WRITING Debuting when you're older


For many children's authors, the route to publication is a long one. Françoise Price talks to writers who debuted later in life about their experience. First up, Em Lynas dropped in to Words & Pictures HQ to talk about her new picture book — and how her writing career took off in her sixties.

Recent newspaper reports claim older women writers (in grown-up publishing) are in demand by agents and publishers, but a more balanced view suggests that while this may be true to some extent, ageism and discrimination still exist in the industry. The debate sparked a question at Words & Pictures: what’s the experience of being a debut children’s author in later years?

Hi Em and welcome to Words & Pictures! What age were you when you debuted with You Can’t Make Me Go To Witch School?

Sixty-three years! I’m sure it’s not a record in children’s publishing but I suspect I’m in a fairly small group.


Were you new to writing or had you been trying a while?


I’d been trying for approximately 17 years off and on. This article has made me wonder if I would have even begun writing if I’d known it would take that long. Would my advice to my younger self have been:


"Maureen! It’s going to take you SEVENTEEN YEARS of striving! Don’t do it!"


Or maybe:


"Maureen! Stick to picture books and younger fiction. Don’t try adult books. Don’t try scriptwriting. Don’t get sidetracked. Join SCBWI earlier. You’ll love learning your craft. You’ll love the people you meet in the writing community. You’ll eventually have your books in the hands of children and you will make them laugh. Do it!"


Em Lynas (pictured left) with her agent Amber Caraveo

Did you experience ageism during your 17 years of striving? What do you think of the recent reports that older women writers are in demand, or does this only apply to grown-up fiction?

I haven't experienced any ageism at all — I don't think my age influenced my publishers either way, they loved the books so they published them.

I haven't heard that older women authors are in demand. Perhaps the adult stories they're writing haven't been told yet? Or perhaps they're bringing life experiences to their work? Their stories still have to be good though so I'm not sure anyone will get a publishing deal just because they're older.

What is your background?


I was a primary teacher, mostly reception and I truly thought I was an expert on picture books — I wasn’t, I just loved reading them. I had a lot to learn.


How did you feel when you knew you were going to debut?


Shocked. Appreciated. Relieved. After the rollercoaster years of angst, hope and dreams it was fantastic to have my agent, Amber Caraveo, Skylark Literacy, on my side. Amber pitched Witch School in 2016 and three publishers wanted it! Exciting! I went with Nosy Crow and I was teamed up with the delightful illustrator Jamie Littler.

Em was teamed up with illustrator Jamie Littler for The Witch School series

Can you remember where you were and what you were wearing when you heard about the deal?


I can’t remember what I was wearing but I definitely remember where I was. I was in a hospital carpark visiting my Mam who had collapsed. I didn’t know whether she was alive or dead as I answered the phone to Amber. So I was feeling all the feelings! Everything I’d hoped for and everything I’d dreaded all in the same moment. Luckily Mam was sitting up in bed absolutely fine so we had a little celebration on both counts. Life is odd.


Did you feel a certain amount of vindication?!


Oh my goodness, yes. It’s very hard to keep believing in yourself, to know that what you are producing is worth reading. However, I look back and can see those moments that helped me to, in game terms, level up. I just wish I’d levelled up sooner because publishing is such a slow business, picture books can take up to two years from acceptance to publication so my writing career is turning into my pension scheme!


What helped you to keep going?


SCBWI, without a doubt, and family. I gave up a few times but my SCBWI friends believed I could do it. Thanks to George Kirk, Candy Gourlay and others! They created a twitter/facebook storm all wearing a Twinkle Toadspit hat! It was amazing! Here they are on publication day:


Although I have four books out now I still feel like a novice. According to my agent I’ve debuted twice – once for middle grade and once for picture books.


Sharing The Cat and the Rat and the Hat with my new granddaughter, Hettie, has been the biggest joy. Thankfully she’s old enough not to eat the next one!


Were there any particular challenges in being older (say from a marketing/publicity point of view? or school visits etc — because, personally, just the thought of that makes me weary!)


Me too!! I don’t travel the country promoting my books to schools and bookshops, I prefer to put my energy into writing more books. But I do some local and zoom visits and I’m trying to get my head around Instagram having left Twitter because…yuck.


Did you ever consider self-publishing?

I did briefly self-publish a younger middle grade series on Kindle – Florence and the Meanies. But I realised I wanted to be traditionally published. I wanted physical copies of my work in bookshops, in schools, in the hands of children. So I took it down. Florence was the first book I wrote where I actually felt I knew what I was doing. The illustration is by my daughter, Katherine Lynas.


Illustration from Em's self-published book Florence and the Meanies 

(Illustration by Katherine Lynas)

Do you have any more books coming out?


I do!


I have FIVE picture books coming out, which is truly amazing to me. The only one I can tell you about actually launched on 4th May 2023 with the fabulous Nosy Crow team, illustrated by Matt Hunt, called The Stoat and the Goat and the Boat, a follow up to The Cat and the Rat and the Hat.


What would you say to other older writers hoping to get published?


If you love writing, write. Publishers don’t ask for your age in your submission letter!


*Header image: Em Lynas. All images courtesy of Em Lynas

Want to be featured? If you have experience of being an older debut please get in touch. Contact Françoise Price at: deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org


Em Lynas is an ex primary school teacher and author of The Witch School series, The Cat and the Rat and the Hat, and The Goat and the Stoat and the Boat. She lives in the North East of England in Saltburn by the sea and is the owner of a very large and very wobbly slushpile. Find her on Instagram: @emlynas


Françoise Price is deputy editor of Words & Pictures magazine. Contact deputyeditor@britishscbwi.org


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