An evening in Lewes

 

Lewes Children's Book Group by Myfanwy Tristram

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An evening featuring five children’s book illustrators and writers in conversation lured me onto a train to our neighbouring town on a dark and cold evening last week.

I was already aware of Miriam Moss and Leigh Hodgkinson: the former has written some excellent children’s picturebooks, including Scritch Scratch, a book about headlice (illustrated by the fab Delphine Durand) while the latter has an enviable and eclectic track record that includes working on Tiger Aspect’s TV adaptation of Charlie and Lola, as well as writing and illustrating her own books. She also does laser cut pictures, one of which is on the wall right in front of me as I type.

The others were new to me: writers Julia Lee, Jon Walter, and Dawn Casey. Between them they spanned writing for a wide age range, from toddler picturebooks to almost young adult fiction.

No doubt many were there to gather pearls of wisdom about breaking into children’s books themselves. I did not keep comprehensive notes of everything said, but here are a couple of points that stood out for me:

Writing for children means being true to yourself. It’s not ‘pretending’ to be a child. We were all children once; some of us still are, to a greater or lesser extent; you need to find that part of yourself.

Write something that makes you feel excited and alive. But then the craft comes in containing that passion and pulling it into a coherent form that works as a book.

There were also some amusing differences in approach: while for a couple of the writers, characters’ names were the very first thing to emerge, with stories unfolding from there, Jon Walter said that he used his writers’ software to generate names, has been known to change them for the final draft, and would be hard pressed to tell you the surname of some of his central protagonists.

Casey, who has worked in a publishing house, gave a rather depressing view of the slush pile: ploughed through only by interns, and unlikely to yield the next big thing. Her advice was that you can get the competitive advantage by having won a competition or been previously published in some form or other: that way, you’ll be on the commissioning editor’s (smaller) pile rather than on the gargantuan slush mountain.

As always with these evenings, you felt there was good advice, but that they could really only explore the tip of the iceberg within the short time allowed. All the same, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Lewes Children’s Book Group: it was a really interesting evening.

 

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