An interview by Shelley Carter
Dee White is a published author of 18 books and two plays for children and young adults, with two new books due out this year. She has had extensive experience in the publishing industry, including conducting writing workshops and online classes about writing. She has presented at a number of conferences including the VATE (Victorian Association of Teachers of English) the CBCA Conference (Sydney), CYA Conference (Brisbane) and the SCBWI Europolitan Conference (Amsterdam), The Sunshine Coast International Readers and Writers Festival, and the 2018 Sharjah International Book Fair.
I spoke to Dee about her experiences writing children’s books and asked for any advice she had for emerging authors within that target audience.
Tell us a little about your writing career: how did you start?
I decided I was going to be a writer when I was seven years old. Initially, I worked as a journalist and advertising copywriter. I always wanted to write books but I didn’t really know how. As a kid, I kept starting new stories in exercise books but never finishing them.
In 2000, I started a three-year Professional Writing and Editing Diploma at Victoria University and that taught me some really practical things about writing for kids and teens. Having young kids at the time, it took me about six years to complete.
In 2002, I was awarded a mentorship by Writer’s Victoria to work on my first YA novel, Letters to Leonardo, which I had already been writing for ages. It took ten years from the initial idea to publication by Walker Books Australia. It’s about a boy who gets a fifteenth birthday card from the mother he thought was dead, and he copes with the turmoil this discovery causes by writing letters to his dead idol, Leonardo da Vinci. I had such great reader responses to this book, it really spurred me on to keep going.
My first picture book, Reena’s Rainbow, about a deaf girl and a homeless dog, was published internationally in 2017 and is currently being made into an AusLan book, so it will be accessible to deaf readers.
Altogether, I’ve had 18 books and two plays for kids and teens published.
In 2017, I was awarded a grant through Creative Victoria to spend a month in Paris to research my middle-grade novel, Beyond Belief, which was inspired by the true story of Muslims at a Paris mosque who saved Jewish children during WW2. It has been an incredible story to research. In Paris, I spent a lot of time at the mosque and visiting other significant places in the story. I even did a tour of the Paris sewers. Beyond Belief is due out with Scholastic Australia in 2020.
Why did you choose to focus on children’s, middle-grade and young adult?
I think I was drawn to writing for children because often they don’t have a voice. I wanted to write stories they could relate to; ones that would make them feel empowered.
Also, when I had kids of my own, I wanted to create stories especially for them. As my children got older, so did my target readership. I also think it’s really important for children to see themselves represented in books, which is why I write about real situations and difficulties that kids go through. Children develop empathy by reading about other kids and their lives, and it’s also reaffirming and reassuring for them to read books about children just like them.
As an adult, I’ve experienced significant hearing loss and this allowed me to step into Reena’s shoes in Reena’s Rainbow, and feel her isolation, and I wanted the readers of the book to understand what that felt like.
To me, writing for children and young adults has been organic. It’s the way my writing has developed; the voice I have found. A publisher asked me once, “Do you have a twelve-year-old boy living inside you?”
Another thing I like about writing for children and young adults is that they are so inspired by, and responsive to, the books they read. They let you know what they think of your books and how they have affected their thinking. One of my books, Hope for Hanna, is about an orphan growing up in Uganda. A group of kids were inspired by it to busk at the local market, to earn money, to send to a Ugandan village, so they could buy a goat.
When you write for this age group, you feel like it’s possible to change the world.
What is the process for writing a children’s book like?
It’s a lot of fun. It allows you to step back in time to your own childhood … and recreate worlds that you used to love exploring. You have to delve back into the past and try and recall how situations made you feel.
When you’re researching, it also means you get to spend time with children. Mine are adults now and I loved that stage in our family life when I could write about them and with them.
I’ve actually written adult novels, (not published) but I don’t think the actual process is that different when you’re creating a novel for kids. You still need a plot, themes, setting, and believable characters.
It can be useful to workshop your story with children as you develop it; to make sure the situations and language are contemporary. I know some authors who regularly go into classrooms at their local primary school to workshop ideas and content.
How do you come up with story ideas?
It really varies. Some ideas come from childhood memories and some have been inspired by my children. Some, like Letters to Leonardo, come from true stories I hear about and real people I know. Others, I stumble across online while I’m researching for another piece. That’s what happened with Beyond Belief. I get inspired by pictures and paintings, and by people I meet. I get inspired by places I visit, films I see, and things I read about. Stories are everywhere. I love being able to explore them.
Do you alter your use of language depending on which age group you are writing for? What is the decision-making process like for choosing particular words/phrases for different age groups?
When I write for very young independent readers, I keep the language simple. When I’m writing books for the educational market, I tend to regulate my language according to the reading levels I’m writing for, and it’s something I think about with some other works, too. For example, when I’m writing for older reluctant readers who want a complex story, but might find reading hard.
But I love introducing kids to new words. Children are smart. They can work out what something means through context. If not, they can look a word up. My language is chosen more for the kind of story I’m writing, rather than trying to censor it for the age group. Kids hate to feel like they are being patronized.
How are your books promoted and distributed?
Various ways. Some have been promoted through lifestyle magazines for youngsters and teens. My book K9 Heroes has been distributed through bookstores, fairs, catalogues, and even sold at dog shows. Some sell in bookshops and through Amazon. Some are ebooks; some aren’t. Letters to Leonardo somehow ended up inspiring a question on a high school exam in the UK.
Most of my books are promoted and distributed through the publishers Walker, Scholastic, EK and Pearson. I’ve also written a couple of writing e-books that I’ve independently published and these are distributed through Smashwords, and Barnes and Noble.
I also do a lot of author talks and workshops in schools and at festivals. I recently got back from the Sharjah International Book where I presented 12 writing workshops for kids of all ages. Events like this are so much fun and they also allow you to stay connected with the people you are writing to.
Doing talks and presentations at international conferences and events, and running online courses at writingclassesforkids.com for kids from all over the globe, helps me stay in touch with what’s happening in other parts of the world.
Do you have any advice for someone wanting to write for a younger audience? Are there any common mistakes to look out for?
Don’t talk down to kids. Do your research so you know what you’re talking about. Kids pick up when you’re not being authentic, or your language isn’t contemporary, or you don’t really understand what life is like for a modern-day kid. They can tell if you are ‘trying to teach them a lesson’, and publishers don’t like this either. Read books for a younger audience so you know what they like and don’t like. Spend time around your target readers so you can write with authority about them. Look in libraries and bookshops and find out who is publishing the kind of books you want to write. Through organizations like the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and through their conference and other conferences, like CYA, you can network with other ‘kid-lit’ creators and find out who is publishing what. You’ll also find out technical information like how long a book should be if it’s targeted at a particular age group.
Even if your kids and grandkids love what you have written, it pays not to mention this to publishers you are submitting to. They like to make up their own minds. Also, doing courses like the Professional Writing and Editing Diploma I did at Vic Uni are great for finding out techniques and tips for writing for teens or kids.