It’s 10am on a Friday morning and Sue Whiting is somewhere in New York City – her guide is a young adult who has a story to tell and Sue is intrigued. As she listens to the teenager’s story she hears a familiar sound calling her back to a small coastal village south of Sydney – Sue has to leave the teenager just now, but she’ll be back in NYC before the day is out.
As the author of more than 50 children’s books and the Senior Editor for Walker Books Australia, Sue Whiting (pictured) has had some amazing adventures. Prior to her brief stop-over in New York City, Sue spent her days taming the butterflies and dancing with elephants and the sugar plum fairy. She has battled rats and tangoed with organised crime – but it’s all in a day’s work when your uncle is an alien and your mother wants to cook your pet duck for dinner!
From her home on the south coast of New South Wales, Sue Whiting tells me, “My first love is children’s books. As a young primary school teacher I used children’s books all the time as a tool for teaching.”
Sue was almost thirty when she started writing novelty books for a book company as a contracted writer. “I wrote about twenty of these and some of those books have been my most successful as far as sales and print runs, but I received a set fee,” she said.
As a contract writer, Sue also wrote a lot of books for the education market before moving into the trade books you find in bookstores, six years ago. “Of these books, my most successful book so far would have to be The Firefighters which was illustrated by Donna Rawlins. It’s been published by Candlewick Press and they are doing their third reprinting in the US.”
Sue Whiting has also written novels for children and picture books for the Australian market, including The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy which is part of the popular Music Box Series published by New Frontier Publishing. Illustrated by Sarah Davis and with narration by Antonia Kidman, The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy includes the much loved music from the Nutcracker ballet, composed by Tchaikovsky.
Despite having a love for children’s picture books, Sue admits she finds writing picture books difficult. “They come to me when I least expect it. So when Sophia [from New Frontier Publishing] actually rang and asked if I’d be interested in writing for this particular series, I was quite nervous about it because I didn’t know whether I could deliver,” she said. “But I really liked the idea of taking a piece of classical music and then being inspired to write your own story by listening to that music. On so many levels it was really a great concept.”
Like myself and many of you I’m sure, listening to Tchaikovsky took Sue back to a time when she was a little girl with day dreams of becoming a ballerina. “I could remember twirling around the lounge room to that particular piece of music,” she said. “But then of course I had the problem of what to write – I had to come up with something original and interesting and something I could be proud of. I wanted it linked to the ballet but so totally different there could never be a comparison.”
As an editor, Sue Whiting says there is no magic formula for writing a children’s book and it’s really hard to explain why the Harry Potter books and the Twilight series have been so phenomenally successful with both adults and children around the world.
“There are many books that have witches and wizards and are equally as good as Harry Potter, but for some reason Harry Potter just tapped into the world’s imagination and the same goes for Twilight,” she said. “But it makes reading important in the lives of young people. When the first Harry Potter came out no-one was reading very much – so the success of the series has had a positive effect, whether you like the books or not.”
Conscious of the fact that aspiring children’s author may be reading this and looking for tips on how to get that all important first book published, I asked Sue Whiting to explain what she looks for when sifting through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts.
“One of the big things that really makes a children’s book stand out is if the author is able to really write from a child’s point of view. Often people who are trying to write for children, will write as an adult pretending to be a child.”
Another common mistake first time authors make is reproducing the type of books they may have enjoyed as a child. “Children have changed and the books of today are different to twenty or thirty years ago. Often when people start out writing children’s books they will write a very long winded, old fashioned kind of tale that they might of enjoyed forty years ago when they were a child. But this isn’t the kind of thing we publish today,” said Sue.
“There’s also a misconception out there that writing a children’s book is really easy. Writing for children has all the same challenges as writing for adults, but there are some additional challenges as well. You have to write for a particular age group that has a particular reading level and their own particular interests – so there are a whole lot of things you have to take into consideration.”
Sue added, “Kids hold no prisoners and they will dump you very quickly if you don’t grab them from the outset and keep their attention. Adult readers will give the writer more of a go and persevere for at least a few chapters. But with kids if you don’t capture their attention on that first page, they’ll dump you in a flash and move onto the next book.”
For more information about Sue Whiting and her books, visit her website www.suewhiting.com