Are you a first-time or emerging children’s author wondering what to write about? Perhaps it’ll be something Harry Potter-like? Or along the lines of Andy Griffiths’ Treehouse series? Will you write about ponies? Fairies? Aliens? Or maybe you’re going to look at the bestseller lists, see what’s doing well at the moment. (In NZ, that means you’ll be writing picture books about kiwis.)
There’s nothing wrong with this approach – ponies and dinosaurs (and kiwis) will always be popular, and you need to keep track of what’s trending and what publishers are looking for. But if you’re wondering where to start, I’d say forget what’s worked for other authors and try, instead, a spot of introspection. Think about what really matters to you. Because if you can pin this down and build your story around it, then you will have a story with heart.
What does it mean, when we hear the phrase ‘a story with real heart’? Is it one that elicits an emotional response; a story that makes us cry? One with a feel-good ending? I’d say it’s more than that. A story with heart, one that really connects, is more often than not a story centred around something the writer cares deeply about. Therefore to write a story with heart, we first need to ask ourselves, what really matters to me?
Dig deep! Perhaps it’s family, or the environment, or you may want to send a strong message about inclusion or bullying. Perhaps what’s most important to you is to kick-start a love of reading in the reluctant reader, so you’re aiming for a page-turning adventure or a belly laugh that will let them know that books aren’t boring. When you’ve put your finger on whatever it is, this can be your starting point.
Next, think about how you can mesh what you care about with your subject. This of course should be something that floats your boat (in my case it’s ghosts and history) and here you should also take account of what kids are into reading at the moment, whether that’s wizards, princesses, aliens, vampires or unicorns. Put your own twist on the time-honoured favourites. If anti-bullying is your thing, maybe write about the dinosaur all the other dinosaurs all picked on; if it’s learning to cope with failure, try a story about the fairy who couldn’t fly.
When I was writing the third book in my middle-grade ghost story series, there was a great deal of debate happening in New Zealand around immigration, in particular from China. My story features a ghostly goldminer (or two) and takes place near Queenstown where, during the gold rush, there was a large community of Chinese goldminers. They were treated fairly appallingly by miners from Europe, the US and Australia. While making it as subtle as possible, I wanted to draw parallels between immigration then and now, hoping that the way the Chinese miner in my story was treated would make children think about their own relationships with migrant children in their classes at school. It wasn’t the main thrust of the book, but it was something that was important to me.
A story without heart is a cold thing. As an editor I can tell if an author doesn’t care an awful lot about the theme of their book; it feels formulaic, as if the author’s writing ‘to order’, and the reader will probably pick up on that too, even if they can’t put their finger on why they’re not connecting with the text. Why should the reader care what happens if, deep down, the author doesn’t? We have to be writing from the heart – a book without it inevitably lacks emotion, whether that’s a feel-good ending or a few tears.
Heart goes hand in hand with that other thing that’s so hard to pin down – voice. Your author voice is key, but at no point should it intrude into your story in a way that overwhelms, that detracts from the characters and the plot. Like the paradox of a brilliant actor who is totally immersed in character and yet is still very much that actor, and that’s why you want to watch them time and again. How do you do that? For writers, the answer is that if you’re writing from the heart, your voice comes through all by itself, without you having to think about it. It’s all about authenticity. A strong author voice shines through as the puppeteer behind what’s happening to those characters.
Have you ever listened to an author speak, or met an author, and thought, ah, it’s all making sense now? Their actual voice – what they say – is somehow, though you can’t quite say how, the same as the voice in their books. This is how it should be – you should be able to recognize the author from their books. As an aside, this is why authors need to be brave – it’s like holding yourself up (possibly naked) for everyone to see and judge not just your writing, but your very self and your beliefs. Yes, even children’s authors.
So, writers … don’t hold back! Pour your heart and soul into your writing, let your voice shine through, care deeply about your characters, your themes, your work. Children deserve your hearts.
Sue Copsey is an award-winning author of middle-grade fiction and non-fiction, and a freelance editor specialising in children’s and YA. She grew up in the UK, and was a press officer at London Zoo, then a senior editor at Dorling Kindersley Children’s Books, before moving to New Zealand. In 2016, her middle-grade novel The Ghosts of Tarawera won a Notable Book Award from the Storylines Children's Literature Trust of NZ. The third in the series, The Ghosts of Moonlight Creek (2016) was a finalist in the Sir Julius Vogel Awards, Best Youth Novel category. Sue also wrote the UK Times Educational Supplement award winner Children Just Like Me (1995) and Our Children Aotearoa, which received a Notable Book Award in 2012. Sue lives in Auckland with her husband and two children.