When I was six I wrote a story about a cat sitting on a mat. Those were the words I could safely spell but what I really wished was to write an exciting story with interesting words.
Writing for younger readers involves our best writing, interesting words, exciting plots with genuine characters and voice. You may say that’s the same for any age group and you would be correct. So what’s different? For younger readers you’ll also need a child (or animal) main character and a topic that children will be intrigued by. Hmm, take a cat and a storm.
One night on our farm a huge storm blew up and my black cat Harry disappeared. Maybe he was disorientated by the storm and the damage in its wake, for he never turned up. I pinned up posters: a photo of him squeezed into a basket, his huge yellow eyes staring into the camera, and above: Have you seen Harry? No one answered and I hope he’s having a good life in someone’s house.
People consoled me with their ‘lost cat’ stories. One said, ‘We couldn’t find our cat when we had to leave our holiday place and had to leave him behind. He came home fourteen months later. Apart from sore feet, he was fine.’ Fourteen months went by and Harry didn’t return. I read many stories online of cats who disappeared and reappeared. One sneaked onto a plane bound for France and because she was microchipped the airline was able to send her home.
All my previous cats were farm or rescue cats so I bought a cat that was born in a cattery. A beautiful black British Shorthair who thought he was a prince and had no idea he could go outside and get lost. My youngest daughter helped me name him Pepper Masalah. He was a spicy cat with great orange eyes and a purr like a generator. He loved carpets and so a story was born.
What if a black cat was sitting on a special carpet and a storm caused the branch of a huge olive tree to crash through the lounge room window? The wind whisked the carpet and cat outside and up in the air, seemingly flying on the wind. But what if the carpet had a heart and the wind had woken it? It wanted to find its master in Kashmir but it had been asleep for hundreds of years. Flying isn’t easy to get used to after being dormant for so long. The carpet would keep landing in the wrong place until it found its wings. And only Pepper Masalah could make it fly.
The children I told this story to during Bookweek loved it and ran to get the globe to see where Pepper and the carpet could land next. The MS went to some publishers but wasn’t accepted. When I told this to a class a student said, ‘You need a boy on the carpet. I’d like to read a story like that where I could fly.’ I rewrote Pepper Masalah and the Flying Carpet with a boy called Zamir who shared in the adventure. After this rewrite, the first publisher I sent it to, said, ‘Yes, we’re looking for stories like this.’
So you see, I really did manage to write a story about a cat sitting on a mat that has more interesting words. And this is what I learned through it all:
- That real life needs to be fictionised to work well in a story. Pepper Masalah is now a female cat in the story as there were too many incidences of the pronoun ‘he’.
- I had to be willing to change my original ideas.
- I asked the readership what they thought would make the story work better.
- To rewrite and never give up on a good story.
- To have confidence because what one publisher doesn’t need on their list may be a treasure to another one.
Pepper Masalah and the Flying Carpet, Book 1 due March 2023 at Wombat Books.
Beautiful illustrations by Jasmine Berry