AFCC Notes: Magical Children

sally gardner

Children’s writer and illustrator Sally Gardner was one of the major reasons I decided to attend the Asian Festival of Children’s Content this year — I have loved her historical novels “I, Coriander” and ” The Red Necklace” (and I read her Carnegie Medal winner, “Maggot Moon” on the flight over),  and the prospect of actually meeting her in person was quite a thrill.

So, on the first day of the AFCC 2014 Writers and Illustrators Conference, I woke up before the sun was up (in SG, mind, so that’s like 7 am) and took the train all the way from the end of the purple line to catch the first session: “Magical Children: The Key to Story” featuring Sally Gardner.


The power of fairy tales

The session takes its cue from Gardner’s popular series, “Magical Children,” and she reveals the inspiration behind it.

“I wrote this because I really wanted to try and help children like me, who are unable to read, or find reading very, very, tricky (n.b. Sally Gardner has severe dyslexia), but had amazing imaginations and the ability to comprehend complicated stories,” she notes. “I wanted to empower children; I feel very strongly about the little people brought up by giants — us. What we all forget is that one day these little people will also be the giants, and so we must be careful on how we deal with kids.”

For “Magical Children,”  Sally decided to go with the idea of ordinary children with extraordinary powers, such as a tiny girl with super strength and a boy that could fly. “It’s very simple storytelling, with one magical gift.”

Gardner emphasized the fairy tale as a keystone in her stories.

“Fairy tales are the key to the state of a child’s mind — I can often tell where the child is mentally, depending on what fairy tale they like. For example, if a child [likes] Cinderella, you can bet your bottom dollar that the mom has just had a baby, and the poor little kid thinks its been overlooked forever and a day, and it’s going to end up never to be seen again,” she elaborated.

Fairy tales are powerful, Gardner further asserts. “Magical stories put a moat around the ‘wild, wild wood,’ allowing children, in their psyche, to go deeper into the wood or not at all. Children find going into the ‘deep, deep wood’ quite scary, and the repetitiveness of the story gives them the psychological courage to go further, [with the assurance] that there’s a way out of the wood.”


Write from the heart

As she discussed the books she had written, Gardner also imparted advice to the writers in the audience.

Because of her own difficulties as a child grappling with dyslexia, Gardner advises the use of simple language in books for younger children.

“Keep it not patronizing, but keep it easy. Short sentences, nothing too long. If you have to use a big word, the trick is to use it three times in one chapter. If you’re going to use something like, discombobulating, the idea is to keep sticking with it at least three times, then drop it for a bit, and then bring it back out again not too far off so the child will [recognize it]. It’s the way of spacing them that’s important.”

From her experience with historical novels such as “I, Coriander,” Gardner counsels about research, likening it to a trip wherein one takes one photo after another. “What you don’t want to do when you’re writing for children, or for any adult, even, is bore them with the ‘photographs’ that you’ve managed to pick up in your research.”

Instead, Gardner suggests imagining yourself to be the size of your character. “This is something adults forget, because we’re giants. We forget that we once saw the world in a different way. When you’re five, you maybe looking at people’s knees, and the things are that are very important to a grownup are not that important to you,” she states. “As writers, what you have to remember is that you’re doing it not from your perspective, but from a little person’s perspective. And if that character grows up, obviously your perspective needs to grow with them. You have to be a child, and really be able to get to that child.”

Finally, sharing her journey to her award-winning work “Maggot Moon,” Gardner shares her penultimate piece of advice: write from the heart.

“In doing this book, I honestly thought nothing would happen. I killed a child in a playground, two boys have feeling for each other, language was not all that polite, no saccharine ending — I thought I had written myself totally out of publication, but what I had actually written myself into was one of the greatest successes of my life,” she narrates. “What I’d like to say is that all of you must write from the heart. You’re not the next year’s fashion. It’s not all about wizards, vampires, and cold, icy lips. Write what comes from your heart, what you’re really interested in, and that could be the next big thing.”


Caught up with her right after the session because I just had to go up and meet her! (Pardon the pre-coffee look — had no time to stop for coffee.)


And I got my book signed — squee!!!



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