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What writers write when they 1) aren't writing, 2) are avoiding writing or 3) need a word count to convince their spouses they are writing.

Origami n' Stuff 4 Kids

Monday, April 20, 2009

so you want to write a children's book

It's been said that writing for children is more difficult than writing for adults. I suspect this is passed along by children's authors compensating for the condescension they sometimes face, real or imagined, as the featherweights of literature. Tell someone you write for children and you're likely to hear, "Have you thought about writing a novel?" After all, how difficult can it be to write a children's book? We all have childhood experiences from which to draw, and this is where the misconception of children's writing as child's play arises.

I envy those for whom writing comes easily. I agonize over everything I write and everything I submit. However, as Arnold Lobel once said, "I cannot think of any work that could be more agreeable and fun than making books for children." That having been said, here are a few thoughts for those hoping to write their first children's book.

Your story's length, language, complexity and conflict resolution should be age appropriate, without underestimating the reader's intelligence. Board books, picture books, easy readers, fiction for young adults- children's book formats seem endless and vary widely, depending on the developmental stage of the reader. Likewise, your manuscript's length will depend on the genre. As a general guideline, picture books usually have 32 pages, young middle-grade fiction, 40 to 60 pages, middle-grade fiction, 60 to 100 pages, and young adult novels, 175 to 200 pages. There are, of course, exceptions to everything, as J.K. Rowling has so famously shown us.

Knowing your audience is complicated in today's children's book market- kids don't buy books, adults do. There's an entire genre out there, exemplified in Jon Scieszka's and Lane Smith's twisted fairy tales, that appeals to both adults and children. Still, you mustn't loose sight of who you're writing for. You can't write 90 pages about a kitten's separation anxiety and expect to find an audience.

However, I must confess that unless I am designing a board book, I rarely begin writing with genre and childhood development in mind. If I had to think of my audience from the first sentence, I'd never get started at all! No, writing is a selfish endeavor. It's only after I've written my fourth or fifth draft that I become conscious of the reader. Editing can be just as excruciating as writing (and sometimes more so).

You've edited your story, tested it on a captive audience of kindergartners, gotten constructive criticism from friends, family and if you're lucky, a librarian, and you think you're ready for publication. Where do you go? There's no surefire method to getting published, much less getting out of the slush pile. However, do some research before rushing off to mail your original hand-written, fully illustrated masterpiece, complete with a marketing plan for plush toys and PBS programming. Publishers don't want your big marketing ideas; they want a great story. Make sure, too, before you send anything off, to go online and research manuscript submission guidelines for individual publishing houses.

Go to the library and bookstore and find a publisher that has produced books similar to yours, then obtain their submission guidelines and names of editors. Good resources are "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books" by Harold Underdown and Lynne Rominger, and the "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market." Join the Society for Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Internet resources include The Purple Crayon ( and the SCBWI Home Page (

Remember, you don't need to find an illustrator. Having an illustrator may actually discourage the publisher from considering an otherwise perfectly good manuscript. Editors and art directors are fully capable of visualizing your manuscript without illustrations; it's their livelihood. In addition, publishers have many artists with whom they regularly work, and will select one whose style best fits your writing and their budget. Your manuscript should be strong enough to stand alone.

Above all, persevere and remember to have fun. In the words of Garth Nix, "Never believe the first twenty publishers who reject your work. For the twenty-first, submit something new."

Good luck!

©2009 Tammy Yee

1 comment:

  1. I think it's harder to write for children because you have so many fewer words to make a story work. And, kids are very discerning readers.

    I enjoyed your post. You have some beautiful books, too.


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