You need to put a smile on the face of the child you were …

Today on the blog, the lovely Dawn McNiff author of the magical and moving LITTLE CELESTE talks about the best piece of writing advice she ever received, and how it inspired her to write a book that will put a smile on lots of children’s (and adults!)


Someone once said to me – ‘As a children’s author, you need to put a smile on the face of the child you were.’

Well, I think I must’ve swallowed this piece of advice whole…

The story and the relationships in LITTLE CELESTE aren’t like mine as a child.  And 11 year old Shelley, the main character, isn’t me. For one thing, she’s a 2014 girl from head-to-toe; and mine was a classic 1970s childhood, complete with flares, Crackerjack and Angel Delight. I was also a  ‘younger’ 11 year old than she is.

But there are parts of LITTLE CELESTE which would have tickled and entertained the child I was, way back then in 1979. In fact, I have to confess … I’ve snuck in so many details from my childhood that it really amounts to shameless self-indulgence.

Like the water fight scene.

Water fights – along with pickled onion Monster Munch crisps -were a staple of my upbringing. My parents had loads of parties, which always seemed to end in a wild, water battles.  It was an extreme sport  – I have a clear memory of my dad spray-hosing our whole lounge, full-blast through an open window, trying to soak my mum and her friend, who were hiding behind the sofa. (And yes, this was an adults’ party. At my own children’s parties, we wore 1970s ankle-length party frocks, and played earnest games of Musical Chairs and Dead Fishes like good children.) So water fights became one of my specialist subjects –  and writing one into a novel has always been a quiet goal.

Then there’s the novel’s back-drop. Grey, pebbly beaches in the drizzle, beach huts and seagulls are part of the landscape of my childhood down on the Sussex coast. I spent lots of time wandering the brambly, chalky South Downs farmland that surrounded my house, with our woolly, chocolate-coloured poodle, Basil. (Yes, Basil lives again as Winnie-the-Poodle). During the hot summers, me and my friends played endless games of Sardines (hiding like Shelley and Celeste do) amongst a maze of bramble bushes in a nearby valley. The sweet smell of over-ripe blackberries baking in the sunshine is a fond memory – so I had to smuggle it into my book too. (Oh, and we had regular blackberry fights as well, but I saved that for another story…)

And I LOVED looking after baby things when I was young. We had all sorts – kittens, puppies, chicks and ducklings. I also had a life-sized, baby chimpanzee toy. He was so realistic-looking that when I carried him around on my hip – like Shelley does with Celeste –  people would do a double-take in shops…which entertained me no end. I loved my chimp and wanted him to come alive SO MUCH.  Can you imagine? An actual, magic, baby chimp- too cool! So I just had to make this happen for myself via a novel… except obviously Celeste is a magic human baby. Even better.

I know with total confidence that a 10 or 11-year-old Dawn would’ve grabbed her copy of LITTLE CELESTE; climbed up into her high, tree-stump treehouse; pulled up the rope ladder behind her (so her pesky little brother couldn’t bother her); and read the whole book in one sitting…

So I’ll repeat that advice I was once given – write for the child you were. I reckon it will bring your book alive. But more importantly – even if the book never gets published; and even if no-one else in the whole, wide world likes it, it will make YOU smile.