Writing for children “magical” says author

By Linda White
Toronto Sun, September 2004

When her writing for children instructor encouraged the class to draw on their childhoods and write about the child they knew best, Teresa Toten knew she had to tell the story of moving from the Jewish markets to the suburbs.

“I was 10 years old and remember wanting to fit in … but with a mother who had an accent, I also wondered how much of your soul do you sell to belong,” says the Croatian immigrant.

“Out of little scenes from my childhood, my instructor and the class encouraged, nudged and critiqued me into a novel.”

The novel, The Onlyhouse, was published in 1995. It has earned numerous kudos, including Canadian Library Association Honour Book and Canadian Children Book Centre’s Our Choice Award.

Other writing credits include The Game, another award-winning novel, and “Father’s Day,” a short story in Family Secrets. “There’s something magical about writing for children,” says the Toronto resident. “I think it’s because kids still know in their gut that everything is possible.”

Toten studied political economy at university and wrote and broadcast for Radio Canada International, but never considered writing for children until she became a mother. She enrolled in the introductory writing for children class offered by George Brown College in Toronto.

“I went to the class thinking I wanted to write a picture book. I just finished my third novel. My picture book is finally coming out, 14 years later,” Toten says. “I thought I was writing a picture book in the classroom and my teacher kept saying it was a novel. He was right.”

Toten registered in the college’s second writing for children course, a high. level workshop, over and over again. “The critiquing and support network was invaluable. Critiquing was all done without destroying the fragile ego of a young writer.”

Her picture book, Bright Red Kisses, will be published next year.
“I probably read it in class 10 years ago. It took that long to get it right. It’s about 470 words. Do the math,” she says.

You’ll find writing for children courses at numerous colleges and universities, including George Brown College. Its courses are offered through the creative writing program in its continuing education department. In George Brown’s introductory course, students are introduced to the full spectrum of children’s literature, including picture books, poetry, short stories, chapter books, teen fiction, non-fiction and children’s plays.

“Many kids are not interested in fiction. They want to gain something practical from reading,” says instructor Peter Carver, a children’s book editor at Red Deer Press. “Most people thinking about writing for children don’t think about that, but there are so many possibilities. Good non-fiction is very popular and useable in school.”

The second writing for children course is a workshop. “Critiquing is much more sharp,” Carver says. “I depend on the group to develop a critical capacity, but I want people to feel it’s a safe place, where they will be treated with respect. It’s like a little editorial board helping people get ready.”

Students learn how to approach a publisher. “The odds are against you. A publisher receives hundreds of proposals a year, but can only accept a few. As an editor, I look for quality writing at any level,” Carver says. “It’s the ‘ah hal’ that you look for. I look for Canadian stories, stories that express the Canadian experience but are universal for all children.”

It takes determination and perseverance to become a children’s author. “Writing for children is not a quit-your-day-job career. This is about developing life-long skills,” Carver says. “Some get a book published after 10 years, some less than that and some never.”

Finally, it takes skill to become successful.

“People used to say that writing for children seems to be easier than writing for adults,” Carver says. “They don’t say that anymore. Children’s literature has to be wonderful. It has to encourage children to keep on reading throughout their lives.”