Writing for children

Steve Smallman, children's author and illustrator explains how much he's always enjoyed talking - and listening - to his children, and how they've inspired his work

I’ve never really had a ‘grown-up’ job. I’ve worked from home as a freelance children’s book illustrator since I left Art College. As I’m sure my wife would tell you, being a self-employed artist is not the most reliable of occupations but it did allow me the privilege of being around to watch my children growing up.

I used to love chatting with my kids when they were little, even when they could only talk ‘scribble’. I remember my daughter aged about 13 months repeating the same, totally unintelligible phrases to me, slowly, as if talking to an idiot. She obviously knew what she meant, maybe I am an idiot.

By the time she was two years old she was chattering incessantly and without the use of baby words. She corrected herself almost instantly if she got a word wrong. Of course we treasured the few verbal mistakes she did make. Blackcurrant squash will forever be ‘Blackling’ in our house and we often buy ‘Cornerflakes and ‘Musherooms’ to this day. It was great fun to teach her little phrases to use. Old ladies asking this tiny tot a question in their sing-songy, talking to babies voice would be floored to hear ‘Absolutely old fruit!’ in reply.

My son Sam however was a different proposition entirely. His language was slower to develop but he found ways of telling you what he wanted to say using his limited vocabulary. I remember sitting in the garden with Sam, then aged three watching a bumble bee on a nearby patch of clover.

“Sam,” I asked him, “What do you know about bees?”
“Well,” he started, “They are bizzing things”
“Really!” I said, “And what colour are they?”
“A stripy colour.” He replied.
“Right,” I nodded, “Anything else?”
“You mustn’t touch it or step on it, no.” he said, shaking his head solemnly.
“Why’s that?” I asked
“Because it’s got nettles in its bottom and it’ll pin you on the knee!”

I really miss having little children around. My four enormous offspring are now aged between 16 and 25, hardly the target audience for the picture books that I now write. It’s a shame I didn’t get to read my own bedtime stories to them when they were little but I treasure all my memories of them growing up and use them in my writing.

I try to use simple language imaginatively, make up words where I need them and to convey strong emotions through simple dialogue. It’s a real struggle for me but our children are brilliant at it.

Sometimes, as parents we talk to our children a lot but maybe we don’t always listen enough. They love to tell us things and their verbal ‘mistakes’ become part of your family’s folklore. My friend sometimes makes ‘Boot Cakes’ (Her young son’s misremembered name for choux buns).

I recently wrote a book called ‘The very Greedy Bee’ in which the main character goes ‘Whizzing and bizzing’ from flower to flower. Its dedication reads,
‘For Sam who taught me everything I know about bees.’

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