There is only one thing that scares me more than the thought of drowning in a locked car, and that is writing for children. The idea of using anything but an adolescent voice and moody character tendencies puts me in a state of terror, mainly because when you are still a child but nearing the age of adulthood, you suddenly realise that you really don't understand children. However, despite this, I have always quietly harboured the dream of being able to write a book for children. There is nothing more special than children's literature. Even now, I remember almost by heart the books my parents used to read to me as a young child, and the books I first started reading by myself. If you think about it, the reading you are exposed to you as a young child shapes what you read, and more importantly, who you are, in later life. I wanted to explore these complexities, and the beautiful intricacies of writing for children with my younger sister's favourite author, Jacqueline Harvey. Harvey is a Random House bestselling author who has experienced huge success with her children's series Alice-Miranda and Clementine Rose, and I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to interview her, about books, children's literature and creating characters that strike a chord with a significantly younger audience.
When did you first discover that you wanted to be a writer?
I think the idea of being a writer was something that was always there in the background but I hadn't the first clue how you'd make it happen. As a child I loved to tell stories but as a teenager I won a minor writing competition and it really made me wonder if there was a future in that direction - journalism was something I considered but my heart was always in teaching - from the age of nine! At University I took several electives in children's literature and had a particularly encouraging lecturer who told me I should give writing a go. In my early career I wrote a lot for school (not just programs and reports). I was the school reporter for the local newspaper and also wrote things like the annual Year Six review as well as poems, stories and plays for my own classes. It wasn't until I'd been teaching for ten years that I realised (with thanks from my incredibly supportive husband) that I really wanted to give writing a proper go. I didn't want to look back in ten or twenty years' time and wonder if I could have done it. So I wrote on weekends and in school holidays and over the next three years had four books published, one of which was an Honour Book in the Australian Children's Book Council Book of the Year Awards in 2006. That gave me a lot of confidence to continue; however it was another four years until I had anything published again and that was Alice-Miranda at School in 2010. I resigned from my job as Director of Development in a school for girls in Sydney at the end of 2012 and have been writing full time since then.
What's exciting about writing for children?
Children are really honest. They'll tell you straight up what they like and don't like. When I was teaching I'd always test out my stories on the students. I think in the beginning they would tell me what they thought I wanted to hear but it didn't take long to develop honest relationships where the children would give me the sort of feedback that was critical to improving and really hitting the mark. I'll never forget one day, when I was working with a class of Year Six girls who were involved in a long term project to each create a picture book. I decided I'd read them a picture book manuscript that I'd recently written. When one of the girls prefaced her response with, 'You know I really like you Mrs Harvey,' I laughed because what came next was a very honest opinion (and it wasn't good!). Fortunately I listened to the kids and over time I think I did improve.
I've had such lovely feedback from parents telling me that their children have become hooked on books because of Alice-Miranda or Clementine Rose. It's incredibly humbling to think that as a writer you can have such a positive impact on a child's life. Having been a teacher for the better part of 20 years, I know the joy of seeing children come to love books.
How do you go about creating your characters, like Alice Miranda?
Alice-Miranda was definitely a product of my teaching career. In the beginning I wanted to write a school story - it was a place I knew so well and the character of Alice-Miranda developed from the idea of three little girls in particular who I had taught in Kindergarten then later in their primary school years. She was sort of a combination of their traits and experiences but as I continued thinking about her, she really became the best bits of so many children I've taught over the years.
The joy of writing series' is that you get to work with an ensemble cast which feel so real; it's like spending time with old friends and then there's the fun of adding new characters in each book too. I've just created an interesting new character called Alfie Doncaster - he's a health and safety inspector for the council and has come to pay a surprise visit on Lady Clarissa (Clementine Rose's mother) at their hotel, Penberthy House. I think about what the character looks like, what sort of mannerisms they have and how are they surprising. I'm an avid watcher of people and frequently get ideas when I'm out and about and particularly when we're travelling. I write things down - descriptions, mannerisms, how people behave toward one another. There's inspiration for characters everywhere.
What do you think the difference is between writing for adults and writing for children/teenagers?
I haven't ever written fiction for adults so I'm not sure that I'm qualified to answer this although I suspect that at the heart of it is the voice. As a children's author I need to tap into my inner child. One of the best things I was ever asked when I was starting out was, 'how old are you?' I answered honestly, then the asker said, 'no, not your real age - how old are you in your head when you write a story?' I'm about nine I think. Children's and YA authors have an ability to remember themselves at the ages they're writing for.
In your opinion, what's the best way to encourage children to read?
There are lots of ways to get kids reading. First and foremost, read to them from the time they're born, engage with books on a daily basis, visit the library and borrow together. My mother introduced me to the library as a small girl and I remember how special I felt with my own library card. I couldn't wait to go each week.
Buy books as gifts and also let children choose what they want to read. Although you might be well and truly sick of dinosaurs, your son or daughter will grow out of them at some stage and discover their next passion - you just have to be patient (not that there's anything wrong with dinosaurs of course!).
Don't stop reading to your children when you think they're old enough to read for themselves. Let them read to you and find stories that you both love.
When your child is reading aloud, don't focus on the mistakes, focus on the context and the meaning and only correct them when their comprehension is at risk.
Be a good reading role model. Have books in the house and encourage children to read for pleasure, not just for school.
What type of messages do you try to put across to your young audience through your books?
I never set out to present a message or a lesson in the stories, but by virtue of the characters and their adventures there are often themes that shine through. Alice-Miranda is a very kind and courageous girl. She tries to make friends with everyone (sometimes that doesn't work out) but above all she doesn't give up on people. Her stories are full of mystery and problem solving, friendships, bravery, discovery and humour. Clementine Rose is more naïve. Being younger and less travelled than Alice-Miranda, she tends to live a more contained life. Family and community are at the heart of the stories. She's a good friend and tries to be helpful especially with her mother in their hotel (although that doesn't always work out either - and there are lots of funny conundrums as a result). I am always thrilled when parents or children write to tell me what they like about the characters and books. Often parents tell me that their children have surprised them by doing something slightly out of character (like cleaning up their room voluntarily) and when questioned about it, they've been told, 'because that's what Alice-Miranda would do.'
Any advice for those who want to start writing for children?
If you really want to do it, don't talk about, make a start and understand that like anything worth doing, it takes time to hone your craft. Learn from the experts. Take courses, read widely in the genre that you're keen to write in and heed advice. Everyone approaches their work differently and there is no 'one right way to be a writer'. Learn everything you can about the business so that you don't go in with rose coloured glasses. Writing for children can be a frustrating business - but ultimately I've found it to be incredibly rewarding and I can't imagine doing anything else these days.