Writers On Writing / How harnessing childhood memories can help writers: with Lisa Shanahan

We interviewed award-winning writer of picture books and fiction for young people, Lisa Shanahan, ahead of her course, Fierce, Funny, True: Writing for Children.

At what point did you decide you wanted to become a children’s writer? 

While I was training to be an actor in my early twenties, I taught drama to a vibrant group of kids and I wrote a play especially for them. Even though that play was not particularly fantastic, the joy of those kids on reading it was quite contagious. It dawned on me that perhaps I didn’t want to be an actor after all, that in fact, I wanted to be a writer. Which made sense of why I was spending so much time in the university library, sprawled out on the carpet, reading children’s books, when I ought to have been rehearsing or writing essays on Shakespeare and the history of the Globe Theatre. And so just like that, it was goodbye to acting and hello to a long apprenticeship as a writer!

Your novel My Big Birkett was your first venture into writing for teenagers. How different is it from children’s writing?

When I was writing My Big Birkett, I wanted teen readers to come away feeling that the fictional town of Buranderry was so close, they could almost smell the hamburgers with the lot, sizzling on the hotplate at Thea’s Milkbar. I soon discovered that this kind of world-building required significant energy and time. I had to develop much greater skill as a writer, at both seeing and capturing fine detail, whilst learning how to weave that more deftly through the action of the story. This was in contrast to my experience of writing picture books and junior fiction, where the responsibility for the setting was largely carried by the illustrator. Despite the differences, writing for children and teenagers certainly holds much in common, including the importance of creating vivid characters, with fiercely true, compelling voices.

Do you test out your writing on your own children, or on other young people in your life?

I certainly have shared some of my stories with my three boys over the years but I don’t believe that sharing with young people is the critical factor. I think it’s more important that writers learn how to harness their own memories of what it was like to be a child, alongside the consistent sharpening of their powers of observation.

Most of my stories have come out of an intricate collision of memory and observation, including my most recent picture book Hark, It’s Me, Ruby Lee! (ill. Binny Talib.) This book features a small lively girl, who is desperate to be chosen as the classroom messenger but who is constantly defeated by her own overactive imagination. The idea for this story came out of a school visit, where I saw a small girl fail to deliver a message for her teacher-librarian, in spectacular fashion.

That little moment sparked an emotional pinprick—the memory of my own childhood desperation to please in the classroom and the hot fizz of shame when it all went pear-shaped. The pang I felt for that little girl lingered for some years, until I finally wrote a story where the goodness of an overactive imagination was roundly vindicated in the final pages.

Lisa Shanahan is an internationally published writer of picture books and fiction for young people. Her novel for teenagers, My Big Birkett was published to critical acclaim in Australia, where it was shortlisted for the 2007 CBCA Book of the Year for Older Readers and in the United States, where it was a 2008 New York Public Library Best Book for the Teen Age.

Fierce, Funny, True: Writing for Children will take place over 6 Tuesdays nights at Writing NSW, from 20 August to 24 September. Book your spot here>


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