The Joys and Challenges of Writing for Kids
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to the award-winning children’s author, Caryl Hart.
Writing for children is a delicate and sensitive job. Children’s authors should be able to strike a balance between their own past while keeping in touch with the realities of their young audiences today, be entertaining and engaging, but not confusing and unnecessarily complicated. They have to take note of the intricacies of the children’s universe while trying to cultivate and encourage their imaginations.
Today, we are living in a digital era when social media, online games and streaming have permeated the lives of adults and children alike, and altered their hobbies, interests and interactions with others. Print books, magazines and newspapers now face a serious rival that takes up an increasingly large portion of our leisure time. Last year, Pew Research Center found that 95% of American teens own a smartphone or have access to one, while 45% of teens now say “they are online on a near-constant basis.”
But despite the growing influence of digital tools and social networks that may divert young people from old-school reading materials like books and magazines, there are still authors who write with passion, and whose books sell in the thousands, if not millions, of copies. The children’s literature market has become remarkably competitive, and this underlines the vivacity and liveliness of this literary genre.
Caryl Hart is an award-winning children’s author who writes picture books and young-adult fiction. Before becoming a writer, Hart was a web editor for a company that provides online learning for schools. She started writing children’s books at the age of 32, going on to win, in 2016, the Mississippi Children’s Museum’s Magnolia Book Award for The Princess and the Presents. The same year, she won the Geoffrey Trease Prize for Children’s Writing. In 2018, her book Knock Knock Dinosaur was shortlisted for the Hillingdon Picture Book of the Year.
In this edition of The Interview, Fair Observer talks to Hart about her literary career, the challenges and joys of writing for children, and the parent’s role in shaping a kid’s literary tastes. She also offers advice for aspiring writers.
Kourosh Ziabari: Why did you choose a career in children’s literature?
Caryl Hart: I started thinking about writing for children when I first became a parent. I spent a lot of time in our local library with my daughter, which reawakened my enthusiasm for books and reading. Compared to what was on offer when I was growing up, the selection of picture books available to us was huge. Many of the books we read were great fun and well written, but not all. I felt that if these poorer books could get published, then I might have a chance of getting something published too.
Ziabari: I know that your goal is to write at least 100 books in your lifetime. When do you think you can reach this pinnacle?
Hart: Of course, writing picture books is a lot harder than it looks, and it took me 10 years to actually make it into print!
My first book, Don’t Dip Your Chips in Your Drink, Kate! — illustrated by Leigh Hodgkinson — came out in 2009 and won an award at the Sheffield Children’s Book Awards the following year. This gave me a huge confidence boost and encouraged me to write more. I now have around 37 books in print, around 17 in production. So by the end of 2020, I’ll have published around 54 books, which means, if I keep going at this pace, I should reach 100 titles by the time I’m 60!
Ziabari: What do you think is missing, or lacking, in modern children’s literature that you try to make up for in your books?
Hart: Here in the UK, our society is becoming increasingly diverse and multicultural, but that diversity is not adequately reflected in the books our children read. When I first started writing, I did not specifically set out to look at diversity in books, it’s just something I became aware of as I got more familiar with the world of children’s publishing. So I started asking for some of my characters to be non-white. And I was surprised at the response I got — publishers were wary and unwilling. I was told that, although editors felt it would be nice to do this, sales departments were reluctant because they felt books with non-white protagonists would not sell.
These conversations were not about books I was trying to sell; the discussions were about books that I had already won contracts for. Nor was it because the subject matter of the books was controversial. It was purely because publishers felt, at that time, that my suggestions and requests would make the books less saleable, and there were, no doubt, many sales figures to backup these beliefs.
Publishers walk a very difficult line at times and issues like this are not easy to address. They invest heavily in the production of books — picture books in particular are very expensive to create and print, so publishers have to be confident they will get a return on their investment. They must sell books to survive in what is becoming an increasingly competitive and saturated market. So it’s understandable that introducing an element that might reduce sales could be an unacceptable risk.
At the same time, publishers know they have a responsibility to publish good books. Every editor I’ve ever met, without fail, has been full of passion for the work they do, and many feel their hands are tied in this regard. But as an industry, I feel we have a duty to push this agenda and continue to aim for equality of representation because this ultimately brings equality of aspiration and of opportunity. And I believe now that things are, slowly but surely, moving in the right direction.
If you’re ever lucky enough to be in a room full of writers, it wouldn’t take you long to identify which ones write for children! The children’s authors and illustrators I know have a different way of looking at the world. They are funny, kind and empathetic, and hugely supportive.
Many publishers get round the issue of representing different ethnic and cultural backgrounds by using animal instead of human characters, but I feel this really is just a cop out. I strongly believe that children need to see themselves in books, and studies show that children learn more moral lessons from books with human characters than from books with anthropomorphised animal characters.
I spend a lot of time in schools, promoting a love of books and inspiring children to read and write creatively. Many of the children I work with are from non-white, non-European backgrounds, and yet they are still very underrepresented in our children’s literature. These children need to find characters they identify with. How can we expect them to love reading if they feel that their own identities are not valued or included, or talked about?
In a recent study, the Council for Literacy in Primary Education reported that of the 9,115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, only 391 featured black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) characters. That’s just over 4%. Only 1% of children’s books had a BAME main character. One percent. Given that, according to the Office of National Statistics, around 14% of citizens in England and Wales are of BAME origin, these figures are grossly inadequate, and our literature is currently failing to represent one in seven of our children.
And it’s not just ethnicity that is under-represented. At the same time I was beginning to ask about ethnic diversity, I was also asking for better representation of females in my books. In 2007, I was told by one publisher that it was better to have a male protagonist because girls would read books with a male hero, but boys wouldn’t read books with a female in the lead role.
I have no doubt that this has been true in the past, but personally, I believe this is down to the way female characters have been presented in fiction. Take Enid Blyton’s The Famous Five, for example — a series that myself and many of my contemporaries were raised on, and one which is now being republished by Hodder Children’s Books. In these stories, the two most interesting characters who see most of the action are male. Of the two female characters, one is portrayed as weak, frightened and reticent. Not much to love there. The other, George, is portrayed as a tomboy, so she’s not a real girl. The boys even tell here she’s “almost as good as a boy”!
Thankfully, this overt sexism is now largely absent from modern children’s literature, but the legacy of this view still overshadows decision-making. The view that boys will not read a book with a female main character pervades because female characters in general have been given lesser or fewer roles. If our females characters are represented as strong, feisty, funny and capable, they stand a much better chance of attracting male, as well as female readers.
I have written a series of princesses books, illustrated by Sarah Warburton and published by Nosy Crow, which feature strong females in the lead role. These are not the princesses that I was brought up with, who need rescuing by brave princes; they are intelligent, feisty girls who find solutions to their own problems, and everybody else’s. I’m pleased to say that these books are selling really well, and that when I’m in schools, boys love the stories just as much as the girls do. Sadly, though, at the end of the day whilst selling and signing books for children to take home, I have heard the odd parent telling their boy-child, “Oh, you don’t want that book do you? Isn’t it for girls?” So far the child has won their parent over, so that tells us something!
— Caryl Hart (@carylhart1) January 13, 2019
Diversity is not just about race or gender either. Children’s literature is still lacking in non-typical family structures like single parent, gay parents, grandparents raising grandchildren and characters with disabilities. Of course, every book cannot contain every type of person! Picture books typically have between one and four main characters, and to expect every book to have “one of each” is unrealistic. But the industry as a whole has a responsibility to be representative overall, which means commissioning editors and designers need to look at their list of titles as a whole, to ensure that the diversity of characters is available across their list.
I’m pleased to say, however, that over the past eight years I have noticed that these conversations are becoming easier, and that editors are now much more open to a more diverse array of human characters. I hope that my own books go a small way into redressing this imbalance too — it’s something I now deliberately question for every title I’m lucky enough to have published.
There’s my latest book, Girls Can Do Anything. This is a book aimed at very young children and is basically a list of all the things girls, and women, can do. It is a celebration of achievement and is the most diverse book I’ve ever written, thanks to the support of my publisher, Scholastic, and the wonderful illustrations by Ali Pye. This book includes a huge array characters with different skin tones, clothing choices, hairstyles, disabilities, hobbies and careers. It includes two galleries of inspirational women from all over the world who have excelled in science, medicine, social justice, sport and business, and I’m hugely proud of what we have achieved.
Ziabari: How difficult is it to write for children and compose stories that they can relate to and enjoy? What sort of expertise does writing for children and young adults require?
Hart: Some people believe that writing for children is easy. After all, some picture books may only contain 100 words. But anyone who’s ever tried it will know that it’s not as easy as it looks! No writing is. I’m currently working on a novel for young adults, which has been difficult and challenging in a different way, so I would hesitate to say any genre of book is easier to write than any other. To be any kind of writer, you have to be in touch with your deepest emotions and have the ability to drag them out of yourself and express them in a way that speaks to other people. Writing for children has the added edge that you need to express your ideas succinctly and very clearly in words and concepts that children can understand. Like anything, I guess, it takes time and effort to develop those skills but it gets easier with practice.
I think working in schools helps a lot because I get an instant reaction to my work. If a joke doesn’t work, children will not laugh out of politeness. If they are bored, they’ll likely get up and walk off!
Ziabari: Do you think there should be a limit to imagination in the stories written for children? Do children better relate to stories that happen in the real world, or do they prefer stories with completely fantasy characters and plots?
Hart: Absolutely not. You can have real situations portrayed in a fantasy land, or fantasy situations set in the real world. The aim is to grab children’s attention and make them want to read and listen. A child will delight in a funny story, but will also love a sad story if it’s written in a way they can relate to. Children’s books use a lot of metaphors to deal with difficult issues and can tackle serious topics in a fun way. I guess that’s why the good ones work so well.
Ziabari: How does reading stories and fiction shape or influence the children’s personality? What’s the role of parents in forming children’s literary taste?
Hart: Studies show that children who read, and who own books, are more socially mobile than children who don’t. In other words, children who read, and are read to, have a better ability to change their social circumstances as they grow up. I also believe that reading helps children develop empathy because it helps the readers immerse themselves in other people’s lives and see the world from someone else’s point of view. I believe that reading helps children transport themselves into other worlds, which in turn makes them question their own world.
Parents and carers have a crucial role in helping their children develop a love of books. Reading together can be a great bonding experience for both parent and child, and sharing a book can be wonderful one-on-one time. Reading together can also open up invaluable discussion about real issues, emotions and events that children experience in their own lives, helping them to make sense of the world around them and process their feelings and emotions. Issues such as sharing, starting school, the arrival of a new sibling, death, grief, fairness, fear, making friends, the environment, even war and displacement, you name it — children’s literature deals with it all.
But reading doesn’t have to all be about issues. If children are to enjoy reading, it needs to be fun. So funny books are also incredibly important. Parents and carers should encourage children to read the books they enjoy, because if you love reading, you will read, and children who read become adults who read.
I also believe that children should be encouraged to read at whatever level they choose. Just because a child is 10 years old, they don’t automatically have to start reading classic novels. If they prefer picture books, or comics, or the telephone directory or train timetables — it’s all good. It’s still reading. I know children who will read The Lord of the Rings one day and Duck in a Truck the next. When I visit schools, older children love listening to picture books and joining in with songs and actions, even those approaching the transition to secondary school. And I think that’s firstly because they associate picture books with the warmth and simplicity of earlier, intimate times with their parents and carers, but also because these books and the messages they contain are still relevant to their lives.
Ziabari: How important is the role of illustrators in winning recognition and success for children’s books? You work with a number of professional illustrators. Do you give them the tip for the story and they do all the drawings? How long does it take for them to create the illustrations, based on the length of the story?
Hart: You can’t have a picture book without an illustrator, so I definitely see the text and illustrations as having equal value and importance.
As with every rule, though, there is always an exception! The genius The Book with No Pictures, by B. J. Novak, has no illustrations at all, but is a brilliantly funny and super clever “picture” book that very cleverly turns the process of reading on its head. I once read this to an assembly of 400 primary school children and had them all falling about laughing!
But that book aside, most other picture books have pictures, or illustrations, as we like to call them. Good illustrations don’t only show the reader what is going on in the text; they add layers of depth to a story. They might include extra characters that tell their own mini-tales as the main story progresses, or they might show gestures, emotions, action or scenery essential to the meaning and understanding of the story. I have already mentioned the importance of showing diversity in picture books. This is largely down to the illustrations; the character’s skin color, clothing, accessories and mannerisms, family structure — none of this might be explicitly mentioned in the text, but all can be communicated in the illustrations.
So how does it work? If the book I’m writing is something brand new, and not part of a series, I’ll send it to an editor who decides whether they like it or not. If not, I may rewrite it on their advice and resubmit. But if they feel the text has potential, they’ll take it to an internal acquisitions meeting where the key players in the publishing house come together to review new material. A project will only go ahead if editors, designers, sales and directors are all behind it. If everyone in the room is in agreement, I’ll get a contract and will work with the editor to polish the text.
At the same time, the editor and designer will discuss potential illustrators and will approach the person or people they’d like to use. If the illustrator agrees, my editor will ask me if I’m happy to go ahead. Sometimes they’ll produce a sample for me to look at, or sometimes I’ll look at their existing portfolio and make a decision on that basis. In theory, if I really hated the suggested illustrator’s style, I could say I didn’t want to work with them, but in practice this is very rare as most illustrators who get noticed by a publisher are very, very good!
Then the formal process is that I talk to my editor, the editor talks to the designer and the designer talks to the illustrator. I don’t usually have direct conversations with him or her about the details of the illustrations, but I do include essential “stage directions” in my manuscript and have plenty of opportunities to see and comment on character sketches, thumbnails, roughs and final artwork before the book goes to print.
A book goes through many iterations during this time, and the editor and I will revisit and revise the text several times as the illustrations develop, removing text that is clearly communicated in the images and cutting text on spreads that are too text-heavy.
The whole process, from starting to write the text to having the final book ready for a bookshop to sell, can take between one and two years. Once a text is acquired and approved, a book will be scheduled into the publisher’s calendar to make its appearance at one or two international book fairs, where the rights team will sell titles to overseas publishers. So once an illustrator is engaged, they will usually agree a deadline for final artwork based on which of the two events the book will be taken to.
In theory, you could write a picture book and never meet the person who illustrates it, which is kind of strange if you think about it! But publishers are very good, and once or twice a year they invite us to parties where we get to meet each other. Social media does the rest, so in practice I’m in touch with the people I collaborate with and am lucky enough to call most of them my friends.
Ziabari: The majority of distinguished children authors have a big age difference with the children for whom they write. Won’t children’s literature be more meaningful and effective if it were created by the children themselves?
Hart: If you’re ever lucky enough to be in a room full of writers, it wouldn’t take you long to identify which ones write for children! The children’s authors and illustrators I know have a different way of looking at the world. They are funny, kind and empathetic, and hugely supportive. Adults who successfully write for children have, I believe, and extraordinary ability to pull out of themselves their deepest emotions and most delightful humor, and set it down on the page in an incredibly sensitive and meaningful way.
It takes a lot of thought and time to develop these skills — skills that most children would not yet have. That’s not to say children and young adults don’t produce some amazing writing; they do! But it’s rare to find a child author with the skills to write something that has wide appeal and is commercially viable.
Ziabari: There are numerous award-winning, best-selling children authors who continue to write and publish new works frequently. What should the parents or the children themselves take into consideration while selecting the best books to read? What are the qualities of a good, compelling, entertaining and informative book for children?
Hart: Most people will have heard of J. K. Rowling and Julia Donaldson. These have become household names in children’s literature, and rightly so. Both are brilliant writers who have created some of our best-loved stories and imaginary worlds. Their books are prominently displayed and enjoy great sales as a result. We buy what we know we’re going to like.
But the world of children’s books is rich beyond the imagination, and there is a huge selection of books out there that I would urge all parents, carers and children to try. If you’re not sure what to read, there are loads of great book bloggers online these days who review new titles and pick out the best of the best for you. Go to your local bookshop or library and take the time to have a good old browse. Most children’s sections have games areas or reading corners to keep your little ones entertained while you look. If you like a particular author, ask the sales assistant or librarian to suggest other similar stories to try.
Once a child or an adult discovers a book they like, it’s natural to want to read other books by the same author. We like what we know. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. It’s actually a great thing to do in my opinion, as you can see how that writer has developed over time, identify common themes in their stories and generally feel like you are getting to know them as a person.
But it’s also important to try new things. Pick something random off the shelf and read the first page or two. If you like it, keep reading. If you don’t, put it back and pick another one. There is nothing to lose by trying something new and everything to gain, especially if you’ve borrowed the book from a library for free! There’s no magic formula to say which books are compelling, entertaining and informative. Each book will speak to each person in a different way. Some people will love a book, while others might hate it. Lucky for us, then, that there are so many to choose from.
Ziabari: These days, children and young people are closely in touch and obsessed with electronics, smartphones, social media and online games. Does it upset you as a children’s writer? How is it possible to turn the tide in favor of books?
Hart: I don’t actually feel worried about the explosion of social media in terms of its impact on children’s reading. If a child is reading blog posts, they are still reading. I think social media has actually enabled a lot of people to write who wouldn’t ordinarily have done so. It gives people a platform to express their feelings and talk about their interests, and find like-minded people all over the world. It’s given invisible people the potential to become visible through the publication of images and words, and having a voice gives people validation and confidence. We might not agree with everything they are saying, but if we don’t like what we’re reading or seeing, we can just switch them off and stop following them.
I think the difficult part for children is learning how to discriminate between the good stuff that they encounter online and the not so good. That’s where parents and carers come in. It’s up to us as responsible adults to guide our children in their online activity and help them learn to choose what to engage with and what not to.
When Kindles and their equivalents first came out, the publishing world was really concerned about their potential impact on paper books. The fear was that everyone would move to reading digital books or stop reading all together. But the truth is that publishing is still growing. According to the Publisher’s Association, 2017 sales of books and journals was up by 7% on the previous year.
So no, I’m not worried that children’s books are suffering at the hands of digital media.
Ziabari: What’s your advice to aspiring writers who want to make their way into the publishing industry and specifically write for children? What should they do to be successful and, at the same time, popular among their readers?
Hart: First and foremost, I’d say, set your bar high. You may come across books that have been published that aren’t that great, and assume that if you write something as mediocre as what you’ve just read, you’ll stand a chance of getting published. But in reality, the work of a debut author, or illustrator for that matter, needs to be as good as or better than the best of what is currently out there because children’s publishing is now extremely competitive. Most manuscripts that are submitted don’t get read because editors don’t have time to wade through the hundreds of submissions they receive every month. So aspiring writers have to find a way to stand out and get their work read.
One way to do this is to get an agent. But agents are discerning too and will only sign you if they feel you have potential and longevity. So don’t be lazy! Write your story and then read it out loud and edit it ruthlessly.
The other thing to bear in mind is that, just because your partner or your children or your mum think your story is great, it doesn’t mean that it is, or that it would be commercially viable. Publishers have to make money so the stories you write must be saleable. Sometimes it can be difficult to put your personal and emotional ambitions aside and look critically at your work from an outsider’s point of view. But to make it in publishing, this is an essential, if sometimes painful, skill that you’ll need to acquire.
This seems like a good place to insert a shameless plug for myself — publishing being what it is, authors also need to be good at self-promotion — to say that some authors, myself included, offer mentoring and training for aspiring writers. Arvon run amazing residential courses in the UK and offer a number of bursaries for those who are unable to afford the full fee. It’s also worth checking out the Society for Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, an international organization that supports writers’ development, showcases talent and runs training seminars and conferences.
Ziabari: When will you be releasing your next book? Any clues of what it will be about?
Hart: I currently have 14 books in production and several awaiting acquisitions, so there’s plenty more to come from me over the next two or three years. These include books nine and 10 of the bestselling Albie series (How to Grow A Dinosaur being the best known title), published by Simon & Schuster; a fifth princess book in the series published by Nosy Crow, a book about friendship, published by Scholastic as a follow on to Girls Can Do Anything; a fourth book in the Let’s Go series, published by Walker Books; a third and fourth book in the Knock Knock series, published by Hodder Children’s Books; two more books in the Cat Mouse Bear series published by Bloomsbury; and several others that I’m probably not allowed to talk about yet!
I’m also working on a couple of amazing community projects. One is with Tameside Libraries and Community Safety, in which I’m working with families and illustrator Andy Rowland to create a picture book about people who help us. The second is with Sheffield University Department of Education, Sheffield Libraries and Create Sheffield to look at multilingual reading and storytelling in the city.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.