Down with the Kids: Writing YA

This piece was originally published in The Irish Independent. These days, children's books are big business with Irish bestsellers Cecelia Ahern and Sheila O'Flanagan about to join the fray. Already having dipped their toe in the YA pool are actors Russell Brand, Chris O'Dowd and Emma Thompson, plus musician-turned-writer Julian Gough, who has just published a charming early reader called Rabbit and Bear: Rabbit's Habits.


On March 24, Ahern will publish Flawed, her new novel. With many award-winning novels under her belt, not to mention two movies and a television show, you might be forgiven for presuming Flawed is a contemporary drama for adults set in the world of politics or perhaps modelling. However, you'd be wrong. Flawed is set in a future dystopian world where society values perfection above all else, and it's aimed firmly at teenagers.

A life-long fan of reading, in an interview for Mumsnet Ahern says: "The books that I remember are the books that I read to myself such as Enid Blyton's Famous Five, The Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins."

Sheila O'Flanagan's novel for age 10+, The Crystal Run (published in April), is a fantasy novel about a boy named Joe who is bullied at school and one day steps through a portal into a different world.

It's hardly surprising that Ahern and O'Flanagan's agents and publishers have encouraged their interest in writing for youngsters. For the first time since records began, children's book sales have recently surpassed adult fiction sales across Ireland and the UK. With growth of 11pc year-on-year in the UK in 2015, children's sales now account for over 30pc of the market's total value, up from 27pc in 2014.

Children are digital natives who have grown up with computers and the internet, but research shows they love 'real', physical books. They are also avid book collectors, and as any former Enid Blyton or Goosebumps fan will tell you, never underestimate the power of the book collector. My daughter has a manga and Jacqueline Wilson collection that would make any library proud. My neighbour's son collects David Walliams books.

Walliams' comedies, from Awful Auntie to his latest, Grandpa's Great Escape, have been taking the children's literature world by storm, but he never set out to write for them.

In an interview for the BBC Radio 1 website about his first children's book, The Boy in the Dress, Walliams says: "I had the idea of, 'what if a 12-year-old boy went to school dressed as a girl?' Then I thought, 'what's the best medium for this?' And I thought, 'well, it's a story about a child, so maybe it should be a book for children'."

darkmouth 3
darkmouth 3

Former journalist-turned-bestselling-children's-author Shane Hegarty had a similar experience. He hit the headlines in 2013 when news broke of his six-figure children's book deal. The third book in his fantasy adventure, Darkmouth: Chaos Descends, will be published in April. But, like Walliams, he never set out to write a children's book.

"I wasn't really writing for kids," says Hegarty. "I was writing for me. I'd written some adult books and I really wanted to do another book but I wanted to give fiction a go. I wrote the story that I would have liked as a boy. I wrote it for my own enjoyment and entertainment."

If he could give Ahern and O'Flanagan some advice on writing for children, what would that be?

He laughs. "I went to Cecelia for advice and I've met Sheila. I bow to their experience and talent. However, I will say this: the big difference in writing for children is the events.

"It's scary being plonked in front of 500 kids but it's hard to imagine a better audience than a group of 10-year-olds. They are the most excited, excitable, interested, curious and unselfconscious audience. And when they love something, they'll tell you. As a writer, it allows you to be free and to lose your inhibitions. And to act the eejit."

So did O'Flanagan know she was writing a children's book? "I wanted it to be an adventure story," she explains, "and it seemed to me that I could focus on that more with younger characters. Unlike my adult novels, where the characters usually drive the plot, in this case I had a very clear idea of the overall plot first."

Marita Conlon-McKenna also has some advice for Ahern and O'Flanagan. Her famine novel, Under the Hawthorne Tree, is a modern children's classic and she has almost 20 years' experience of writing for both children and adults. "When a child loves your book, they will read it 16 times and know it word for word," says Conlon-McKenna. "They will talk about your book with their friends, play games based on your book. It becomes part of their world, part of their life, part of their family."

Marita Conlon-McKenna
Marita Conlon-McKenna

She gets hundreds of letters every year from young readers all over the world and answers every one. "Children will confide in you," she warns. "Be prepared for this. You have to treat each child with great care and great respect. It's a huge privilege to write for children. Your audience are very special. Never take it for granted."

So who will be next to join the children's arena?

My money's on Sinead Moriarty. When asked about this possibility, she says: "All of my books have children in them so I do constantly think about children and how they behave and think and see the world. I love writing young characters, they are so much fun.

"My kids keep asking me to write a children's book," she adds. "So hopefully I'll get around to it before they are adults."

And she's looking forward to seeing Ahern and O'Flanagan's books on the shelves. "They are very talented ladies. I have no doubt their books for young readers will be fantastic."

Sarah Webb writes for both adults and children. Her latest book for children is The Songbird Café: Aurora and the Popcorn Dolphin (Walker Books)