Penny Dolan, an established children’s writer in the U.K., says writing for children entails consistent research and reading
The cherubic Penny Dolan’s eyes dance with mirth. She comes across as the sort you would trust to tell you an enchanting story. And she has been, for years, in picture books such as That Noise and The Wrong House and her novel A Boy Called M.O.U.S.E.
Penny was at the British Library this month to conduct a workshop on children’s writing. A variety of ideas were discussed at the workshop.
“There were lovely stories about snakes, a little family of worms and a horror story on a bouncing head,” recalls Penny.
The challenge in writing children’s books, says Penny, “is to find an idea that’s relevant to children, and see the story through their eyes”.
She contends that there are so many children’s writers that it is often a struggle to get your work recognised. “Every writer has a lucky book, though they might have been writing for years before they got their big break. Being persistent is an important aspect to being a children’s writer.”
Does Penny believe that the Harry Potter series made the world sit up and take notice of the importance of children’s writing?
“J.K. Rowling worked hard for those particular books, but she hit a very lucky moment. When the fashion had been a different kind of writing, children liked her style of writing which was fantasy storytelling. And she also had a good personal story that appealed to the media; she was a struggling mother writing these magical stories.”
Penny contends that children’s writers must follow certain principles. “Do not write long, extended sentences. It is difficult for young readers to keep the idea going. The story must have clear steps. The language must be lovely; it must have rhythm in it.” Reading and research are other essentials. “Research and research, and read and read, because the more you do, the better ideas you will get.”
There are many categories within children’s writing; one has to be aware of the requirements of each. “There are picture books for very young children that are about a 1,000 words long; young fiction of up to 5,000 words. Junior fiction is about 40,000 words — books for pre-teens and cross over books that deal with adult themes but with always a teenage protagonist.”
Penny’s many years of teaching experience was useful in getting to know about what interested children. “One learns to develop a sixth sense for story ideas.”
For those who struggle to make time out from their demanding schedules for writing, Penny advises: “If you are writing, it’s time away from your family and that can be hard. You can set up a private space for yourself without upsetting the needs of the family. Young women are very good at being more ‘this is my time for doing this’, which, is not so natural to me. You have to develop a pattern of a writing life.”
The conversation digresses to some of her memorable experiences. “There’s such a joy in writing a book and hearing a child say they’ve read your books. I had once received a letter from a child who wrote: ‘I wouldn’t have read your book, until I was encouraged to read it. But now I love Mouse. He is part of my life.’ And that was so sweet and so magical for me!”
Penny becomes nostalgic when she speaks of her book The Third Elephant, which is set in India,
“It is based on a model of an elephant in my grandmother’s room, where I was never allowed to go in. The room had on display objects that she had brought back from India. I once saw a souvenir of a lovely white palace when I was four or five in that room. Many years later I realised it was the Taj Mahal. I put the elephant and the Taj as symbols of India in my book. I was very pleased to have recently been able to visit the Taj Mahal. I sat on the Princess Diana seat, holding a copy of my book, saying ‘here I am for my mother and grandmother’!”