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STORYTELLER: The Authorized Biography of Roald Dahl by Donald Sturrock cannot be missed, yet for two years I missed it. What is wrong with me? (Eh-hem, this is a rhetorical question, thankyouverymuch.)

Roald Dahl remains one of the most iconic children’s authors of all time, yet he began his career writing macabre short stories based upon his experience in the Royal Air Force during World War II. Just how did he evolve into the fantastical children’s author we all love?

Sheila St. Lawrence, Dahl’s literary agent at the Watkins Agency, is to thank. She realized “the ease in which Dahl could enter a child’s mind,” clearly apparent in his short story “The Wish”. In the tale, a young boy dares to walk across a carpet by stepping only on its yellow portions. Should his foot slip onto another color, he thought he would “disappear into a black void or be killed by venomous snakes.” This story was the only adult Dahl piece to feature a child protagonist to date, and it could not escape St. Lawrence’s attention.

After a disastrous two-year foray into playwriting, St. Lawrence implored Dahl to turn his literary aspirations elsewhere. Yet he ignored her kidlit suggestion, wrote stories that got turned down by The New Yorker, and instead got placed in the far less desirable (but still paying) Playboy.

Dahl’s publisher Alfred Knopf expressed interest in a children’s book, but then dropped a collection of adult stories called “Kiss Kiss” from Knopf’s 1959 list. Dahl spouted some choice words in response, threatening that Knopf would never squeeze a children’s book out of him.

Dahl once again became focused on writing for actors, as he wished to develop vehicles for his wife at the time, screen star Patricia Neal. After all, if Neal was working steadily, her income afforded him more time to write what he wanted to write. There were shows for Hitchcock and a drama series for TV based upon classic ghost stories, produced by Alfred Knopf’s half brother. But when the pilot episode encountered a controversy, the series got permanently shelved and Dahl was forced to return to the idea that evolved into JAMES AND THE GIANT PEACH.

I will say “and the rest is history” here, although STORYTELLER is only halfway through Dahl’s life story at this point. So like Sheila St. Lawrence, I implore you to turn your literary aspirations toward it.

But before I go, it would be a shame not to share with you Dahl’s advice to children’s writers, as told to Helen Edwards in an interview for Bedtime Stories exactly 42 years ago:

What makes a good children’s writer? The writer must have a genuine and powerful wish not only to entertain children, but to teach them the habit of reading…[He or she] must be a jokey sort of fellow…[and] must like simple tricks and jokes and riddles and other childish things. He must be unconventional and inventive. He must have a really first-class plot. He must know what enthralls children and what bores them. They love being spooked. They love ghosts. They love the finding of treasure. The love chocolates and toys and money. They love magic. They love being made to giggle. They love seeing the villain meet a grisly death. They love a hero and they love the hero to be a winner. But they hate descriptive passages and flowery prose. They hate long descriptions of any sort. Many of them are sensitive to good writing and can spot a clumsy sentence. They like stories that contain a threat. “D’you know what I feel like?” said the big crocodile to the smaller one. “I feel like having a nice plump juicy child for my lunch.” They love that sort of thing. What else do they love? New inventions. Unorthodox methods. Eccentricity. Secret information. The list is long. But above all, when you write a story for them, bear in mind that they do not possess the same power of concentration as an adult, and they become very easily bored or diverted. Your story, therefore, must tantalize and titillate them on every page and all the time that you are writing you must be saying to yourself, “Is this too slow? Is it too dull? Will they stop reading?” To those questions, you must answer yes more often than you answer no. [If not] you must cross it out and start again.

For me, these are words to write by. Funny that he should utter them within days of my birth! (Wait a second, did I just reveal my age?! Eh-hem, this is a rhetorical question, thankyouverymuch.)

UPDATE: Whoopsie. I looked at the wrong footnote. The quote above is from a letter Dahl wrote to “The Writer” Magazine in October, 1975: “A Note on Writing Books for Children”.

by Dianne de Las Casas

Shhhh.

Now what did you hear when you read that word? Whose voice was it? Was it your mom’s voice? Was it your grandmother’s voice? Was it your own voice hushing your children? So much of our world operates in onomatopoeic sounds: the chirping of the morning birds, the beeping of the garbage truck, the roaring of a car engine, the screeching of the school bus as it comes to a stop…

As a professional storyteller, I actually become better at telling my stories by listening. It is through this simple auditory observation that I find inspiration for my tales. As a picture book author, I become better at writing by thinking of my story in terms of sound. How will this tale reverberate when it is read out loud?

The sound of a baby’s “Wah! Wah!” became a turning point in a recent story I revised. The sing-songy refrains that I have become known for in my books work better when they are released from the page through the read-aloud. In Denise Fleming’s picture book, In the Tall Tall Grass, you hear, “Crunch, munch. Caterpillars lunch.” The sounds become actions. The actions become story.

Watch little boys as they play with trucks and cars. They zoom and they vroom. Listen to preschoolers and kindergarteners make sound effects. Go the playground and take note. You’ll hear the clap clap clap of the girls’ hand games and the thump thump thump of a boys’ basketball game. Even the swingset makes a whooshing sound as the swings take flight.

Today, listen to the noise around you. Write down the sounds, even making them up if there is no known word for what you hear. The kerchink kerchink kerchink of the dryer could lead to a new picture book idea (but don’t you hate it when your family leaves stuff in their pockets?! LOL).

Even if you like to write in the quiet, today is the day to make some noise. Perhaps you will hum, echo, thud, crash, jingle, swish, or clatter your way into a new story.

Listen up. What do you hear?

Dianne is generously giving away a signed copy of Blue Frog: The Legend of Chocolate to a lucky commenter. A winner will be randomly selected one week from today!

Dianne de Las Casas is an award-winning author of 18 books, a professonal storyteller, and founder of the international literacy initiative, Picture Book Month. She tours worldwide presenting revved-up author visit/storytelling programs, lively educator/librarian training, fun workshops, and inspiring artist residencies. Her children’s books include The Cajun Cornbread Boy, Madame Poulet & Monsieur Roach, Mama’s Bayou, The Gigantic Sweet Potato, There’s a Dragon in the Library, The House That Witchy Built, and Blue Frog: The Legend of Chocolate. She is a founding member of November’s Picture Book Month. Visit her at www.storyconnection.net and follow all the storytelling fun on Twitter @storyconnection.

7ate9
Winner of the 2018 Irma S. Black Award and the SCBWI Crystal Kite!
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As a children's book author and mother of two, I'm pushing a stroller along the path to publication. I collect shiny doodads on the journey and share them here. You've found a kidlit treasure box.

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illus by Melissa Crowton
Tundra/PRH Canada
June 4, 2019


illus by Ross MacDonald
Disney*Hyperion
October 15, 2019

THREE WAYS TO TRAP A LEPRECHAUN
illus by Vivienne To
HarperCollins
Spring 2020

THE WHIZBANG WORDBOOK
illustrator TBA
Sourcebooks Jabberwocky
August 2020

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