Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 16 October 2019

Young Author Academy: the Dubai business helping children get published

Mum Annemieke Woodbridge created Young Author Academy to help children get their stories published, and so far they've published 40 of them

Annemieke Woodbridge with her son Chase and daughter Bella who are also authors. Chris Whiteoak / The National
Annemieke Woodbridge with her son Chase and daughter Bella who are also authors. Chris Whiteoak / The National

Young children through the decades have aspired to be firemen or helicopter pilots, astronauts or footballers. Too few in the era of iPads and the internet crave being an author. Or, so it may appear.

One Dubai mum set about changing that perception last year by turning youngsters aged seven through to their teens into published writers. “This month we’re publishing 20 children’s books – we’ll soon have produced around 40,” says Annemieke Woodbridge, a UAE resident from Australia previously employed in IT.

Serving a bigger purpose

She created the Young Author Academy with a view to encouraging kids to unleash their imagination on to the printed page – inspired by her daughter’s writing journey three years ago.

Having become a full-time mum with the birth of that first child, Bella, Woodbridge completed a master’s and, with the arrival of son Chase, now six and also an author with Firestruck, sought work she could do from home. “I always wanted to do something of my own and maximise my time while my husband had his career here,” she recalls.

“When the children went back to school I published my own book, Travelling The World With Kids. Bella also loved writing and had a knack. I didn’t have this yearning to push but to enhance her love for it. I was looking at where I could help her learn proper writing protocols. At the same time I was publishing my book, we published hers, using Amazon Publishing.”

The reaction to Bella’s Kawali High included parents asking her mum to produce books for their offspring – spelling a business opportunity. “Children around her were wanting to do the same thing, so I published a couple of compilations of their stories.

“There was nothing entrepreneurial at first, but that’s when the workshop idea was born. I was getting a lot of inquiries organically from parents wanting me to foster a project rather than simply accept a story and publish; most kids need guidance to make it a story that’s good to read.

“So I put a pin in my own book, to market later, and thought ‘this has much more impact and 10 times a bigger purpose.’”

'The kids start to dream'

The Academy opened in August in JLT and has since held five workshops, with kids of various abilities, nationalities and ages seeing their efforts published.

Along with other parents, Woodbridge has been blown away by the results, which have included tales of witches, trolls and simple friendship. “The kids start to dream, the moment they get the book,” says 42-year-old Woodbridge. “With parents, most of the time it’s, ‘I never knew you could do this’ and ‘I never knew my child had the ability to do that.’”

At the heart of the process, the Saturday morning workshops gather kids aged seven and up, encouraging them to free their imagination, coaching them into completing a book; essentially bottling unbridled creativity in a format once in danger of dying out.

“I’m not a teacher, but the biggest knack I have is giving kids permission to think outside the box,” says Woodbridge. “Some are reading a lot, some are not, but I have them feel comfortable to follow a very stringent but flexible process, getting them to think of an idea and taking it right to the end, creating that story.”

How the workshops work

Initial brainstorming and storyboarding shifts to writing protocols, such as sentence construction and character building, with games and ­exercises thrown in until ­stories are ready to fill a 24-page book. “I follow a very objective-based process to ensure all children are able to come up with that one idea and follow it. I like to focus on enhancing children’s writing skills, however, we have a lot of fun, too.”

Then there’s illustration and cover art to decide. ­Woodbridge has professionals available, but tries to ­incorporate the author’s artwork. “Most of the time the children like to design,” she explains.

“Sometimes parents want something ­professionally done, but I try to have them remember, this is their child’s first book – they’ll be a ­legitimately published author with their own ISBN ­number – try to keep true to your child. We’re not writing War & Peace.”

One of the books published wih the help of Woodbridge's Young Author Academy. Courtesy Young Author Academy
One of the books published wih the help of Woodbridge's Young Author Academy. Courtesy Young Author Academy

Once complete, Woodbridge edits and formats the book and “swaps the proofs back and forth to parents” before submitting to Amazon Publishing. Currently, she has to get the books shipped back to the UAE from the UK or USA – each child gets five copies with titles available online for family to order. A couple of kids have sold 20 or 30 books and with Amazon now in the UAE, distribution is likely to get easier here. The Academy currently works with stores such as Bookworm to sell titles on behalf of the kids.

While that can ultimately earn dirhams for both authors and the Academy, Woodbridge sees a big part of her role as nurturing and channelling fertile imaginations into something tangible and inspirational that can be shared and treasured as a landmark in a child’s development.

Encouraging creativity

She’s taking something taught, but time limited, in school, and pushing it to the next level. “Kids, especially seven to nine, are at that magical age where a lot of them say ‘my story is stupid’ … we get to form that into a visual thing and they carry that along to the end so they’ve made an interesting story out of it.”

Some kids don’t like to put pen to paper, so the Academy gives them a platform, either drawing or verbalising ideas. “They love to tell stories, have crazy imaginations, but just don’t want to write it down. I sit with my phone and record the story as they make it up, ask questions about characters, setting the scene, go home and ­transcribe, send it to their parents with a load of ­questions and then the ball starts to roll. It’s about getting that idea out.”

I sit with my phone and record the story as they make it up, ask questions about characters, setting the scene, go home and ­transcribe, send it to their parents with a load of ­questions and then the ball starts to roll. It’s about getting that idea out.

Annemieke Woodbridge

The Academy has thrived, largely organically; 80 per cent through word of mouth, as well as via mums’ Facebook groups and the kids themselves, plus schools championing its young authors. Writers also get featured on kids radio station Pearl FM once a week.

Workshops currently cater to youngsters aged seven to 13, but will be split to handle seven to nine and 10 and above age groups post summer. There are also plans to host more ‘Big Write’ events for 20 to 30 kids. “We meet in Internet City, write for four hours and at the end submit short stories, type them up to send to parents – to add to or change – and compile every one from that day for a compilation book. The aim is to do at least one a month,” says Woodbridge.

It’s another chance to capture a slice of childhood creativity that might not otherwise find a voice before it is drowned out by adult distractions.

Of course, many kids are already influenced by cultural fads of the day, be it Minecraft or Marvel. “You find a lot of kids follow the same theme as stories they’re reading, but I like to challenge them to make it their own,” adds Woodbridge, who delivers sensitive editing to avoid altering the fabric or essence of the tales.

“I don’t like to change the flavour of their story. I want to stay true to the child’s style, otherwise it’s pointless.”

Updated: June 16, 2019 07:57 PM

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