind of world could I set a story be in where all this would take place?

There are four books in the series now, and they all take place over roughly a year. So the characters don’t really age that much physically, although emotionally they go through a lot.

Peter explained the reason his main characters, Robert and Lily, stay the same age is because, at thirteen-fourteen, they are already at the top end of what’s considered a middle-grade hero, and so, if they got much older, they would be more teens and their concerns would probably stray more into teen story lines, which would change the tone and themes of the books considerably.

Though they feature the same heroes in each book, the stories themselves are stand-alone, with different settings and different villains who have different goals in each, so there isn’t necessarily an overarching conflict to the series. Peter told that when writing a series, it is important to get the details consistent because once the series got to the third book, Skycircus, Peter realised everything was getting a little complicated, so he designed a big chart with all the main characters on,which clearly displayed their backstory, when they were born, what they looked like etc. Now he can easily refer to his chart when he needs to check a detail.

To find out more about Peter Bunzl you can check out his website www.peterbunzl.com 

Or follow him on Twitter @peterbunzl

To read the complete feature take a look at #218 Dec 2019 of Writers’ Forum magazine.

An interview with… Kathleen Duey

I interviewed her in November 2007, as a speaker at the SCBWI Bologna Conference, March 2008.

Kathleen Duey is the author of over 70 children’s and young adult books including historical fiction, nonfiction, picture books and dark fantasy. She was one of the 2007 finalists for the National Book Award for Literature for Young People, with her novel Skin Hunger: A Resurrection of Magic. She writes for adults with a partner; they have a finished novel with an agent and a second work being optioned by HBO. She lives in San Diego County, USA.

Kathleen Duey

This is what Kathleen told me:

I always want to be a writer. My fourth grade teacher encouraged me and got me started writing stories. Then an English teacher in high school made me promise I would keep writing and give it a serious try, which I finally did, in my late thirties. Mrs. Fredericksen and Mr. Doohan. Bless ‘em both.

She explained all the work she has done and all the play, informs her writing. Living off-grid for a long time shaped her, too. She missed a couple of decades of TV. She does a lot of historical research for her books. But, the research never hampers her historical fiction. She uses a lot of primary sources and they always enrich, guide, inform. She told me she has never once felt constrained by facts.

Kathleen said she identifies very closely with all her characters, so in a way, has been all of them. She could live where Heart Avamir lives. (The Unicorn’s Secret) in fact she hinted she did, in a weird way, but that’s a whole story in itself. Her life has been extraordinary – she dropped out of the mainstream and lived off the land for many years. That gave her a rich vein of knowledge to mine.

Her childhood influenced what she writes in every way. She grew up in rural places, was raised by rural parents. She writes historical fiction and fantasy… both usually low tech, in cultures where people are close to the soil. As a child, her parents bought her non-fiction, almost exclusively. The first novel she loved was Molly Make Believe, an old book she found in her great Aunt’s apartment. Then came Black Beauty and then all the Farley books. In middle school she discovered fantasy and SF and was astounded at the created worlds, the possibilities of speculation, the massive intellects of the writers.

Kathleen claims the best books are autobiographical to some degree.

I work alone, almost always, in my office at home. I often play music, quietly. Sometimes I prefer silence. If it is chilly, Rooibos tea is wonderful. The hardest part of writing is sitting still, indoors – I hate it. The shortest time it has taken me to write a book is nine days. the longest was fifteen years.

She told me, people just need to figure out what is comfortable, what works for them when it comes to social media and marketing. She likes travel, she loves schools and speaking has become fun even though she said she began as a nervous, two-puke speaker, she now enjoys it.

Every book presents different obstacles, various areas of clear sailing.

I like every genre I have written in and intend to try more. It’s just the way my brain works; it’s not a conscious business choice or a deliberate artistic decision. It is about the individual project for me, not the genre. Whatever takes my breath away – that’s what I want to write. I like writing for all age groups. I seem to thrive on variety. Writing for kids is an obvious choice for me. I like kids. And I am head over heels in love with the possibility of touching a child’s (or a teen’s) life the way mine was touched by books.

 

An interview with… Moira Butterfield

I have a regular monthly, double-spread feature on writing for children in the national writing magazine, Writers’ Forum, which contain loads of writing tips from successful authors, agents and editors. The focus is on what works for these professionals and how this could benefit other children’s book writers. These features have been running for three years now.

In the #217 November issue I interview children’s non-fiction book writer, Moira Butterfield, about her latest books and why non-fiction books are so important. 

Moira Butterfield1

Moira has been fighting the children’s non-fiction corner for many years and proudly told me:

It’s an exciting time for children’s non-fiction. For years non-fiction was not valued in the trade. This has changed thanks to the influence of the US market, in particular, where non-fiction is highly valued. At last we are being paired with good artists and editors are keen to hear from us. Thank goodness kids who love non-fiction are at last being catered for in the trade.

Moira Butterfield

Her latest books are Welcome To Our World, illustrated by Harriet Lynas and published by Nosy Crow and Home Sweet Home, illustrated by Clair Rossiter and published by Red Shed (part of Egmont UK).

Welcome to our World demonstrates how children all over the world are very different, but they also have much in common – despite different languages, customs and traditions, everyone shares a love of family, friends, food and fun. Home Sweet Home, sets out to explore the familiar features of a home, touching on different cultures and history to encourage children to think about what it is that makes a home.

Moira explained it is important to provide a diverse viewpoint, that all children will find interesting.

When writing non-fiction for children we not only need to get facts right with careful research, we also need to make sure that our work is multicultural. By ‘writing multiculturally’, I mean creating text that has an awareness of the whole world naturally and effortlessly within its fabric.

Moira Butterfield

Her tip for children’s non-fiction writers just starting out, is to go to bookshops to get an idea of the visual styles being published right now. Make a note of the text length being used, the types of illustrations and the layouts of the books. Think carefully about what you like and what you do not like. Buy some of the books you like and study them closely. Note the approach, the word count and how it appeals to the age-group it’s aimed at. Feed this information into your own work.

You can find out more about Moira Butterfield and her books on her website: www.moirabutterfield.com You can follow her on Instagram @moirabutterfieldauthor and on Twitter @moiraworld