The combination of words and pictures is a subtle one. So, how do you make a picture book magic, or a chapter book sing? Alison Padley-Woods asks Amy Sparkes. 

Amy Sparkes lives in Devon with her husband, six children and a sock goblin called Arthur. She writes stories for children of all ages, runs workshops for aspiring authors and produces the ‘Writing for Children’ pages for the bestselling Writing Magazine. In conjunction with this, she set up the Picture Book Prize in 2017 and has just launched the Chapter Book Prize. Here, she tells us about her life, the special interplay between words and pictures and her top tips for anyone wishing to make a successful submission.

Alison: What is your first memory of writing and what drew you to children’s fiction?

Amy: The first thing I remember writing was a song when I was five years old. As a child, I loved writing stories, poems and plays. So, writing for children has always been part of my life!
But when I was going into my final year of university, I’d actually decided to pursue poetry and was due to start a brilliant poetry course. But a few days before term started, a serious motorbike accident left me with multiple injuries, amnesia and a wheelchair. I missed an entire term before I could return and was told I couldn’t take the poetry course because I’d missed so much. As a result, I lost momentum with poetry and drifted back to children’s fiction. Best plot twist ever.

Alison: How did you get your first picture book published? 

Amy: I started writing for children seriously when I had a toddler and a baby. I’d bought a picture book for them and felt mine would sit well with the publisher. So I contacted Meadowside Children’s Books (which is sadly no more). The editor, Lucy Cuthew, really liked my story and we worked on it together, but it didn’t quite get going. I sent a second text soon after, Hodge the Hedgehog. They loved it and suggested it was illustrated by a debut illustrator - Benji Davies! I still work with Lucy and I’m immensely grateful to her for giving me my first break.

Hodge the Hedgehog, by Amy Sparkes. Illustrated by Benji Davies.

In picture books and chapter books, the interplay between words and pictures is a fine balance. Can you sum up how the genres differ and do children’s writers need to think visually?

Amy: I think it always helps to write visually. You need to visualise it so you can help bring it alive to readers. With chapter books, illustration is more complementary - you don’t usually give notes. But with picture books, as a lot of storytelling can be done through illustration, the pictures are crucial. Notes may be needed to help understand character development or plot.

Pirate Blunderbeard: Worst. Mission. Ever. by Amy Sparkes. Illustrated by Ben Cort.

Alison: When you create a character such as Pirate Blunderbeard, do you immediately picture your character and do you pass your ideas on to the illustrator? How does the relationship between author and illustrator work?

Amy: I have huge faith in illustrators and am guided by them. I have drawn maps of storyworlds for illustrators but usually they have free creative rein.

Amy's Fairytale Land map, drawn for Benji Davies for Gruff's Guide to Fairy Tale Land.

It’s brilliant seeing what people come up with. When I created Blunderbeard’s inventions, I’d send a list of labels. Ben Cort would come back with this brilliant drawing of the invention and I’d email HarperCollins saying, ‘Ben is incredible. This would actually work!!’

Pirate Blunderbeard: Worst. Pirate. Ever. by Amy Sparkes. Illustrated by Ben Cort.
 Published by HarperCollins.

Alison: I see your first middle grade novel, The House at the Edge of Magic, is coming out next Spring. Can you tell us about it and how easy is it to move between genres? 

Amy: The House at the Edge of Magic is about an orphan called Nine who pickpockets a tiny house ornament from a bag. When she knocks on the tiny doorknocker, it grows into a higgledy-piggledy, magical house – home to some rather interesting characters. They are under a terrible curse and think Nine is the one to break it.
It was great to write for older children. I’d been delaying it, waiting for a ‘good time’, then realised that was never going to happen. The story was bursting to get out so I decided to write it anyway!
The story is full of magic and mischief and mayhem – often found in my picture books, so I found it really easy to find my voice.

Alison: You produce the ‘Writing for Children’ pages for Writing Magazine. How did that come about?

Amy: Years ago I contacted them as these pages were no longer appearing. I asked if they’d be interested in an article I’d written about picture books, and they asked to make it into a three-part. It’s why I always encourage writers to be cheeky and ask. You never know where it’ll lead! I’m also one of their Creative Writing Tutors now and we’ve launched two book prizes together. We make a good team. 

Alison: Tell us a bit about the Picture Book Prize and newly launched Chapter Book Prize and why you set them up?

Amy: The book prizes were set up after I talked to Writing Magazine and my agent, Julia Churchill, about helping new writers break into the industry. We’ve seen wonderful things happen for winners and listed writers, including signing with agents or getting book deals. Really looking forward to this year’s entries!

Alison: You also run workshops for aspiring children’s authors. How did you start doing those?

Amy: I first ran one at my local college years ago. I was terrified when I started but soon loved it. Now I thoroughly enjoy working with new and emerging talent. There’s news of my upcoming workshops on my website on Twitter @AmySparkes or Facebook

Amy at work, Photograph by Susie Tyler

Alison: With school visits and other writing commitments too, how do you juggle everything? What is your secret?

Amy: Heehee. That would be telling! No, I’m not sure there is a secret, just the passion and determination to find the time and make it work. It’s amazing what’s possible when you put your mind to it. I’m quite disciplined – I don’t have time for writer’s block!

Alison: Is there any part of your work you enjoy the most?

Amy: It’s always fun meeting and encouraging the children. And it’s equally enjoyable encouraging and motivating writers trying to break into the industry.

From a writing aspect, I’m not a big planner, so I often drop something random but significant, early on in the book, with no idea how it will be resolved. I spontaneously choose the first words that leap into my mind and by the end, there’ll be a brilliant way this throwaway phrase can be woven into the story in a meaningful way. I so enjoyed doing this with Pirate Blunderbeard, that I did it many times with The House At The Edge of Magic. Throw something in – see how it works out. Great creative challenge.

Alison: What’s your proudest achievement? 

Amy: There have been so many highlights, but right now, I’m floating on The House At The Edge of Magic. I wrote the first draft in 4-minute bursts, while The Baby Who Never Napped grabbed a few minutes sleep. There was a lot of raw energy and determination which went into it. The first draft was (unsurprisingly) disjointed, but it was enough to work with.
Writing on the fringe of impossibility is an exciting thing to do – and when it works and comes together, it’s magic.

Alison: What are your three top tips for submitting?

Amy: Proofread carefully. It makes a lot of difference.
Do your research - who are you approaching and why? Tell them!
As soon as you've submitted, take a quick break to recharge, then start work on something else. It'll distract you from waiting!
Alison: Thank you for a great interview, Amy. It's been inspiring. 

Header photo: Amy Sparkes, photographed by Justin Irwin



Alison Padley-Woods is Words & Pictures' Deputy Illustration Features Editor. Alison used to work for Condé Nast’s Brides magazine. She now writes middle grade fiction and picture books and has been shortlisted and longlisted for several prizes including The Times/Chicken House Competition, Bath Children’s Novel Award and Writing Magazine’s Picture Book Prize.


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