This September, for the first time ever, we are excited to shine our spotlight on not one, not two, but a whole group of inspiring writers: the Monday Night Children’s Writers group (MNCW). With thirteen members, and convened every second Monday evening by Marian McGuinness, these writers focus on writing for young people of all ages – junior (picture books), middle grade (MG) and young adult (YA).
Recently, three members (a quarter of their group!) have had books published with major publishers: Debra Tidball with The Scared Book, Katrina Roe with Gemma Gets the Jitters and Lisa Nicol with Dr Boogaloo and the Girl Who Lost Her Laughter. To celebrate these amazing achievements, our Membership Intern, Mia Do, spoke to the group about their foundation, their friendships and the fun challenges in writing for young readers.
First of all, congratulations to MNCW for all of your recent good news! Before we dive in, Marian, could you tell us a bit about your group and how you got started?
Our group began many, many years ago. Several of us met at the Libby Gleeson’s Writing for Children’s course at Sydney University and we wanted to continue our writing friendship. Aleesah Darlison started our group of fledgling writers, and it’s been thriving ever since. What’s also exciting is the diversity of our backgrounds that we call upon. Our writing caters for PBs, middle grade and YA. We each bring in multiple copies of up to 1000 words of our scripts, are given about 20 minutes each which includes reading the script aloud (very important), and our discussion of all manner of things in a constructive, positive and often humorous way. We are totally supportive of and totally respectful for each other. We celebrate and commiserate together, attend festivals and each other’s launches, and we have an awesome Christmas dinner at the pub. But most importantly, we are a family.
Many people join writers’ groups with good intentions but struggle to keep up attendance. What keeps MNCW members coming back meeting after meeting? (And do you have advice for other writers trying to stay disciplined?)
Maala: 3 years ago Cathie Tasker’s concluding remarks ‘Surround yourself with writerly people,’ sent me to this writing group. I am lucky enough to find a wonderful group of women who weave magic with their words and are very generous with their time. Over the last 3 years, a number of major life moments – including an ill mother then the passing of my mum, the first rejection letter, and an unwise choice to join the school board (!) – have completely unraveled my great intentions to have a consistent writing habit. Through each of these events Marian (our fearless leader) has kept at me to come back and to keep writing. To have someone who encourages you to write is so important at the beginning. The writers in this group are so very talented and so supportive; they have no qualms about giving solid, meaningful feedback. My writing time is now an addiction and I’m less willing to set it aside.
Denise: The group has a similar level of writing experience and dedication to improving our own and other’s work – and a great Christmas party. To stay disciplined, treat writing like a ‘proper’ job with regular hours, even if it’s only one hour a day.
Wendy: I think it’s the friendship and valuable feedback. But mainly it’s a deadline. I need deadlines or everything else takes over and I don’t make time to write.
Katy: Our group’s model of everyone reads is a good one. And we critique in a positive, supporting way, which means we want to come back. The group includes a wide range of voices, styles and great writing, which makes for an interesting evening, with frequent laughter. And, of course, Marian is an excellent convenor.
Steph: There is nothing more motivating that meeting with the ‘fab’ MNCW group. Some of us show up even with nothing prepared, just to check in and be inspired. Personally, I schedule trips to get back by Mondays for the critique group. It’s actually quite addictive.
Sarah: MNCW is an incredibly rewarding group and being a member has done so much to improve my writing. I always come away with solutions to my writing problems and new ideas that would never have had occurred to me without our members’ feedback. The regular meetings keep me accountable and that keeps me coming back.
Debra: We have a lot of fun and get through a lot of work. So, the fun/work combo really works. We all know the value of feedback so we can improve our work, so we’re not oversensitive, and we all are warm and kind when we give feedback. There’s a lot of good will and vibrant energy in the group, and we all feel somewhat invested in each other’s stories, and really want the best for them.
(To Debra) Your upcoming picture book, The Scared Book, allows the child to ‘chase away monsters’. What motivated you to come up with the innovative idea for an interactive picture book instead of a traditional one?
I loved the playfulness of metafictive picture books when I first discovered them whilst studying children’s literature at Macquarie Uni. I’m drawn to that quirky and frame breaking style. When I read This Book Just Ate My Dog at a bookshop a few years ago, I knew I wanted to write a book that uses the book’s gutter for something to emerge from or disappear into. It’s just such a fun idea!
(To Katrina) Gemma Gets The Jitters, your latest picture book, focuses on dealing with anxiety in childhood, and your previous story, Emily Eases Her Wheezes, explored physical health. What drew you to writing about children’s wellbeing?
Actually, I’ve written lots of different kinds of picture books texts, but these are the ones that have been accepted for publication. I think it’s because our most authentic writing is the most powerful. For each of these stories, I’ve drawn on feelings, experiences and challenges that my family has faced. Hopefully they resonate with others who have faced similar kinds of issues. Also, because picture books are read aloud, and are an experience children share with their parents and carers, you have a unique opportunity to facilitate shared discussion and learning. Kids genuinely enjoy the story, but they’re learning something in the process.
(To Lisa) Your newest work, Dr Boogaloo and The Girl Who Lost Her Laughter, is introduced as ‘hilariously sad’, which appears unusual for a children’s book. What were the challenges of working on a children’s story that wasn’t all laughter and joy?
I didn’t find that to be a challenge, really. I think a story that was all laughter and joy would probably be much more of a challenge. The biggest challenges were finding the time to write and believing in myself. Without our writers’ group, the book wouldn’t have existed. I brought it along and got a great response. This helped me to believe it might be something of worth. The group’s support, encouragement, and sharp editorial advice drove me through the process.
As adults writing for children and young adults, how do you create an authentic voice that children relate to, find believable and that doesn’t talk down to them?
Katy: Voice is where I start. Writing my way into a character and hearing them speak to other characters in the book, getting them to talk to each other in scenes that feel real to that age group, that’s where I start. Once I can hear them talking to each other, I know they exist, and if I’m ever stuck, I’ll put them into a situation and get them talking.
Steph: I test out my picture book stories on my five-year-old, and I really listen to him and his friends – what they are talking about, recurring themes and issues, silly words. But I also quickly find out what’s not working when I read out loud in a critique session. Some – sometimes all – of the group will quickly tick a word or note a theme that’s not working. When you see everyone’s heads bob and pens slash, you know there’s an issue.
Sarah: Don’t think about your audience; think about your characters. Your characters should speak for themselves; after all, it’s their world, you’re just lucky enough to be writing it. And of course, there’s the all-important ‘show, don’t tell’.
Katrina: For me, this comes from two places. Drawing on my own experiences and feelings as a child, and actually spending time with children so I have empathy with what it’s like to be a child. It’s also important to create characters that the kids care about. That will be their biggest reason to keep reading.
Marian: I totally put myself into the character’s shoes. I think like them, I create mannerisms and quirks. The inner voice is also important – what the character is feeling inside – a little like interior monologue. And that ‘voice’ has to change as the character grows and changes in an emotional, inner kind of way.
For the picture book writers in the group, what are the challenges of having someone else give your ideas their drawn form?
Steph: Oh, how I’d love to be an author-illustrator! I immediately see the illustrations in my mind when I’m writing a picture book, and often my story relies on what’s going on in the artwork. But, I can’t draw, so instead, a talented artist depicts my story in illustrations. That’s pretty cool. And I do believe that the whole ends up greater than the sum of the parts.
Debra: The challenge is to be open to something that is beyond, or different to whatever you might have thought. But that’s also the beauty of it. This openness is also balanced with knowing when to speak up if something just isn’t working. I think the writers’ group helps here, because we are always practicing the art of giving feedback.
Katrina: I’ve done a lot of media production work, so I’m quite okay with the concept of handing over my work to somebody else for their input. It does require a lot of trust. But it’s usually evident from the first ‘roughs’ whether the illustrator ‘gets it’ or not. Leigh Hedstrom and I have done three books together now, and I have only had to suggest changes to one illustration in each book. Usually a good illustrator will bring new ideas to the work, and as the author, you have to be willing to let go of your ideas, so that the illustrator can also find their voice.
Middle grade fiction often introduces young readers to more complex plots and problems. What topics do you like to explore in your middle grade writing?
Denise: Middle graders are great – out in the world, beginning to explore life all by themselves. And friendship is always important. In 88 Lime Street – The Way In (Omnibus, Scholastic 2015), I was particularly interested in the idea of ‘fitting in’ – how, for some of us, it takes a while to find like-minded friends and that they might turn up in the most unexpected places. I also love puzzles and codes. I rarely write a story without clues to be solved.
Wendy: I like middle grade. I’ve had two stories accepted by the School Magazine. They take short stories, poems and plays, and they pay you. And I really like playing around with characters from different cultures and backgrounds.
Lisa: Outsiders seem to be a theme in my work, as well as acceptance. My work is a bit fantastical. I like getting imaginations all fired up. Getting kids’ attention these days is more difficult than ever before. I hope stories that are easy to read, entertaining and also emotionally engaging will stand some chance against the flash-bang-wiz world of screens.
Marian: I like to explore independence. My stories seem to follow this path, whether a more serious, dramatic story, or a humorous one. Humour is always pretty close to whatever plot I’m following. Also, what’s important to me is showing that we can use our imaginations and creativity to get ourselves out of precarious situations. And that leads onto another loved theme, that of exploration. As middle grade writers, giving kids the tools to feel confident to explore their new worlds is so important.
From Harry Potter to the Hunger Games, YA stories seem to be endlessly rising in popularity. What makes YA books so compelling?
Jenny: As young adults, we’re learning about the world we’ve inherited and asking the big questions. What would I change if I could? What would a post-apocalyptic world be like? Why war? Would immortality eventually grow boring? Does falling in love conquer all? What could be more fun than broomstick-flying? We’re placing ourselves centre-stage and striving to make a difference. For these reasons, YA novels often have big themes. They use speculative elements, end optimistically and demonstrate change in the hero. So, who wouldn’t want to be young and idealistic again, fall in love truly madly deeply, plus save the world?
Katy: A parent friend recently asked me why I write for this age group, as her teenage daughter was driving her nuts. And it is often painful to witness the decisions they make, groping around in the dark trying to make sense of their newborn, freshly-minted emotional lives. It can be torturous and full of melodrama but this period is so important to who we are. How we get through the emotional crises we face as young people makes us the adults (or perennial teenagers) we are today.
Sarah: YA stories, whatever the genre, are about transformation and the possibility of youth and the universality to those ideas have always resonated deeply with readers. Coming of Age stories have always been hugely popular – YA is a natural progression.
Lastly, in one sentence each, what is your favourite Australian children’s book and what do you love about it?
Jenny: Diary of a Wombat by Jackie French and Bruce Whatley, for its Aussie humour and absolute simplicity.
Denise: I adore Nest in the Bush, by Nan Fullerton (from the 60s – someone please reprint it!) but a close second is Bob Graham’s Greetings from Sandy Beach – funny, surprising, breezy but deep.
Wendy: There are too many. I guess one book I love is Playing Beatie Bow by Ruth Park. I love the fun of the time slip, engaging characters, and the fact it was set in Sydney.
Katy: So hard to choose, but the one I reread a zillion times when I was young was A Book for Kids by C.J. Dennis. It’s still hilarious if a tad wrong in so many ways.
Lisa: Hard to pick but I love Bob Graham’s A Bus called Heaven and Jethro Byrd, Fairy Child. Graham writes from deep inside a child’s world. His work always has great warmth and gentle humour.
Steph: Where is Bear? by Jonathan Bentley is my current favourite – an absolutely brilliant picture book full of hilarious toddler antics and a wonderfully satisfying surprise ending.
Sarah: Miles Franklin’s My Brilliant Career, Sybylla is one of my all-time favourite characters – the original kick-arse YA heroine!
Debra: It’s impossible to have one! Besides Katrina and Lisa’s books, I would have to say at this point in time, Margaret Wild’s The Sloth who came to Stay, because it speaks to our fast-paced generation with the perfect blend of heart and humour.
Katrina: If I limit myself to picture books it’s a tie between Wilfred Gordon Macdonald Partridge by Mem Fox and Herman and Rosie by Gus Gordon. Oh, and Margaret Wild’s Tanglewood … Did you say just one? They’re all hopeful stories about loss, loneliness, and re-connection.
Marian: Loving adventurous books, one that is embedded in my heart is Philip Pullman’s trilogy, His Dark Materials. The heroine, Lyra Silvertongue, is strong, inquisitive, travels between parallel universes and loves spinning stories.
To find out more about the exciting new releases from Monday Night Children’s Writers group, check out the websites of these writers: