Anna Fienberg, creator of Tashi, on Writing for Children
Anna Fienberg

FWA: We hear and read a lot about children and screens/technology. In your experience have children changed much as readers? Do they still engage strongly with books and pages that you can’t swipe?

AF: When I visit schools at Book Week I’m always asked what technical aids I’ll need. ‘None,’ I say. Because I tell the children stories…stories of how I get ideas for books, stories that make up the novels or picture books I’ve written. As soon as I begin, the hush falling over the room is profound. In their eager questions afterwards, you can hear and see the imagining they are doing themselves. I tell them that my words would fall flat if they weren’t creating the pictures to go with them. They are like movie directors supplying the scenes, their minds are the ‘screens.’

Children will always want a story. And good writing makes a story come alive in people’s minds. Making readers care about the characters is the essence of a good story. I find it heartening every Book Week to see this same reliable response to story - simply to words and imagining. Just when I think the dreaded screen is putting out our flame, I visit a school, and am reassured.

FWA: In 'Writing for Children' you encourage people to bring along their ideas for children’s books. Would you please tell us a little about where your writing ideas have come from?

AF: Ideas come from living. From honing your own awareness and being alive to what you feel about living. I tend only to write about things I feel intensely about. The big feelings. Outrage, fear, humiliation, hard-won joy, fury, love…Dreams, conversations, other fiction, news stories, films, relationships. But none of these things will have any meaning without a feeling attached. There is a need to express the feeling, to explore and discover it, and ask why.

Feeling is the seat of imagination - strong feelings urge you towards expression, they demand you to listen, deal with them. Often they give rise to an image or a symbol that seems to come out of nowhere but completely satisfies you. Because you are in this heightened state of feeling you are alert, switched on to events in the world that relate to this strong theme that is obsessing you.

A ‘brain expert’ interviewed on Andrew Denton’s show once described an idea as a connection made between two random facts. For me the connection comes from a fact and the feeling it creates.

FWA: Book week and award announcements promote reading and profile many new books and authors. What writers are you enjoying at the moment and which book/s have really stood out for you recently?

AF: It’s good to read widely in the area you’re interested in writing for. I’ve enjoyed Morris Gleitzman's books for his combination of humour and tender poignancy. Picture books of Bob Graham and Peter Carnavas, and always the classic picture book, John Brown Rose and the Midnight Cat, by Ron Brooks and Jenny Wagner. Whenever I mention theNarnia books to children, many children will know them, and still love them. In my early years of writing, I found the rich language and wildly inventive stories of Margaret Mahy hugely inspiring. The most outstanding and moving book I’ve read all year was Lenny’s Book of Everything by Karen Foxlee - it’s wonderful!

FWA: What impact do a writer’s personality, passion and voice have in developing a great book for children?

AF: I think writing, whether for children or adults, is all about finding your own voice and the most authentic story you want to tell. This emotional truth will imbue your characters with life and feeling, and they will wake up your readers. In writing for children, the interior voice and emotional journey are just as important as in any other kind of writing, but the plot line and its externalising of the inner journey needs to be especially well developed and satisfying.

You have to be passionate about your characters for others to care. To become this way you burrow into yourself and discover your characters and the parts of you they spring from. You don’t have to know everything about them when you start - the most rewarding part of writing is the discovery of your subject, and its meaning in your own life.

FWA: What is the main thing you hope participants will take of their time in 'Writing for Children'?

AF: I hope you discover your own voice in this course, the characters and stories that you want to tell. We’ll look at ways to encourage that voice, to make it bloom, and how to begin shaping it into a whole…

Mostly, I hope you will enjoy yourselves, and indulge in a little of that ‘selving’ that Gerard Manly Hopkins coined when talking about existence, turning the noun into a verb!

Thank you Anna Fienberg.