Children's Fiction Competition: Six Books On

Posted by Jazz on Wednesday August 26th, 2015

Sophia Bennett won the Times/Chicken House Children's Fiction Competition in 2009 with Threads. Six years down the line, Sophia has written five other books for Chicken House, and her seventh novel Love Song is due to publish next April. Here she looks back at getting that first phone call from Barry ... 

It wasn’t when I heard I’d won. My life felt as if it had changed forever before that – when Barry Cunningham rang me to tell me that I was shortlisted. Two thousand entries had been whittled down to five, and my story, Threads, was one of them.

After ten years of trying, I had finally caught a publisher’s attention. If I could make it this far then, finally, I thought, I could do whatever it would take to get my work published. Maybe not this time, but one day. You can’t capture a phonecall and bottle it, but I did keep the yolk-yellow envelope that arrived a couple of days later with the letter to confirm my place on the shortlist. I still have it – somewhat curled at the edges – tucked into my dressing table mirror.

I had a rolling agreement with my husband: try the writing for six months and see how it goes. I was already on my second six-months of intensive writing, and it was going OK. A few weeks later, I discovered that it was going better than OK: I’d won, and the dream didn’t end there. We sold the book to about eighteen countries, and the TV rights, and I wrote two more books in the series for Chicken House.

Six years on, Threads is about to appear in a new set of covers that I think really capture the fun and friendship of Nonie, Edie, Jenny and Crow, as well as the strong sense of design based on Crow’s talent for drawing. It’s lovely to know that the stories are still out there and readers are still enjoying them. I’ve also written four other standalone novels for Chicken House, the latest of which, Love Song, comes out next year.

Writing is no longer a secret activity I do when no-one’s looking. It’s my day job: demanding, difficult, fraught with anxiety and occasionally ecstatically fabulous. Such as a couple of weeks ago, when after an age of struggling with one of the main characters in my new book, he suddenly came alive in my head and a critical scene started to write itself. Scattered vinyl records on the floor, a broken heart, a cold wind outside and the first hint of snow. I couldn’t write fast enough. It made the months of borderline despair worthwhile.

The rolling agreement with my husband still stands – try it and see how it goes. Writing is a precarious profession. Sometimes you get to sit with Patrick Ness, Francesca Simon and Julia Eccleshare in a panel of children’s writers at the Hay Festival. Or meet girls who loved your first book as fresh Year 8s, and still look back on it fondly as they enter the sixth form. But with each new book you take a risk: will it work? Will anyone read it? Will anyone buy it?

I spend weeks and months sitting alone in my shed, making stuff up, with no guarantee that it will connect to an audience when it’s done. But when it does connect, it’s the best feeling in the world. I can still taste the surge of joy I got when Barry made that call. I am a writer.

Read the first chapter of Sophia's winning novel or follow her on Twitter: @sophiabennett

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