Inky Interview: Author Sheila May Blackburn

As well as being a primary school teacher you have written several children’s books, one of which is called Jazz. Can you tell us about them?

I began writing children’s books for reluctant readers at a time when there was very little material for children who wanted to read about football. Originally desk-top books, the twelve stories were backed by the Boots Company and printed locally. However, this involved a lot of marketing and selling and I was delighted when they were eventually taken over by Brilliant Publications. They were very pleased with the re-printing and asked me to write a Teachers’ Resource book. This was followed by the six Stewie Scraps Adventures and further resource materials, all available from the publishers.

I have written two novels for children: Long Dark Shadows is about bullying, both by adults and children. Jazz is the story of a boy who is helped to come to terms with the tragic loss of his father by the irrepressible character of Jazz. This is available on Kindle and I am looking to make it available through Print on Demand ahead of its sequel where Jazz is on a mission to help another child facing difficulties.

You have been published in My Weekly Magazine, written for Collins Educational and won the children’s section of the Cheshire Prize For Literature with your short story Cat’s Eyes. Congratulations! Have you any tips for writers new to submitting their work to competitions?

The world of publishing has changed dramatically since I started writing – thanks again to the internet. Self-publishing and marketing  is very much more accessible and a great way to test public reaction, as long as you are prepared to get out there at events and functions. Joining a writers’ group is helpful; in the meantime, competitions give a short-term “feedback”. Some offer a critique and there is usually a chance to read shortlisted / winning entries to understand what works. For me, short story writing for magazines and competitions has been a sensible way to use my writing time and I advise looking at competitions listed online and in writing magazines. There are plenty to choose from!

Who did the art work for your books?

Originally, my desk-top books were illustrated through a local contact, but Brilliant Publications arranged their own illustrators from a pool of artists, I believe. Stewie Scraps was illustrated by the amazing Leighton Noyes who captured the character and sustained him so well. Am still in touch with him – and very grateful for his work.

Do you write poetry for children?

Yes – but not as much as I would like. I have an assortment that I’ve used in school and for Assembly material. There are also some phonic poems that I used with good effect in lessons.

As opposed to writing for adults, how do you approach writing for children? Is it more difficult than people imagine, or more difficult than writing for adults?

I think that writing for children is a great challenge – my original books for Collins Jumpstart were eight pages, one sentence per page, 22 high frequency words and then CVC words – and please make it fun or give the story a twist! I loved it! Children’s material has to have variety – dialogue is essential to relieve long descriptive passages – you only have to try reading aloud to a group of children to understand that – it’s about what fascinates the audience and makes them amused as well as concerned and wanting more. However, it must also be rich in vocabulary and structure – I get very tired of “celebs” who think that their name alone makes them worthy authors… their books sell, so the publishers love them, but their writing doesn’t always move children’s reading on, nor challenge them as readers.

What themes keep cropping up in your writing? What do you care about?

I care about what makes ordinary people tick and the relationships in their lives. My adult short stories are about how people relate to each other and deal with the stuff of everyday life – it sounds mundane, but there it is.

Similarly, with writing for children – I’ve dealt with their interest in football and in making things (Stewie) and then added a twist at the end to leave the reader wondering. My other themes have been the tough stuff – bereavement and bullying. Hopefully, the stories give the readers a chance to think and perhaps an opening to chat about what matters.

Have you any books that you can recommend to any budding writers?

I started off with the Writers Yearbook, as I guess most would-be writers are advised to do. I’ve also been privileged as a teacher to know first hand what motivates children and what’s available. My advice would be to spend time browsing in good bookshops and spend time with children… one of my writing group friends has written great stuff for his own children based on those basics.

If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?

To make it a fairer place. I can’t bear the idea of not having basic needs met and resulting struggles, pain and fear – and that goes for the animal world as much as people.

What are you reading at the moment?

Maeve Binchy and Joanne Harris all over again – ever my writing heroines.

What is your creative space like?

Cluttered!  A very busy place – ideally it’s be somewhere a whole lot more relaxing with a beautiful sea-view.

What is next for you? What plans have you got?

I’d like to write the follow up to Jazz and see more of my books in print. More time to meet like-minded writers would be goodBut I always have competition entries on the go and hope for the one lucky break… you never know.

Sheila’s Website

Facebook Page

Brilliant Publications

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