EVENTS From Tots to Teens

Jools Abrams reports on SCBWI Central East's 'From Tots to Teens, Why Children’s Literature is so Important' presentation by established authors Gillian McClureRosemary Hayes and Pippa Goodhart at the Central Library, Cambridge. 

Squeezing my way through the Saturday shoppers and the multitude of gangs in 1920s gear, bent to their phones in their Sneaky Finders quest, I found my way to the oasis of calm that is the Central Library in Cambridge.

It was another world in there. Other worlds are one of the reasons children’s literature is so important. A children’s book can be an escape, a reflection on their world and a widening of experience.

Gillian, Pippa and Rosemary talked about their journey to publication and the creation of their work. It’s always interesting to hear how established writers have become established.

Author panel (from l to r:) Rosemary, Pippa and Gillian discuss children’s writing.
(Photo credit: Jools Abrams)

All three writers started out as published authors by working directly with their publishers, no agents involved. Gillian was a teacher in Scotland, making her own books until one was spotted by a schools inspector who sent it to André Deutsch. That led to a twenty-year publishing relationship. Pippa was not a natural reader and writer as a child, but as a teen had a job in Heffers bookshop. When she later gained a teaching qualification, they put her in the children’s section, which she loved. She became a publisher’s reader and thought about writing herself, finally entering a competition while on holiday. She won, and gradually her writing career grew enough so she did not have to go and get a ‘proper job.’ Some of her work still comes from publishers’ requests and others from her own ideas that she looks to publish.

Preliminary double page grid for Bruna by Gillian McClure.

Finished artwork in watercolour and ink.

Rosemary was also published through a competition. She was a copywriter for an ad agency, then moved to Australia, showing her novel to a children’s writer she knew, which highlights the importance of getting professional feedback. After her competition win, she was matched with a good editor at Penguin with whom she worked for many years.

The writers described how they each define and write for their intended audience. Gillian writes picture books and explained how it’s important with this age group to see the world from the child’s size. Think about the pace of narration, structure is all, think visually as you write, the story needs to move seamlessly from spread to spread. She makes up a dummy book with her text on post-its, because, ‘It’s always a danger to pin things down too early.’

Pippa helped define middle-grade as chapter books for 7 to 11-year-old readers who are becoming more independent in their reading and their outlook on life. Each chapter should provide a satisfying read in itself; the reader needs to be on the character’s side and the main character should be the agent of their own destiny.

‘Why write for this age?’ she asked. She believes it is the age when most life-time readers are made. Pippa does not plot — it doesn’t work for her. She knows her character and puts them in a situation to see what happens, then works and re-works the story.

Rosemary writes for young adults, she defined her audience as 12 to 14, beginning to think for themselves, but as sensitive and impressionable as younger children. Any book she writes, she needs to feel passionately about herself, and this translates to the reader. If a teenager is not interested in the first paragraph, they will not read further, so with this age group, it’s important to grab them from the outset. But be careful with language and slang: by the time the book is published it can be out of date.

The presentation was followed by a brief workshop on translating emotions in a familiar story, (Cinderella) for PB, MG and YA audiences and then a quick Q and A, where the authors were asked about cultural appropriation, the most important ingredients for a good picture book and agents.

To summarise some answers:

* Be brave, you can write about what you do not know, but check your theme and be open to guidance and correction
* A good picture book must have a very visual idea, think of it as a performance
* Agents? Gillian is not using one, Rosemary never had one and Pippa has had various. The general consensus was that you must have a good relationship if you decide to get one.

Finally, as Pippa said, children’s writers are a generous bunch — it’s always good to share knowledge and network. This was the perfect forum in which to do so.

*Header image: © Gillian McClure

Jools has written five memoirs as a ghost writer, two YA novels and one MG about a mermaid. She won the Wasafiri Life Writing Prize and developed her short story into a novel with TLC, used to be Writer in Residence for Talliston House and writes and performs short stories. Twitter: @joolsdares


Fran Price is Events Editor for Words & Pictures, the online magazine of SCBWI-BI. Contact her at

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