on writing children’s books

When kids find out I’m a writer, they think it’s the coolest thing.  I’ve gotten fan mail and once, even a proposal of marriage of sorts from an eight-year-old girl who told me, “I have an uncle who’s forty years old but he doesn’t have a wife yet.  I think you should marry him, so you will be my auntie.

The precious few times I get introduced as a writer of children’s books (usually only at book or publication events), I relish the wonderful feeling.  Most times I get introduced as an artist, a copywriter, an art director, a graphic designer, an advertising practitioner.  Not one of those titles give me as much satisfaction or provide an opening for interesting conversations as much as “May Tobias-Papa, writer of children’s books”.

As a writer of children’s books, naturally, people think I love children. I do!  People also think I really set out to write with this audience in mind. Well, yeah, sort of.  I do write with a specific little girl in mind. Me.

Lest you think I am in some sort of a psychiatric therapy or am spouting some new-agey mumbo-jumbo by channeling my “inner child” in my writing, please allow me to explain further. I was raised in a household that has a deep reverence for books.  Notice I said “deep reverence” instead of simply “love”.  And this is my cue to tell you a bit about my family background.  My dad was born to a family of farmers, and he would have easily become a farmer himself, had he not dared and decided to try his luck out in Manila.  With a baseball scholarship he was able to finish high school, and through a series of odd jobs, the most noteworthy of which was being a waiter at Max’s Restaurant, he was able to support himself through college.

Suffice it to say, my dad worked very hard for his education.  Through his elementary and high school years he studied in the public school system so he never really personally owned books. And this is why, once as he’d fairly settled into a more or less comfortable life after he’d married my mom, he started buying books. Sets of encyclopedias, to be specific. He embarked on this campaign primarily to make it easier for his children to access knowledge, and secondarily, to indulge his own hunger for knowledge. Books, for me, then, in my childhood, were mostly hardbound affairs the pages of which were to be turned with utmost care because Daddy had invested a lot in them.

Save for the occasional Froebel-Kan board books (some of which I happily discovered, are still being sold at Goodwill Bookstores!) Daddy brought home with boxes of Max’s Fried Chicken every payday, my siblings and I never got to own too many books specifically written for children.  But then again it was always the usual stories in the Froebel-Kan books: Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood. And pretty much, this was what got me started writing my own stories. I wanted to hear stories apart from these fairytales.  I started when I was nine years old.    Since then, I still have not stopped writing for that little girl. I’d written and illustrated books for her.  It just so happens that other kids seem to like what I write, too.

In writing books for kids, it is important to know your target audience.  My target reader  is always the little girl inside of me who will forever be nine years old.

And I know my little girl only too well. I know her likes and dislikes, her hopes and fears.  I also know, for instance, what kind of books she likes.  Her favorite books are Roald Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach”  J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan”, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland”, and C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.”  It would be interesting to note that, in all stories, there is a portal made available to the characters which they can use to gain access into another world. Maybe growing up with 5 siblings made their little apartment feel a bit too cramped and crowded, that my little girl needed an escape to another world.

Keeping in touch with my inner child helps me a lot in my writing.  It gives me an insight into why kids read the books they read:  kids read books mainly to better understand themselves and the world around them.

Before Harry Potter became the triumphant teen wizard-hero of the series, he was a scrawny ten-year-old forced by his cruel muggle relatives–the Dursleys–to live like a slave in a small cramped closet under the stairs. The success of the stories owes perhaps a lot to the fact that in the beginning, Harry is an underdog.  But he works hard his way into claiming his wizard birthright.  Harry’s creator, J.K.Rowling may have given her boy-hero a fantastical set of circumstances, but at the end of the day, Harry’s story is still one that kids can easily relate to.  Like any adolescent he grapples daily with the challenges of schoolwork, difficult teachers, bullies, keeping friends and falling out with friends, insecurities, competition and rivalry, the awkwardness of infatuation and first love, among others.  At the end of each book, as Harry changes (for it is a requisite in story-writing that to make a story satisfying, characters must always be transformed by the story’s end—they are never the same characters they were in the beginning) into a more confident and self-assured character, the reader is also transformed along with him, wiser with all the life lessons they vicariously learned.

And this is the scariest thing about writing for children.  You just don’t know what they’d pick up from your books.  So you’d better be careful about what you write. Without any pre-conceived notions of the world, the child is tabula rasa.  The writer’s world-view becomes the child’s.

4 thoughts on “on writing children’s books”

  1. my preschoolers and me also… really love your stories… they used to tell me if your the one drew the whole storybook content…(they are also curious about the illustrators of your write -ups)KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK MS. MAY!!!.
    you have a fans club here in mindanao…my preschool class in Amontay Elementary School…and me also, your avid fan

    1. thank you so much for your kind words, mary ann (we are namesakes!). i feel so blessed that i’ve been given the privilege to write books, but nothing really compares to the joy i feel when people tell me they like the books i write. but it is humbling, too, at the same time because, not only because i share the credit for the books (with the illustrator and the publisher), but also because when i write i feel like i’m just transcribing memories, vicarious experiences, remembered conversations, etc. i do not merely pluck anything out of air in a grand gesture so it hardly feels like the books are my own at all.
      i graduated from the up college of fine arts, so i am really an artist by training. my love of books, though, has always inspired me to write stories ever since i was still a child—our grade school library was filled with foreign characters in faraway lands (our school was founded by german SVD priests and they were the ones who solicited books for our wonderful school library which had a lovely collection of classic and contemporary children’s lit). i reworked plots to create characters i could relate better with because they were in situations and settings so similar to my own. and this is how i learned to write.
      i am lucky to be working with the best illustrators in the industry. you can see more of and know more about isabel roxas at studioroxas.com, beth parrocha doctolero at bethparrocha.com and ariel santillan at arielsantillan.daportfolio.com and pinoyrocketship.deviantart.com. take care! =)

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