“A children’s story has to have a child at its centre”
January 31 2017 08:59 PM
READING PLEASURE: Alan Durant interacts with students during a reading session.

From toddlers to teenagers, no child’s imagination it seems can escape the joy and delight of devouring stories penned by seasoned children’s writer Alan Durant. Be it picture books or top-end teenage thrillers, Durant works his magic through a wide age-range of tales.
To share precious much from his knowledge and craft, Durant is coming down to Doha this month as the International School of London-Qatar (ISL-Q) prepares to offer a writer’s workshop with him on February 11. The accomplished British author, who is being brought here by the Doha Librarians Association, will be working with several schools all through this month to renew enthusiasm about reading.
Durant regularly offers residential writers’ workshops in France and the UK. The upcoming workshop here titled How to Write a Children’s Book, will be on from 8.45am to 4pm on February 11. The fee is QR350, which includes lunch and refreshments. The workshop will cover different aspects of children’s writing — getting inside a young mind, character, viewpoint and plotting. The intention will be that everyone will go home with a piece or two of writing after a creative and stimulating fun day with time at the end for questions and social interaction, says ISL.
Community caught up with Durant for a chat, ahead of his busy schedule here in Doha.

Why is it important for adults keen on writing children’s books to attend a workshop such as this?
If you have never written a story for children before but are interested in giving it a try — perhaps, you have an idea you’d like to develop or you want to find out about how it is done — then a writing workshop like the one I’ll be running in Qatar on Saturday, February 11, is a great place to start. You’ll learn a lot about the crafting of stories for young people from someone with many years’ experience — that’s me! —discuss ideas and experiences with others who share your interest, and get plenty of opportunity to write — with constructive feedback. Sometimes it’s hard to get going on a writing project when you are on your own. A friendly group environment such as this can help a lot.

What are the essential guiding principles to writing a children’s book?
I think it helps a lot when you are writing for children if you have children around you in your daily life. Certainly, my children inspired many of my stories and they were also very useful as an ‘audience’. I used to refer to them as my ‘guinea-pigs’ as I always tried out my stories on them. It really helped me to see what was and wasn’t working and whether the idea was pitched right for the age range. Go to your local library and bookshop and see what is out there. You need to know your readership. The most essential guiding principle, though, is that a children’s story has to have a child at its centre. It’s surprising how often novice writers forget this.

In what ways do delving into the character’s mind, ideating, plotting and executing a children’s book differ vastly from that of other kinds of books?
The most important aspect of any story is not what happens but who it happens to, that is the characters. The main character, the one we identify with, in a children’s story, should be a child (or a child substitute such as an animal). The realm of children’s books is a vast one – from picture books to young adult novels – and the process is different for each age-range. Writing a picture book is very different from any other literary form because it is written to be illustrated and to be read aloud. Writing for younger children requires careful consideration of language and sentence complexity, the suitability of the idea and its execution; material can be scary but in an ultimately reassuring context. However, when I write for young adults, I make no concessions in language or subject matter – the only limitation is one of experience. There are some things – not many these days! – that you might not have experienced as a teenager; being an adult, for example.

How challenging does it get for you to write children’s books with fresh ideas and plot points?
I write for children of all ages, so having fresh ideas isn’t so hard. Having said that, I find that the further I am from a direct link with childhood — my children are all now in their twenties — the more difficult it is to find stories that resonate. But I have many notebooks full of ideas at home and it would take me longer than a lifetime to explore them all. I’m currently working on what will be my 100th book. It’s a novel for 10-12-year-olds called Clownfish about a boy who refuses to accept that his dad has died but believes he has turned into a clownfish at his local aquarium. So far, the book has taken me 17 years to write, but the ending is in sight! Everywhere I go inspires me, so maybe I’ll write a children’s story set in Qatar.

From your experiences interacting with a varied range of readers, could you share an anecdote that attests to the importance of encouraging the habit of reading books among children?
Reading is so important. I tell this to children all the time, reinforcing what teachers and parents tell them. You cannot be an author if you aren’t a reader. We write books because we love reading them. At primary/elementary school, I wasn’t interested much in writing – I wanted to be a footballer – but I loved reading. The e-mails that please me the most are from children (or their parents) who have been inspired to read because of meeting me or reading one of my books. I received an e-mail just weeks ago from a boy I worked with 10 years ago in a very disadvantaged school. He was part of a group that I was encouraging to read and write. Now he is starting college with the ambition to become a playwright, which he says was mainly due to my encouragement back in elementary school. How amazing and gratifying is that! Also recently, I was in a school in England and the teacher showed me a book I had signed for her 20 years ago when she was in her last year of primary school. Of course, she read lots of books but the experience of meeting a real, live author and having a book signed had, she said, a huge influence on her and her choice of profession. Now she inspires children to read with all the amazing fulfilment it brings just as she was once inspired by having a visit at her school from an author — me!
Reading really does change lives. But it’s a habit, a pleasure, that needs to be nurtured early, pretty much from birth. It is never too early in a child’s life to share a book with them.

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