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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century