Ask the Children's Author

Like most writers, I’m constantly looking for excuses to not work on my current book. So here I am, ready and willing to answer your questions. :smiley:

A bit about me:

I’m a full-time children’s author who’s been writing professionally for over 10 years, though I’ve only been writing full-time for the last 5 or so. I live in the UK, so my experience of being published is primarily a British one, though my books have been published in the US as well.

I write for all different age-ranges of children’s fiction, from picture books up through young adult. Specifically, I currently have on the shelves:

2 picture books
13 series fiction titles for girls 7+
6 young teenage novels
One non-fiction book for adults on how to write

Upcoming titles over the next 2 years will include:

Another 20 series fiction titles (these are for 3 different series which were my own concepts, plus one ghost-writing gig);
A young teenage novel;
A YA supernatural trilogy.

Plus, a writing friend and I are currently putting a proposal together for another 7+ series, where we’d each write half the titles under a single pen name. Don’t know whether this will sell or not, but fingers crossed.

I also teach children’s writing, running probably 2-3 writing workshops or retreats each year. I love teaching, but can’t do too much of it as it eats into my writing time. I also, long ago now, once worked at a literary agency sifting through the ‘slush pile’.

Basically, children’s writing is my passion and I can talk about it all day long. Any questions? :smiley:

Back when you started out, what was your ratio of rejection to acceptance for ideas/manuscripts?

Do you ever get into the situation of knowing you want to write, but being unsure as to what you want to write about? If so, what do you do? Or do you have so many projects going on that one of them always fits your mood?

Is there any particular message you want young girls to get from your writing? Do you think there is or is not a lot of right-minded literature for young girls on the shelves?

How does an idea for a novel start, for you? Do you start with a “what if?” situation? With an image in your mind? Something else? If it’s always different, can you give me one example?


Which do you like writing more - picture books/young children’s books or teen/YA novels?

Which pays more?

Can I read some of your books? You can PM me or I’ll give you my email address if you’d rather not post anything publicly.

What authors really moved you when you were a kid?

For years I was a huge wuss, and hardly sent anything out at all. By the time I did start to send things out, my writing was at a reasonably proficient stage, so that my overall ratio of rejections to acceptances is probably a lot lower than some authors’. I was rejected by 5 agents for my first novel; the 6th took me on. She wanted some rewrites, which I did. When she sent the novel out, again 5 publishers said no, the 6th said yes, and then I went on from there.

Not really at this stage. I’m lucky enough to have a lot of contracts at the moment, so that at any given time, there’s always something I should be working on (including now! :p). It’s not always what I WANT to be working on, but deadlines tend to dictate my work schedule these days, rather than my personal mood.

Well, first, I don’t think of myself as an author of girls’ fiction only, though it’s true that for my series work the audience is mostly young girls (the covers are very pink and sparkly!). But one of the teenage novels coming out this year has a male protagonist, and the YA trilogy will hopefully appeal to both sexes.

But no, there’s no particular ‘message’ I’m trying to impart - as a writer, my primary concern is always to tell a good story, a story that I would have enjoyed reading myself as a child. Having said that, for younger fiction - such as the series stuff - you do often have the main character learning some sort of lesson at the end of the book, such as that it’s OK to ask for help if you have a problem, don’t jump to conclusions, etc. For me, though, this is character development rather than specifically trying to teach something to kids. Obviously it’s wonderful if they pick up a few life lessons as they read, but from my point of view, that’s not the reason I feel compelled to tell a story.


Sorry, but I’m not sure what you mean by ‘right-minded literature’. Could you clarify?

Um…I’d say it’s always different. Often I get images, or a phrase will pop into my head. I got the idea for one of my picture books from my cat, who was doing something funny (sorry to be vague, but I’m trying not to give myself away). The idea for one of my young teenage novels came from a newspaper article I read, about a court case that a child was involved in. Really, anything that catches my imagination and makes me start wondering ‘what if…?’ might turn into a story.

And then there have been the ones that got away, like the wonderful dream my husband had once about pirates at the circus. I grabbed my notebook and started scribbling notes as he was telling me about it - I was SO sure that it was going to become a picture book, but it just didn’t come together for some reason. I’m still gutted about that one!

I love all of them, for different reasons.

Picture books are HARD, but lots of fun when they come together - almost like writing poetry, because every word has to be perfect. Also, I love writing something where I can complete an entire draft in a day. “Hey, I wrote a book today!” Nice one.

With series fiction, you’re often writing a lot of titles to tight deadlines, and there’s a real high involved when you’re juggling all the balls successfully - a great sense of, “Ha, I nailed it!”. But it’s also easy to start feeling burned out when you’re writing two or three books a month. The stories I write in this genre might be anywhere from 8K to 15K words long, and I might have only a week or two to write them in - in a few cases, I’ve written a book in only 4 or 5 days. (Note: never, ever let the publishers know that you can write so quickly!)

I love YA with a passion, particularly fantasy. This is probably my true love, deep down.

For me, series fiction wins hands-down. Because I can write quickly, I can juggle several series fiction projects at the same time, so that even though I get paid less per title than for my older fiction, it adds up. For other authors, though, the answer might be completely different.

Lots. I loved Lloyd Alexander, Norma Klein, ME Kerr, Tolkien, CS Lewis, Tove Jansson … mostly fantasy, but plenty of real-life authors, too.

I remember being completely blown away by SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. First, that she’d been so young when she’d written it, and second, the scene where Johnny died. I think that’s when I first really, really knew that I wanted to be a writer; I wanted to be able to touch other people as deeply as Hinton had touched me.

Thank you! My library has four of the YA novels. I’ll put them on top of the to-be-read pile as soon as they come. I really like YA to begin with, and some of the stuff you have planned for the future sounds like just my cup of tea.

I could probably guess from context, but since you’re available to ask directly, what does the word “stonking” mean? I saw it mentioned in one of the reviews.


UK slang - it means ‘extremely’. (And hope you enjoy the books if you read them!)

I should add, though - for obvious reasons, I don’t want to give out my details too much on here, so please, nobody else ask me, 'k?

I shall be the mysterious, anonymous children’s book author. :wink:

For picture books, or books for younger kids that have lots of illustrations, do you illustrate them yourself, or do you have an illustrator who you work with you draws for all of your books, or are the illustrations left to the whim of your publishing company?

Do you get a say in the style of illustrations? If you hate them, do you get a say or do you have to suck it up and watch your words be published with crappy drawings?


Do you have children of your own? Do you ask for their input (or that of your students)?

Do you recommend getting an agent first, or are direct approaches to publishers ok as well?

For a while now I’ve had an idea for a picture book series, and I know an artist who might actually be willing to do the illustrations, but after mocking up the first book I wouldn’t know what to do. :slight_smile:

Moved MPSIMS --> Cafe Society.

Hopefully, Zuzu’s Petals won’t mind if I jump in on this…

Selling your work can be a crapshoot. On one hand, an agent can be a big help, by having good contacts and knowing who to call for what type of books. On the other hand, finding a good agent is just as hard as finding a publisher. I have 23 books published (well, two are self-published and one is a booklet through the local historical society, so 20 actually sold to publishers), and I’ve never had an agent. I made a lucky connection with my first childrens’ picture book and it turned into a series of 17.

A comment on the illustrations: many publishers like to pick their own illustrators, or even have house illustrators. In my case, the publisher brought me portfolios from three artists that they thought would be appropriate, and gave me a voice in choosing. I have friends who were given no choice at all. “Want us to publish your book? Then use our illustrator.”

Do you feel as though in order to be published you have to write books for children now that you’re established as doing so? Or would you be able to publish books for adults too, without worrying about being “typecast” as a writer for children?

No, I don’t illustrate them myself, and unless you’re a professional artist, this isn’t something that publishers expect. The way it usually works is that the author writes the text, and then the publisher hires (or assigns) an illustrator to do the artwork for it.

Not really. In my experience at least (and this is in dealing with several different publishers), the artwork has always been presented to me as a bit of a fait accompli. In the main I think I’ve been very lucky with my illustrators, but a couple of times - not so much. For one series I did, the publisher made a big show of inviting me in, asking for my views on what the artwork should be like, etc. etc. And then they pretty much went and hired someone who worked in the exact opposite style that I had wanted. :smack:

But, you know. I honestly do feel very lucky to make a living at something I love so much, so I try to keep the whingeing to a minimum. :wink:

No, I don’t have any children. I love writing FOR children, but have never wanted to HAVE children. Just having a cat is responsibility enough. :stuck_out_tongue:

My students are mostly adults - the workshop courses I normally run are for people who want to write children’s fiction, not children themselves (though I do teach children on occassion.)

I should stress that my publishing career is based in the UK, so any advice I can offer comes from that perspective - I don’t know if it’s exactly the same in the US or not. In my experience, though, yes, I would definitely recommend having an agent. They’re the ones who have the contacts, who know which editor is looking for what, who can negotiate your contract for you, who can give you editorial advice before you submit - and on and on. My agent works very hard for her 10% (plus she’s one of the few who doesn’t charge 15%!), and I think she’s worth every penny.

However, while for a time it was pretty much impossible to get a publisher without having an agent, it’s changed somewhat in the last few years. The publishing doors aren’t quite as closed as they once were, in part because so few authors approach publishers directly nowadays that those who do pretty much have a clear field. Also, as Wombat mentioned, for the younger age ranges of children’s fiction it’s not always necessary to have an agent - often the contracts offered by publishers are boilerplate anyway, and it’s possible to sell your work directly to them and build up a good career on your own. (I’d still recommend having an agent if you can get one, though - a publisher, no matter how nice, is not your ally. Your agent is.)

In your case, unless your artist friend is a professional illustrator, I wouldn’t recommend getting them on board to do a mock-up of your book - it’s just not necessary. Publishers don’t expect it, and if your friend’s work isn’t of the calibre they’re used to seeing or in a style that doesn’t appeal to them, it might actually hurt your chances rather than help them. Honestly, I’d just submit your text on its own - this gives publishers a ‘clear slate’ to imagine their favourite illustrator doing the drawings for it. Don’t worry that they won’t ‘get’ it without the drawings - that’s their job; they’ll be able to immediately get an idea of the story and its possibilities from the text alone.

Great to see so many PB authors on here! It’s a tough genre, but a really rewarding one.