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Writing for young readers? Think back to when you were that age

March 21, 2011

“Pigs don’t just vanish, thought George as he stood staring into the depth of the very obviously empty pigsty.”

Thus begins Lucy Hawking’ science-themed novel for young readers, “George’s Secret Key to the Universe.”

So how does a pig’s escape lead to a discussion about electricity, space travel, computers and more?

When young George searches for his lost pig, he finds the pig – and new neighbors, one of whom (aha!) is a scientist. And the scientist, Eric, and his daughter, Annie, and a super computer named Cosmos, lead the way.

Thus Hawking sneaks up on the subject, drawing young readers into the realm of science and wonder.

Hawking, author of books such as “George’s Secret Key to the Universe” and “George’s Cosmic Treasure Hunt,” joined Jewell Parker Rhodes, whose first children’s book was “Ninth Ward,” published in 2010, to talk about “Writing for Young Readers” at the 2011 Desert Nights Rising Stars writing conference at ASU.

Hawking, who wrote the “George” books with her father, theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, said she writes “scientific fiction,” and her challenge, with the “George” series, was to turn her father’s famous 1988 book “A Brief History of Time,” into a book for young readers.

Rhodes, whose recently published novel “Hurricane” completes her New Orleans “voodoo” trilogy, said the first paragraph of “Ninth Ward” – which is about Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans – came to her in a dream. “I immediately began writing. It took about three months to finish the first draft.”

“Ninth Ward” was named one of the best books of 2010 by School Library Journal and selected as a Coretta Scott King Honor Book by the American Library Association.

Hawking and Rhodes answered questions and offered suggestions in an informal talk with the audience. Here are some of their points:

• An author shouldn’t expect to connect with every single reader.

• Good dialogue is crucial. Dialogue is concrete, immediate and active. Dialogue makes people seem alive.

• A good story line takes children away from their environment and brings them in.

• Stay really close to a child’s perception. What did you know when you were in that age group?

• Your hero and heroine will find that they have power. Allow them to solve problems themselves.

• Keep up with the books for young people that are being published. Read voraciously what’s being done now.

• Don’t query until you’ve finished the book. Many people never finish their book. If someone isn’t captured by your first chapter they won’t be captured by the book.

• A good editor won’t give you a formula. You have to find your unique voice. Kids are hungry for real things.

• Think back to what you liked as a young adult – but you have to keep up.

Parker added that “telling stories is part of human nature, and we’re essentially still telling the same stories. Human nature hasn't changed. We all need stories to inspire us, comfort us, and explain the nature of our world and our role in it.”

The authors recommended “The Horn Book”, a magazine and Web resources for writers and others interested in books for young readers.

Desert Nights, Rising Stars is an annual writing conference sponsored by the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing at ASU. For more information contact the Piper Center, (480) 965-6018, or