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Flying Zebras and Dancing Cheese: Writing for Children by Debbie Thomas

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Writing for Children & YA
Debbie Thomas

Debbie Thomas

This article was originally titled ‘How to write for children’. But there are millions of ways to do that and millions of children with millions of tastes.

Then it became ‘How I write for children’. But I don’t. I just write stories that wander around looking for a home until a kindly book cover comes along with a picture of a girl or a boy or a bee or a dragon on the front. Wrapping each story in a big covery hug, it carries them to the children’s section of a bookshop.

I tried ‘How I write’. But beyond thinking, praying, planning, drafting, eating a tub of Tesco triple chocolate ice cream, redrafting, eating another tub, re-redrafting, re-re-eating etc., there isn’t a consistent method. Each of my five children’s books has come together differently. The most honest and, I hope, useful thing I can do is share some experiences and thoughts about the writing I’ve done and want to do.

But ‘How I’ve written and want to write’? Yawn. Hence the zebras and the cheese.


These, of course, can come from anywhere. The challenge is to recognise, gather and weave them into something coherent and aligned, like seaweed in a current. My grandma’s amber necklace, the memory of a school punishment and a chatty cashier at Supervalu all fused into Class Act, the story of a timid boy who learns to stand up to his teacher with the help of a prehistoric bee trapped in an earring and a bumbling shop assistant. My Secret Dragon grew from my work with people stigmatised by leprosy, combined with five words that popped into my head during a morning run: ‘My mother is part-dragon.’ Add to that some rusty school biology, and welcome to Aidan Mooney who’s spent his lonely life trying to hide his mum’s fire-breathing superpower or disability, depending on your point of view. More characters then emerged and the plot, as they say, thickened. But in what order?

Character and plot

Also known as chicken and egg. Some writers say that character is more important than plot. I agree. Others say the opposite. Correct. For me they’re inextricable.

The most useful definition of a character I’ve found is ‘someone (or something) who wants something (or someone)’. That begs the question what (or who) do they want – world domination, a cream cracker or, in Aidan’s case, friends? How will they try and get it? What obstacle will stand in their way? How will they tackle it? How will that change them? What small furry creature will jump out of their shoe and break into helpful song?

Aidan tries to get friends by persuading his mum to let him start school. What happens when he does? Someone discovers her fire-breathing secret. Who? The worst person possible; someone small-minded and scared of difference who disinfects his hankies and his world – of course, a health and safety inspector. And who is he working for? Someone who wants to exploit Mum’s power. Who? A tall, sandy-haired, brown, no, blue-eyed … etc. The questions come and the conflicts grow, inside and outside Aidan.

Journeying with a character as they act and react is how I get to know them. Their choices – kind and selfish, stupid or wise – reveal their motivations, dreams, fears, deepest secrets and favourite pizzas, which in turn direct their choices. There’s a beautiful unfolding, a deepening friendship, even with the bad guys. Especially with them. Who couldn’t love Mrs Twit for dropping her glass eye in Mr Twit’s beer mug? Who doesn’t relish Captain Hook’s urbane evil or Moriarty’s brilliance?

Strangely, I find that the better I know my characters, the more they’re able to surprise me. The villain of My Secret Dragon fooled me right up to the end. Only on the clifftop did Leviticus Krinsky reveal to me, and Aidan, his true ambition. In Jungle Tangle it was obvious that grumpy, unsympathetic Grandma would be the one to forgive and help wicked Hubris Klench – but only after she had.

Flannery O’Connor put it best: it’s ‘the truthfulness of the essential that creates movement.’ And my Yorkshire husband put it second best. ‘There’s now’t so queer as folk.’

Setting and image

I think of settings almost as characters: moody and with attitude. I find long descriptions of scenery boring, so my trees, pavements and moonlight have to work hard for their place on the page. Thomas Hardy can keep his verdant meadows and effulgent evening rays. When it comes to images, though – wild, simple, dynamic scenes – I can’t get enough. Roald Dahl was the master; picture the BFG trumpeting dreams into Sophie’s bedroom, or Miss Trunchbull shot-putting pupils across the schoolyard. Some of my stories have sprung from one big image that becomes the climax scene. In Monkie Business an island rears vertically from the sea. And one of the first scenes I pictured while planning My Secret Dragon was a boy flying through the night over the Atlantic Ocean on the back of a madman, fighting for his life.

And the rest

There are so many more ingredients to a story, of course: pacing, tension, dialogue, voice etc. They’re all crucial and there are volumes of writerly advice out there. But even then there’s no guarantee the story cake will rise. That’s where the mystery ingredient comes in. Some call it intuition. I call it God. Author Anne Lamott calls it broccoli, from a sketch by Mel Brooks in which a psychiatrist tells his patient, ‘Listen to your broccoli, and it will tell you how to eat it’.

Sit still and quietly and you’ll know, deep down, if something isn’t working. Sit stiller and more quietly and you’ll know, deeper down, why. Lie on the floor and don’t breathe for a while and you’ll know, in the deepest place of all, how to fix it.

Then get up and dance with a cheese.

(c) Debbie Thomas

About My Secret Dragon:

Aidan has spent most of his life keeping a low profile because his mum has a terrible secret – one that he can’t be trusted to keep if he mixes too much with other kids or goes to school. You see, Aidan’s mum is part-dragon. She has scales and claws and can breathe fire. But she is terrified of anyone finding out. When Aidan’s mum suddenly disappears, Aidan and his best friend Charlotte set out on a dangerous adventure to find her. They track her to a murky research laboratory on the other side of the country, and there they find several other part-mythic-beast `freaks’ all in the thrall of an evil scientist who is hell-bent on stealing their special powers for himself. Aidan and Charlotte have to find a way to rescue Dr Krinksky’s victims from the horrors of his lab and bring his mum back home safe and sound.

Order your copy online here.

About the author

After graduating from Oxford University, Debbie Thomas trained as a BBC radio journalist. She lived in Bangladesh and South Africa for ten years where she worked for aid agencies. She now lives in County Kildare with her husband and three daughters and has written four books for children: the Abbie Hartley trilogy and Class Act. She is the Writer in Residence at Crumlin Children’s Hospital and a board member of the Irish section of IBBY (the International Board on Books for Young People). She runs workshops for children in creative writing and development education and is a director of a charity supporting people with leprosy in Nepal.

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