As a children’s author, I think it’s important to celebrate all aspects of children’s literature, including their own, and to find out from the horse’s mouth (so to speak), what matters to them. Over the past couple of years, I have run several story-writing competitions and here are some of the lessons I have learnt:
1. Kids love stories. Hardly any kids want to be writers when they grow up (rugby-players – yes; donut-making teachers – yes; fashionista karate-people – yes; but very few writers). However, they enjoy being creative so competitions like the ones I run which are free-to-enter, not full of rules and celebrate the imagination are great for giving them a writing focus. And if you can do something that they can put themselves into (like “What would you do if …”) then so much the better.
2. Kids would rather win pizza than your books – the parents of a little boy told me they bribed him with the offer of a pizza if he won and what’s more, they followed through. That said, never underestimate the power of a certificate – kids love them! Oh, and I am still going to give my books as prizes anyway!
3. Forget dignity. Kids will help you with outfits and wardrobe malfunctions – the first reading I ever did was at a school. When I asked for questions, the only one I had was “I like your red dress.” Another time a little boy came up to me and looked into my eyes. “How precious,” I thought. “I have a fan.” Nope, he wanted to tug at a snagged thread on my sleeve so that I would deal with it. Oh, and if you mispronounce their or their school’s names, boy will they let you know.
4. Kids’ imaginations rock and are a bit weird. Embrace the weird!
5. Get them involved – ask them questions and make your readings interactive so they get up and do things. My biggest success is always Ilai Ants-in-his-Pants where I tell a rhyming story and the kids get up and act out all the movements. Sometimes they even want to do it twice!
6. Give them bigger kids -I happen to know two awesome teenagers who kindly acted out a scene for me instead of me doing a boring reading. My audience of all ages loved it.
7. Don’t be too awesome – no matter how fabulous you and your stories are, keep it mellow. I was so exciting once that when the children left, we found that one had peed all over the carpet.
8. Primary and intermediate school receptionists vary but some are saints on earth. They share my contests with the teachers and the wider school community, know all about the children at their school and want to celebrate them and their successes. And let’s not forget the teachers and parents who care about and support their kids too.
9. Be generous and make a difference – as a children’s writer, you probably won’t become rich from your work (and if you do, please tell me how!) but you will make a difference and especially to poorer schools. I have had teachers become emotional because a child in their class who would never otherwise win anything, won a prize in my competition. It was even more special because I made the effort to go out and present it to them at school. It doesn’t have to be much – I made up themed word-searches to give out, and popped in two freebie wands instead of just one at a market when a mother the books would be shared between her two children. Nothing cost me more than a dollar or two, but they made people happy.
10. Have help – my husband comes along to book launches and markets; my step-daughter helps me put gift packs together and comes to help at launches too; my fellow author Julie Crabbe (Waiting for the Fat Fairy) encourages me with my marketing and does a brilliant job at markets and fetes. I am part of supportive online and in-person communities of writers too. Connecting with people means you can share the adventure and share the stress as well.
11. Nothing on earth will make you happier as a writer than a child’s smile as you congratulate them on their writing; nor of having a boy tell you he’d read your book from the library and saying ‘yes it was pretty good,’ when you ask the inevitable, ‘did you like it?’ You will smile for days.
12. Remember how tiny some of them are – as a shortie, I like writing for children because I can feel like a giant in their company. But be careful. At a recent assembly I had to pick my way through the audience who were sitting on the floor and accidentally kicked one in the head when I tried to step over her.
13. If your stories begin with ‘it was a terrible day for a wedding/party/coronation’ don’t be surprised when it happens in real life. I recently had a book launch, assembly and prize-giving all cancelled or rescheduled because of unseasonal hailstorms. Roll with the punches – it might be there for a reason in your stories but in real life, it just happens. Have a cup of tea and plan the next one.
14. It will keep you real – I ran a competition once with no entries at all and only one little girl came to my launch. The librarian kindly kidnapped two more unsuspecting kids who happened to be there and we still had fun but truthfully, nobody actually has to enter our competitions or come along to our events if they don’t want to. It won’t feel good, but it’s a healthy reminder that we need to keep fresh and find out what kinds of things really do excite those potential readers.
15. Be inclusive – remember those children who are homeschooled, and those who have different learning needs such as dyslexia. Invite everyone to enter (let’s face it, most won’t so cast your net wide) and be flexible. So what if their spelling and grammar are not perfect? Let them tell a great story and have fun with it. And so should you.