Today’s blog is by our editor Emma Matthewson. Emma has been editing fiction for young readers for many years, edited the Harry Potter series while she was at Bloomsbury. Below, Emma talks about the need for fabulous fiction for young people ages 9 to 12 and our Young Writers Prize.
Before reading this, could you (if you care to) cast your mind back to your very favourite book as a child, and by this I mean the first time you fell in love with and felt completely immersed in a world… Perhaps too you had a special place to read… maybe it was under a tree in summer, with the dancing leaves above dappling the page… maybe it was when you dragged your book out of your school bag as soon as you got into the car for the journey home, not even hearing the questions about how the day went, BECAUSE YOU WANT TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT AND HAVE BEEN WANTING TO KNOW ALL DAY.
For me, my special place was a big, squashy, rather-uncomfortable-because-it-was-tickly-on-bare-legs armchair that was, nevertheless, my favourite reading place. The chair was in my bedroom and was covered in red, swirly almost paisley patterns. It was huge, and squashy, and it would swallow me up.
This chair was vividly brought back to me recently as I was settling down to watch the opening film credits of C.S. Lewis’s The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, and the elegant book illustrations by Pauline Baynes appeared on screen. In an instant, in an absolute moment I was sucked back to the aforementioned armchair, greedily turning and turning the pages of the Narnia books, oblivious to the world outside. (It has only just occurred to me that the cinema seats had the same scratchy material as the armchair, which might have helped towards my swooping journey back in time). No matter.
My rambling point is that somewhere as a child on your reading journey, you reach a tipping point. You finally get beyond the challenge of working out how to read, and the endless reading schemes, and you reach the heady shores of being a free reader. And then, before you know it, you are swimming in the thrilling oceans of reading what you want. (Really? I can?). And that is such a lift-off, a dizzying, shooting into space, all engines going. My memories of Narnia have stayed with me through decades. Ditto The Lord of the Rings, which I read five times, and once again on my honeymoon. (Yes, extraordinarily, I am still married).
This sudden spurt, this tipping point, might happen at any age, it might be 8, 9, 10, 11, it doesn’t matter. But, almost inevitably, you remember it, and that memory stays with you as you reach adulthood. Given the right books, the right reader will be hooked – and there is such a richness of writing today for this stage. Roald Dahl has been the kickstarter for so many children, likewise Jacqueline Wilson, Eva Ibbotson, Philip Pullman and of course J.K. Rowling, amongst many, many other fine writers.
It was such a privilege to edit the Harry Potter books, to work and walk alongside the characters, the themes, the plotting, the humour, all interwoven amongst the bigger, overarching themes, all so brilliantly conceived by J.K. Rowling. Editing Harry Potter also brought something very important home to me: the best writers of the best stories, of stories that have longevity, have no qualms about including the big ideas: bravery, friendship, treachery, fear, faith, truth, love. Also, perhaps, chocolate, jellybeans, poltergeists, pheasants, river journeys and unicorns. That is the marvel when writing for readers who have reached their tipping point. There is a sudden, surprising opening for rich, varied, important storytelling. To be the first to open the door to this brave new world is a precious opportunity.
The Hot Key Young Writers’ Prize launched today, and we are looking for storytellers who can open doors to new worlds for our readers. We welcome entries for the 9+ and 13+ age-ranges. Perhaps the 9+ age-range is sometimes seen as the quieter, shyer sister compared to her more sophisticated 13+ sibling? But there is so much to write about for our 9+ readers, such rich material. Remember the tipping point! Rich, funny, varied, magical, contemporary, please enter – we want them all! We cannot wait to read them.