Chameleon Dad Author Feature: Debbie Thomas on Writing for Children

Chameleon Dad Debbie Thomas

When Little Island Books contacted me about Chameleon Dad, the latest middle grade adventure from Debbie Thomas I was sold on the blurb alone and agreed to help support this book which looks at some incredibly powerful themes and situations but with the gentle hand of writing for middle grade.

A tale that looks at a rather invisible subject, not only children in care having adventures, but the emotional impact and consequences of abandonment and ineffective parental return and diving into the ‘Tracy Beaker’ attitude of children explaining away parental absence to protect ones heart from a devastating truth.

Whilst I think its important for children in care to have stories where they do ‘ordinary’ adventures, this is a child in care having a contemporary adventure. Plus, I think the inclusion of this topic is very much important and needs to be visible, we know that children’s perspective and emotional connection to their parents and adult understanding of the same people can be vastly and heartbreakingly different, and that many people who did not have the experience of abandonment or being removed from a parent, can still have the grief of the ‘dream’ of their parents being tainted by reality of them being flawed humans.

Empathy is a powerful tool, and Littlefae is very interested in this book, and that is a powerful thing, for a child who has a secure family situation with both parents present, to understand that our situation is not the norm for all children, and to have empathy for those who live in different circumstances in the hope that equally, empathy will be returned to her from those who do not live a multigenerational home educated life.

Chameleon Dad Debbie Thomas

Connie was left by her father in an airport cafe eight years ago with only her pet chameleon. Since then she has lived with her foster mum, a cleaner at the airport and dreamed of the father that left returning to swoop her into a wonderful life.

With the help of her fossil obsessed friend Thyo, they embark on a quest to find her father. But, will the reality live up to or shatter the dream?

Now sadly thanks to the postal issues, my copy is still in the system somewhere, so whilst I’m excited to share this book with you, I cannot give it my usual analysis.

However!! I have the honour of hosting Debbie herself telling us about the method, meaning and manner in which to write meaningfully for middle grade.

So until Royal Mail sorts itself out, here’s Debbie with some brilliant advice.

Thoughts on writing for children By Debbie Thomas

Many thanks to Lily and the Fae for inviting me to share some thoughts about writing middle-grade books. I hesitate to call them tips as every writer has their own approach and inspirations. But as my adventure story Chameleon Dad (age 9+) scuttles into the bookshops, here are some suggestions that have helped me.

1. Know in one sentence why you write and stick it on the wall.

Writing is hard. Writing for children is really hard. Child readers don’t take waffle. They’re all the little boy who shoutsthat the emperor has no clothes. While grown-up readers might endure, or even admire, the long sentences; the complex punctuation; the labyrinthine phrasing; the erudite words and esoteric wordplay – not to mention the carefully constructed modifiers – well, kids won’t. Simple is good. And difficult. So remember why you’re sitting there chomping onyour adjectives.

My sentence: I want to give children the joy I feel on reading a wonderful book.


2. Big, bold scenes.

Think of the BFG trumpeting sweetdreams into sleeping children’s ears. Or Stanley Yelnats digging holes in a dried-up lake. Or Eustace Clarence Scrubb turning into a dragon.

3. Know your readers.

Love them. Laugh with them and listen to them. Talk to as many children as you can about the books they like; what they think makes a good story; their favourite characters etc.

4. Know your writers.

Read the books for the age groups you write for. Note what you love and why (and also what you don’t love and why not). Don’t be confined to those agegroups, though. Your muse can feed on all sorts of books, not to mention shopping lists and cereal boxes.

5. Slap down the first draft without looking back.

Try not to judge it as you write; the editing comes later. There will be plenty more drafts to cross-examine in your writerly court.

6. Think of the books you loved as a child – sort of.

Generations change and the language and themes of books you loved may well not interest children today. But … there’s something about the feeling you got from a beloved book that’s worth listening to. I think that feeling helps to form your own writing vision and purpose. My favourite book as a child was The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. The brilliant story, gorgeous characters and fantastic fun with words filled me with excitement, curiosity and wonder and made me long to create something that brought such joy. 

7. Feel-write

What makes you furious? What breaks your heart? What delights or horrifies, challenges or baffles you?Strong feelings fuel strong writing. One of the triggers for Chameleon Dad was my anger at racial prejudice. Writing the story made me look at my own unfair judgments and explore how we build up stories – so often false or incomplete – about other people, from just a few pinpoints of fact, like joining a dot-to-dot to make the wrong picture.

8. Act out. 

Strong writing doesn’t mean over-writing with flowery descriptions or hammy emotions spilling all over the page. Actions are a powerful way to convey feelings. And while I’d be terrified of going on stage, I’ll happily frown in the mirror to see if brows really ‘knit’, or grip a chair to check if knuckles turn white (mine go a kind of oatmeal). 

9. All aboard

While stories take their readers on a journey, there’s a seat for the writers too.

Another trigger for Chameleon Dad was a question: how do some people manage to bring hope out of a bad experience and turn it into a helpful story for the rest of their lives? I still can’t generalise an answer, as every situation is specific, but it was wonderful to travel with Connie as she learned how to triumph over her own sad past.

10. Be kind.

To your characters, your readers and yourself. Ifthe writing didn’t go well today, you’re still lovely. Maybe it’s time to get up sprinkle all that wonderful wit and wisdom somewhere else, and come back tomorrow. And when the writing does go well, that’s something to be grateful for – which is its own kind of kindness.

Thank you so much Debbie, I cannot wait myself to read Chameleon Dad , and I hope that with the insight into your process and intent, others will be inspired to pick up Chameleon Dad too.

Chameleon Dad by Debbie Thomas is published by Little Island Books


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