Barry Cunningham’s tips on strong beginnings in children’s books

Opening of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by JK Rowling

We were delighted at SCBWI Southeast Scotland to welcome Barry Cunningham, head of Chicken House and the original publisher of the Harry Potter books, to a Twitter Q&A on what makes a strong chapter 1 in children’s literature.
A handful of SCBWI members and non-members got the chance to post to hashtag #strongbeginnings, asking Barry his view on everything about children’s book openings: from hackneyed techniques best avoided to whether it’s all right to use your own children’s names when writing a novel. Browse through the chat below to see Barry’s thoughts on black snow, prologues, first-person voice…and his recent favourite first line from a manuscript!

If you are near Edinburgh, don’t forget SCBWI is hosting the award-winning children’s writer Keith Gray on 29 March, when Keith will offer an interactive workshop on how to write a strong beginning in children’s literature. As well as workshopping your own ideas, Keith will discuss what he considers to be the Big 4 Hooks: Situation, Mood, Character and Incident. (Not forgetting that hooking in an agent or editor can often feel like a battle with the most reluctant reader of all). Tickets are still available: more information and booking for the Keith Gray event is here.

Thanks again to Barry Cunningham for joining us for this Twitter chat. The insights he gave – including what first appealed to him in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – will certainly offer inspiration and concrete guidance to children’s writers everywhere. You can understand even more about what Barry looks for in a children’s book by buying or getting from a library any one of the excellent Chicken House books; including the Waterstones-shortlisted The Skull in the Wood by Sandra Greaves, who was also a winner of 2012 Undiscovered Voices, a competition to help discover the best unpublished children’s writers in the UK.

Do nip down to the end of this blog to see Sandra’s own advice on how she revised chapter 1 of The Skull in the Wood. Thank you Sandra! Read more about Sandra’s revising process.

Top tips on strong beginnings in children’s books from Barry Cunningham, Chicken House















Q & A with Sandra Greaves on Chapter 1 of The Skull in the Wood

Q1:Congratulations on your Waterstones shortlisting for Skull in the Wood! How did you go about revising your chapter 1 between winning Undiscovered Voices and publication with Chicken House? Did you work with the publisher’s editor on changes, or did you work on your own?

A1: After Chicken House took me on, I worked with my editor Rachel Leyshon on a structural edit of the whole book. We discussed the aspects she thought needed tackling and then she left me to think about how I would address these. I changed the ending drastically, which meant that the beginning had to change too. In actual fact it didn’t change that much – the voice was pretty much there already, but there are a few important differences in plotting and foreshadowing.


Q2: Looking back at your original opening, what would you say was weakest about your original version? What was strongest? (personally I loved the bird in the car in the new opener…very Dartmoorish).

A2: I knew from the start that Barry Cunningham wasn’t keen on prologues. That didn’t faze me as I wasn’t madly keen on my original short prologue anyway – I’d put it in because I felt the action in my book didn’t start early enough. So once I’d ditched the prologue, I needed some more action to foreshadow what happens later. I put the hunt kennels in during the structural edit, and then added the scene with the bird in the car later on.

Q3: Any advice for unpublished children’s writers who are currently agonising over their own chapter 1’s?
A3: Leave the revision of the first chapter till the end of your rewrite and it may become clear what you need to do. Having said that, I’m writing my second book and I keep going back to my first chapter and re-writing. Which is a waste of time – it will change! But I’ll only know how it should change when I’ve finished!

Huge thanks again to Barry and of course to Sandra from us all at SCBWI Southeast Scotland; for more information on SCBWI, the international professional organisation for writers and illustrators of children’s literature, visit SCBWI British Isles. And thanks to you, dear reader, for getting to the bottom of this very long post! If you enjoyed this summary, please share it with others in your network by clicking a sharing link below.

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