Children's fiction Fiction Prose Writing

Learning from children for ‘The Second Kind of Darkness’

So I am now in the ‘seeking representation’, (agent-beguiling) stage for my children’s story (age 9-12) called The Second Kind of Darkness (more about it here). After donning my imaginary pith helmet, I selected an agent to target. Mostly this was done on gut feel having seen her in the new Children’s Writers and Artists Yearbook and liking her profile on the website.

The reality is that there are bazillions of people out there writing children’s books, and only a tiny percentage will be taken. So statistically it seems unlikely that the book will emerge into the world.  I can’t stop, however, feeling weirdly and uncharacteristically positive. I think The Second Kind of Darkness is the best thing I have ever written.

As it is a children’s story, trying it out on children seemed a good idea.  Fortunately my wife is a headteacher, and one of our teacher friends Dawn Daniel has been an enormous help. Dawn has fixed it for me on several occasions to read early versions to children in class. (Note: arriving at this version took ten years of bloody-minded rewrites.)

To begin with I found this a bit nerve-racking too, and my already sky high respect for today’s teachers climbed even further.

I found children quickly let you know what’s working – and what isn’t. I was soon reminded how smart ten year old children are, being hawkish about detail and continuity. Some of their questions were surprisingly technical too, such as the use of  first and third person narrators. I came to see the children’s feedback as a kind of highly useful collaboration.

Just before the summer break Dawn read the opening chapters of this final version of the story to her class. I was delighted to hear the majority of the class were engaged and keen to read on. If children are loving it, at least that’s a hopeful start.

Fibula, the six legged cat, colour sketch by my mother Margaret Hamlin


labelling and illustration

In advertising, one of the ways to spot an absolute beginner is that they produce concepts that label things.

To reduce this to basics: imagine a picture of a sports shoe, with the line This is a great sports shoe. This leaves no room for the imagination to flex – that’s because the lines are labelling the picture.

Now picture the same shoe with the line Just do it. This, as history has proved for Nike, allows the imagination to go on a journey between the notion of a shoe, and all the things you could “just do” if you were wearing it.

And of course if you had a line This is a great sports shoe with a picture of a pair of sexy Jimmy Choo high heels, that would tell another story altogether.

I’m currently working on a children’s book, which my mother the artist Margaret Hamlin is illustrating.

Naturally the language is quite simple, and the story and the pictures track each other. The picture complements and carries the story. But here’s the point of difference: children enjoy labelling much more than advertising creatives. Children are rewarded when they find something in the picture that was mentioned in the words.

Below, a snap of one of the illustrations from the book – before the text is flowed in and it is set up as a double page. More of my mother’s art can be found here.