Tips for children’s authors

The best part of babysitting (for me at least) is the bedtime story. My friend’s little girl agrees, boasting her very own baby Bodleian, chockfull of enchanting reads, typically about barnyard animals solving some moral conundrum or other. But occasionally, as I begin to nod off mid-sentence to the 5-year-old’s emphatic complaint, I find myself thinking I could write better than this.

With no idea where to begin in such an endeavour, it is fortunate perhaps that Thames Ditton residents Diane and Christyan Fox, an award-winning author-illustrator husband and wife team, are offering tailor-made courses for those who share my authorial arrogance.

“It seems that many people have an idea for a children’s book but most of them simply don’t know how to start,” Diane consoles me.

This was not a problem that affected the Fox household. Over the past 26 years Diane and Christyan have created more than 46 children’s books, 22 educational books and stories for the BBC. Christyan has also illustrated designs for a series of greetings cards.

They met at Middlesex University where they both studied graphic design. Christyan specialised in illustration and was recruited by Oxford University Press and later by Usborne. Diane was also offered a job through her degree show and became a senior designer for a leading London agency, Minale Tattersfield Design Strategy, where she worked full-time for 12 years.

“We started writing and illustrating books together after our second child, Harvey, was born in 1998,” Diane explains. “It became obvious that I would not be able to go out to work because of the difficulties we were experiencing with the new baby.”

Harvey, now 15, is severely disabled with Angelman Syndrome. Grappling with learning difficulties, his cognitive age is about eight months, and he requires the full-time care.

“He lacks speech, suffers epilepsy, sleep disorder and extreme hyperactivity,” says Diane. “I actually diagnosed it myself. The consultant we saw had no idea what it was and hadn’t seen anything like it before. I went away and did some research myself and came back and told him. He was quite embarrassed, as he had a student in with him, but there’s much more awareness now.”

Much of that awareness is down to Christyan’s efforts to build exposure of ASSERT, the Angelman Syndrome UK charity, for which he is a trustee.

Since 2006 he has re-designed the charity’s entire media output including their logo, merchandising, newsletters, website, brochures, leaflets, signage, literature, and conference material.

“We’re planning a book at the moment about Harvey, which is an extension of our blog, Boy Bites Horse,” says Diane, relating their touching online diary, which explores the world perspective of a mentally handicapped child.

“The publisher has asked us to change it slightly, because Harvey can’t give his permission. It can’t use his name and needs to be taken away from our family.

“The aim is obviously to entertain, but also to draw attention to the world and the thoughts of a human being. He has ideas and a personality just like everybody else. It’s not a condition or an illness. He’s just different.”

The co-operative, freelance work arrangement is perfect for Diane and Christyan, leaving them time to devote to Harvey, their eldest Lottie, who’s about to start an art degree, and their youngest, Milo, who is 7. It also led to their first success as a husband and wife writing team in the form of PiggyWiggy and his cuddly companion, Teddy.

“At the time Christyan was mainly illustrating other people’s texts when a publisher asked whether we would write a story about a character he had seen in Christyan’s portfolio,” says Diane.

“PiggyWiggy is by far our favourite and most successful character. He started out as an adult character. We’d just come back from a holiday in Paris, and Christyan had drawn this pig looking up at the Eiffel Tower.

“A publisher had seen this illustration and said they really liked it. So we brought the age down to a child pig, and we wrote a story very quickly.”

“It was Christmas time, and we needed the story done for after the Christmas break. At that time, Harvey was very young and a very poor sleeper. So we had to grab some time while we could. So we sat down on the bed and started exchanging ideas, and it just flowed.”

“The publisher took it almost exactly as it was, because it just worked. And I think that’s the key. If you keep going back to it, it’s not going to work.”

The first story was an instant success and the authors went on to write eight more PiggyWiggy adventures and have continued writing and illustrating together since. Which brings me nicely back to the ingredients you need for a successful children’s book. A popular question it transpires.

“Over the years, many people would come up to us at parties asking us all sorts of questions: how do you do it, how do you get published? And it began to get quite embarrassing. But we discovered that there was a market out there for classes.”

In response Diane and Christyan set up a series of workshops, which teach the essentials of creating an appealing children’s book for the contemporary market, help budding writers concentrate on a particular book idea, develop their story and characters, and learn presentation skills using the latest software. Over eight weeks, students of all ages and abilities can attend evenings at the their dedicated Thames Ditton studio (from September 25) or mornings at Teddington’s Landmark Arts Centre (from September 27). There are also one-to-one workshops, manuscript evaluation, portfolio advice and Photoshop skills on offer and for those pressed for time, a 12-month online course will soon go live.

So, armed with a flimsy plotline and some two-dimensional characters, I probe Diane for pointers on what makes a bestseller.

“A good children’s book must have a good twist at the end,” she says. “The story could work really well, but it really needs that page turning twist at the end.

“Stories written for 3-5 year olds must be simple, but if the parent reading it to them is bored, they won’t get into it, or give the voices any character, and they won’t want to read it again. It’s got to be interesting for the parent, too.”

Out goes my first draft, then. Have any of their pupils enjoyed better fortunes?

“We have people who are on their way to being published,” says Diane. “It is a very long way to go. The publishing industry is like a slow moving cog. What people can get from our courses is a lovely, creative environment where they can be encouraged, can keep motivated and learn how to grab the publisher’s interest.”

With their latest series of books, featuring twin crocodiles Snip and Snap, published by Orchard, selling like hot cakes, they clearly know what they’re talking about.

Meanwhile, I’m off to work on my second idea.

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