Suzanne O’Sullivan knows what the kids want…

Kid reading on the floor

Suzanne O'Sullivan wearing black framed glasses and an orange scarfIn a recent episode of our weekly writing inspiration and information podcast, So you want to be a writer, Allison Tait spoke with Suzanne O’Sullivan – associate publisher of children’s books at Hachette Australia.

With the book world exploding with children’s and young adult fiction over the past decade, Suzanne has been one busy woman; editing everything from board books to young adult (YA) and crossover fiction. Here are some highlights from their chat.

How many books are you working on at any time?

“I have around 20 books on my list for 2015. I’ve just done a structural edit on one, another one where we’re working on the cover design, another one… the illustrator has just submitted their roughs and we’re going over them. So, I could have around 10 projects at any given time that I’m actively working on.”

What do you typically receive and what would you like to see more of?

“[I get] a lot of YA, even though I don’t publish a great deal of YA. The next biggest area that I receive is probably picture books, which is good because I publish a lot of picture books. I don’t see as much middle grade as I would like to. I think a lot of people are really keen to get into the YA area that I think could maybe give a bit more thought to where… middle grade might be better for them. It would be better for me.

“I think there’s a very popular perception that YA is where it’s at, and you’ve got to be writing YA because that’s what people want. Whereas… the middle grade market level is so incredibly strong, maybe people don’t quite realise that.

“[I’m] always looking for new picture books. And also looking for illustrators. I think in some ways it’s harder to find new illustrators than it is new authors, perhaps there aren’t quite as many established channels.”

How do you know if a book is going to appeal to certain aged children?

“That’s a tricky one, because it’s very difficult… I think what you need as a publisher and also as an author is to be able to remember quite clearly what it felt like to be a kid at that particular age. Also… try to keep up to speed with what… kids are not just reading, but the games that they’re playing and the movies that they like and all of that.

“I do try to think about, ‘Is this appealing to me, personally,' and it has to be on some level, but also, ‘Would this appeal to me as a nine-year-old boy?' And sometimes an author might have pitched something in a particular way that you read it and think, ‘I don’t think they’re right in saying this is for a nine-year-old, but what they’ve got here is a lot of potential, it could potentially be something for a 13-year-old.'

“What I’m looking for primarily is really good writing with a really strong voice, something that just speaks to me very directly and feels new in some way. It doesn’t necessarily mean that it has to be a completely brand new genre that the author’s invented, but the voice is a voice that feels fresh to me. I get a bit tired of reading things and going, ‘Oh, yes, I recognise exactly who your influences are.'

“The more people write, the better they get at creating their own voice.”

Your top three tips for aspiring children’s writers?

“Well, my first one would be to read a lot. And read a lot of current kids’ stuff as well, because you need to know what else is out there and what appeals to kids.

“My number two would be to revise your work a lot, even if you’re only writing a 200-word picture book, it really needs to be polished. Don’t write something and then fire it off to a publisher right away. Put it in a drawer and come back to it two weeks later, have another look, see if there’s anything that you could do better.

“And my number three tip would be to just try to speak as directly and clearly as you can to kids. I think that’s what really works in children’s writing.”

You can hear the full interview with Suzanne or read a transcript here.

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