Why did you choose to write children’s books?
I chose to write children’s books because as a teacher I have been immersed in the genre for twenty years. It began from wanting to give my infant son Joseph a life lasting gift. So in 2003 I embarked on my first children’s novel called Joseph and the Magical Moose. I originally planned to write one, but when Edward was born I wanted to do the same for him. By that time the writing bug had a tight grip. You can do so much with this genre by writing picture books, novels, short stories and non-fiction. I would eventually like to cover them all.
What do you find are the most rewarding aspects of writing for children?
I certainly get a kick out of seeing children have a chuckle to themselves while reading my books or engaging in conversation about their favourite part. Children can be brutally honest about what they read and aren’t afraid to tell you what they like, don’t like or would like to see done differently. I like this honesty. Just watching a child with their nose buried in one of my books is the ultimate reward. Like other authors, seeing your book in book shops, libraries and catalogues is a great culmination of all that hard work.
Children’s books are short. What is the key to packing value into such a small piece of writing and making it special? Do you plan out a story and then follow the plan, or does the story develop as you write it?
Children’s books are traditionally short so it is important to condense without compromising the story. I don’t find that aspect very difficult as I’ve always been a person who likes to get to the point. Before I start writing I plan, plan and plan! I have a little blue book I use to note down the key aspects needed in the narrative.
Events leading to the problem/s
Solution to the problem/s
I make notes about the characters, their development, roles and personalities. The events are the main parts or the ‘meat of the burger.’ So for this I create sub-headings with supportive notes. These later develop into the chapters. For my first two novels I created repetitive events throughout the story, something often seen in picture books. In my first book this involved Moosey’s spell and in the second it involved Edward’s failed science experiments.
A little bit of this
A little bit of that
Into Mum’s blender and…
Children’s books have to be engaging. Creating humour, suspense and anticipation are winners for children. It’s also important not to patronise them. Children are smart and their minds deserve to be challenged and entertained.
I usually stick pretty close to my plan but if I think of something that will improve the story in some way, it goes in. I don’t like to get off track or go on tangents but realise that I have to be flexible with myself during the process.
How do you develop the initial idea for a story?
Developing the initial idea can come from the strangest places. It can come while trying to get to sleep after a late night coffee (not recommended), in the middle of teaching class or reading other children’s books. Many ideas come to me but only the best ones will get developed. There are a few ideas in my blue book that will thankfully never see the light of day. I have been known to get out of bed in the early hours to note something down, just in case.
Do you write a story then hand it over to an illustrator to do what they like, give the illustrator a rundown of what you want, or collaborate with the illustrator as they work?
By the time my illustrator Melissa Daw becomes involved, the story is already written and has been to the editor. With my first two novels I wanted one full page picture per chapter. I discussed with Mel what I wanted drawn and where in the chapters the events occurred. After that, it’s up to her as she is the expert. I trust that she will do a great job and she never disappoints. Before Mel begins we make sure that we are both on the same wave length when it comes to page dimensions and the bleed. The bleed is the side of the page that runs into the spine. Mostly this is on the right for illustrations in my novels. During the printing process the book is cut and the illustrations can loose a little from each side. Mel has to take this into account so important parts of the illustrations aren’t lost. For the covers of my novels and the illustrations in my recent picture book, I had to discuss with Mel where the text should go. She then had to illustrate with that in mind. We didn’t want the text over major parts of the illustrations like the characters faces. It sounds simple but without clear communication, things can go horribly wrong. Mel always scans and emails initial sketches as another precaution. Our face to face contact is rare as we live 530km apart. Telephone and email are our main modes of communication. Attention to detail is very important during this process to make sure it all comes together properly.
What is it that makes a great match between the words and pictures in a children’s book?
Young children are visual learners and love to be entertained in that way. It is important to create a good match between the text and the illustrations. For my two novels I picked events in each chapter I believed would make it easier for Mel to create illustrations that provoke interest, thought and emotion. For my recent picture book I allowed Mel to make these decisions. She has a great ability to bring my stories alive.
Who are the children’s authors you most admire and have had the most influence on your writing?
Children’s authors that have had the most influence on my writing are Roald Dahl, Paul Jennings and Mem Fox. With Roald Dahl I have always admired his humour and that his stories are timeless. My all time favourite children’s book is The Twits. The first time I read The Twits I laughed from beginning to end. With Paul Jennings I love how his stories always have a unique twist. His stories are like puzzles that come together in the end but with a piece missing. He is a genius at writing short stories. As for Mem Fox, well she writes from the heart. Her stories always flow beautifully. If they were music, they would be a symphony.
For the benefit of those not familiar with your work, what are the major topics you have explored in your books and how have children responded to them?
For my first book Joseph and the Magical Moose I brought up the subject of bullying. Even though this story is full of humour due to the antics of a magical miniature moose called Moosey, it deals with the issue of bullying from the perspective of the victim and the bully. I was careful not to make the message larger than the book while still invoking thought on the issue.
For my second book Edward’s Watch Mouse Experiment I touched on the importance of family, community and helping each other. It’s a simple message that is often forgotten in our fast paced world. Like my first book, I was careful not to make the message larger than the story.
Children have responded to these stories very positively, especially towards the animal characters Doug the dog, Moosey the moose and Squiggles the mouse. They love the humour and that the animal characters are a little bit naughty at times.
My third book is a picture book called Zoe’s Puppy. This is about a little girl who grows up with a pet dog called Pooky. It is a gentle story about love, family, growing up, dealing with loss and moving on. I wanted to write this for children who are dealing with the loss of a pet or loved one. I still remember the way I felt when I lost my pet dog as a young child of ten years and my father some years later. It was these events in my life that inspired me to write this story. This book is being released now and early feedback has been positive.
Can you share anything about what your next writing project will be or what you would like to write in the future?
I am currently working on a novel about a ten year old girl who finds herself in an unfamiliar situation when a new student with a disability joins her class at school. She finds the situation quite confronting and responds negatively. As the story progresses she learns a lot about herself by developing a friendship with the new student, despite the thoughts of her closest friends. It is a story about tolerance and understanding. You’ll have to wait a little while to find out more.
I’m quite keen to write more picture books as I’ve really enjoyed this process. A compilation of short stories is also something I may work on in the future.
You can find out more about Joel Hart and his writing at joelhart.weebly.com.
The Australian Literature Review