AWC presenter of How to Write for Children and Young Adults, Sue Whiting has had two books published this year, Beware the Deep Dark Forest for 3-6-year-olds and Missing, a middle-grade contemporary mystery novel, both published by Walker Books Australia.
Sue is author of more than 60 children’s non-fiction, picture books, middle-grade and YA novels, and is published in Australia and overseas.
We asked her for an insight into her writing life and what inspired her books this year. Here is her story.
Beware the Deep Dark Forest
“The inspiration for Beware the Deep Dark Forest came from a young boy in a library I was visiting when doing a story time session in 2011. He was wearing a black cape and was walking up and down the stairs in the story pit, saying in a very dramatic way: ‘Beware the deep dark forest! Beware the deep dark forest!’
“He was in his own wonderful imaginary world and I was intrigued to know what was going on in that imagination. What did he have to beware of? When I asked him, he looked me in the eye and said, ‘Beware the deep dark forest!’ And walked off.
“This young boy provided me with oodles of inspiration but also a very clear purpose. I wanted to tap into those young imaginations, to write a robust story with rich language and a strong narrative structure. It ended up becoming a quest story in the style of the fairytales I enjoyed as a child.
“The first draft took about a day. It then took me at least a year to refine it; to get the structure right; the theme developed properly and the language and rhythm pitch perfect. I continued to tweak and develop it during the illustration process.
“I was a primary school teacher for 25 years, specialising in literacy education before I moved into children’s publishing, and one of the things I was passionate about was using ‘real books’ for literacy instruction. I think with Beware the Deep Dark Forest I was channelling my inner teacher as well as my inner child because this is just the type of book I would have loved to use in my classroom.
“I am happy to report that many teachers have already used it as a mentor text for writing quest stories, and also for its storybook language and use of literary devices, such as alliteration, metaphor and simile etc.
“Picture books are terrific to use as mentor texts because they often take a big idea or story and distil it down to around 500 words – to the bare bones – and this means that the bones of the story are exposed and easy to access and can be easily used to demonstrate and illuminate various techniques.
“I am very proud of the fact that the hero of the story is female. I am a big believer in the importance of books with strong, resourceful and courageous female characters in lead roles. It is so important for girls to see that it is possible for girls to be the brave hero and it is just as important for boys to see girls as the brave hero.
“Annie White, the illustrator was a joy to work with and her art is glorious. It has just won a highly commended award in the Illustrators Australia, 2018 Illustration Awards in the children’s book, single category.
“I have had so much fun sharing this story with kids – I even have a carnivorous plant costume that has been a big hit. Kids seem to love the adventure and the suspense of the quest – and just like the boy who inspired the story, they seem to love being immersed in the imaginative world of the deep dark forest.”
“I started thinking about Missing when I was doing some research for Portraits of Celina – a thrilling ghost story – and discovered that in Australia 38,000 people are reported missing every year. A large proportion are found in a relatively short period of time, but about 1600 are considered long-term missing. I found this statistic gobsmacking and I started to think about what it would be like if you were a twelve-year-old girl and someone you loved was reported missing.
“It was a difficult book to write as it involved working through many complex emotions and, as much of the ‘drama’ when someone goes missing happens in the adult world, it was tricky to find the ‘child’ story – Mackenzie’s story – within the tragedy. That took some time. It was also emotionally draining.
“The book took about a year to research, mostly because it is partially set in Panama, and about a year to write and work through the various editorial stages.
“The response from readers has been phenomenal. It is already my bestselling novel, by a long shot.”
“Currently I am working with illustrator Annie White on another picture book, Good Question. It too has its roots in the world of fairytales but is also quite different to Beware the Deep Dark Forest. It is due for release in early 2020 and I can’t wait to share it with groups of kids.
“I am also working on a new novel for readers aged 10-14 that will hopefully appeal to readers who enjoyed Missing. I am working on the third draft now and hope to send it to my publisher in the next couple of weeks. It is due for release in early 2020. 2020 is going to be a busy year!”