L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Linda Newbery, Michael Lawrence and Lauren Child

The main characters in fiction for children and teenagers tend, not surprisingly, to be children and teenagers, though it’s not hard to find exceptions, such as Philip Pullman’s Once Upon a Time in the North. To write convincingly, whether in first- or third-person, you need to position yourself inside the head of one or more characters. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, we share Tom’s thoughts all the way: his frustration at being cooped up, his interest in the old grandfather clock, his surprise at finding that the midnight garden is different from the daytime one.

One way of getting a sense of your characters as rounded human beings, rather than as cardboard cut-outs, is to build them through questions and answers. For example: What’s in her pocket? Who does she dislike, and why? What’s her best subject at school? Who would she most like to get a text message from? What’s she most anxious about? and so on. And it’s important to hear your character speaking, and to see his or her body language.

Adults will almost inevitably appear, but children’s writers are adept at getting rid of them, or at least keeping them on the sidelines, so that the children have to confront their own difficulties. Health and safety consciousness can curtail the activities of children in present-day stories of the real world, which may account for the huge amount of fantasy published in recent years; in imaginary settings, child characters can be magicians, warriors, seers, time-travellers, or whatever the author wants them to be. Similarly, children in historical fiction can plausibly face huge responsibilities and go on dangerous journeys with only their own resources to depend on.

What’s crucial is that the child characters are central to the action, and play a decisive part – they can’t just have things happen to them. In Dogger, it’s the children who sort out the problem – the outcome would be less satisfying if Dave’s parents had swooped in to take charge.

In some settings, children – and adults – seem powerless. Continuing the tradition of stories about children caught up in war, oppression and persecution, the author Elizabeth Laird has written, with great success, novels featuring street children in Addis Ababa (The Garbage King), a Kurdish refugee (Red Sky in the Morning) and a Palestinian boy living in the Occupied Territories (A Little Patch of Ground). Importantly, Laird makes her child characters more than passive victims of persecution. Karim and his friends convert a patch of wasteland into a football pitch, defiantly raising a Palestinian flag; their game of football is unlikely to challenge Israeli dominance, yet the novel humanises the situation and engages the reader by showing us one boy’s very ordinary aspiration.

Most important of all is that your readers must care about your character. Endow your hero or heroine with skill, beauty and undentable self-confidence and you risk alienating the reader. Flaws, self-doubts and weaknesses – in even the most spirited of characters, like Philip Pullman’s Lyra – engage reader sympathy. Winnie-the-Pooh is endearing because he’s well-meaning, but easily confused; Jane Eyre because she considers herself to be plain and unremarkable. Christopher in The Curious Incident … is aware that his Asperger’s syndrome marks him out as different, but makes us see people and events with his own logic and dogged determination.

A problem frequently seen in students’ writing is viewpoint-hopping. Without realising, they’ve changed the point of view from paragraph to paragraph, or even from sentence to sentence, so reading the story feels like jumping in and out of various characters’ heads. This is unsettling for the reader, and rarely works.

Of course you can use more than one viewpoint: children’s fiction, like any other fiction, can have omniscient narrators, multiple narrators, unreliable narrators. There aren’t any rules, but you should know what rules you’ve made for yourself, know when you’re breaking them, and do so for good reason.

Michael Lawrence on what makes kids laugh

Adults who haven’t read any of my books about Jiggy McCue and his pals might imagine that they are relentlessly rude crowd-pleasers. With titles like The Killer Underpants, The Toilet of Doom and Nudie Dudie I can hardly blame them, but in fact I avoid extreme vulgarity, and scatological humour in particular. Kids love a little gentle rudeness, though, and this I do supply, because it appeals to me too. A good example is ‘The Fellowship of Ancient Rights for Trees’ in The Snottle. Jiggy refers to the organisation’s members as ‘FARTers’, always emphasising the first syllable to irritate his mother. Well, isn’t that what you would have done when you were 11 or 12?

I don’t go out of my way to keep up with the times in these stories. Mobile phones, DVDs, famous film stars and so on are mentioned, but Jiggy’s school experiences are essentially my own from over half a century ago. I base his lessons on the lessons that I remember so well. (Some of his teachers were my actual teachers – and yes, I use their real names). You might think that this would date the books, but children can’t have changed much, as they write to me in droves to say how much like Jiggy’s world theirs is. I find that rather pleasing.

· Michael Lawrence latest book is Jiggy McCue: Kid Swap (Orchard)

Lauren Child on how to illustrate a story

There are millions of talented illustrators out there who would love to illustrate books for children. They are creative, they are original, they are skilful. And yet they have to suffer one rejection after the other.

I know, because for the first five years of my career, I was one of them. It was only when I realised that I could write my own books that I got my first manuscript accepted.

Normally, as an illustrator, you are taught to treat text with a lot of respect, reverence even. The books that you illustrate tend to arrive paginated, with the text already fine-tuned. But in a good picture-book, the pictures should be as important – if not more important – than the text. I never finish the text before I am done with the illustrations.

When you illustrate a story, don’t try to show what the words are already telling you. You have to add something new. I try to do this by changing perspective, or by engaging with my characters’ imagination. In one of my books, Charlie tells Lola that she has to go to bed “because all the birds have gone to bed”. To which Lola replies: “But I’m not a bird”. Rather than showing Lola in the kitchen, where the conversation is taking place, I showed Lola sitting in a bird’s nest.

The simplest drawings of characters are the often the most successful: think of Miffy or Peanuts. But even the simplest human face has to show more than one expression over the course of your book. If you want your character to be liked, you have to give them an emotional inner life.

I always know when I see a good illustration: I get jealous. The tricky thing is that you have to actively resist the temptation to imitate the illustrators you like. Many publishers will pretend that they want your book to look “more like Quentin Blake” or “a bit like Shirley Hughes”. But deep down they want to see something new.

· Lauren Child’s collected Clarice Bean stories are published by Orchard

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