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.