Empowering Writers

So You Want to Write a Children’s Book

by Barbara Mariconda

You’ve been a teacher for a long time, spent countless hours reading a variety of beloved children’s books to your students. Or, perhaps you’re a parent or grandparent who has enjoyed cuddling up with your loved ones, settling into a favorite story that has been read over, and over, and over again. Being a creative person, you may have found yourself thinking, “I could write a book like that.” Maybe you’ve even tried your hand at it – and the children in your life give you rave reviews. So, you wonder, why can’t I have this story published? The road to publication is not easy – but it’s also not impossible. Knowing some of the basics will at least give you an equal shot in a highly competitive field.

Before You Begin – Know Your Books

What kind of knowledge do you need as a prerequisite for setting about writing and publishing a children’s book? The best authors are the best readers. You should be a regular around your local children’s bookstore. What’s new? Which books are the award winners, the classics, the most popular with kids? Which authors have long, prestigious careers and who is new on the scene? What’s hot and what’s not is what you need to know.

You also need to recognize the wide range of genres in children’s books today. Your future manuscript must be a good fit in one of the following categories:

Baby Books – these are the first books children encounter and include books with interesting pictures or photos and no text, or simple repetitious texts written as lullabies or comforting rhymes to be read over and over.

Toddler Books – usually indestructible board books with simple concept ideas – big, small – bright colors and simple text – sometimes just labeling or very simple stories about everyday life.

Picture Books – these 32 page, 16 spread books are designed for the 2 – 8 year old set. These heavily illustrated books use the art to convey further meaning and to tie in powerfully with the rather sparse text. In fact, much of the elaboration and even suspense found in picture books is portrayed through the illustrations. These books are designed to be read aloud, unlike the less common, more wordy, story books which are intended to be read independently.

Beginning Readers (also known as early chapter books) are geared toward children just beginning to be able to read independently – around 6 – 8 years of age. The vocabulary is simple with many basic sight words. Sentences are short and there is plenty of white space on the page, so as not to tire the young reader. Words may be repeated and the text is often larger than that in a picture book. These books are illustrated, but not nearly as heavily as the picture book. They are often divided into several short chapters. The books themselves are smaller and more compact than picture books. These books usually run from 48 to 100 pages in length. The simplest are books such as Arnold Lobel’s “Frog and Toad” collections, and as children mature they move on to more complex chapter books such as Patricia Reilly Giff’s “Polk Street School” collection or Barbara Park’s popular “Junie B. Jones” series.

The Middle Grade Novel – written for children in the middle grades 3 – 6, aged about 8 to 11 or 12. Multiple chapters, usually over 100 pages in length, these might be highly literary, mystery, historical fiction, adventure, humor, problem novels, or even horror. E.B. White, Roald Dahl, Katherine Paterson, Avi have written classic books in this genre.

The Young Adult Novel or YA – written for young people aged 12 and up into the teens. These novels deal with more mature subject matter, more complicated relationships, values and emotions. Robert Cormier is famous for establishing the genre. Other well known names include Laurie Halse Anderson and Walter Dean Myers.

Improving Your Craft

After you have a strong grasp of the particular type of book you plan on writing, it’s time to begin. Be sure to be thoroughly familiar with the best books of your genre so that you have a bar against which to measure your work.

Write every day. Revise, revise, revise. Do not work in a vacuum. Successful authors work with and talk with other authors. This is how we learn. Locate a writing class where you can meet others and learn and practice your craft. Your local university, continuing ed program, local children’s bookstore, children’s librarians, are all good places to inquire about writing classes. Get as much objective criticism as you can. Join the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (www.scbwi.org). Their newsletter is invaluable and they offer conferences across the country. Do not simply write one book, but become a writer. Avoid the idea that this ONE book will be your ticket to getting published. Publishers are looking for authors with a body of work. A body of work, even if it is never published, provides opportunities to hone your skills. Look at the entire line of Writer’s Digest Books (www.writersdigest.com). They offer helpful, informative resources on the craft of writing in all genres and for all purposes.

When you’ve learned all you can, received and worked through as much informed, objective criticism as possible, and finally prepared your manuscript you’re ready to submit it for publication. There are a number of common pitfalls new authors fall into. Check your manuscript for the following:

Common Pitfalls

Unnecessary or contrived rhyme – People are always tempted to write their picture book manuscripts in verse, thinking it is “cute” or “catchy”. Poetry and rhyme must be used for some powerful stylistic reason (Chicka-Chicka-Boom Boom by

Bill Martin, Jr. and John Archambault is a great example of rhyme that works) and must be metrically balanced in a way that doesn’t construe the language in order to rhyme. In other words, in straight text the line might right, I told Daniel to leave the room. A convoluted rhyme might read, The room I told Daniel to leave. – this, in order to place the most “rhymable” word at the end of the phrase. In fact, it is much more difficult to sell a rhyming manuscript than it is a straight text. Avoid it if possible.

Using an animal character (anthropomorphism) when a human would do. While the alliteration of Lenny the Lion might be tempting, unless Lenny is lion-like in character and living in a jungle, resist the temptation. It is one of the biggest red flags that shouts: “Amateur!”

A strong “moral” or “lesson” – primarily children’s books need to be entertaining. Editors will frown on overly didactic message books designed to build character.

That is not to say that a child shouldn’t be moved by an engaging, entertaining story, and that she/he wouldn’t evolve as moral human being or have her/his consciousness raised as a result. But that should be a secondary benefit. First, it must work as compelling, engaging entertainment.

Submitting a picture book manuscript with your own sketches or the sketches of an artsy friend – of course you have a vision for how you see your story – but resist the temptation to have anyone other than an experienced children’s book artist put brush to page. The fact is, if you attempt to submit your manuscript with artwork, you are competing on two planes instead of one. Allow the publisher to use their expertise to best match your text with the skills of an experienced artist.

Sloppy or unprofessional presentation – Know how to structure and present your manuscript. No typos, no misspellings, title underlined, your contact information clearly on the title pages, the entire manuscript double-spaced and page numbered. Do not make any assumptions about individual publishers’ submission requirements. Go to the publisher’s web site. Some accept unsolicited manuscripts, some do not. Some require a query letter

and others only accept agented work. Get a copy of The Children’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books) – it comes out every year and is loaded with general submission tips, sample query and cover letters, and the specific requirements of book and magazine publishers. Never, ever submit

a manuscript without referring to the Children’s Writers and Illustrators Market.

A manuscript that is submitted which does not meet the publisher’s requirements does not get read. Some publishers prefer electronic submissions or sample chapters. Give them what they want.

Telling the editor that your students, children, grandchildren LOVE the story – The publisher doesn’t care. It is common for children who love you to love anything you write. This is not an indication that your story will be publishable and is the sign of a very green, inexperienced writer.

Submitting a manuscript to a publisher that does not publish your genre – This shouts: “I haven’t done my homework.” Another pitfall – the publisher just came out with a book on your theme or topic and you submit yours. Know your potential publisher, what they do, and what’s on their current list.

Publishing Options

In addition to submitting your work to a variety of publishers, many successful authors publish in children’s magazines. The nice thing about magazine publishing is that you can often get the rights back and resubmit your piece to a book publisher.

Prospective authors may also look into “self-publishing” or “vanity presses”. What this means is that you pay for the costs of publishing your book. If you can afford it (a full-color picture book is an expensive proposition.) and you simply want to share the book with family, friends, and your local community, this is an option. The bigger challenge with self-publishing is distribution. Without the marketing department of a publishing house it is hard to sell a significant number of books.

What about an Agent?

Getting an agent is often as competitive as getting a publisher! The fact is, an agent can’t sell anything that you couldn’t sell yourself, meaning that an undesirable manuscript is undesirable regardless of who is hawking it. True, some publishers do not accept unagented work, but, many agents do not accept clients without a contract in hand.

Typically, an agent is most helpful in negotiating a contract for you. Still, for the first-time author, there is not much to negotiate – a standard advance and a 10 – 15% royalty is the norm. An agent will earn 15% of all future earnings on any book he/she represents.

If you feel you need an agent to represent you, you can refer to the Yearly Guide to Literary Agents by the editors of the Writer’s Market. Avoid any agent who charges you to read your work. The best way to get an agent’s attention is through a recommendation of another author or client. You can see why networking in the children’s book world is critical!

Still, remember – you do not need an agent to get yourself published!

The “Write” Stuff

The world of children’s book publishing is highly competitive. If you want to be successful you must have educate yourself to be an expert. You must study and practice your craft. Perseverance and a thick skin are really important – you’ll wait months on end to get a response on a submission. Without a doubt you will receive rejection letters or emails. And most authors who do get published do not become rich and famous.

So, why do it? What motivates most writers is the love of the process itself. You love books, you love losing yourself in words, you have stories to tell. And the only guarantee is that if you don’t try you’ll never be published!

Helpful Websites:

Barbara Mariconda is the author of over 20 children’s books and numerous professional books for teachers. Her middle grade novel, “Turn the Cup Around” published by Delacorte Press was nominated for an Edgar Allan Poe Award by the Mystery Writers of America for best children’s mystery.