October 29, 2013

How I wrote a kids' book

A FRIEND WHO ASPIRES to become a writer, bless her misguided soul, asked me the other day how it was that I came to write a children’s novel called Danger, Dolphins & Ginger Beer. It was all about sailing.

“How did you get the idea?” she wanted to know.

Well, I told her, I had been a writer almost all my working life, but I’d never written a children’s book. I had been a newspaper journalist, a common hack writing the usual news stories and, later, writing a daily humor column.  But it occurred to me one day that a good journalist ought to be able to write just about anything, so I decided to write an adventure novel for kids.  I had one big advantage to start with — I knew where the action would take place. My family and I had sailed our own boat in the British Virgin Islands in the Caribbean Sea.

There we saw a beautiful little island in Virgin Gorda Sound. On the chart it was called Mosquito Island. It had white sandy beaches and dark green palm trees rustling gently in the sweet-smelling trade winds. And, very importantly, it was just the right size for kids to have an adventure on.

Now this is a very romantic part of the world. It’s just a few miles from the island that Robert Louis Stevenson called Treasure Island in his famous book, and even closer to an island called Dead Man’s Chest, where 15 mutineers were stranded with no food and one bottle of rum, yo-ho-ho!

It didn’t take me long to write the book, and I thought I was very smart.  But when I sent it off to the publisher, my editor there wasn’t happy. She made me rewrite the whole book and add new characters — a pair of twins — to complicate the plot.

I’d started the book with the youngest character, Andy, sitting on a hill, acting as a lookout and guarding the camp on Crab Island. “Wrong,” said my editor, “in a children’s novel you must introduce the main character immediately, and the main character is Sally.” So I changed the beginning to Sally sailing back to the island in a small dinghy. I still don’t like my editor’s finished version as much as my original, but if you want to get a book printed you have to do what the editor says, whether the editor is right or wrong.  

I discovered, rather belatedly, that children’s novels are subject to all sorts of strict rules. They’re not at all easier to write than adult novels. Kids are very clever and they know the difference between a good book and a bad one.

My biggest challenge was to prevent little Andy from taking over the book — he’s such a bouncy, appealing character and he wants to be everywhere, doing everything, all the time.

Percy the pelican, and the little bird who sits on his head when he’s fishing, are real characters, though. We saw scores of them on Crab Island and laughed every time a pelican dived at full speed into the shallow surf with a big whoosh of rumpled feathers and that huge beak wide open to scoop up little fish. I could never understand why they didn’t break their necks.

Scorpion Island is real too, but its name on the nautical charts is Anegada. The book’s main character, Sally, is no-one in real life that I know of.  She’s a different sort of main character from most. She’s not flashy, not a show-off. She doesn’t draw attention to herself or demand praise. She’s quiet and thoughtful and loving and brave and resourceful. I think if I were a girl, I’d like to be Sally.

Danger, Dolphins & Ginger Beer was first published by Simon & Schuster in New York and for about 10 years it was used as a school textbook in various parts of America. It was also in libraries all over the country, of course, and it was translated into German and published in Hamburg. It’s now out of print, but you can find used copies on the Internet. 

I have a large file filled with letters and pictures from schoolkids saying how much they enjoyed the book. But I’ve learned not to get too swollen-headed about that. I soon figured out that their teachers mostly made them write those letters to me as class exercises.

And then, flushed with success at having sold my first children’s novel (and having proved my theory that a good journalist could write anything), I promptly wrote two more. Alas, nobody in the publishing world wanted to publish them. Some people might surmise from this that some journalists are not quite as smart as they think themselves to be. But my theory is that some people just don’t recognize a good thing when they see it. Stupid publishers.

Today’s Thought
I discovered that rejections are not altogether a bad thing. They teach a writer to rely on his own judgment and to say in his heart of hearts, “To hell with you.”
— Saul Bellow, NY Times, 21 Jul 85

One from the Walnut Street Gazeout (should be Gazette):
“How’s your husband doing with his drinking these days?”
“Much better. One bottle of beer puts him flat on his back now — if I aim it properly.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)

1 comment:

biglilwave said...

Hey John, the only critics that matter were the children and you had fans there. Respect!