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Writing for Children and Adults: How Do You Do It? Sarah Webb

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Sarah Webb

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Sarah Webb’s new book The Memory Box is in bookshops now, it’s a book for adults – but she’s also the bestselling author of the Amy Green series of books for children. So how do authors switch from one genre to another? Sarah explains:

“At some stage of their career, every children’s writer is asked: ‘When are you going to write a proper book, a book for adults?’

Many writers, myself included, write for both adults and children. I started off as a children’s writer, then wrote Three Times a Lady which started me down the adult fiction road. My eleventh novel for adults has just been published – The Memory Box – the story of a woman, Pandora Schuster who discovers that she may carry a hereditary cancer gene.

sarah-webb-imgAs my last book, Ask Amy Green: Dancing Daze was for young teens, I am often asked how I manage to write for both age groups. And is writing for children easier?

Writing for children is not easier than writing for adults, it’s just different. In many ways it’s actually harder. I think a lot of it comes down to memory and how well you remember your childhood and how you felt as a child. What you loved and hated. Who you loved and hated.

Writing for all age groups is not all that unusual. J K Rowling recently joined the fray, with mixed results. Her debut adult novel, The Casual Vacancy was quite a risk for someone with such a successful track record in the children’s book world.

Roald Dahl also wrote for adults and children, as do contemporary writers Philip Pullman, Neil Gaiman, Judy Blume and most recently, Philippa Gregory. The American crime writers like James Patterson are all at it; and ex-SAS man Andy McNabb has produced a popular action/adventure series for younger readers.

This is not a new phenomenon. Oscar Wilde’s exquisite fairy tales, including The Selfish Giant and The Happy Prince are still admired worldwide and even James Joyce dabbled in children’s literature, as did Mary Lavin, and most successfully of all, Belfast-born CS Lewis.

Pauline McLynn has written a very witty teen novel and crime writer, Alex Barclay’s debut historical fantasy, Curse of Kings is out in February. Darren Shan, Eoin Colfer, Judi Curtin, Roisin Meaney – all write or have written for both age groups.

Why do writers make the switch to the dark side adult literature? Is it the challenge of writing for a more ‘sophisticated’ audience, or is it simply the money? And what makes ‘adult’ novelists switch to writing for a younger audience?

Under the Hawthorne Tree was an international hit for its creator, Marita Conlon-McKenna, followed by seven further bestsellers for young readers. Her latest book for children is Love Lucie (Simon and Schuster) and she is currently working on her next adult novel, The Rose Garden (March). So why did she turn to adult fiction after so much success in the children’s world?

“The Magdalen (Marita’s first adult novel, about the laundries for unmarried mothers) was a story I’d always wanted to tell,” she explains. “But because of the harsh subject I couldn’t write it for children or even teenagers. It was very successful and my publishers asked me to write another book for adults.”

“For me,” she continues, “the story decides the age group, not the other way around, I’m driven by story; and my publishers give me great freedom to write what I want. Irish writers don’t seem to get labelled or pigeonholed as much as other writers – they can write plays, musicals, screen plays and it’s very acceptable. In other countries they seem to like their writers to stay in their box. Irish writers are an unknown quantity, no-one knows they will do next.”

Like Marita, Eoin Colfer always wanted to be a writer first and foremost, not a ‘children’s writer’. “I have had different stories in my head,” he says, “some suitable for kids, some for adults. I think because I have such an outlandish or maybe juvenile imagination some of my stories are definitely only for children, but recently some of the more complicated stories have been pushing themselves to the front of my brain. I also will admit to feel a little pressure (self-imposed) to write a book for grown-ups.”

Switching from writing for adults to writing for children is more usual and Judi Curtin, author of the popular Alice and Megan series did just that. Her first book Sorry, Walter was for adults but after finishing her second adult novel she wanted to write something that her daughters could read. “It was supposed to be a temporary change,” she says, “but it snowballed.” She has now written thirteen children’s books but is also exploring the adult world again. “There’s a story I’d like to tell which isn’t for children,” she says.

The Giggler Treatment, Roddy’s Doyle’s first book for younger readers was written to entertain his children. “I wrote a few pages towards the end of every working day,” he says, “and read them to them at bedtime, starting at the beginning every night.  It gradually became a book.” When asked will he continue to write for children, he says “I’m not sure.  My books for children have always been aimed at particular children – and children, I’ve noticed, tend to grow up and stop being children.  But if the ideas are there and, more importantly, the urge to put them on paper is there, I’ll still give it a bash.”

John Boyne had never thought about writing for young readers until the idea for The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas came into his head. He says “The experience I had with that book – going into schools, getting children interested in reading – opened up my imagination in a new way and I found that I wanted to write for both audiences.” Like Roddy, he will continue to write for both audiences. “In fact I’ve just delivered a draft of my next adult novel to my editor. I’ll be rewriting that over the next six months or so but I’ve just started a draft of a new children’s book too.”

Master of children’s horror, Darren Shan also started out writing for adults. His first adult book, Procession of the Dead was published in 1999, a year before Cirque Du Freak (his first children’s book). “I had written a lot of first-draft books by that stage,” he says, “all of which were aimed at adults. I thought that was where my career lay, but I’d always wanted to try a children’s book. One day I had the idea for Cirque Du Freak and by the time I had finished the first draft, I had already decided to write another book for children.”

Darren now writes for both children and adults. “I’ve learnt so much about pacing and editing while working on my children’s books, which has fed back into the books I write for adults. I love the dichotomy of moving between the two worlds (adult’s and children’s publishing),” he adds, “and I would love to be able to continue doing that far into the future.”

Like Darren, I too will continue to write for all age groups. For me, it has always been about telling a story.”

(c) Sarah Webb

Sarah Webb’s new novel, The Memory Box (for adults) has just been published in Ireland by Pan Macmillan. It will be available in e-book format in September, along with the UK paperback. A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Independent.

For more information on Sarah Webb, check out  www.sarahwebb.ie


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