All in the Name of Research

Seeing the world through the eyes of the chapter book reader: are you brave enough to recapture your inner child?



I am a big fan of the first person. I love books that speak to me directly. Characters that let me climb inside their head and share their innermost thoughts. Protagonists I may not always like, but who I understand. Stories I can access without intrusion.

Perhaps because of this, the first person is my default writing position. I’ve tried other points of view, but my writing becomes forced, stifled even; so back I go. But writing in the first person, does have its limitations. The most pertinent being, that language and syntax must be  synonymous with the point of view character.

That last sentence jarred now didn’t it? So, you get it: if you write in the first person, and you write for young readers, there’s no room for this sort of fancy-pants language. Your readers want to hear something of themselves in your writing. They are not interested in the remote academic who lives at the bottom of the street with thirty-seven cats.

But whilst a voice the reader can identify with may grab their attention, if you are going to keep it, you need to do more. You can’t just give them words, you have to provide them with an experience. Now, I don’t have the stomach for going down that whole show versus tell road today, what I’m concerned with  is authenticity. Ensuring that the experiences we describe ring true. That the world we portray is the same world that is experienced by the child-reader.

Observation can take us part way there: it can help a lot with understanding what drives young people and how they feel about things. But if you really want to capture your reader’s world, you first need to taste it. To take time out to remind yourself what it means to be a child.

Easier said than done? Well, because it’s Friday and the sun is shining, I’m going to help you out.  Work your way through the list below over the weekend and by Monday you’ll have regressed so far you’ll be crying for your dummy:

  1. Build a den out of duvets and a clotheshorse. Sleep in it until you run out of clean clothes and you can’t put the washing off any longer. Ensure that the den is guarded by your favourite stuffed toys and that you keep a torch under your pillow: you may have to go in search of a midnight feast.
  2. Do something random. Why not break-up that boring journey to the shops, by stopping on a grassy verge and practising one arm press-ups? Or try out a 360 degree pirouette outside of Sainbury’s. You’ll feel better for it.
  3. When no one is looking drop a sweet into your breakfast cereal. Eat your breakfast with extreme care, rearranging the cereal after each mouthful so that other adults don’t notice the sweet. If you spoon the sweet up and put it in your mouth by accident, place your hand next to your face and spit it back into the bowl discreetly.
  4. Lose any inhabitations you may have about the toilet. Number twos should be a communal activity. Take a friend to the toilet with you and chat about football. Your friend may wish to put their goal-keeping gloves on before they join you in the bathroom. (This last comment may seem weird but it is based on observation.)
  5. Wear your underwear over your trousers and tie a towel around your neck for a cape. Do this whether you are writing for young children or not. I promise, you won’t regret it.

Disclaimer:  with the exception of the underpants over trousers trick do not under any circumstances perform these acts if you are writing for young adults. That would just make you look like a total loser, man.


As Mad as a Box of Frogs: Turning the Writing Rule Book on its Head

 Writing Tips from the 19th Century


I’m currently studying some of the definitive books in the children’s literary canon. If this statement makes me sound pretentious, I assure you, I’m not. The first book I read, A Pretty Little Pocket Book by John Newbery, made me want to stick needles in my eyes.

Things got better though, when I moved onto Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I am in love with Lewis Caroll; the man was as mad as a box of frogs, but that just makes me love him more. In fact, the last time I had a crush this big it was 1983 and the object of my affections was Wham’s Andrew Ridgeley. Did I really just admit that…?

Whilst I’m feeling reckless, I’m going to move the discussion onto writing rules. Now before you stop reading, let me finish. I promise I’m not going to tell you to delete your adverbs: in fact I quite like adverbs. Caroll liked them too. He also liked exclamation marks, brackets and popping out of the story moment long enough to make a cup of tea.

You see, Caroll wrote before the advent of the writing rule. As such, his work presents us with an opportunity to turn such rules on their head. To ask, what if things had been different; if the age of mass-communication had never happened and we still wrote as though we were from the 19th century? So, because I have nothing better to do today, I present you with my alternative rubric: how to write like a 19th century children’s novelist.

Rule 1. Just tell it how it is.

Do you find it hard to convey your character’s emotions through action or dialogue? Well don’t bother. Instead just add an adverb to your dialogue tags: humbly; indignantly; angrily. If they were good enough for Lewis Caroll, they’re good enough for you.

 Rule 2. Bullet-proof punctuation.

Just to be absolutely sure your reader gets it, throw in lots of exclamation marks. If your character is really excited you probably want to add one to every other sentence until they calm down again. If you are still worried your reader can’t process the information you are throwing at them, add some supporting information in brackets.

 Rule 3. Dramatic Tension

You don’t have a thesaurus, so you are struggling to find verbs that are strong enough to convey the drama of your narrative. Simple: just throw in a few more adverbs. Adjectives work well too.

Rule 4.  Transition

Tension sorted, but your narrative still not moving along quite as you’d like it? To help things flow, frequently use words such as, however, suddenly, or presently. If these don’t work, try phrases such as: in another moment; as she said these words; or just as she said this. Your writing will flow like alpine spring water during the summer thaw.

 Rule 5. The perfect ending.

Not quite sure how to wind things up? Is your narrative so weird and wonderful that you don’t know how to explain events to your reader? Easy: it was a dream. Everybody loves a good dream story. And don’t be afraid to follow with a dream sequel.

So there you have it. How to write like a 19th century children’s novelist. Do with this information what you will. After all,  why would you listen to me? I used to be in love with Andrew Ridegley.

Facing up to the Dark Side

Making Friends with the Voices in my Head

Yep. That's me in the black wig. I have no shame.

Yep. That’s me in the black wig. Nice.

OK. I can live with not being funny (see last blog post). But this. This is a revelation too far.

And yet I know it to be true. The evidence is overwhelming: I have gone over to the dark side.

Regardless of subject, the source of  my inspiration, or the age group I write for, I  find myself taking a path that I didn’t intend to follow. A dark path: more sinister than the road I consciously chose to travel.

I recently watched my husband riding the dodgems with our son. His face was pure joy: full of love and light. I was inspired. I wanted to capture this moment. Eternalise  his glee in order that others might share it.

So, I took that moment and I began to write.

A few hours later, I had the outline of a story about a bitter borderline alcoholic, with a dark secret. Somehow, I had taken that beautiful moment and dragged it downwards into the abyss. It emerged totally unrecognisable. My protagonist, no longer a joyful father, but instead the kind of weirdo you’d be  scared to sit next to on the bus.

This dark side has taken me by surprise. When I started my writing journey, I set out to write funny books. Books that brought laughter and light into the lives of children. Somehow, I turned into Darth Vader: the dark side of the force is strong with me.

I am no pioneer. Writers have explored the darker side of childhood for many generations. Yet somehow, I never realised that this darkness is what I am drawn to.

And I am drawn. Completely. I have no choice but to let the darkness envelop me. I used to be slightly in awe of those writers who spoke of stories that had their own momentum; of characters who sprung to life, demanding to be heard; voices in their head that wouldn’t be silenced. Now I understand exactly what they meant.

I also understand that these writers, whilst talented and committed, have no special powers. No supernatural abilities. They are simply gifted listeners. They accept that their characters have something very specific to say, and rather than fight them, they embrace their inner voices.

And so, I make no apologies for stating, that from this day forward, I am going to make friends with the voices in my head. Fine tune my listening skills.  Accept the dark side and let it take me where it will.