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Sarah Webb: Inside Children’s Books & Publishing With CBI

Writing.ie | Resources | Writing for Children & YA

I attended the Children’s Books Ireland Conference in the DLR Lexicon Library on Saturday 24th January. For those who are interested in children’s books and publishing but were unable to attend, it was packed full of insight and tips – here are some notes on the day.

CBI: A Day in the Life, One Day Conference

Eoin Colfer

Eoin Colfer kicked off the proceedings in a lively manner with a funny and thought provoking talk about writing, his love of Ireland, how ‘place’ informs writers’ books and how his Laureate-ship is shaping up so far.

On writing he said: ‘It starts with character for me. My criminal mastermind, Artemis is based on my brother, Donal.’

‘People often say don’t write a local story. I think write a local story with universal themes.’

eoin colferHe said for him, having a new book out never gets old and he never takes it for granted: ‘It’s amazing to be published – to hold a new book in your hand – it’s always fantastic. Whatever else happens in your life, you’ll always have that.’

His aim with the Laureate events is to visit ‘tiny schools on remote islands who don’t normally get author visits… As a child I didn’t realise that writers were real people.’ He said: ‘Reaching that one kid, planning the seed of story in their head, that’s what the Laureate’s all about.’

On why Irish people are such good storytellers and writers: Eoin explained that it’s in our blood. We grow up hearing stories.

‘Myths and legends are on the curriculum in Ireland. I was surprised to find this wasn’t the case in other countries.’

Alan Nolan

Next up was Alan Nolan who talked about the books he had written and the comics that had influenced him as a child.

‘The way to get children reading is to get them hooked on a series,’ he said. His job as Illustrator in Residence in the Church of Ireland College of Education is to ‘remind trainee teachers how much fun children’s books are.’


After lunch, during which a wonderful Monster Doodle took place for adults – where everyone got stuck in, guided by Niamh Sharkey, Steve Simpson and Fintan Taite, Sarah Crossan was in conversation with the wonderful Colm Keegan, Writer in Residence at DLR Libraries.

She spoke passionately about engaging teens with poetry and why she writes novels in verse for teens. Her new novel in verse, One (and not Won as she pointed out) will be published in August and is about conjoined twins. It sounds one-derful.

Next up were the New Writers – many debut and newish writers took to the stage to share their books with the audience in 5 minute sessions. This was an interesting insight into the way people approached the challenge. Some gave some background to the book, others gave a straight reading without any intro. The ones that worked the best, I think, did a little of both. The readings that stood out for me were Dave Rudden who is an excellent performer of his own work (not surprising as he’s also a story teller) and gave a short intro which set the scene well and Moira Fowley-Doyle. She read with a lot of passion and it’s my kind of book – a family/friendship drama with a clever and fresh premise. It’s called The Accident Season and it’s about a family who for one month a year are horribly and tragically accident prone (out in the summer with Corgi-Random House). She read the perfect section (from the start of the book so it didn’t need an intro) and I really enjoyed her reading.

I enjoyed them all, but it did make me ponder the importance of professional development for writers and how new writers need help preparing for readings and events.

Songbird Cafe_Mollie final coverThe three vital ingredients for delivering a good reading or talk are:

1/ Carefully researching and writing your talk or carefully selecting your reading.

Readings for children should not to too long (10 mins is too long, I’d keep them to 4/5 mins). It’s better to do 2/3 short readings (with chat/intros in between) than 1 long one. You may need help selecting a scene to read – your favourite scene may not be the best one to read out loud. Make sure it makes sense out of context (or give it some context in an intro), or read the opening scene.

You could print out scripts and invite the children to act out a scene for you – I do this a lot and it’s always fun.

2/ Practice, practice, practice – in front of a live audience, even if it’s only your mum and your cat. Look for feedback and take it on board. Never, ever go into an event unprepared.

3/ Try to connect with your audience – it’s not about you, it’s about THEM. Put as much passion and feeling into your reading/talk as you can. Try to lift your head and look at your audience.

Remember – it takes time to build your confidence at readings and events. Do your best and be yourself! For more tips on preparing and delivering great events for children, stay tuned to www.writing.ie and www.sarahwebb.ie .

Back to the conference:

Finally after a very nice coffee break – with biscuits – was the inspiring Julia Eccleshare, Children’s Books Editor for the Guardian. I thought she was FANTASTIC and spoke such sense. Of course, she did say that writers made extra-good reviewers as they understood things like a writer’s intent and theme, so I may be slightly biased.

She spoke lyrically about her job – how she had to sift through over 10k children’s books a year to select the 45 books she could review in the Guardian. She is passionate about books and stories. She said ‘I never so anywhere without thinking about a story’ and ‘Everything in my life is coloured by the stories I read.’

She explained how these days writers have to be advocates for their books. Gone are the days where you could write a book and sit back on your laurels. You have to get out there and do events. ‘You cannot sit at home and be shy.’

She told us how JK Rowling’s books were game changers – how after the Harry Potter series, children’s books became cool and people started talking about stories and children’s books like never before. She mentioned Philip Pullman winning the overall Whitbread Award with The Amber Spyglass and quoted him: ‘Children’s books are the home of the story.’

She spoke about the importance of children’s books: ‘Children learn things from children’s books that their parents don’t want them to know… There is no serendipity for children anymore. They are the most watched children ever. How do they learn that things go wrong (if they are always being watched)?’ Books help them explore dangerous worlds and allow them have adventures and decide what kind of people they would like to be, she explained.

It was a wonderful talk and she’s a powerhouse.

The day ended with a drinks reception where I talked to Julia and many writers and readers and ate some very fine finger food.

So ended the CBI Day – thanks to all the speakers, to Marian Keyes who provided the wonderful venue and to the girls at CBI, Elaina, Jenny and Aoife for a cracking event.

Yours in books, Sarah Webb

(c) Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb’s latest book for children: The Songbird Café: Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake will be published by Walker Books in March. www.sarahwebb.ie

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