Author and illustrator, Heather B. Moon, on writing books for children
It’s all in the Game.
I’m an ex-teacher. I used to spend my day around children of all ages. Teaching them to write, inspiring their creativity, reading to them, helping them find books of their own to love. I would catch myself noticing little events in their day to day activities and my ears tuned to scraps of dialogue during playtime. I would spend hours choosing just the right books to bring into my classroom, ones that would open up the minds of my youngsters to teach them about the world and spark their imaginations. I always had a little voice inside my head saying ‘I can write a children’s book.’
As a primary qualified teacher I always felt I had an advantage over other writers who write for children. I knew my audience. I knew what youngsters like and what they didn’t. I was in a position to observe all the dynamics of children interacting with their peers and often got a glimpse into their family lives as well. I understood the social pecking order. When students are involved in creative activities like art or writing, you get a glimpse at how their minds work and what’s important to them. I thought this would help me to write books that are relevant to my readers. Simply paying attention to my students gave me the inspiration for creating believable, interesting characters for my stories. So writing for children should be an easy game, shouldn’t it?
Not quite as easy as I first thought.
My first attempt at writing was a three book series, Tillie’s Adventures. I submitted to agents and publishers in the traditional way and eventually had my trilogy accepted by a publisher in the U.S.A. Looking back, the language I used in these books was too old fashioned for the kids of today. I was writing from a third person’s point of view and not using the voice of a twelve year old girl.
Here is an excerpt from Tillie and the Voodoo Kid. (Now out of publication)
Sample from Tillie and the Voodoo Kid
The Island of Sea and Sun
“Where exactly is Wadadidili?” asked Louie gazing out of the window of the jumbo-jet. He was imagining himself floating on the white fluffy carpet of cloud below.
“It’s an island in the beautiful Caribbean Sea,” replied Janet, his mum, who was sitting next to him.
“I can see it, look!” exclaimed Tillie who turned around excitedly from the seat in front next to her dad. She was already wearing her new sunglasses which looked like two DVDs perched on the end of her nose.
“Oh yes, I can see the runway and lots of palm trees,” cried Louie. “Do you think this big plane will be able to land on such a small runway, Dad?”
His father turned around and replied, “Of course it can, son. The pilot does this every day and the plane has automatic landing gear.” He was very knowledgeable, Louie’s dad, but he could be very boring when he droned on and on. Mum put her magazine away in her massive handbag.
“Soon be there,” she said, “then I can change into my new red bikini and chill out on a sun-bed around the pool,” she said stretching out her legs and twiddling her ankles for the fifty-ninth time.
‘Oh no what an embarrassment,’ Tillie thought to herself, ‘my mum…a white blancmange gradually turning red!”
The airplane came to a halt after a bumpy landing and everyone was herded through to passport control like a flock of sheep. They all waited around the baggage carousel, looking out for their suitcase to tumble past, ready to grab it. People were pushing and shoving to get to the front in the event they missed their suitcase.
“I don’t see why people can’t stand behind the line then we can all see our cases and step forward just to get them,” grumbled mum. As she said this, a tall man dragged his large, heavy suitcase off the carousel and knocked a little girl of about three years of age flying, and she started to scream the place down. “See! If they hadn’t have been standing there so close that wouldn’t have happened,” she said in disgust.
The first suitcase dad spotted bobbing along on the baggage carousel was Tillie’s. The stylish black and pink floral design made it easy to recognize. He politely tapped an elderly woman on her shoulder.
“Err… excuse me please may I just…” The woman turned around to face him.
“Young man,” she began in a stern voice, “I am waiting for my luggage and I was here before you. Find another place to wait for yours.” By the time the woman had swiveled around, huffing and puffing, Tillie’s suitcase was on its second lap of the circuit.
“Oh don’t be in such a rush, Jack,” sighed mum, “we are on holiday, you know.”
It had seemed like a trillion years had passed to Tillie before all four suitcase were eventually on a trolley, and even then, some awful ‘dad-scented’ liquid was oozing out of a corner of dad’s case.
As they all staggered through the airport’s exit doors, the heat hit them like a blast of central heating, and dad spotted a pair of hands waving a sign up high in the air.
What I’ve learned from my critique groups, Reedsy learning courses, and my editor, Rachel Mann.
- A story needs ‘A HOOK! This is most important. I have started this story with a dull beginning.
- You don’t need anything other than ‘said’ after dialogue. Notice how I used ‘Tillie exclaimed’, ‘sighed mum’ etc.
- Don’t use anything that will date the story. DVDs went out of popularity long ago and children will not even know what they are. Same with fashion clothing.
- Children do not like to read about adults. I don’t even introduce Tillie, the main character until I have introduced her brother and parents. Children are much more interested in the characters of their own age group.
- Establish the Point Of View. This should be a book about Tillie, but in the first sentence I am telling my audience her brother, Louie’s thoughts. You must stick to one point of view at a time.
- Use child friendly words. Look at some of those words: floral dress, droned on and on, staggered, father. Not the voice of a twelve year old girl.
It’s a Learning Game.
When writing children’s dialogue, it shouldn’t sound like it’s coming from an adult.
I joined a book critique group and completed courses on middle grade books. I read every popular middle-grade book I could lay my hands on. My favourite middle grade author is Jacqueline Wilson. In the U.K., her books dominate the shelves at the main booksellers and the airport shops. I discovered I needed to write in the voice of a twelve year old girl too. A gutsy protagonist popped into my head. Lottie Lovall: International Investigator. She’s a twelve year old eco-warrior who wants to become a detective. I decided Lottie was going to save the world’s bee population in a fun and adventurous way by searching for ancient clues throughout Europe.
Now compare the first chapter of Tillie and the Voodoo Kid with the first chapter of Lottie Saves the Dolphins.
Sample from Lottie Saves the Dolphins
Lottie Lovall: International Investigator
How would you like to live in a teeny-weeny goldfish bowl for EVER?
Imagine what it must be like for a performing dolphin.
A baby dolphin is twisting and twirling, swish-swashing and swirling in the wide, wide sea. Then suddenly…
He’s taken to a place where he can barely stretch out his fins.
Imagine a life of captivity!
Yesterday I returned to rainy Manchester. I already miss the sunny island of Canario Bonito and the excitement of solving a serious case. I first met Splash, the baby dolphin, at Canario Zooland. That’s what started it all. He was swimming alone in a pool. I could see his dorsal fin in the downward position. Something was extremely wrong. I needed to investigate.
Now I gaze at my most treasured possession on the mantelpiece. It’s even more precious to me than my new mobile phone which is exactly the same as my best friend Amy’s flashy phone. Splash’s gift is way more precious than my new phone. I will cherish my ‘Splash Souvenir’ for EVER.
Maybe, if I’d stayed at home in Manchester, I would still think that it’s cool to swim with dolphins at a waterpark.
Now I know different!
- Notice the HOOK. The reader is intrigued to discover what Lottie did. How did she get her ‘Splash Souvenir? Why is it not cool to swim with dolphins? What has happened to the baby dolphin? What did Lottie do on the sunny island of Canario Bonito? The reader needs to read the entire book to find the answers. They want to read it. They know they will love it from just reading that short introduction. There’s a wealth of information on that first page.
- It’s an exciting start! The story begins with the baby dolphin being captured. The reader shares his experience. In the book I switch from Lottie’s point of view to the dolphin’s P.O.V. in a section at the end of each chapter. I think it works well.
- Use of alliteration. Children of all ages love words that have similar sounds within them. Swish-swashing and swirling. Teeny-weeny.
Now compare the airport scene as Lottie arrives at her destination.
On Our Holibobs!
Half-term arrives at last! It’s excellent to get out of my stifling school uniform and change into jeans. I study my reflection in the mirror before we leave for the airport. Not bad! My wild, mad curls have been tamed with styling gel. I’ve dabbed some cherry flavoured lip-gloss on my lips which has made them pinkie-shiny.
Amy has been allowed to sleep over at my house. She’s been fiddling with her new phone all night. I have to wait until my birthday for mine so I’m WELL-JEL! Now she takes over at the mirror and gives her blonde hair a quick shake. It must be easy-peasy to care for short hair. Sometimes I think of cutting all my crazy curls off. I don’t want to look like a pineapple head though.
I’m looking forward to a week in the sun with Nana and Pop at ‘Villa Luna Azul.’ It’s been ages since I’ve seen them.
“Are you ready, girls?” my mum shouts up the stairs. “Come on, the taxi’s here to take us to the airport.”
I glance down from the plane through the miniature window. I see the island of Canario Bonito in the distance. Now time to put my iPad away in my carry-on bag. I’ve started a new game called ‘Spot the Difference.’ It helps with my detective training. Observation is the aim of the game. I’m on silver level at the moment. Hopefully Nana and Pop have Wi-Fi at Villa Luna Azul, then I can advance to gold level this week.
WOW! I think this plane is going to land in the sea! The waves are getting closer and closer. A sandy beach comes into view. Moving bodies appear so close. Perhaps the plane will land on them. My body does a jig-jog dance in the seat as the plane jerks, bumping and shaking along the runway. As the seat belt signs are switched off, people immediately push and shove to be the first off the plane.
I spot Nana first as we enter the arrivals hall. She’s waving a canvas painting which says,
‘My Beautiful Family’.
Nana is so funny! She’s painted a portrait of each of us with smiling faces and painted our names underneath. Lottie, Jack, Jenna, (my mum) and Tom (my dad). She’s even remembered Amy. Nana makes her feel part of our family. She’s kind and a talented painter, my Nana.
- I’ve introduced the other characters in an entertaining way. By bringing Nana’s painting into the scene the young reader can identify with all the characters. It even gives some insight into their personalities at this stage. For example, Nana is kind and thoughtful as well as talented with her artwork. Character development was one aspect of my writing my editor Rachel really helped with.
- Vocabulary is more child friendly. Well-Jell, crazy curls, jig-jog dance, WOW!
- I added more child-friendly illustrations. The illustrations I painted for Tillie’s Adventures were very classical oil paintings. Children love to visualize the characters they are reading about rather than boring scenery. I do still use some scenic work but try to make it more childlike.
It’s a Game of Publishing.
Traditional or Self-publish?
I had to choose between submitting to agents or to self-publishing. I enrolled in a Reedsy.com course which helped me with my decision. No contest – self-publishing was for me! I amicably parted company with my publisher and received my rights back to Tillie’s Adventures. However, I felt I needed some professional help with editing if I was to follow the self-publishing route with Lottie Saves the Bees.
It’s a Game of Editing.
I found my experience with Reedsy extremely enjoyable and informative. I discovered a fantastic children’s editor, Rachel Mann, through them. Rachel gave my manuscript a thorough shake-up with her development edit. She then polished and made it shine with a final line-edit. I couldn’t believe I had access to an editor who worked with a ‘Big Six’ publisher.
It’s a Game of Cover Art.
I’m an artist. I love to paint in oils and water colours. However, I am not a cover designer. I wanted my oil painting of Lottie saving a bee to form the basis of the front cover. Again I submitted this to the Reedsy professional team of designers and I chose Sarah Fountain to work her magic. Another hurdle cleared. Lottie was on her journey to save the bees!
It’s a Game of Formatting.
This stage had my brain frothing and fizzing! I watched every YouTube video and read every blog on book design and formatting. Then, thankfully I discovered Reedsy Editor. All I had to do was copy and paste each chapter and insert my illustrations. The result was a perfectly formatted e-book ready to upload onto Kindle direct publishing.
It’s a Game of Promoting and Marketing.
This is where the game gets difficult for children’s authors. You have to appeal to the adults as they are the purchasers before you can reach the children. It’s a double hurdle to clear. Children do not have access to all the social media platforms. I decided to create a Facebook group ‘Super Fans of Lottie Saves the Dolphins.’ I asked, ‘Who would like to be a character in my new book?’ There was a tremendous response from parents, grandparents, aunties and uncles. I posted Lottie’s progress once a week. My audience loved the participation and the pre-view of illustrations and storyline. You really have to engage with your potential customers. They trust me to write fun, clean stories that are safe for their children to enjoy.
You Need Friends.
An author needs friends with the same interests in writing and promoting their books. The Facebook groups I have joined have become a valued source of friendship and support. One group in particular is associated with Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula. The members of this group have a wealth of experience and are generous with their time and advice.
I’d been procrastinating about organising a mailing list but I had to take the plunge when I joined other authors in a Group Instafreebie Giveaway. It was a decision well made. Over a hundred and eighty people claimed Lottie Saves the Bees during the giveaway period and I attracted over a hundred subscribers to my Newsletter List. These people are genuinely interested in my books. I have a group of people who I can now write to and inform them of news of my future projects.
After enjoying the success of Lottie Saves the Bees, I wrote a sequel. I was very grateful that Rachel Mann once again agreed to edit and Sarah Fountain agreed to design the cover. I used Reedsy editor and Lottie Saves the Dolphins was launched.
Reedsy’s learning courses have been very useful. The quizzes are challenging and fun. I completed all the promotional and advertising courses which helped to develop my author profile and email list.
It’s a Game of Love.
I JUST LOVE KIDS! I was brought up as part of a large family, the middle child of five. When my little nephews and nieces arrived I was delighted to babysit. I always knew I wanted to become a teacher. Reading stories to children is a delight to me. Making up my own stories and having them published is a bonus. If you want to be a successful children’s book writer, you have to actually like your audience. You have to understand, and respect how they see the world and how they get through their day. I love writing for children and joining in their games.
It’s a game of many skills though!
(Authors note: A section of this blog was first published by Reedsy in the Meet our Authors Blog.)
About the Author
Heather B. Moon was born in Royton, Lancashire, U.K., and is married with two grown children and three beautiful grandchildren.
After teaching for some time, Heather acquired her own school in the north of England. She now spends time at her villa and walking the coast path close to her home in Cornwall.
Heather’s passion for animals is greatly expressed in her writing.
“I believe that wild animals should enjoy their freedom and not be held in captivity for entertainment purposes. I also believe in signing every petition there is for banning certain pesticides that harm our insects and birds. We all have a responsibility. Our world is like a tapestry…if one little thread becomes unravelled then the whole planet may fall apart.” ~Heather B. Moon
Visit Heather’s website where you can sign up for her newsletter http://www.heatherbmoon.com
Please help Heather spread the word about her books by sharing this on your social media or by forwarding the link to a friend. Thanks, as always, for reading and writing!
All photos courtesy WordPress Free Photo Library or Heather B Moon. This article was written in its entirety by author Heather B. Moon. All advice and opinion contained within are directly that of the author.