‘Do you live in a real house?’ – An Irishwoman’s Diary on writing for children
“One boy said he would only read another book by me if I could guarantee the presence of dinosaurs”
I hope the teachers and librarians among us are keeping a record of the things they hear during their working day. Based on my limited experience, the gems that come tumbling from the mouths of children could fill several volumes.
I recently embarked on a series of school and library visits to talk about a children’s book I’d written (How Billy Brown Saved the Queen) and it was a revelation. Now, as a parent, I know you should expect the unexpected when a child opens his or her mouth. A recent one was: “My teeth feel like chicken,” coming from the back seat of the car when we were planning dinner. But meeting other people’s children presents so many more possibilities.
As I contemplated the visits, I hoped they would involve philosophical questions such as: Would you rather fight 100 duck-sized horses or one horse-sized duck? (Definitely the horse-sized duck.) But these soul-searching questions have yet to emerge. Instead the children appear to be interested in more mundane things.
“Do you live in a real house?” one child asked, thinking perhaps that I might live in a giant toadstool perched on a magical faraway tree in an enchanted forest. “Are you a millionaire yet?” another asked, cueing the sound of maniacal laughter from penniless authors everywhere.
Because you have written a book, they assume that you know every other children’s writer in this world, and indeed, in the next one. I’ve been asked if I’ve met Roald Dahl lately and I’ve found myself having to break the news of his death, 28 years ago, to a wide-eyed girl. She was not impressed. She slapped her head and sighed, saying: “I was hoping he was writing a few more books because I’ve run out of them.”
They sweetly assume that a humble first-time author like me has regular encounters with JK Rowling (there is general agreement among children that she is probably really nice) and David Walliams (there is general agreement that he enjoys burping loudly). When they hear that I don’t know them, they always look disappointed and I feel that I’ve let them down in some small, but significant, way. They sometimes go on to ask plaintively: “Well, do you know anyone famous at all?”
Most groups I’ve met have a child whose relative or parent’s friend has written a book. The conversation usually goes along these lines:
Child: “My dad’s friend wrote a book. Do you know him?”
Me: “Oh wow, what’s his name?”
Child: “Tommy Something”.
Me: “What’s the book called?”
Child: “I can’t remember. It’s something to do with history. Or is it bridges? It as a blue cover... I think.”
Children are often brutally frank when it comes to criticism and do nothing to protect your tender feelings. “I liked your book but I liked looking at the pictures more than reading it,” one said. That would have been lovely news for the illustrator, Fintan Taite, but not so edifying for me, the author. Another told me she would give the book 9 out of 10, which pleased me greatly. And then she added that she would give the pictures 10 out of 10, which deflated my ego ever so slightly. One boy said he would only read another book by me if I could guarantee the presence of dinosaurs. Or zombies. But preferably dinosaurs.
Every group has at least two children who want to be writers and have already made their own books, complete with illustrations. They can draw too, damn them! But some haven’t reached those dizzying heights yet. One boy told me he had written a book “but it’s still in my brain, waiting to get out”. Another said he was writing a book but most of it was in his pencil.
It’s especially nice to meet the children in libraries because they see them as such magical places. Observing a group of children filing into a library for a recent talk, I heard one boy saying to another: “Where do you think the librarians sleep?”
Another told me how she liked to borrow books that had hardly any library stamps in them. “Why? I wondered. “They must get lonely when they see all the other books being taken out and they are always left behind,” she reasoned.
Before I started this work, children’s author Patricia Forde wisely advised me to have a back-up plan in case a session fell flat after 20 minutes. Mine is a handout with word games and puzzles. I’ve never had to deploy it but, on the one occasion when it would have been extremely useful, I forgot the sheets.
It was a very small group of children and they were unusually quiet. I read from the book. I invited questions and they dried up quickly. I read some more and exhausted my emergency list of questions. Then silence descended. We all looked at each other. The sound of the clock ticking on the wall seemed to grow louder with every second. To my relief, a girl put up her hand.
“Do you have a dog and what’s her name?” she asked. I was about to answer at great length when a boy cut in. “If you’re asking about her dog’s name then I think we are really running out of questions.”
That was the last time I forgot the emergency handout.