Primary School. I’m maybe eight or nine. We’re reading a short story in class, from an ancient hardback collection of stories and poems illustrated with line drawings, with a faded blue and green cover. I can’t remember the title of the anthology, but I do remember one story, about a lonely man making sand sculptures on the beach – slightly melancholy, a sense of loss, the way that I often felt as a child when it was time to leave the beach. The man walks away, the sea washes in and erases the sculptures… Later on, aged 13 or 14, in an English lesson we read Ted Hughes’ short story The Rain Horse, which is all atmosphere – a field, the rain, the threatening horse, a young man’s sense of terror.
Why have these particular short stories stayed in my mind over so many years, out of all the others we read as children? Perhaps it’s the strong sense of place, the use of vivid detail to create a landscape and a moment in time through the appeal to all the senses. And a strong feeling: sadness, sense of loss, fear. It’s partly in what is not said; an effective short story doesn’t waste words. It leaves a space for the reader to imagine, to fill in the gaps. We enter into the story world, stay a short time, and leave again – but as a reader, we’re left with the sense that something has changed forever. We’ve glimpsed something, felt something, of lasting significance.
If you want to write short stories for children, the important thing, of course, is to read many! Immerse yourself in the form. You might re-read stories you enjoyed as a child, to re-experience them with your adult ‘writer’ mind, namely reading as-a-writer, alert to the way the story has been written.
Read contemporary short stories for children, too, to see what is being published now. Fashions change. Haunt bookshops and libraries. Look at anthologies of short stories published for children. Read collections of short stories by individual authors, too. Read these stories and then, as a ‘writing exercise’ in your writing notebook (of course you have one of these!), take real incidents or experiences from your own childhood as the material for a short story, so as to get in touch with the real, raw emotions of childhood and to help you find an authentic voice in your writing. (Note: this might end up as a short story ‘about childhood’ as distinct from a story ‘for children’, two subtly different things.)
One of the great satisfactions of writing a short story is that sense of having the complete story in your hand, so you can ‘see’ it all at once, with its beautiful, honed shape. You can polish and perfect it, and learn much that will help you with all your writing, particularly about precision and brevity, voice and tone, and about the significance of endings. Aim high. Only the very best writing is good enough for children.
Set yourself a deadline, a word count, and a subject, and see what magic happens. The mind plays games. A character will arrive, and a place – all stories have to happen somewhere – and before you know it, the story will start to emerge. Keep asking questions: What if…? Supposing she…. Write it, one word, one sentence at a time. Write the first draft, fast. Then – cut, cut, cut! Polish. Make it beautiful. Make it the best story it can be. Write the story only you can write.
Julia Green is the author of more than 20 novels and short stories for young people. She is Emeritus Professor in Writing for Young People at Bath Spa University. She founded and until 2019 was Course Director of the MA Writing for Young People, which has launched the careers of more than 65 writers for children and young adults. Her most recent novels for children are The House of Light (2019) and The Children of Swallow Fell (August 2020), both published by OUP Children’s. She is currently writing a collection of short stories. For more information see www.julia-green.co.uk.