Children’s Literature Interview with Ally Sherrick

Ally Sherrick

Children’s Literature Panel

Interview conducted by Drushti Sawant

Award-winning author Ally Sherrick will be a part of the Children’s Literature panel at Surrey New Writer’s festival. In her interview, Ally spoke about her ‘story spark’ and what led her to build the character of her protagonist. She also mentioned how her liking for historical places have played a huge role in all three of her novels.

Q: What do you feel is the biggest challenge faced by writers today?

Whilst not wishing to put anyone just starting out on their writing journey off, I think it’s important to be realistic and to say that there are several significant ones.

Top of the list would be receiving a fair reward for the work you do. For most published authors, unless you are one of the ‘big hitters’, it’s just not possible to live on the money you receive from the publication and sale of your titles. So, if your main motivation in writing is because you want to make your fortune, be prepared for the high likelihood that you will be disappointed. The Society of Authors is a leading light in the campaign for greater fairness in remuneration and transparency in the publishing industry. I’d urge you to check out their website for more on this.

Second up is the issue of competition and getting your voice heard in an ever more crowded market-place. There are many brilliant authors out there already, and, thanks to an explosion in degree courses in creative writing and other initiatives like the Faber Academy and courses run by The Guardian to name but a few, there are more coming through all the time. In the world of children’s books, we are in the thick of another ‘Golden Age’, and the market is super-saturated with titles across the age groups. This was particularly the case a few years back for Young Adult (YA) fiction, to the point that, in the last two or three years, agents and publishers have switched their focus away from it and to Middle Grade (MG) fiction. This has now resulted in an explosion of titles for younger readers, so perhaps, in another year or two, the pendulum will start to swing back the other way …

Assuming you overcome the hurdles of finding an agent and then a publisher, a third challenge, linked to the one above, is the precariousness of the published author’s life. This is something that I think I only really tuned in to when I was coming towards the end of my first contract. I was fortunate enough to be offered a two-book deal by my publisher. But as I neared completion on the work of my second MG book, The Buried Crown, I knew I was going to have to pitch some compelling and well-developed new ideas to them in order to have the chance to continue being published. In addition to whether these new ideas would be good enough, there were other variables in the mix too. Like how had my first two books performed, and would what I was suggesting fit with their list. These considerations are all part of the reality of the writing life for the vast majority of authors. 

But like I said, I don’t want to put you off. If you have set your heart on writing to be published, then most definitely go for it! When I signed my first publishing contract, and the two times I have been lucky enough to be present to see my books being ‘born’ at the printers, have been right up there with the very best moments of my life. I’d just counsel you to take a temperature check on these and the other challenges you will need to face on your writing journey, so that when that magical call from the agent or publisher comes, you are well-placed to manage your expectations up front.

Q: How do you think that stories for children have changed since you were young? In what ways do you feel that they may still need to change?

Gosh, this is a BIG question! I first became a reader in the 1970s – a long, long time ago! And I grew up on a diet of books that were published both around that time but also in years gone by – what would be regarded as ‘classic’ texts now, like Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It, Alison Uttley’s A Traveller in Time and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden. So, I was reading books written for children of my time, but also for children from an earlier generation too.  With that in mind, I guess I’d say the key differences are probably three-fold for me:

Pace and length – The stories that I was reading back then, often, though not always, tended to be a little bit slower starting compared to those children are reading – and indeed I myself am writing – today. If I was asked why this might be, I think I’d say books have to ‘hit the ground running’ today, because there is so much else out there competing for children’s attention. When I was a young bookworm, there were far fewer distractions. We had television of course, but not mobile phones and we were very much living in an analogue age when children used to go off and make up their own games in the back garden or street, rather than being entertained by a mind-boggling set of choices brought to them by technology. This also meant that there was plenty of time for long stretches of hiding away in a corner and doing lots of lovely uninterrupted reading! Having said that, I think there are more books with higher word-counts around for children now. My own novels are typically round the 65 000 to 70 000 word mark and I’m writing for a middle grade age range (Years 5/6 Primary and Years 7/8 Secondary). There are quite a few other examples of stories of that sort of length for the age group too. I’d say this is probably twice the length of what I might have been used to reading at the same age, though there will be examples which broke that general rule too.

Density and complexity of language – This might be a bit controversial but I think children’s authors back then, the likes of Joan Aiken, one of my all-time favourite authors of fantastical alternate-history stories such as The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, or say Rosemary Sutcliff, author of the classic Roman-Britain set story, The Eagle of the Ninth, were perhaps a bit more uncompromising in their use of vocabulary and ideas than in many – though not all – of the books published for children today. They were writing for children, but they expected them to ‘rise to the occasion’ and if they didn’t understand a more complicated word, that didn’t matter. They would get the gist from the context, or else they could always go and look it up in a dictionary. For example, how about these phrases taken from the opening page of The Eagle of the Ninth. This describing a road in Roman Britain:‘a British trackway, broadened and roughly metalled, strengthened by corduroys of logs …’ Or this describing the people you might meet on it: ‘tawny-haired tribesmen … strolling harpers and quackoculists too …’  I’m not saying that there aren’t children’s books today which don’t use such complex and challenging vocabulary, but it’s something that does particularly strike me about many of the books I read as a child when I dip into them again.

Diversity – This is an issue connected root-and-branch to the demographic and cultural evolution of the UK in the last fifty or so years and it’s no real surprise that when I was growing up in the 1970’s, there were very few books featuring children from a variety of different ethnic backgrounds and experiences. Thankfully, if belatedly, that is all beginning to change now and publishers are starting to actively seek out writers who have not until now had any real prospect or likelihood of having a chance for their voices to be heard and enjoyed. But it’s been a long time in coming and there is still much work to do to ensure that all children have the opportunity to see themselves reflected in the vast myriad of titles on the shelves of our libraries and bookshops.   

Q: Can you walk me through your process of bringing an idea for a story to life?

The very start of a story has to begin with an idea, or as I call them on my school visits, a ‘story spark’. And of course, ideas can come from anywhere and everywhere. But for me, places are usually key. For example, in the case of my latest book, The Queen’s Fool, my story spark came from a visit to the grand Tudor palace of Hampton Court and a picture hanging in the gallery there of King Henry VIII and his family. But it wasn’t the royal group that intrigued me. Instead, my eye was drawn to the small figure of a young girl dressed in a close fitting cap and gown shown through a window on one side of the painting, who historians believe is ‘Jane the Fool’. Jane lived in the household of the king’s controversial second wife, Anne Boleyn and then, after Anne’s execution, in the household of Princess Mary, Henry’s daughter by Katherine of Aragon. The moment I saw Jane, my writer’s curiosity sparked into life. Who was she and what had her life been like at court? And what had brought her there in the first place?

This initial spark led me into the start of my journey into discovering my heroine, young orphan girl, Cat Sparrow and her own story. For a historical novelist, this is where the real fun – the business of research – begins! I love doing research and in this case, I spent many fascinating hours reading up about the real-life Jane and the role of so-called ‘holy innocents’ like her at court. I also read research papers on the treatment of people with learning disabilities in Tudor England. So, I had my main protagonist, but I needed a time and place for my story too. Another painting at Hampton Court which depicts King Henry’s arrival at the great pageant of The Field of Cloth of Gold in the year 1520 to meet his rival, the French king, François I, gave me the perfect backdrop.  I then set about reading a range of non-fiction and historical documents to discover what life was like at the court of Henry VIII and also what the life of the ordinary folk who feature in my story might have been like too.

As my heroine, Cat has a learning disability, I was keen, while doing the historical research, to read a range of fiction portraying protagonists with highly distinctive voices. For example, the strange and beautifully written Into that Forest by Louis Nowra, narrated by a ‘wild’ girl adopted by a pair of Tasmanian Devils in the Tasmanian bush, and Mockingbird by the American author, Kathryn Erskine, about a young girl with Asperger’s Syndrome trying to come to terms with her brother’s death.

In this way, I started to really ‘hear’ Cat and to become alive to the world she inhabited and moved through. Also, to think more about what her heart’s desire might be and what sorts of trials and challenges she might have to face.

As for my other books, a period of mind-mapping around key themes and a bit of deep and close ‘listening’ to other characters that had begun to suggest themselves followed. At that point I felt ready to begin work on a more detailed plot-plan to use as my blueprint, though the finished story deviated quite a bit from that, as it often does, in the end!

Of course, there’s a bit more to it than that, but I hope it gives a flavour of the approach I take to build my characters and their world and to set my story in motion.

Q: What according to you is the most important aspect of writing for children?

I’d say three things:

Firstly, being able to tailor your writing so that it’s appropriate for the age group you are targeting. This means thinking in terms both of the type of story you want to tell – the themes it will tackle, the complexity of the plot etc. Also, the character and age of the protagonists. Typically children like to read ‘up’, so the hero or heroine of a middle grade book should ideally be in their early teens. And of course, you need to think about the language level and length of the story too. My advice would be to read widely in your chosen area first so that you can better gauge things for yourself.

Secondly, your story should always present a child or young person’s eye view of the world, with the child placed squarely at the heart of the action and the unfolding of the plot. And make sure to give them bags of agency too. No young reader likes to read a story where the adults come in to save the day. The satisfying denouement has to be pretty much all the young hero or heroine’s own work!

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, give your reader hope. To show them, as Ursula Le Guin, author of so many brilliant books for children as well as adults once said that: ‘No darkness lasts forever. And even there, there are stars.’

Q: What made you choose children’s literature as your area of writing?

To be honest, I think the business of writing for children found me. It probably has something to do with the fact that deep down inside me, I have never really wanted to grow up! I still feel very much in touch with my inner 12-year-old, and the sort of stories I write now are the ones I would have enjoyed reading at about that age.

Q: What advice would you give to young writers who are trying to find their genre of writing?

Read widely. Be daring and try writing different things. And don’t be in a rush to pigeon-hole yourself. Think about the things you loved reading as a child; that you love reading now. What are the common elements?  For me it’s history, mystery and adventure. So it’s no real surprise I ended up being drawn to writing historical fiction for young people full of brave heroes and heroines, dastardly villains and twisty-turny plots. I wish you luck and bags of fun finding out what it is for you …

To find out more about Ally Sherrick go to our Meet Our Guests page for more information.

Drushti Sawant is a Creative Writing MA Student at the University of Surrey, who will be chairing the Children’s Literature Panel on the Saturday of this year’s virtual festival.

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