Friday, September 21, 2012

How to Write a Bestselling Children's Book - probably.

When my two boys read a book these days, I quite often read the first one if it is part of a series. It got me thinking about how to write a children's book, so I broke apart a few. As anyone with any sense who has tried to write anything longer than a shopping list knows - there is no formula for writing a great book. No way to replicate on the page sheer bleeding genius, inspiration, creativity and craft. Having said that .... I offer this back-of-an-envelope deconstruction as an aide to anyone out there thinking of writing children's books. It comes with a skull and crossbones warning. Yes I have written a book - infact I have written three now (one is in print, one is in a drawer and the third I'll tell you about some other time). But I have never, repeat never written a children's book therefore I do not know what I am talking about. Still, that doesn't usually stop me so for anyone with an interest in writing for children, here is a deconstruction of six great books/series. These are merely observations. This is not a recipe. Do not knock on my door and shout loudly at me if you follow it and your cake fails to rise.
I looked at the following books/series.(Apologies in advance to the brilliant authors involved - no disrespect is intended.)

  • Harry Potter by JK Rowling (because I don't think you are allowed to write about children's books without writing about Harry Potter)
  • Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan
  • Alex Ryder by Anthony Horowitz
  • Laura Marlin by Lauren St John 
  • His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman
  • The Bible, more specifically the New Testament(bear with me on this.)

They have these features in common:
1. a central character who is an orphan, apparent orphan, or missing at least one parent
2 a natural mother, or if orphaned, they have a maternal-type figure in their lives (eg Mrs Weasley in the Potter books).
3. a mentor (eg Chiron in Percy Jackson)
4 an alternative parenting figure who sometimes doubles up as a mentor (Laura's uncle, Joseph, Lee Scoresby)
5. best friends (eg the Apostles in the Bible)
6. special powers eg magic, spying, detective, miracles, cleverness
7. a training period (courtesy of the secret service, in school/half-blood camp, the Wilderness,)
8. a Saviour role (saving the world, saving other children, saving mankind)
9. a battle between good and evil (vs. Kronos and monsters, Scorpia, bad guys, Satan)
10. hero is percieved not to play by the rules - for which trait they are punished - (expelled from school, ostracised, crucified)
11. the hero is percieved to be in the wrong
12. the hero acquires equipment/weapons (wand, sword, techhy equipment, a golden compass)
13. half-and half mix somewhere (half-spy/half-boy, son of God and Man, good father - evil mother, child/daemon)
14. at least one parent has unusual powers (eg magic, father(figures)are gods/wizards/spies/detectives)
15. mystery surrounds at least one parent(there is also revelation) (eg how did parents die, exactly who is the father/mother figure)
16. very powerful villain (Mrs Coulter, the Devil, Voldemort, head of Scorpia)
17. adventures feature a world within a world (which ordinary people have no firsthand knowledge of)(eg a world of shadows, an alternative universe, Heaven/Hell, wizarding, gods/demi-gods)
18. in truth/in discovery there is goodness
19. the hero is on a quest (for a philospopher's stone, salvation for humankind, to find the children taken by gobblers)
20. the hero is prepared to sacrifice their own life
Interesting how the New Testament fits the template, or perhaps the New Testament is the template and it has seeped into our culture to shape the minds of our children? Now there's a thought. Anyway there you go. Be sure and let me know if it helps you write a book.


All At Sea said...

I missed your blog, I am thrilled that by chance - through writing my own - I have stumbled back across you path. Your book was, and remains, one of my favourites - I have read it at least 5 times and shouted about it (very loudly) to many, many of my friends xx

alljoy said...

Aah, but Judith, you have written a children's book - a short yet as usual, beautifully written story full of humour, insight and love for a very, very special little girl - and she, and I, will treasure it for life. Thank you.

Jennifer Pollack said...

True. You've enumerated all the elements that these children's book have in common. They have been blockbuster films not just for children but for adults as well.