Dilemas: How do I become a children's author?

With the help of her sister who studies art at evening class, Helen has written some stories for her children which they adore. She wants to get them published, and take up writing for children. What should she do?

IF I HAD a hot dinner for every letter I've received from amateurs who think they can write and illustrate for children, my tummy would be so big I would be unable to see my feet. The cheek of it, is all I can say.

It's as if, after putting up a shelf successfully, I were to write saying that in future I wanted to take up carpentry as a profession and wished to construct a cabinet inlaid with ebony, with ivory handles, two secret drawers, and a marquetry top. Or, on finding that I could stagger round the rink on a couple of skates, to declare that in future I wished to be an Olympic champion. The sheer conceit of it.

Helen does not seem to realise that writing for children is a skilled profession and that while almost any chump can dash off a kids' story with pin figures as illustrations, to get a book published is a different matter altogether.

Children's stories have to be written with much more in mind than whether a couple of kids enjoy them. The illustrations have to be beautiful and original - a couple of terms at evening class really is not enough to make a proper illustrator, however talented her sister may be. And if she were really talented, she would have gone to art school as a student and be unable to stop drawing, drawing, drawing.

Children's books have to be perfectly targeted at the right age group, with great care and attention paid to vocabulary. They have to be exactly the right length to be financially viable to produce. Increasingly now, they have to appeal to an international market.

And anyway, as Helen would have realised if she had so much as glanced at the children's section in a bookshop, publishers tend to use their own illustrators with different writers. Helen would also realise that a great many children's books contain the kernel of an extremely original, intriguing or intelligent idea. It is not just a matter of writing, "Once upon a time there was a great big bear who lived in a wood. When the sun was shining he rolled in the grass and when it rained he hid in his cave, but most of all he liked a day when he could eat as much honey as possible." Yawn.

Of course, I have a personal axe to grind here. I have written 13 stories for children and only seven of them have been published. If it is difficult for me, as a professional, to get stories published, imagine how wellnigh impossible it would be for Helen and her sister.

Unfortunately the fact that her children like them means nothing. Helen's books are almost certainly imbued more with love than with originality, and her children pick up on this. Anyway, small children are as proud of their parents when they achieve something as parents themselves are when their children bring back misshapen clay mugs from school. Critical judgement goes to the winds.

But to end on a more positive note, what about getting the books printed out in booklet form by a firm that does desk-top publishing? It means paying, but it also means that Helen could have lots of copies and give them away to friends at Christmas if she wanted. She could also put them on to the Internet. At least someone else might read them. Highly unlikely, but you never know - it might be a publisher.

What readers say:

I HAVE been a book editor for more than 25 years and have specialised in children's books for the past 12 years. Most people believe that it is considerably easier to write for children than for adults - this is not true. Writing for children is a rare talent and any editor who finds a good children's author values him or her highly.

As the children's editor for various companies, I have always made a point of reading any unsolicited manuscript that was sent in, in the hope of finding new talent. I could not begin to count the number of submission letters I have read that started with the remarks Helen has made. Only on one occasion were the accompanying stories of sufficiently good quality to be presented as a potential acquisition for my company. I am afraid that family approval is not enough.

DIANA BRISCOE

EVERYONE, BUT everyone believes that they can write or illustrate for children. It is an enormously overcrowded field.

We at the Association of Illustrators run a children's book seminar at least once a year and it is always oversubscribed, despite the fact that it is far from being the best paid part of the publishing industry.

I do not want to put you off because, after all, lots of children's books get published each year, and someone writes and draws them. But do expect to join a crowded profession and to face lots of tough competition before you get published.

And even when a publisher has accepted your idea, prepare for them to tear it apart and practically rewrite it.

Children's picture books are very expensive to produce and can be made cost-effective only if the publisher goes for huge print runs. This means selling them to several different countries at once, so your text and illustrations have to be able to fit in whether the reader drives on the right, or speaks a different kind of English.

You may be the next Roald Dahl (and look how old he was before he became successful) but be prepared for an uphill struggle.

FRANCIS BLAKE

Chair, Association of Illustrators

WHAT YOUR postbag will reveal, I suspect, is that readers of The Independent are all literate, talented and unpublished and will be only too happy to depress your poor lady with tales of how difficult it is to get an agent, how the large publishers do not answer letters (even with a stamped addressed envelope enclosed) and how smaller publishers will not take risks with first-time authors.

I am currently hawking my third crime novel around, a triumph of hope over experience. You do not know anyone who reads for Macmillan, Gollancz or Collins Crime, do you?

Yours in discouragement.

DORAINE POTTS

GO FOR it, Helen. Keep writing, but not because you want to get rich. Your children's enjoyment and your own satisfaction ought to be enough in themselves. If, later, you get published, all well and good. But bear in mind that even established authors can find it quite hard going to make a living.

JOHN COSGROVE

Next Week's

Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

I've been married 25 years and have brought up three children, not to mention looking after a lovely but demanding husband. My aunt has died, leaving me a small legacy. I'd give anything to spend it on a world cruise, but it would mean going away for three months. My children are grown-up and have left home, and I have little to do all day - my husband still works - but he was furious when I mentioned it. He said I was selfish, that we have always shared everything and that's what marriage is about. I feel I deserve a break. What should I do?

Kay

Letters are welcome, and everyone who has a suggestion quoted will be sent a bouquet from Send comments and suggestions to Virginia Ironside, Features Department, The Independent, 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e-mail: dilemmas@independent.co.uk

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