child writing

OMG, my daughter (Miss B.) has beaten me to it.

She’s written a book. And it’s good. Gripping, even.

She disappeared to her writing corner the other day with paper, a pen and a determined look. More than an hour later she emerged, ink stains on her fingers and that slightly wild look on her face that I get when I’ve been closeted away in my office, writing like a maniac.

The difference was she actually had something concrete to show for it.

She proudly showed me the fruits of her labour. She had created a book out of sheets of blue A4 paper, folded over and sellotaped. (No matter that the book was back to front, with the pages turning from left to right. A rather brave, avant-garde touch, I thought.) On the front cover she had written the title in a pretty swirly font:

The Duck Huggle

Written by [her full name]


Illustrated by Tricia A. Bell (Errr, that’s me. Apparently I am now a children’s book illustrator.)

I sat down on the couch with Miss B. beside me, wriggling in shy anticipation. Page by page the story unfolded (edited a bit in the interests of readability):

One day there was a very kind Daddy. And one day it was a rainy day. But there beside this home there was some ducks. And Miss B. gave them some marshmallows. The ducks were SO happy that they went to the garden and picked some flowers for Miss B. She took them both home. [The ducks. Not the flowers]. And huggled them whenever she wanted to. The End.

Not bad for a 20-year-old. (Kidding! She’s five.)

As you can imagine I was immensely proud and a little teary for the rest of the day. And as I lay in bed that night, staring at this precious little book that was propped up on my bedside table, I got to thinking about what we might learn from Miss B’s first book-writing project.

1. Believe in yourself.

Miss B. decided that she wanted to write a book, so she sat down and jolly well did it. No hesitation, no hours of artistic angst over whether she might be good enough, no putting off starting because she didn’t know how or where to begin. Just a desire to write, and unwavering self-belief.

2. Persevere.

She’s nothing if not single-minded, my girl. (Read: stubborn as a mule. I wonder from whom she inherited that trait?) She did not get up from her seat until her book was completed to her satisfaction. She asked me how to spell some words and from time to time she sighed in exasperation and shed one or two frustrated tears. But she didn’t give up.

3. Write what you know.

Miss B’s story was based on a little made-up story her father had told her a couple of months previously while he was tucking her into bed. It had obviously made an impression. (She has a memory like an elephant. She can recite what we had for lunch, what colour my toenail polish was and what underpants she was wearing on the day she vomited from a stomach bug over a year ago. I on the other hand, find it difficult to remember where I am when I wake up in the morning.) Miss B. chose material that was familiar to her, and that was dear to her heart. I’m not saying we have to write about our personal lives. But choosing subject matter that resonates with us emotionally will stand us in good stead.

4. Know your audience.

Miss B. was primarily writing for me and her Daddy, so she wrote something she knew we would recognise and relate to. She also knew that it would make me cry and result in a large amount of hugs and kisses for her. Clever girl. We need to strike a balance between writing what we are passionate about and fulfilling our own artistic desire, and bearing in mind that we actually want people to read (and probably buy) the end result. There’s nothing wrong with clever marketing.

5. Write with a generous spirit, and with passion.

Everything Miss B. does, she does with huge enthusiasm. She doesn’t hold back. This writing project was no exception. She let rip on every page with massive letters and swirly, elaborate illustrations, periodic scribbles and ink splotches a testament to her tremendous effort. I firmly believe that a writer “gives” of him or herself when he or she pours words out on the page. We make ourselves vulnerable; lay ourselves bare. It is both frightening and liberating. If there’s no passion,  no spark, nothing that grips your soul and lights fire in your belly when you write, then there’s something wrong.

6. Ask for help when you need it.

Periodically Miss B. would call out asking how to spell a word, or seeking advice on how to design the back cover etc. Wise girl. Writing can be a very lonely endeavour, and we all need to reach out to others sometimes to avoid becoming weirdo hermits who eat cereal straight out of the packet and believe they’ve been anally probed by aliens. We need fresh eyes and ears, and to get our work into perspective. I have just joined a writer’s “coffee group” club for three months, giving me the opportunity to ask questions, discuss ideas and soak up advice from my writing peers and professional tutors. Invaluable. Where possible, join a writer’s group. Be brave, and seek constructive feedback from fellow writers.

7. Don’t be afraid to self-publish.

Some of us still view this avenue as the poor cousin; the option to consider only if our manuscript isn’t accepted by a “proper” publisher. We may want to rethink that assumption. Self-publishing can be a valid and appropriate choice – not a fall-back position. More on this subject in a later post.

8. Be proud of the finished product.

Oh, you should have seen the look on Miss B’s face when she brought me her finished book. She was just so proud and delighted. She believed without a shadow of a doubt that this was something worth celebrating, and she was right.

Here in New Zealand the Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well. We’re all falling over ourselves in an effort to avoid saying we’re actually good at something. I don’t know whether this is only particular to our little country, but when I lived in France I regularly encountered people who were proud to say without a soupçon of embarrassment that oui, merci, they were a very good singer / cook / lover / ventriloquist. These unselfconscious declarations made me feel rather uncomfortable, as if they had just told me they had a third testicle or had emptied their bowels twice that morning. But many of us could do with a touch more of that confidence. (Steady on. Not too much. No-one likes an arrogant wanker.) So here we go: I was rather proud of my recent post “A Novel Update”. And I love the poem I wrote about Jasper the Despot Cat.

Whew. That wasn’t so bad.

9. Don’t obsess about little mistakes.

Miss B’s little book wasn’t perfect, and that is what made it beautiful. (Ever read The Velveteen Rabbit?)

When I look back on things I’ve posted on this blog or had published, I can always find mistakes. But life’s too short to painstakingly pick them over. As soon as it leaves us, our work takes on a life of its own. We should be brave enough to let it, and to accept a teensy bit of imperfection from time to time.

10. Don’t write on blue paper.

It’s just too difficult to read.

Thank you, Miss B. Sometimes children really are our best teachers. Now I had better get on with finishing my own novel, although I doubt it will be as wonderful as hers.


3 thoughts on “The Duck Huggle

  1. Oh and I meant to say, beautiful article in Next, Rodney thought so too. And I told Robyn about it when I saw her and she emailed me later to say she read it, and that it was both beautifully written, heartbreaking but very brave. I agree. I don’t know why people don’t really talk about these things but I have noticed that new Zealanders are actually dreadful at talking about any sort of overwhelming grief or sadness. We almost want to jolly each other out of real feelings. The New Zealand Condition I think. People are much more open, loving and comforting in many other countries, like in the States. But here, nobody knows what to say. So they don’t. Quite sad, actually. Have a wonderful Christmas, we look forward to seeing you soon. Xxx

    Sent from my iPad

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