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Talking Books: Children's Authors Talk about the Craft, Creativity, and Process of Writing (review)

From: The Lion and the Unicorn
Volume 25, Number 2, April 2001
pp. 328-330 | 10.1353/uni.2001.0025

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The Lion and the Unicorn 25.2 (2001) 328-330

Book Review

Talking Books:
Children's Authors Talk about the Craft, Creativity and Process of Writing

James Carter. Talking Books: Children's Authors Talk about the Craft, Creativity and Process of Writing. London and New York: Routledge, 1999.

"The Internet is a bit like a library where all the books have been thrown on the floor and mixed in with good books you might want to look at are all kinds of trashy magazines," remarks Celia Rees in James Carter's Talking Books. Though she does use the Internet in her research, "It takes ages to find what you want and you can come across so much rubbish" (202). In Talking Books, Carter has sifted through the rubbish, interviewed thirteen creators of children's books, and presented their thoughts and illustrations in a tidy volume remarkable both for its ease of use and the depth of knowledge it conveys.

Talking Books invites the reader into the creative processes involved in writing and illustrating books for children. It reproduces manuscript pages, drawings, and even the childhood notebooks of some authors and illustrators. The opening pages of a story Jacqueline Wilson wrote at age nine offer a glimpse of the sense of humor and attention to detail more fully developed in Double Act and The Suitcase Kid. Her tale of the Maggot family would be of value to one researching Wilson's work, but it -- and the juvenilia of other illustrators and authors -- may also inspire aspiring young artists and writers, showing them that this published author had to start somewhere, too.

Though the preceding two sentences conceive of this book's possible readers as either literary scholars or would-be authors, there is much in Talking Books that would appeal to a range of readers (say, from age eight to eighty) and teachers whose pupils come from almost any age group. An elementary school teacher or a professor of a college course on writing might invite students to join Brian Moses as he walks us through a draft of his poem "The Lost Angels" or talks about the kinds of exercises he uses in school workshops, such as one he calls "Dreams." He asks "children to imagine that anything can dream," offering suggestions such as "What does a goal post dream of?" One can feel his enthusiasm as he shares the "amazing ideas" that people came up with at a recent workshop: "from a flea dreaming that it can jump as high as the Eiffel Tower to a crisp dreaming of being sweet -- all kinds of things!" (13). Moses's spontaneous expression of delight toward these responses conveys the joy of discovery that good teachers strive to nurture both in and out of the classroom.

In reworking transcripts of interviews with authors, Carter has preserved the intimacy and spontaneity of his subjects' comments but arranged them into reader-friendly sections. His sound organization makes it easy for readers to dip in and pull out just what's needed for a lesson plan or critical study. Each chapter, clearly organized, begins with the basic facts of an author's life, provides a description of his or her work habits, and includes a "Growing a Book" or "Growing a Poem" section that talks about how the author gets started writing a particular work. Poet Benjamin Zephaniah, for instance, often spends months on a poem before putting any words on paper. By contrast, Neil Ardley, best-known for his The Way Things Work, not only keeps up with scientific journals and consults reference books, but he actually does all of the experiments that appear in his books himself, in his own kitchen!

Those who savor biographical details such as how and where an author works (your reviewer is such a person) will enjoy learning that illustrator Ian Beck works well in his room full of "distraction and racket and confusion" (46), Gillian Cross writes in a small room behind her kitchen (134), both Philip Pullman and Alan Durant write in their respective garden sheds (183, 168), and Berlie Doherty prefers to write "anywhere" because she likes "to be mobile" (149). If all of the...

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