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From Alphabet To Author

My circular writing life

Illustration by Fran Pulido of a person wearing glasses with lenses that look like written pieces of paper.

My writing life started the minute that I could hold a pencil. According to my mother, I was trying to copy the alphabet before I was three, making up words by stringing together random letters, just for the pleasure of seeing them appear from my hand. By the time I was going to school I was doodling stories in old desk diaries that my grandfather gave me to keep me quiet. Now, I take these diaries into schools when I visit in my capacity as a children’s author. The pupils enjoy laughing at my appalling spelling and silly made-up words. How funny that a published author should have started out making such a mess! But I use this to make the point that if you write, you can call yourself a writer. It’s as simple as that. I encourage the children to think like this, because it took me years to give myself permission to say that I was a writer. I always assumed that I wasn’t allowed do this until I was published. I also secretly thought that I could only say I was a writer if I was engaged in producing a novel — something serious and heavyweight.

It is perhaps no surprise that I started young adult life feeling very unconfident in myself as a writer. I knew that a life ‘in books’ was the only one for me, and that I desperately wanted to be involved in the process of making them. Since I had decided that I had no hope of seeing a book of my own in print, I went for a job in publishing. I began my working life as a picture book editor at Macmillan where I was lucky enough to have a boss who noticed that I could write fluently. She encouraged me and gave me the opportunity to write a few books in-house. This gave me the confidence to have a go at writing under my own name, and by the time my first child was born in 1999 I had seen my first book published. Over in the Grasslands was a picture book for 0–3-year-olds and had modest success, so I tried my hand at another. I was still working in-house at this point, so the writing was only ‘a bit of fun’ in between child-rearing and editing. I still didn’t consider myself to be a writer. When It’s a Bear’s Life was published in 2001, I found myself an agent. I assumed I had hit a groove, and that perhaps now I could say ‘I am a picture-book writer.’ I wrote reams of picture books for a year or so, but not one of them saw the light of day. I was beginning to think that I had just had a couple of lucky strikes and that perhaps I should give up. By this time, I had had another child and was juggling childcare with freelance editing: more than anything, I needed to earn money.

I took on a job editing bedtime story anthologies, which it just so happened were the kind of thing my children loved to listen to at the end of the day. When I told my agent about this freelance job, she suggested that I include some of my own stories in the collections. ‘Perhaps the reason your picture book texts are not working is because they are in fact short stories,’ she said. I protested at first, thinking it would be cheating to effectively commission myself. However, the publisher seemed happy, so I found myself adding ‘short-story writer’ to my portfolio. Off the back of these anthologies, I was commissioned to write Nina, Fairy Ballerina, a ten-book series of chapter books for very young readers. This was where I cut my teeth on longer story arcs with larger casts of characters and sub-plots. I had no real idea what I was doing, other than borrowing ideas on plot and structure from the books my daughter liked to read because – guess what? – she was reading chapter books by then. It seemed my writing style was influenced by the sorts of things my children liked to read. So maybe I had become a children’s writer.

This is the way that my writing continued to develop — following in the footsteps of my children’s reading choices. By the time my son was reading alone, I was writing 40,000-word middle-grade novels, mainly about animals as that was what my son was obsessed with. One of these was directly inspired by his excitable plans to build a ‘real-live zoo’ in our garden. Monkey Business was published in 2011 at just the right time for my son to read it to himself. Hard on the heels of this came Summer’s Shadow, my novel for teens, which was again inspired by my daughter and her reading choices.

My agent started to joke that ‘maybe once your kids have grown up, you might turn your hand to writing for adults’. I never saw that as part of the plan. I had long given up on the idea of that serious, heavyweight novel. However, after Summer’s Shadow was published, both my parents became very sick. I found myself turning from caring for my children to caring for my parents, and all the funny family anecdotes that had inspired my writing up until this point just vanished. Life was not at all funny anymore. What’s more, I found that I couldn’t write. I began to panic: I had written nearly forty books for children, averaging two a year, and had assumed that this was the way things would continue. What was I going to do, if I could no longer write for publication? I had been out of the editing freelance loop for too long and had lost my contacts, so I could no longer call myself an editor. What if I could no longer call myself a writer either?

I look back now and realise that one of the most important things I have learnt in my writing life is to be always open to opportunity, and that writing as a career requires that we must ‘shape-shift’ to survive the slings and arrows of the industry. Around the time that my parents became sick, I was offered the opportunity to teach Creative Writing at Bath Spa University. A friend who worked there persuaded me that I could do this. It took a lot of pushing to get me to have a go, as I had done no teaching since my year as a reluctant assistante in a French lycée nearly twenty-five years before. I am forever grateful to this friend for believing in me for, as well as leading to many more teaching posts, this eventually led to me applying to be an RLF Fellow.

The teaching roles I have had since 2015 allowed me to rediscover my confidence as a writer, and it was down to the encouragement of Bath Spa colleagues and RLF peers that I started to write about my parents. I had been writing a blog about them for a while. This blog turned into A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me which was published by HarperCollins in 2020 in the year my daughter turned twenty-one. So, it seems that my agent’s prediction was correct: my writing finally grew up with my children. And I had ended up writing something serious.

Out of this memoir came another picture book, my first for twenty years. Grandpa and the Kingfisher, published in 2023, is about my dad and my grief at losing him. It is also about the life-cycle of a kingfisher and the hope that new life brings. Bringing this story to life has encouraged me to have a go at writing more for this age group again, and I have since published two other picture books and have another coming out in 2024. I feel therefore as though my writing life, rather like the kingfisher’s in my book, has come full circle. But I also know this isn’t the end and that I must always listen to how a story wants to be told: maybe it will be a novel, maybe it will be a picture book, maybe it will be more memoir. This writing life has taught me that, rather than trying to settle on a label such as ‘children’s book writer’, I can own the one identity I dreamed of having, back when I was a child myself, that of writer. It is just as I tell those schoolchildren: I am a writer because I write, and that is all I need to know about myself.

Anna Wilson has written over fifty books for children including picture books, fiction and nonfiction. Her book Grandpa and the Kingfisher was shortlisted for the Wainwright Prize in 2023.

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