3 (Updated) Top Tips on Writing Children’s Books

As a published children’s author I often get approached by writers or illustrators who have written or created a story, wanting to know about how to get it published. Sometimes it is their friends who approach me – writers and illustrators can be a diffident lot.

It’s hard to give advice without this being seen as a criticism of the work itself, which is often penned with flair and illustrated lovingly. Maybe it’s a family story, a fun Dr Seuss-like rhyme, or  wonderful pictures of New Zealand birds.  The illustrations are cute, the rhyme is fun, your kids or grandkids love it. Unfortunately that won’t automatically translate into a book that publishers want to publish and other adults want to buy.

I recently attended the Storylines Children’s Writers Conference in Auckland, which prompted me to add more information to the  advice that I wrote last year on writing for children. The conference reminded me that there are many expert writers and editors out there willing to help people refine their work, so read on and be prepared to ask for help.

  1. Take a realistic approach: First the bad news – it’ll be near to impossible to have your first work accepted by a publisher. To give you a sense of scale, David Ling, of Duck Creek Press told me last year  “I receive 300 submissions a year and only publish 6“.  Given the scale of difference between submissions and actual publications, some publishers will only accept work from already published authors which must feel like a Catch-22 situation to the unpublished author. Others will only take submissions at certain times of the year. Most publishers’ websites include a section of ‘information for contributors’ or ‘submission guidelines’, read these thoroughly. (For a list of New Zealand publishers see: PANZ.) Look at the kind of books they publish, does your book idea or manuscript fit with the kind of books they publish? Don’t waste your time sending your book where it won’t be read and isn’t wanted.  BUT before you send anything anywhere read point 2.
  2. Invite critique and develop your writing skills: You may feel you’ve done all you can to your manuscript BUT you’d be surprised how much time published authors spend polishing and refining their work.  Author Janice Marriott, puts it like this “All writers work at improving their skills in order to tell the best stories they can that really engage the reader. Learning how to recognise when a story idea has enough action, character, drama and uniqueness can be taught.  Learning how to polish your writing till it shines can also be taught, by a combination of information, practice, and tutoring.  Writers who know about the importance of structure, characterisation and style will always be able to make their story ideas come to life.”  You can take a course such as Janice’s Go Write Now, join an informal writing group where writers assess each other’s work or your could approach an assessor for advice. NZSA has a list of assessors as well as a scheme for members to get their work assessed. If you are a first time writer, getting your manuscript assessed is a great first step.
  3. Do your homework if you want your writing to be published:  Learn about children’s books. Barbara Murison, a respected children’s literature expert and manuscript assessor, said “If you want to write for children and young people you need to be very aware of what this group is reading, and is interested in, by reading as many current books yourself as possible and by talking to and listening to what this group is saying.” Your local children’s librarian will know what books are popular with what age group. Remember too, that booksellers are a key part of the publishing chain for illustrated children’s books. Visit your local bookshop and ask, what kind of books sell well? What topics would they like to see covered in books? At the conference, I was reminded that something as simple as the amount of bookshop shelf space given over to a particular genre or age group has an impact on what booksellers stock. This in turn has an impact on what publishers will publish.

Publishing Consultancy

Footnote: If you don’t plan to become a children’s author or illustrator and would just like to see one manuscript you’ve developed in print, then choose self-publishing. The technology is there to make a great production for friends and family, even to sell though the local store. See the NZSA website for information on publishing including self-publishing.



Writers in Schools – book now for 2018!

Attention teachers, librarians and schools, you have until 15 December to book me through Writers in Schools for Term 1 2018! Are you:

  • Planning a Book Week
  • Wanting to give your year 4-8 students a non-fiction writing boost
  • Keen to tie the children’s environmental studies or science to your writing programme
  • Looking for a fun and inspiring author visit for all ages

I’m an award-winning author of factual books about New Zealand nature. Before I became an author, I was a teacher, an editor and a publisher. I’m passionate about helping kids understand New Zealand’s unique biodiversity. My presentations combine enthusiasm and knowledge – about books and the writing process.

Writing workshop at Porirua Library

Here’s what Northland School in Wellington said about my “Top Tips for Writing Non-Fiction” presentation:

“Thank you so much for a fantastic visit. The children really enjoyed your time with them and I’ve had really positive feedback from all of the teachers. I was pleased that I also got to sit in on one of the sessions. Thanks again Gillian – we were very lucky to have you!” Lizzie Ryan

Northland School library display

PS: if you aren’t booking through ‘Writers in Schools’ you can contact me anytime, to book me directly for your school, library or festival. Email me at author@gilliancandler.co.nz

Making kaka masks at the Dunedin Storylines festival in 2016.


Nature Heroine – writer Sheila Natusch

I’ve just seen “No Ordinary Sheila“, the documentary about the wonderful and not at all ordinary Sheila Natusch. This documentary was a clever blend of recent interviews and family photos, integrated with archival films from the relevant times in her life of, for example, of childhood on Rakiura / Stewart Island, high school at Invercargill, tertiary studies in Dunedin and work and marriage in Wellington. The documentary makers also used occasional current footage where it conveyed atmosphere, for example, of pupils at Invercargill Girl’s High School.

Some interviews show her on a couch in a friend’s living room or at the kitchen table talking to another writer or tramper, and it felt that we were present in the room listening to an elderly relative talk about their extraordinary life.

As a fan of Rakiura / Stewart Island I particularly enjoyed the current and past footage of the island, along with the description of what it was like to grow up there.

Oban, Rakiura in the 2010s

I won’t spoil the experience of watching the documentary by repeating here the friendships, history and events that are covered. But watch the trailer here if you want to know more.


The overwhelming impression was of a life well lived, of a resilient and determined individual, who got on with life and had no regrets.

I would love to have heard her talk more about her interest in plants and about writing, illustrating and her experiences in the publishing industry, but that reflects my own bias, and I think for the general viewer this aspect would have been covered adequately.

Inspired, I’ve pulled out a couple of booklets that I have of hers: New Zealand Mosses, 1969 and A Bunch of Wild Orchids, 1968.

Two of Sheila’s books published by Pegasus Press in the 1960s

Reading these again, I’m impressed by her fresh chatty style, which would have been unusual for the time, but is similar to the tone taken in social media today. A Sheila of today would be blogging about what she’d seen or posting her sketches on Instagram perhaps.

In A Bunch of Wild Orchids she talks about having her own orchid garden as a child on Rakiura / Stewart Island, taking a patch where some orchids already grew she added in other orchids that she found elsewhere. While others were growing up admiring imported garden flowers, New Zealand natives were all she knew, what a rich experience that provided her with. “Most of my orchids were there already, living on a dark peaty bank under the muttonbird trees. There was one with a creamy gold-and-pink flower, set on a dainty stem above flat spotted leaves, the whole plant fuzzy with tiny hairs.”

On recent visits to Rakiura, I’ve sought out the orchids along the village lane ways and beside the tramping tracks, often hiding bashfully, but, I like to think, waiting to be found and admired.

A green bird orchid, discovered after a fellow tramper sat on it at lunchtime

Sheila had a knack of explaining things clearly to the amateur, although she was no amateur herself.   “Plants, like people, occur in families; or at least botanists find it convenient to suppose that they do, putting the orchids in one family, the lilies in another, and so on.” And she had a sense of what would confuse her audience – of what to put in and what to leave out. “.. in sketching some of the strange little plants, I have not bothered about species. One cannot even be cocksure about the genera: these things can alter!”

From “A Bunch of Wild Orchids” by Sheila Natusch
Moss and odd-leaved orchid on Rakiura

For my other blogposts about Rakiura / Stewart Island  see my nature blog explorediscovernature.blogspot.co.nz and search on Stewart Island.


About Illustrating – Link to Interview with Ned Barraud

Children often ask about the illustration process for the ‘explore and discover books’. Ned Barraud the illustrator is interviewed on The Sapling about how he fits illustrating children’s books in with his day job, about the process and about some of his favourite illustrators and children’s books.

Here’s the link: https://www.thesapling.co.nz/single-post/2017/10/12/Ned-Barraud-A-day-in-the-life-of-an-illustrator

Reviewing ‘Keeping Your Children Safe Online’

Keeping Your Children Safe Online: a guide for New Zealand parents by John Parsons, published by Potton & Burton 2017

The moment I picked up Keeping Your Children Safe Online, I knew this book was going to be flying off the bookshop shelves. I immediately thought of who’d needed it 6 months ago and who I’d be recommending it to straightaway.

John Parsons takes a very practical approach to his topic, using short real-life examples to illustrate situations such as cyber-bullying or of young people tricked into sending inappropriate images. He shows how these situations can be resolved and discusses who to turn to for help.

Keeping Your Children Safe Online isn’t heavy on technical jargon and doesn’t demand technical know-how, instead the author steers the reader gently in the right direction with some useful tips about where to find out what you need to know. The author also introduces some useful analogies, for example, talking about the internet as if its a physical place, which may be helpful for parents when they talk to their children. For a taster, check out the short videos on the publishers’ website http://www.pottonandburton.co.nz/store/keeping-your-children-safe-online

What I particularly like is that Keeping Your Children Safe Online takes “good parenting” principles and applies these to the issues of cyber safety. Reading this book is a reminder of what’s really important in parent-child relationships, with parenting tips that could be applied in any situation. The book does a pretty good job as a parenting refresher course!

I’d recommend this book to parents of children from 0-18 years old. If your child is at the younger end, then there are great tips about how to talk about values that will stand you and your child in good stead as they traverse the technology landscape. For parents of teens, there are lots of practical ideas here of how to talk to your teens about the way they use social media, as well as reminders of your children’s rights and what the law says about cyber-bullying. If your teen has already got caught up in a difficult situation, you’ll find the case studies useful as well as the agencies listed in the back.

After reading this book, I think some parents will be wondering about their own degree of cyber safety. That might be just the conversation starter you need to discuss cyber safety with your teen!

Up the River – new book about New Zealand’s freshwater

Up the River: explore and discover New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and wetlands is the latest addition  to the ‘explore and discover’ books, following on from books about the seashore, ocean, garden, and forest habitats.

Up the River is the sixth book in the series

Six years ago I would have wondered how many people might be interested enough in our freshwater habitats to buy a book about them for their children or grandchildren, but now as we release this book, there is broad public interest. There’s been much publicity about whether our rivers are swimmable, about polluted drinking water and about the loss of rivers to irrigation schemes.

As a nation we’ve woken up to the facts – that clean freshwater matters and that our freshwater is not as clean as we would like it to be. 

All of these events and debates were going on while I was researching and writing Up the River. The more I researched, the more I realised that the state of our freshwater was worse than I had imagined. I had to work hard to resist the temptation to make the dire findings and debates centre stage in the book. Why?

Partly because I want the book to endure for ten years or more, and I hope as a society we’ll act quickly now to make a difference to water quality. But mainly, because a focus on negative facts can make children feel powerless. After all this is a mess not of their making.

Pages 20-21 what lives in the wetland?

Instead I wanted to show children (and the adults who read the book with them) the diverse and intriguing wildlife that healthy freshwater systems support. In Up the River the reader discovers animals that are little known because they are hidden or out of sight, or rare because of habitat loss. Children learn about the amazing journeys that fish make, and the extraordinary life-cycles of aquatic insects. In this way, they get to understand how special these habitats are.

The rivers needed to be recognisable to children who may not get to experience mountain streams or braided rivers, so Ned’s illustrations show a modified habitat on pages 10-13.

Part of the image showing a modified habitat

I hope that this leads to discussion about what impact the farms and towns along the river will have on the animals and plants that live there.

The text about lakes on pages 16-17 also raises the issue of the particular problems that affect lakes. For older children, there is discussion at the end of the book about algal blooms and freshwater problems. Here, the “What can you do?” text empowers children (and adults) to take action for freshwater.

You might be wondering just how bad is the state of our freshwater really. Click on this image for a simple summary of facts from the Ministry of the Environment and down load ‘New Zealand’s fresh water at a glance 2017’.

Infographic from the Ministry of the Environment

Bought the book and want tips and ideas to follow up?

As I write, I note down interesting websites or activities and compile these to share with parents and teachers. See “ideas for children, parents and educators to explore and discover New Zealand’s rivers, lakes and wetlands” on the Potton & Burton website.  I also continue to update my Pinterest board with links to websites, documents, and tips for craft and science activities.

Did you know?

My books are available in hardback as well as paperback. Often bookstores just stock the paperback version, but many people prefer hardbacks, either because they are more robust or because they make nice gifts. Ask your bookstore to order the hardback for you or order it online direct from my publisher, Potton & Burton. http://www.pottonandburton.co.nz/store/up-the-river

FAQs About Writing ‘From Moa to Dinosaurs’

Recently I was interviewed by The Sapling about From Moa to Dinosaurs, a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults

To read the full interview with me and with the other non-fiction finalists click here.

I’ve decided to put a couple of my answers up on the blog, as these respond to frequently asked questions from both school children and adults.

3. How long did it take you to write the book? 

It took a year to create From Moa to Dinosaurs, once the concept had been agreed on. Ned Barraud (the illustrator) and I had discussed the idea of depicting extinct or relict species a few years earlier, but we were busy on another book and it took awhile to figure out how this idea fitted with our ‘explore and discover’ series. I had to do a lot of research before I wrote up the concept and even more before I started writing. I ran the first draft past a scientist, and he also looked at the rough illustrations and the ‘final’ text and illustrations. The hardest part about writing a book like this is that much of the science is still developing, for example, at the time I started researching, articles described a small mammal (not a bat) among the fossils at Lake Manuherikia. This was exciting as New Zealand had no history of native land mammals other than bats. Ned got as far as trying to illustrate this mammal when our expert told me there was now doubt around the mammal fossil! So I had to make the decision not to depict it.

4. How involved were you with the images/illustrations/photos? 

I’m very involved in the illustration process. I gave Ned a brief which described what animals needed to be illustrated. I also told him what I knew about these animals and some clues scientists have uncovered about the environment the animals lived in. Ned is a real master of composition and rises to the challenge of, for example, depicting a tiny gecko in the same illustration as a large crocodilian. We have a bit of back and forth as he refines the pictures and comes back with suggestions. Sometimes I alter bits of the text to better fit the final illustrations. This was a great project to work on together, as Ned could use his imagination to conjure up what Ancient New Zealand might have looked like. Knowing about the likely interaction between animals enabled him to put some drama into the illustrations too.

Please read the full interview on The Sapling.

Free Downloadable Forest Birds ID Card

Free to download – Forest Birds ID card from “In the Bush” by Gillian Candler, illustrations by Ned Barraud

With the first print-run of “In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand’s native forests” came a detachable forest bird ID card in the inside back cover. This card won’t be included in subsequent print-runs. Instead it’s available to download from my publisher’s website or through this blog post.


Reverse of Forest Bird ID card from “In the Bush’ by Gillian Candler, illustrations by Ned Barraud

For tips on bird-watching see my Nature Blog: https://explorediscovernature.blogspot.co.nz/2017/06/what-bird-is-that-identifying-native.html

Finalist in Book Awards 2017

I’m delighted to announce that “From Moa to Dinosaurs: explore and discover ancient New Zealand” is a finalist in the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults 2017.

Here’s the link to the complete list of finalist books and a great resource for parents and grandparents wanting to find suitable New Zealand books for children and young adults.

The awards are announced on 14 August 2017. Meanwhile schools can get involved in the Reading Challenge and look forward to some author and illustrator events.