How to get on with your next children's book ... or not. By Griselda Heppel.

Fresh, deliciously green copies of
The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel
This time last year I was just a few weeks away from publishing my third children’s novel, The Fall of a Sparrow. No book launch, alas, because of lockdown, but that didn’t spoil the excitement of all those lovely fresh, deliciously green books arriving from the printers and appearing online and in bookshops.

So what does a writer do at that moment, apart from buzz around doing book signings (where possible) and school visits (where invited), plus the odd radio/magazine interview? 

Well, she starts on her next book of course. If she’s not well into it already. Certainly a whole year later, there should be at least a first draft in the can, if not a second/third/fourth. Writers burst with ideas, don’t they, characters running around in their heads, banging on their temples, me me me they cry, what about ME, it’s my story now, get ON with it….

Erm. Yes. Or, in my case, not so much. 

People often ask: what comes first, plot or character? Answers to this can go on forever but of course you need both. Not much point thinking up a cracking plot if you can’t match it with believable, well-rounded characters your readers will care about. Equally the most deeply researched, painfully realistic characters are not enough to keep your reader hooked if the story is dull, or there’s no story at all… unless you’re writing literary fiction, where apparently this is OK. (Which is why I read very little contemporary lit fic; the frequently poor plotting is just too annoying.) 

In my case it’s always the story that comes first. Something strikes me – usually a few ideas or images thrown together – that would make a brilliantly exciting (I think) story. Now all I need is the characters to drive it. And that’s where I find myself increasingly coming unstuck. There are just so many rules now in children’s and young adult books. Your cast of characters must be as diverse as possible, reflecting – rightly – real life, with children from different ethnic backgrounds and differently abled, and ideally, driving the narrative as hero/heroine. But wait – you can only do this if you, the writer, share personally their life experiences, because otherwise This Is Not Your Story To Tell. Which means you end up not being allowed to tell any story but your own, which isn’t what’s wanted anyway.

These rules are often repeated by writers/agents/editors on social media but no one has ever yet been able to tell me (and believe me, I have asked) how you can simultaneously do one thing and also not – on any account – do it. 

A fairy story. 
Photo by Tú Nguyễn:

I am being a wuss about this, I know. More diversity in children’s books is long overdue and the fact that it’s beginning to happen is very exciting. Nor has there been any let-up in the stream of high quality children’s books published every year, so clearly the rules are working. 

But I do wonder if this is why so many books nowadays have magical heroes – witches, pixies, fairies, sprites, children with super powers, talking animals – or are set in imaginary worlds. 

After all, if everything is invented, no one can accuse you of pretending to someone else’s reality.

The Fall of a Sparrow by Griselda Heppel
BRONZE WINNER in the Wishing Shelf Awards 2021 
By the author of Ante's Inferno  
WINNER of the People's Book Prize


Peter Leyland said…
Well, I have left the world of children's books far behind Griselda, having given up my middle school role for one with adults, although I do remember teaching Stig of the Dump, which you mentioned in your last post.

Your blog made me recall, however, an assumption I made on my last course (African Novels) that the students would respond best to the stories so I tried putting these before them in summary form.

How wrong I was. It was the characters that intrigued them and they made me aware of this, so the course ended with them each taking a character and explaining its importance. I think there was some identification there and I got more involvement than usual from the smaller male contingent.

I wonder what you consider 'lit fic'? I am a great reader and I think that plotting often gets lost in 'postmodernist' novels. Also the 'rules' for children's writers? That sounds like a difficult one for you.

Better stop or I'll go on for ever. Liked the fairy picture at the end of the piece. Thanks
Sandra Horn said…
I'm not in the world of childen's books these days, and I'm not sure if that should be Alas! or not. I couldn't be doing with all the strictures when all I wanted to do was weave a story to engage and delight children (with any luck). I did once ask an illustrator if he could make at least one child not white and blonde; some of the offspring in Rory MacRory have fish tails, and the Boy on The Moonthieves is being brought up by his Gran, but I wouldn't like to try and get any of it past today's Sales and Marketing teams!
I have the greatest respect for authors who work within the requirements and still produce engaging and delightful works.
Griselda Heppel said…
Belatedly responding here. I agree, Sandra - anyone who manages to navigate these increasingly choppy waters to end up with an exciting, compelling story rather than a tediously tailored-to-current-social-rightthink children's fable has immense admiration from me.

And Peter, your experience of a book's characters' intriguing your students far more than the plot is fascinating and confirms my sense that creating a cast of believable, well-rounded and well-differentiated people to drive the plot is a lot harder than creating the plot itself. Or maybe that's just my experience!

Lit Fic? Anything in the last 60 years or so that's beautifully written, often by extremely well-known authors, much trumpeted, reviewed in the press and put in for prizes. I love beautiful writing but so often the weakness in plotting - which these great writers somehow get away with - wrecks the book for me. I wouldn't dream of naming names!
Peter Leyland said…
I don't expect one of them to be Henry James Griselda and he's a hundred years ago, yet I have had the most extraordinary reading experience with The Ambassadors. I read the first 100 pages with difficulty but was intrigued by the character of Strether. Then somehow the plot took over and I could not put it down but wanted to know what was going to happen to all the fabulous characters he had introduced.

I guess that's the art Griseld, that these people in a book take on a life of their own and you begin to live with them. Why oh why did Strether not respond to the advances of Maria Gostrey? I asked myself at the end.

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