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The hard business of writing for children

children pic

If you are thinking of writing for children, I am going to tell you something vital: children are the last people who will read your book.

Really. Think about it. Ok, so you may have read your story to your kids, or your neighbour’s kids, but if you want to get it published and in a book shop you will have to get it past your agent, a publisher and an acquisitions panel. Never mind the adult who will wonder if it is suitable to buy for their child. And none of them is under 12.

Most authors starting out just think in terms of getting an agent. But as you can see, that is just the first in a long, and increasingly uphill, line of hurdles. I’ve had several children’s books published, and when you are writing to a publisher’s brief, however elastic, the process is pretty simple and very civilised (I have to say here that Oxford University Press are a really lovely bunch to work with). It’s when you go off piste and come up with your own ideas, that the problems start.

Let me tell you what happened to me. I wrote a story about a little girl who does something very naughty, but very funny. Agent loved it. Publisher (not OUP) loved it. Even my kids liked it (which was the biggest thrill). But the next step is the most important. This is when your book makes its way in front of the people who really matter; the accountants. Everyone involved at the publishing house gets together; editors, sales and marketing and yes, the bean counters, and they decide how much they are going to spend, and how much they will make. (Because, never ever forget, this is a business).

My book sailed through the first meeting (yay). Everyone round the table agreed they wanted a whole series about this girl and her adventures. (drinks all round, ed) but then I was told that the American branch wanted another look.

‘Piece of cake,’ said my agent, ‘Don’t worry about it.’

Couple of days later, agent rang me up.

‘Can you make her older?’


‘Can you make the girl older? The publishers are saying that children never read about children who are younger than them. If you make her older, obviously, they will sell more.’

I thought about this for a bit. The girl in my story had originally been six, which was probably a bit young. I could make her eight, or possibly at a really big stretch, ten…but that was pushing it; any older and the whole glorious innocent silliness of what she does would be lost.

‘Can you make her 12?’ relayed my agent. ‘Because they could really maximise sales, then.’

I thought about it. I thought about it really hard. I was being offered the chance to launch an entire series of books, here and in the US about a character who made me laugh while I wrote about her. If I made her 12, I would have to change everything. She would no longer be the character I’d fallen in love with. I thought about it some more. I probably went down the pub and drank more than I should have done.

And then, I rang up my agent and said no. I simply couldn’t do it. I couldn’t change her. And that was that. Publishers withdrew. Story put on virtual shelf and I went back to writing headlines for a living. Occasionally I wonder if I did the right thing. If I was in this situation now, maybe I would find some way of negotiating round the problem. Maybe not. But after writing this piece, I fished that story out of my files and I read it again. It still makes me laugh.

Picture from Canham, E. (2005) ‘Cinderella Stories’, in Driver, J. (ed) Oxford English Quest, Companion 2, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

About elainecanham

I started blogging because I'm a writer, and I thought I ought to. Now I realise that I blog because I lwant to; even when I can't think of much to say. I do a lot of work for local businesses - get in touch if you like my style.


16 thoughts on “The hard business of writing for children

  1. I don’t want to be rude, but that American publisher sounds pretty stupid to me. Surely they must have been able to see that what they wanted would change the whole nature of the book. Well done for sticking to your guns, but there must be other publishers out there who are less silly. You deserve better treatment

    Posted by Peter Wells aka Countingducks | May 13, 2014, 5:31 pm
    • Thanks Peter. Dunno. Difficult to argue through a third or even a fourth party. I might post it, and see what everybody thinks. (Although it is 1800 words)

      Posted by elainecanham | May 13, 2014, 8:27 pm
  2. So even if your story/stories get past the meeting, they can still be shot down in flames? Huh! It’s really sad that publishing is so money hungry.

    Posted by plotwhisperer | May 13, 2014, 4:15 am
    • Yes, but it’s tough business, especially these days with the rise of self publishing. There, I never thought I’d feel sorry for a publisher. Must be getting soft. Hah! Thanks for stopping by.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 13, 2014, 8:19 am
  3. Six…though…is a problem…

    as a child sauvant I wouldn’t read ‘when we were six’ for that exact same reason. atb 🙂 nice blog

    Posted by brightonsauce | May 11, 2014, 11:54 pm
    • Yes, six was too young. Eight/nine was really the best age. Have you read PG Wodehouse’s parody of AA Milne? He’s the only writer I know of, who could do it.Very very funny.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 12, 2014, 7:08 am
  4. Entertaining? I enjoy reading about other people’s rejection slips. 😀

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | May 11, 2014, 10:12 pm
  5. I had exactly the identical experience with my novel – except it never got past the Agent. In fact, I couldn’t even find an agent! Wonderfully entertaining, informative, engaging, as always Elaine.

    Posted by Bruce Goodman | May 11, 2014, 8:24 pm
  6. I feel for you. So harsh to see the bean-counting trumping the storytelling.

    Posted by Jools | May 11, 2014, 7:54 pm
  7. Stupid gits.

    Sent from my iPhone


    Posted by naptimethoughts | May 11, 2014, 1:03 pm
  8. I’m sure you thought of self publishing – or, is children’s books not suitable for selfies.

    Posted by Eric Alagan | May 11, 2014, 11:58 am
    • I’ve only just come round to the idea, Eric. Children’s books need pictures, and are often in a non standard size. It was such a bruising experience, I think I’ve given up on the children’s market. I’m probably going to go back to romantic novels.

      Posted by elainecanham | May 11, 2014, 12:20 pm

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