Writing books for youngsters may be considered an easy option but David Hill begs to differ.
Writing for youngsters is no easy option, says prolific author David Hill.
Maurice Gee got into trouble once for saying that writing a kids’ novel was easier than writing an adult one. OK, he meant only that it was easier for him, and as a multi-award winner in both genres, he’s allowed to make such a comment.
Other, dimmer lights frequently say the same. Pretty well every writer for audiences up to Year 13 gets asked:
“Have you thought of writing an … adult book?” The hesitation is because the speaker was about to say “proper”.
Mustn’t grumble. And of course, a lot of current New Zealand children’s authors also write for big people. Kate de Goldi, Joy Cowley, Norman Bilbrough, Tessa Duder, Jack Lasenby, Bernard Beckett are notable exemplars. I’ve had a go, too. After all, it’s easier in some ways.
Most writers for adults treat me simply as a fellow tradesperson. Fair enough – the basic skills are the same in each genre. You just need authentic, engaging characters; a plot that engrosses, deepens and surprises; and language that fits, moves and evokes. See – it’s easy, no matter what age group you’re writing for.
But there are things you can get away with when you write for over-18s that are an instant face plant if you try them on
I’ve had letters telling me that I’ve perverted innocence, stolen childhoods, “tipped a bucket of slime over our young people”.
kids. There are pits of sharp spikes you can lurch into. I’ve watched it happen to some adult authors. Did I snigger? Of course not; I always breathe this way.
Ernest Hemingway wrote that writers need a built-in bullshit detector. Young readers already have it. They can pick up “fine writing” two paragraphs away; they’re off the page and on their phones before you can say “extended metaphor”. Adult readers will accept a certain amount of portentous verbiage. Young ones won’t have a syllable of it.
They won’t put up with any lectures, homilies or moral aphorisms, either. Why should
they? They already get it at home and school. The fingers of adult-fiction writers can point out Lessons to Us
All. The fingers of good children’s writers stay firmly in their pockets. Show, don’t tell, as I believe the odd creativewriting teacher may have mentioned.
Books for children get judged both on literary quality and on moral tone. They reach their audience mostly via the filter of adult buyers, who reserve the right to protect innocent readers. And of course they have that right, though John Marsden did point out that protection was a potential first step towards repression.
The fact is that kids can handle almost anything. They don’t need to be cocooned or coddled in terms of content. Sure, you’re careful how you present violence, trauma and injustice, but you don’t deny their existence. That would be lying to your readers.
I’ve had letters telling me that I’ve perverted innocence, stolen childhoods, “tipped a bucket of slime over our young people” (great phrase, eh?). The letters were all from adults. Reactions from kids tend to be along the lines of: “You gonna write another book like that?”
You can’t be precious if you’re a children’s or YA author. I run most of my drafts past readers of the relevant age group (paid readers, but don’t ring me). So, Cody, aged 9, tells me, “It was all right – boring sometimes, but I just skipped those bits,” and Hannah, aged 17, gently explains, “I didn’t finish it – but I was really busy last week.”
Good children’s authors can make kids’ worlds more rich and resonant. They give them friends, yearnings and voyages. They elevate and energise them. Joy Cowley puts it near-perfectly: “Whoever said, ‘We only live once’, wasn’t a reader.” I just hope Cody didn’t skip that bit.
Two of David Hill’s books appear in our top 50 kids’ books of 2018 list. He was written dozens more in his award-winning career.
life in the outdoors, it looks like he might not last the distance, until an encounter with a real-life swagman teaches him some survival skills.
SOMEDAY by David Levithan (Text)
It’s six years since Levithan’s novel Every Day introduced A, who wakes up every morning in a different body. Falling in love, setting up a complicated plan to revisit Rhiannon, he must grapple not only with changing time zones and genders but the shocking discovery that there are others like him out there.
JUNIOR FICTION INHERITANCE by Carole Wilkinson (Black Dog)
Nic has a lot of catching up to do when she comes to live with her granddad in the country. Be warned: there’s a violent act at the heart of this book – but also a passionate plea for human dignity, wrapped up in a darned good time-travel yarn. The detail, as you’d expect from an award-winning historical novelist, is spot on. For ages 10-plus.
LENNY’S BOOK OF EVERYTHING by Karen Foxlee (Allen & Unwin)
In mid-70s America, Lenny is big sister to a boy who just won’t stop growing. Their mother, “made almost entirely out of worries and magic”, struggles to raise them alone. The highlight of their week is the next instalment of Burrell’s Build-It-atHome Encyclopedia, an ingenious literary device that holds the unravelling plot together. We know it will end in tears – but it’s a richly rewarding read.
THE MAPMAKERS’ RACE by Eirlys Hunter, illustrated by Kirsten Slade (Gecko)
This rip-roaring adventure about four kids and a parrot called Carrot is classic read-aloud fare. Sans parents, the resourceful Santanders persist in their quest to map a route through hostile terrain, against dastardly adult competition, using only the most basic equipment and sister Francie’s gift of envisioning the landscape from above. A winner.
EVERYTHING I’VE NEVER SAID by Samantha Wheeler (UQP)
Locked inside the prison that is Rett syndrome, reliant on others for her every need, Ava can communicate only by screaming her frustration. As a family tragedy breaks down barriers, a young therapist offers new ways of opening her world. A moving family story.
THE FIRE STALLION by Stacy Gregg (HarperCollins)
From Wellington to Iceland, filmmaking connects people and horses a world apart in this powerful time-shift romance. Twelveyear-old Hilly, accompanying her costume-designer mum on an Ice- landic film shoot involving legendary warrior woman Brunhilda, feels a magnetic pull to the island … and to the young lead, Anders. Breathtaking.
SWALLOW’S DANCE by Wendy Orr (Allen & Unwin)
In 1625 BCE – the Bronze Age – the Greek island now known as Santorini was obliterated by a great volcanic eruption. Orr ( Nim’s Island) was so taken with a local fresco showing girls in ceremonial dress that she constructed this dramatic yet charming story around them.
FINDING by David Hill (Puffin)
The story of seven generations living by a New Zealand river will resonate with many Kiwis, regardless of whether their forebears came from Scotland, Europe or elsewhere in the world. WUNDERSMITH by Jessica Townsend (Hachette) Poor Morrigan Crow. She thought she’d be safe inside the city of Nevermoor. But her woes are just beginning. The sequel sees our heroine banned from classes, missing her mentor, Jupiter, and hardly ever seeing best friend Hawthorne. The first book in the Nevermoor series won a slew of awards; this will no doubt do the same.
BRINDABELLA by Ursula Dubosarsky, illustrated by Andrew Joyner (Allen & Unwin)
Pender and his artist dad live in a simple old stone house on the edge of the bush with their dog, Billy-Bob. When a hunter kills a kangaroo, the boy finds a joey in her pouch. A satisfying tale for younger readers about the enduring bond between wild animals and humans. BOB by Wendy Mass & Rebecca Stead, illustrated by Nicholas Gannon (Text) Two top US writers create a magical story about an American girl visiting her Australian gran – and a short, green creature in a chicken suit, called Bob. A story of remembering and forgetting across vast distances and generations.
THE FAMILY TREE by Mal Peet, illustrated by Emma Shoard (Barrington Stoke)
Sad, beautiful, haunting, this memoir of a father’s falling apart will have you tearing up before the treehouse is
Show, don’t tell: David Hill.