In 1982 Joan Aiken was asked to write a practical guide on the art of writing children’s books. From the first line it is clear that she wasn’t entirely sold on this concept (‘There is no one way to write for children’), but concedes that there are many practical things that a new writer can do to create a successful children’s book – mow the lawn, put your feet in a bucket of hot water, take laudanum….
The world of children’s publishing has moved on a lot since this guide was published, but there is much sensible advice packed into the book’s 93 pages that still rings true. The Way to Write for Children is more than just another how to guide, it stands alongside Aiken’s many fictional books as a fine, funny and revealing piece of writing.
Looks aren’t important
‘Characters must be real, rounded out individuals. Over-elaborate description is not required; I don’t know that Mark Twain ever gives any indication of what Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn looked like; this isn’t needed. We know those boys, we know that Tom is rather sententious and given to making rules, that Huck is devoured by moral problems; we know how they would act at any time; we don’t have to be told what their external appearance was like.
Observe your surroundings carefully
‘When it comes to place or setting, some description is essential for children. They shouldn’t be swamped, or their interest will slacken; but on the assumption that, if your book is set in a New York Subway station, a Welsh valley, an Indian jungle or a London suburb, ninety per cent of your readers will not have the least conception of what the place looks like, it is your duty by them to produce a rapid, vivid picture, with enough details to nail it in their minds.’
What sort of cakes?
‘Of course children will read the bald kind of story, one that lacks detail, if it has plenty of action and keeps moving; but that is not the kind of story they go back to fondly again and again. I remember my daughter once picking up a woman’s magazine and starting to read a serial in it: the story was laid in the south of France, and the heroine reported, “We went into the chateau and were served with wine and little cakes.” My daughter flung down the magazine in utter scorn, exclaiming. “What’s the use of that, if she doesn’t tell you what sort of cakes?” Ever since then the phrase “wine and little cakes” has come, in our family to typify a lazy indifference to detail. And poverty of detail instantly stamps a style as second rate.’
Ways not to write for children
‘Children may be fiends in all kinds of ways, but they are not hypocrites If you remember it was a child who cut through all the pretence and pointed out that the Emperor had no clothes on. Children don’t like to pretend to like things that bore them. Bridge passages are absolutely out. So are flashbacks. Lengthy soliloquies are also taboo. Another thing that children strongly dislike is confidential asides from writer to reader… it instantly lowers credulity to freezing point. E. Nesbit was occasionally guilty of an aside to the reader; it is her only fault.’
Let the reader see the world through your eyes
‘A story should give a child some kind of glimpse or vision or key or intimation that things are not necessarily what they seem… Your vision doesn’t have to be beautiful. It just has to be your own – your own glimpse, your own angle. It may be a rusty bridge, a mousetrap, a dragon lost in a supermarket, a box of buttons, a wayside railway station. It may not be a thing, but a situation – a bird stuck in an organ pipe, a crinolined lady in a revolving door, a person who tells his fortune every day by switching on the radio just long enough to hear one word.’
The importance of the everyday in picture books
‘Consider the simple process of making toast – a ritual which occurs in ninety nine households out of a hundred several times a week, if not daily, in our civilisation. From the small child’s viewpoint there must be something magical about the transformation: the severance of a thin, flabby white slice from a thick soft block of bread, and its transition (by means of whatever process, grill, toaster, or fork) into a hot crisp delicacy. There is excellent substance for fiction here. Remember how minutely observant and noticing small children are. It is their paramount quality.’
No cuteness please, we’re children
‘Writers unacquainted with the genre tend to believe that all small children’s books must, ipso facto, be cute. This is a gross error. Small children are the most serious students in the human race. They have to be, They are learning something every minute of the daylight hours… cuteness has no place in their experience. Cuteness, if it is found in small children’s books, has been put there to catch the attention of the adults and that is a serious sin. Study the work of Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, John Burningham. You’ll find no cuteness there.’
Where do you get your ideas?
‘Our whole surroundings are composed of basic material for plots, once the habit of recognising them has been acquired…. a working writer is always on the alert. Even the short walk to the post office may contain material for fiction: the little man, thinking he is unobserved, nipping with great agility through the narrow gap between a lamp post and a street sign, just for fun; an odd reflection in a shop window, making it seem as if a swan is sitting on a cafeteria counter… Also in newspapers are small ads, and they are equally productive: “Eccentric but reliable lawyer would like to join expedition to Central America…” “Agile bagpiper with waterproof kilt required…” “Wanted, bearded man prepared to keep shaving and re-growing beard…” “Entries for national snake charming competition in South Kensington…”.
The trouble with endings
‘Children often wish to deny the end of a story if they can. They feel bereaved, or even frightened that a favourite story has come to a stop. A story to them is like a friend, a live entity. My daughter once wrote to C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia books she adored, asking what happened after the last one, how the story really ended. She was very troubled when he wrote back saying that he didn’t know the end, because it hadn’t happened yet. To children the end of a story represents chaos and uncertainty, being faced with emptiness, with something insoluble, with death itself.’
Children’s books need to be as complex as those for adults
‘Really good writing for children should come out with the force of Niagara. It ought to be concentrated; it needs to have everything that is in adult writing, but squeezed into smaller compass, in a form adapted to children’s capacities and at shorter length. But the emotional range ought to be no less; children’s emotions are as powerful as those of adults, and more compressed, since children have fewer means of expressing themselves, and no capacity for self analysis. A children’s story ought to put life in perspective. It is the first step towards abstract thought.’