Writing Books for Children and Young Adults
Learn how to grab young readers’ attention with clever characters, structure, dragons and the occasional bottom joke.
Duncan Ball is the best-selling author of seventy-five books of children’s fiction including the Selby and Emily Eyefinger series.
He moved to Australia in 1974. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts, USA and lived for some years in Anchorage, Alaska, and later in Madrid and Paris.
He majored in Mathematics and Chemistry at university and then left his job in chemical research to write books. Duncan has been a full-time author and occasional scriptwriter since 1982.
He and his wife Jill live in the Inner Western suburbs of Sydney.
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* Please note that these transcripts have been edited for readability
Duncan thanks for joining us today.
You’re very welcome.
Now, you were editing children’s stories at The School Magazine at the Department of Education, I understand. How did you get into that because that’s such a seminal magazine that’s a part of every child’s childhood?
How did you get into that and how did that influence you to then write books for children?
First just answering those in reverse, it was really my apprenticeship and that of a lot of other people in the children’s book writing business here in Australia. We learned our trade, it was sort of like working at the ABC, which everybody seems to do before they go off to other stations.
The School Magazine has been a literary magazine for kids in New South Wales for, I guess it went through a couple of name changes early on back a hundred years or so. I got a job there. It was a complete fluke.
I had been working as an industrial chemist. My background is in mathematics and chemistry. I was interested in writing. I had been for some years. I’ve written an adult novel. The reason that I knew about The School Magazine was because I had two young sons in primary school and they used to bring it home.
Then I found for some reason that they were looking for, not an editor, but an assistant editor. I did my homework and kind of learned as much as I could about it, never thinking that I had a chance of getting the job. I went for an interview, got it. Then the editor left and I applied for her job.
How did you think that you’d got that after having a background in industrial chemistry?
Well, I think part of it was the fact that I was a published author already. I was there for four and half years and I then hired other people, Anna Feinberg being one of them.
We had panels where we interviewed people and such. One thing that struck me was how poorly prepared most of the interviewees were. I guess maybe they were people who showed up not thinking they had a chance of getting the job. A lot of them were journalists who were probably trying lots of different things to make a living.
I think the thing that I did right was that I actually had a got a lot of copies of the magazine and read it. Because not having grown up in Australia I hadn’t read it as a kid.
I also put together a lot of thoughts on what I would like to do with the magazine if I were given the chance to do so, most of which once I got the job they wouldn’t let me do.
But I think that actually helped the interview panel.
Then when you got into it, is that when you started thinking, “Oh, right, maybe books for children.”
Yes, I still really wanted to write for adults. My first book was an adult novel and it was a kind of tongue-in-cheek thriller. Had that gone well, I would have quite happily continued to do that sort of thing. This was back just before I guess Peter Corus started writing his detective series.
I think that sort of thing, although not quite like Peter’s work would have suited me. But it didn’t do well and I did think, “Oh, maybe I can write for kids and write for adults.” I was kind of hoping that the then editor of The School Magazine, Lila Norman, who had written some children’s books, would show me the ropes basically. But then as soon as I got there she announced that she was leaving.
But we all, the staff of the magazine, had to read loads of children’s books and write précis of them, and then adapt them for use in the magazine in a lot of cases. It really did force you to kind of read things you wouldn’t have wanted to, made you think about things that you wouldn’t have. It was just a very good education.
Right training ground.
One of your characters in your book series, Emily Eyefinger, was born with an eye at the end of her finger. It seems that in your books about Emily that she embraces her differences and uses her finger to solve mysteries and have adventures.
Where did that idea come from?
What kind of feedback have you had about Emily because she is unusual?
The idea came from my wife actually. She was born here in Australia and she went to Colsiber primary school when she was a kid. We were talking about teachers and our various teachers, mine in primary school in Alaska and her in Colsiber.
She was talking about one teacher in particular who lots of good ways to get the kids to thinking. One day the teacher said to the kids, “Where would you like to have a third eye if you had three eyes instead of two?”
A lot of the kids said, oh my forehead, or the top of my head, or the back of my head. After which the teacher said, “Think of all the things that you could do if you had eye on the end of your finger.”
I said, “Hey, I think that would be a good idea for a character.”
So I wrote the first book. My then editor didn’t like it so wouldn’t publish it but I just happened a few years afterwards I was in New York. I had been going back and forth to New York to try and sell US rights to some of the books of mine published here, and I was at Simon & Schuster.
They were kind of looking through my books and saying, “Yes, okay, okay. Do you have anything that hasn’t been published?” Because that’s always more attractive to a publisher who can say they want world rights.
I said, “Well, I’ve got this.”
And within a week they had rung me up and said, “Oh, we love the idea. Would you write three more and we’ll put out four at the same time?”
I had never had a publisher ask me for more. In fact usually even with my other books that turned into series, they said, “Oh, no, no, don’t write another one. Wait and let’s see how this one goes.”
So I actually talked them down to two more books because I didn’t think that I had enough ideas.
Yes, I knew it was silly. I have to be one of the first authors to talk a publisher out of, down from three more books to two.
She has an eye at the end of her finger I mean the possibilities are endless, aren’t they?
Yes, in each of the stories and typically the books are short and they have six short stories in them usually, a couple of them have eight. But the idea of having a story that finally turns on Emily being able to solve some problem, solve a mystery, get people out of some kind of danger by the use of the eye on the end of her finger, the possibilities aren’t limitless.
In fact I do struggle to come up with them. At the time I had sort of written the one book and then thought, “Oh, I think I can think up X number more stories, but I don’t know if I can exceed that.”
In a way it’s good that I didn’t write the other one because just before the books were published, and Simon & Schuster in New York did a wonderful job, great illustrations although I have to say when they were published here later, Craig Smith has done the illustrations and I like his better.
They had a good illustrator there. The editing process was very thorough. They were beautifully produced books. Then all of these people got the sack just before the books were going to be published. A new publisher came in and she kind of sacked them all and brought her mates over from another publishing house on a typical, more like the sort of thing that kind of happens in Hollywood studios.
The books, while they did get released, were kind of a quiet release by people who hadn’t been involved in them. They looked beautiful, but I can’t say that they did terribly well.
So you have written quite a few series of books and you have written two books about the Piggotts who seem to be quite a mad family except for 11-year old Bert. How did you come up with this family and are they based on people that you know.
Actually I was inspired in this case by a series of books by Helen Cresswell, the English author about a family named the Bagthorpes. She wrote I can’t remember how many books are in the Bagthorpe saga but let’s say five of them. I had read those while at The School Magazine and I had sort of liked the idea of having, and I can’t remember those books well enough. I just thought mad family is a good idea.
I like the idea of their having a main character, in this case Bert Piggott who’s 11-years old, being the only sensible and sane member of this family of ratbags. All of the family who seem to get involved in every sort of scheme. Bert is just powerless to stop them and try to kind of return some kind of sanity so that they don’t lose the house or whatever it is.
Really the idea came from, I don’t want to make this sound as if all of my ideas come from other people and other books because most of them are just things that pop into my head, but in a few instances I have been inspired by something else which was then the taking off point.
If you started off in industrial chemistry, you had a scientific background. At what point did you think, I might now write a novel or I will start writing?
Was that something that you were always interested in?
I was really interested from when I was about eleven or twelve. I had in my primary school days I was a very poor reader. I’m not sure why that is. I think that some of us take to it very easily and quickly and others don’t.
Whether it was because I kind of hung around the little boys none of whom were from bookish homes, none of whom read that is and I didn’t either. My sister did, but I didn’t. Or whether it was just something innate in me because kids do learn at different rates, but I didn’t read as a primary school student.
But then suddenly, and I was going to some very basic schools to say the least around Anchorage, Alaska. Then my family moved to Spain and I was in a Spanish school at first, not speaking any Spanish. So I kind of got away with murder there in not studying. Of course I have to say having a wonderful time. But that wasn’t too good.
Then I went into an English speaking school in Spain. At about that time and I don’t know if it’s because hormones start pumping or what it is but I really became interested in the arts and painting first. There are wonderful paintings in Madrid, then also in writing.
But by then at eleven or twelve I wasn’t reading children’s books. But it wasn’t such a developed field as it is now. There just wasn’t that much available even if I were interested. But I was interested in adult novels and I started very slowly reading these and got very interested in books and literature.
I think from that point I thought wouldn’t it be nice to be a writer. But it wasn’t something that I ever had the confidence to think that I could do.
When you first actually took your first steps, what did you do? Did you just start writing after work one day or did you get inspired through a course. Or how did it start?
It was nothing to do with courses. I really didn’t study anything to do with writing. But it was just as you described. It was kind of thinking that I should finally actually do something about this.
At that point I had moved to Australia. It was 1974 and I had a family with young kids and a job that was reasonably demanding but not as demanding as it had been when I was actually working a job and going to university part-time, just had no time at all. I had a little bit of time.
So I did really just come home from work and lock myself in a room and for six months force myself to write a book which I’d had an idea for. Then I spent six or eight months writing and rewriting this book. Then again, just luckily somebody picked it up for publication. That was the adult novel.
Spending six months writing it and then six to eight months rewriting it, that’s commitment. What drove you on because you were new to this?
Oh, I don’t know. Ego? I don’t know what drives writers on. Somebody once said that to be a writer you need arrogance and intelligence. You need enough arrogance to think that somebody’s going to be interested in reading what you write and you need enough intelligence to hide the arrogance.
That’s a good one. You have written three books in your ghost story series. Obviously being ghost stories its important stories to be credible. How do you make your ghost stories credible to your audience?
When you are writing for kids and I think primarily kids like fantasy. By fantasy I don’t mean necessarily other worlds and other planets, but things which aren’t true to life. They really crave that.
In fact one of the things that I found I think saddest about the business when I went to work at School Magazine and started reading all of these books was there seemed to be a huge over emphasis on realism and on basically problem sort of books. Not that those things shouldn’t be but it just seemed to be 90% of everything and they weren’t fantasy books in general. But that has changed quite a bit, in fact I think that Harry Potter changed that a great deal.
The first of these ghost books was called The Ghost and the Goggle Box. Once again I can tell you what inspired that and that was a story that I had read by John Cheever in the New Yorker many years before called, “The Enormous Radio”. It was about a husband and wife, this was an adult short story and a very short one.
A husband and wife buy an old radio, this was before the days of television and it’s a new radio but it’s a big thing and its kind of weird. From the moment that they get this, they think there is something strange about it. It gives them an odd feeling.
When they turn it on they realize that they are actually listening in to the different neighbor’s apartments in their apartment building. At first everything is kind of fun at the way eavesdropping can be and then suddenly they hear things that they really didn’t want to hear. Somebody is dying of cancer and other things. They eventually have the radio taken away and you basically have the sense that it has changed their relationship.
It’s a wonderful story and its not unlike other stories where people are kind of privy to things like whether it’s a movie like Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or the sort of thing that has been done lots of times. You get kind of sucked into something and then you get involved in it somehow.
I thought what if you have a boy and a girl who when their parents move into a house after their great-uncle has died in Sydney. They are cleaning up the house and they are going to sell it and move back to Armordale where they live. The boy has a broken leg so he can’t help.
There is an old television set and he starts watching it and he can see into the neighbor’s houses. All of these different stories are kind of developing and then soon you have a kind of plot point where he realizes that a crime has been committed and such. Of course nobody believes him about this.
Now I actually put a ghost, the ghost of his great-uncle is actually stuck in the television set and he’s kind of a larricking sort of character and he’s playing tricks on people and also trying to get out of the television set. Anyway not to give you the whole plot, so I had a realistic situation but the part that wasn’t realistic was the ghost obviously. I don’t believe in ghosts.
Just mentioning the ghost stuck in the television set and such was all you need to get the kids in. They want there to be some fantasy element to it. So I don’t think that in that sense that it’s difficult at all at least in a kids book.
You’ve written 75 children’s books now. First of all, how in the world are you so prolific and do you want to go back to what you started with like an adult novel and write more of those. Or are you happy with the niche that you have carved here?
Well, I kind of would like to go back. I am working on another adult novel of sorts. I work on a few things at once. I always thought that I was going to do both, write for adults and write for kids. The writing for kids just took over my life, I just didn’t have time.
I did after those years at The School Magazine, I stopped work there and just decided to throw caution to the wind and just write, and that was 1982. It has supported me ever since. But I have to say nobody finds writing easy. You have to hustle. You do have to kind of work hard at it and put out a lot of stuff.
The demand for my books was always, my publisher’s saying, “Will you write another Selby book?” Or will you write another Emily Eyefinger book or children’s books in general and certain of these series in particular.
If you were writing can you describe to us your typical writing day, sort of do you have a routine? Do you get into a certain mood or anything like that?
I don’t have a routine. I’m sure the best way to write and that the easiest on your nerves is to be systematic about it, to have your life organized in such a way that you kind of sit down at nine o’clock in the morning and write for three hours and then take a break. Write like that.
There have been times when I have done this and there are people like Graham Greene used to write 350 words a day and that was kind of it. What better writer was there really? It obviously worked very well. I think he was very intelligent and perhaps talented if there is such a thing as talent in writing, talented writer. But he was very systematic and very successful from it.
I am totally undisciplined. Having said that, I said that to someone and they said that you wrote 79 books you must have some discipline.
Yes, that’s true.
I think that once I get going on something I do work hard at it and I can work very long hours when something is really rolling along. But I always have those crises of confidence when I’m starting something which are just agony. You have months of just trying and picking away at things and not liking what you have done and wondering why you are not still an industrial chemist getting a paycheck.
Have you ever thought of writing scientifically based books or book with some kind of scientific theme?
I’ve been tempted, but no, I don’t think that I that is really something for me. I think it would require more research than I’m willing to do as well. One of the beauties of writing the kind of thing that I do is that it requires very little research.
My adult thriller novel had something to do with cotton growing in northern New South Wales. I did have to go to the State Library and read all these cotton growers monthly magazines to get a background in it before I did it.
Sometimes researching is fun because I like to read and I like to learn things but to actually do it with a view to using it somehow I would have to say that I didn’t enjoy which is why it is nice to write fiction and write for kids.
You’ve mentioned your Selby series. Your book Selby’s Secret has won the Koala Award and you’ve become a ‘KOALA Legend’.
Yes, I’ve won a few of those.
Yes, you’ve won Koala Awards many times so why do you think Selby is so loved by kids?
I’m not absolutely sure. The background for Selby was that Family Circle magazine wanted a series of stories for kids. They had to take up just one page of the magazine which is very tricky.
When things always get shorter and shorter there comes a point where it is very difficult actually to write. You can’t actually get a beginning, middle and end. You could do a vignette of some kind the way comic strip characters do in the newspapers. But for stories it’s tricky.
I fixed on a dog because I thought that kids would immediately associate, have feelings for a pet, a dog or a cat. I chose a dog rather than a boy or a girl. The problem for choosing a boy or a girl for a series of stories like this was if I wrote about a boy there is a possibility the girls wouldn’t be as interested. If I wrote about a girl, the other way around it could happen. Not only that there are always characters that you don’t warm to because she’s a blonde and I’m not. Or he’s a tough kid and I’m not, or whatever. So you chose a dog and you’ve got the kids in immediately.
In looking at a character I always say, how can I make this character different? Okay, he can be a talking dog. He knows how to speak. Well, there are lots of talking dogs in kids’ books so how can I make him a little bit different. Well, he’s a talking dog but he’s keeping it a secret that he knows how to talk.
Then thinking up a rationale for that. He lives with his owners, Dr. and Mrs. Trifle in a small town in Australia somewhere. I kept adding glosses to this. I wrote these stories, 18 of them.
At the end of that I really didn’t like the character I had given Selby. I thought that I had made him a bit too harsh. So I had the luxury of after having written all of those stories to go back over them and rewrite them, something that you just don’t get when you’re writing books directly.
At this point I knew exactly what I wanted this character to be. I wanted him to be a lovable and very loving character. One of the reasons that I think that he’s succeeds is the humor, the fact that he has this absolutely adoring relationship with his owners, Dr. and Mrs. Trifle. He just adores them and they adore him of course. I think that kind of warmth helps the stories.
I rewrote them and submitted them to HarperCollins who published the first book Selby’s Secret. That did well and they wanted more and I just kept going with the stories for there is now 15 collections of stories about him and a few spin-offs as well like joke books and things like that. Those are by far my most successful books in terms of sales and kinds of prizes that they’ve won and such.
So now when you write a book do you actually write it with a plan for it to be a series usually or have that in the back of your mind at all?
No, not necessarily and when I wrote the now two books about Bert Piggott and his family, Piggott Place and Piggots in Peril. When I wrote the first one I can’t remember, I may have had it in mind that if people really liked it that I would write another one.
It didn’t do spectacularly well so I resisted writing another one for some years. Then I wrote Piggots in Peril the second book in the series. I was actually very pleased with that. It’s not my favorite, but certainly one of my favorite books of mine.
But once again it didn’t do that well that I would decide to jump right in and write another one. It had a certain completeness to it. I am still toying with the idea of writing a third Piggott book but the first two are for the moment hopefully out of print. If I write a third one, hopefully my publisher would bring back the other two and repackage them and tart them up a bit.
That is all part of the commission reality of when you are writing these days you need to think of these things to don’t you.
You do, you do. You don’t want it to overpower you so that it actually influences too much what you are writing because then the spontaneity and the things that really just happen that seem like magic when you are writing. The real writing doesn’t happen if you’re writing to a formula.
I must say with the Selby stories, the end hopefully the other stories that I write, I do spend a lot of time constructing the plots. It surprises me to hear authors who can kind of just drift into a story and see where it’s going and let it kind of give its head sort of thing.
I’ve done that and sometimes I’ve managed to get a story out of it but I think of time spent plotting and its agony, nobody likes to do it. It always pays off. I just write these little précis and I go over and over them and then I put them away the way you would a Sudoko or something to come back to it because you can’t do it, or a crossword puzzle. Then finally something gels and I do have kind of a roadmap at that point.
Then writing is a relative pleasure. Then the rewriting, kids can’t stand the idea when you tell them how many times you rewrite the stories. You get the oh, groan. But the older that I get the more that I enjoy the polishing and making everything just fit neatly into place.
But I think that’s paid off and especially with the Selby stories where you kind of look like you’re going for a certain ending and then there is a twist at the end.
I think that you said the keyword is something ‘gels’ at some point. I guess for different writers different writing approaches need to be tried out until they work out what is going to gel for them because every author is different.
Absolutely, I didn’t mean to say that their way is wrong.
Oh, no, no, no.
We all have different ways of approaching these but for me I really need to get the construction right and I’m not going to do that by just blundering into a story. It has happened that I’ve started off on something and said let’s see where this is going to go.
I used to do it quite a bit but by the time that I’ve finally figured out how things are working out I’ve actually thrown away most of what I’ve started with and really wasted a lot of time.
Finally what would your advice be to aspiring writers out there who want to write just like you and get published?
I think that it takes a certain amount of persistence, or dogged determination. Don’t be put off by people who say that it requires talent. I’m sure there are people and Dickens and Shakespeare I’m sure had a little something extra on the rest of us but I think really determination is really just what you need.
Somebody said what you need is ‘sitzfleisch’ and which I don’t speak German but the flesh that you sit on you need to just sit there and get something done. I think that’s true. You not only need dogged determination to force yourself to do something which isn’t always pleasurable to do and from which you may never get a reward, or if you do it will be years down the track.
But I think the business side of it can be soul destroying too. You just can’t tell. There is nothing worse than working and working on a book and then seeing even getting it published and your expectation is high, and then see it very badly published. You get your copy back and your heart sinks. I put all of this work into it and look what they’ve done to my beautiful work.
Well it is a collaborative effort especially with kids books we have illustrators as well. Some publishers might push you more than someone else and all that kind of business side you have to most of the time put that out of your mind or you would never write anything.
Hopefully you write enough that it balances out.
It actually does. I have found that I’ve written enough and gradually it has succeeded well enough that publishers have been very good to me in recent years. But I think most of us spend some years in the wilderness and I would say for a beginning writer don’t expect anything to happen for ten years.
Now if that puts you off don’t do it. But if you still want to hold your own you could get really lucky and find your work takes off and that you can actually make a living from it sooner than that.
Great, well on that note thank you very much. We really appreciate your time today Duncan.
You are very welcome and thank you for asking me all these questions.
It’s a pleasure.
Learn how to grab young readers’ attention with clever characters, structure, dragons and the occasional bottom joke.