Chris Haughton, the award-winning illustrator and children’s book author, is working on a book at the moment. It’s a “good night” book.
There are different sized animals, going from very small animals like beetles to mice to a great, big bear. There is a contagious yawn that ripples through the characters as night-time falls.
Haughton had the germ for his book. It was his editor, David Lloyd, however, who found a key to unlock the story. The reader needs to identify with the plight of these animals that are falling asleep.
What if there was a baby bear that didn’t want to go to sleep, his editor suggested. What would happen then? The ruse would help to anchor the story. It helps if readers can put themselves in the shoes of a central character as the story unfolds, says Haughton.
“In almost every book that I make I come along with the original concept. For Oh no, George! for example, which is a book about a dog, I wanted to make a book about accidents. I thought two, three and four-year olds would love turning the page and seeing something has caused an accident.
“Say somebody gets tripped up by a dog. You see the dog running along but the person isn’t looking, on one page. When you turn the page, of course the person falls over and drops the cake they’re holding. I thought it would be great to have this accident multiplying so it becomes this huge big catastrophe from something very small – keep turning the pages and it gets worse and worse.
“That was my original idea, but I realised quite soon into it, as I was doing these pages, that it doesn’t hold your attention longer than about two or three pages. You can see what’s happening. You’re not looking into somebody else’s mind.
All you’re doing is turning the pages and the accidents get worse. It’s entertaining for one or two pages, but after that it’s very predictable. There is nothing to engage.
David and Deirdre McDermott, my art director, came along and said: ‘Think about the character who is responsible for these accidents. What will that character be?’ That’s when I came up with George.”
After finishing study at Dublin’s National College of Art and Design, Haughton washed up in Hong Kong teaching English, sometimes teaching children just out of toddlerhood. He found that often drawing was the only way he could hold their attention.
To this day, he still tries to tell his stories through pictures. “If you deleted all of the words from the books, you’d be able to understand the story straight off,” he says.
“There’s no guesswork. As an illustrator, I’ve always felt more comfortable with pictures, than words, but that’s the best thing I could have done because even the youngest children can understand the stories, and they translate well into other languages.”
Judi Curtin, one of Ireland’s most popular children’s literature writers, notices children are more open and less prejudiced than adults. They’re more accepting, more tolerant of race and religion, for example. Because her books are written in the first person, she finds writing with a child’s voice the most challenging aspect of her storytelling.
“I’ve no problem about putting hard words in books. I think children need to be challenged – they have dictionaries and computers.
“All the words in my books have to sound credible coming out of the mouth of a child. And if you wrote the way children speak now I don’t think you could read it. Every second word would be ‘like’ so you can’t write exactly the way they speak but you have to have enough of a flavour.
“My first book was re-issued with a new jacket last year. I had to re-read it after a 10-year break. There were certain things that changed. God help the children in the book, who went down to the video shop, which would be a long walk nowadays.
"I would be conscious also of not putting in the names of pop stars because they date very quickly. Even One Direction is going to fade away one day.”
Curtin has never been pulled up on a taboo subject, and has dealt with themes like war, asylum seekers and “great unkindness to elderly people” in her books.
Julia Churchill – who might motor through about 20 manuscripts a day in her job heading up the children’s book department for the British literary agency, A.M. Heath – also says it is important not to shy away from difficult topics, but stresses it is a question of the audience’s age profile and the writer’s tone.
“Obviously in books for younger children there are subjects and themes that you wouldn’t include. The younger area is much gentler, but if you’re going up to young adults, it’s much more sophisticated. There’s nothing that you can’t explore in a book for a 14-year-old. It’s just whether it feels tonally correct.
“I have my personal ‘ick’ test. It’s not an absolute, but it’s where my mind is when it comes to sex and taboo subjects like incest and abuse. They’re subjects that should be explored in young adult fiction because that is the world. Part of the writer’s job is to introduce children to the world. For me, it’s whether it feels tonally right, and that’s a personal thing.
“When I was 13 years old – before there was a very healthy young adult books industry, which is a reasonably new phenomenon – I was reading things like James Herbert’s The Rats. It’s basically people having sex, and they’re eaten by rats.
"Scene on scene, that’s what happens over and over again. I was reading that at 13 but I don’t know if it would pass my ‘ick’ test now. I doubt it! But I don’t think there is anything that can’t be explored. It’s how it is treated.”
As part of the West Cork Literary Festival, Judi Curtin will conduct a two-day writing workshop for children aged nine to 13, Wed 15 July–Thurs 16 July, Bantry Library, Co Cork. Julia Churchill will deliver a workshop on publishing children’s books, 2.30pm, Monday 13 July, Maritime Hotel, Bantry.