L.A. Kennedy

Beyond the story

Linda Newbery

Writing for children is not an easy route to becoming published, today’s tutor Linda Newbery explains why

Books can change lives – we know that. And if you’re lucky enough to write and publish books for children, there’s the potential of changing young lives in various ways. Yours might be the book that turns a child on to reading, with a first experience of reading pleasure; maybe it’s a favourite bedtime story, or the first book a child reads alone. It might give a child an absorbing new interest, or bring insight, reassurance, or the determination to confront a doubt or a fear. Yours might be the book that’s loved literally to pieces, the story that’s read and reread and almost known by heart. Your book, once published, will reach farther than you’ll ever know.

These are powerful reasons for wanting to write for children, but let’s get rid of some that aren’t likely to get you far.

It can’t be difficult – anyone can do it. No: anyone can’t. This misconception hasn’t been helped by the current crop of celebrities publishing children’s stories. A household name certainly helps with the marketing, but most of us don’t have that flying start. Shelves and tables in editors’ and agents’ offices sag under the weight of unpublishable stories sent in the belief that anyone can write for children.

I’m writing the next Harry Potter. You may think so; so do countless others. As Philip Pullman has put it, no one was looking for the first Harry Potter (nor for His Dark Materials). The best books often come as if from nowhere, not from an examination of market requirements. Publishers’ lists reach at least two years into the future, and what you see as a hot trend may be nearing the end of its run.

I’ve written this short story and my friends say I should get it published. But why? You may be able to cook a reasonable pasta dish, but you don’t therefore see yourself as rival to Gordon Ramsay or Nigella Lawson. Yet, for some reason, it’s a common belief that any coherent piece of writing deserves publication. Publishing isn’t a reward for effort; it’s a business.

It must be an easy way to make money. It isn’t. A recent survey by Mary Hoffman for the Society of Authors revealed that most children’s writers earn less than the minimum wage. An exceptional few sell books by the million; most of those who make their living by writing have worked hard at it for years.

So why write for children?

· Because you have the germ of an idea that might make a story, and you can’t wait to explore it

· Because you’ve had such pleasure from living in other people’s stories

· Because you love playing with words and ideas

· Because you can live inside the head of a child or teenager and be fascinated by what happens there

· Because inside your adult self there’s a child’s playfulness and sense of wonder

· Because you know that children’s reading is so important that only the best you can offer is good enough.

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