Guardian Masterclass: learning the art of writing for children – the naughty way!

I have often toyed with the idea of writing a children’s book.  The simple reason is it is a fantastic excuse to poke fun at life and to laugh at the anachronisms of life.  Kids totally get this. Adults are often too busy being too serious to stop and notice.

Cressida Cowell

Cressida Cowell in mid flow

But who am I to write a children’s book? For a start, how would I find the time? I’m rubbish at getting up before my kids in order to pen that best seller, and too tired by 10pm to do anything sensible.  Writing creatively might be the best fun in the world, but it doesn’t pay the bills.

But then I received an email from Guardian Masterclass promoting their latest course ‘How to Write a Children’s Book’ featuring Cressida Cowell and the publisher who ‘found’ JK Rowling (i.e. the one who realised her cataclysmic potential and didn’t turn her away like the rest).  Having only recently attended their ‘The Craft of Good Writing’, I was inspired: my first taste of these masterclasses was that they were fantastically good value for money.  For only £99, I had the privilege of listening to 3 top authors and a critic give practical and inspirational advice in a way that was both encouraging and pragmatic.  I’ve rarely been to an event where every speaker actually speaks on the topic they’re given, but here they did just that and more: the small number and focus of the group lent it a sense of intimacy, of sharing confidences, that I doubt can be found elsewhere.

So I turned up at the wonderfully stylish Guardian offices in Kings Cross for ‘How to Write a Children’s Book’ with what you might call fairly high expectations.  They weren’t dashed.  In fact, despite initially wondering if this would be as useful as the previous class, I soon realised that although it wasn’t as weighty, it was learning gold: four humourous, clever and inspiring authors shared technical advice and anecdotes that had me laughing and writing copious notes in equal measure.

In fact, I couldn’t think of the last time that I’d attended a course that was as funny as it was informative.  What was equally rewarding was that the authors seemed to enjoy the day as much as we did.

The great thing about writing children’s books,” confessed the more than ever-so-slightly cheeky Laura Dockrill, author of the Darcy Burdock series,”is that you get to be naughty and get paid for it!” The glint in her eye told me this was not just a soundbite; she clearly gets a kick out of her profession.  “Be nosey!” How wonderful to be told to do exactly what I’ve naturally done most of my life, not realising it to be a first-class skill of a writer.

Philip Ardagh, sporting quite possibly the biggest, bushiest beard in London, provided a raft of useful technical tips on writing for primary aged children, covering subject matter to dialogue whilst firing a volley of witticisms at us.  He seemed to me the epitome of a children’s author: slightly eccentric, silly yet serious in equal measure.  Writing for Young adults and Teens was authoritatively and deftly covered by Juno Dawson (formerly James Dawson) of Hollow Pike fame, whose yellow tights and short skirt underlined his point about originality as much as his words.

But the highlight of the day had to be listening to the slightly dotty yet desperately clever Cressida Cowell, followed by the bright-eyed, savvy publisher Barry Cunningham from Chicken House publishing.  Renowned for being the publisher to realise JK Rowling’s worth and sign her up, this was a man to take note of; he clearly knows how to sort the sheep from the goats in children’s literature.  His advice was meaty, pragmatic and down to earth.  “Become the secret friend of childhood” he advised. “You don’t have to dress up as a puffin to do this like I had to on my first day at work, but it helps” he quipped.  “Children talk to you when you’re dressed up as a small bird.”

Yet the person who reminded me most of JK Rowling was Cressida Cowell.  Surprisingly blonde and stylish (why did I think she was dowdy?!), her passion for keeping children’s books alive and her fierce intelligence had me feeding out of her hand (forgive the bird pun).  Bursting with anecdotes, inspiration and “non-advice” (“There are no rules!”) she shared the secrets of the phenomenally successful How to Train a Dragon series. The complicated back story line, scratchy drawings, maps and even the language of were all deliberately written in such a way to stretch children’s brains, make them laugh and to build empathy and imagination. “Books move people in a way films can’t.  I write to save books from dying!”

I left for home armed with a raft of author twitter handles, a twinkle in my eye and an idea for a book. Now to find the time to write it…..

Surely the best take home present for a child?

Surely the best take home present for a child?

The next class of this kind is 2 July, 2016.  Grab a ticket before it sells out!  @Guardianclasses

2 thoughts on “Guardian Masterclass: learning the art of writing for children – the naughty way!

  1. This sounds truly wonderful! If anything similar comes up in future let me know and I will book onto it too. I have loads of children’s book ideas in my brain (my all time favourite books are preschool age kids books – oliver jeffers, Emily gravett etc) but they rely on super illustrations and I know I can’t draw at all. That and my general fear of failure (I don’t take rejection well – something rooted in my childhood but I’ve never unravelled exactly what) has prevented me ever doing anything about it. My son adores Philip Ardagh books (he’s actually friends with his son) and my other son loves the how to train your dragon series so those reasons alone would have been momentum for me to attend. Xxx

    • Oh Rebecca, yes you would have adored this! There’s another one on in July – i added the link to this after i clicked publish first time. I’ll tweet you now…..They explain all the things about illustration (you don’t need to worry about that) but in terms of rejection – yes, there’s lots of it. But i’ve not come across an author who gives that as a reason to not write. Write anyway. Sx

Leave a Reply