A Mini Readership {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 28}

I found myself scratching my head at the end of the story. It had looked like a good one to my son when he picked it out at the school library. How could it not be with a title like Pancakes for Supper? The illustrations were rich and colorful. The main character was a spunky little girl intent on surviving alone in the forest after flying out of her family’s wagon. Except for a few overdone lines, the phrasing was fine. The core of the story centered around the little girl’s interaction with wild animals, how she convinced them not to eat her by offering her boots, mittens, coat and other pieces one by one.

But at the climax, the main character hid in a tree and watched the wolf, cougar, skunk, porcupine and bear in a mean chase around a nearby tree. For a reason that I still can’t figure out, the animals turned into a syrupy puddle at the base of the trunk, the first hint at pancakes since the title itself. And then the girl stumbled upon her parents and demanded pancakes for supper. I looked back through the book sure that I had missed some pages. When they were all accounted for, I thought to myself once again how much work it takes to write a good children’s book.

Many people think of the genre as a starting point for a writing career, but as children’s book author Michelle Medlock Adams says, “Good writing is tough no matter what genre we’re talking about; however, writing for children is one of the most difficult to master….You have to say a lot in so few words–make every word count!”

Children’s books, like any other stories, require a beginning (introducing the conflict and the problem solver…a child or animal in this genre), middle (exciting, engaging) and end (usually a happy one) that all make sense within the theme. When writing a story for children, authors must make every word count, carrying out the plot line in short form (and driven forward by the child problem solver, not by a parent or some unexplained happening) and in active language appropriate to the child’s age or reading level.

Pick up a few of your family’s favorite books. What keeps you and your child reading them time after time? One of our standbys, which I’ve mentioned before, is the book Duck in the Truck. Its simple storyline, funny cast of characters and clever use of rhyme (not forced) are so captivating that our son memorized pretty much the whole thing as a two year old. How does your children’s book idea and the writing of it stack up against the best books on your shelves at home and the ones at your local bookstore? And what about those that you wouldn’t recommend? Take some time to learn what NOT to do from them.

Are you forcing rhyme, making the assumption that children’s book are supposed to be written that way? Peggy Schaefer of Ideals Publications says: “While rhyming verse can be great fun for young readers, writing in rhyme and meter can be challenging– especially the meter. As an editor, I’d rather see well-written prose than poorly written rhyme and meter.”

Are you hammering your audience over the head with your message instead of focusing on good storytelling? Michelle Medlock Adams says: “Children (as well as children’s book editors) dislike preachy books. Good children’s books usually have a message woven through, but the story is what drives them.”

Are you cutting corners on storyline and character thinking kids pay more attention to the pictures anyway? Don’t forget about the parents who are doing the reading, at least for the board book and picture book age range. A bad batch of words could land you in the one and done category when the mediocre book doesn’t sell well.

Get to the point where you feel confident in your story idea and your telling of it. Share it with some unbiased readers, maybe even people you don’t know, and gauge their response. Take a look at the market for your type of book and tailor it to have the appropriate number of pages, word count and vocabulary level for your target age group. According to Peggy Schaefer of Ideals, board books for kids age 6 months to 4 years can have anywhere from 8 to 24 pages and under 200 words. Picture books for ages 4 to 7 will have 32 or 48 pages with a word count between 200 and 800 words. Early readers for ages 5 to 8 will have anywhere from 32 to 64 pages with 500 to 1500 words. Chapter books for ages 7 to 10 will have a page count of 80 and up and a word count starting at 5,000.

After all that, you’re pretty much ready to make a list of publishers to approach. You may want to start with the publishing houses that have already printed books in your category, as your story could be a likely fit for their list. You’d also do well to pick up some reference books such as Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market or Christian Writers’ Market Guide to get you started with appropriate agents and publishers for your work.

Along with a cover letter including a short overview of the book, some words about your background and experience, your research on how your book fills a void in the market and creative ideas for how you might spread the word on the book once it is published, you’ll want to submit the manuscript in its entirety for a board book or picture book proposal and a writing sample/excerpted chapters for an early reader or chapter book proposal. Any illustration ideas can be included on a separate page. Unless you are a professional artist experienced in the kind of illustration appropriate for your book, the publisher will be responsible for hiring an illustrator for the project.

While the children’s book market can be an extremely competitive one, you may just have the thing a publisher is looking for, maybe one of the favorites that my kids could end up putting to memory.

{What makes your favorites your favorites in the children’s book genre? Have you had any ideas that you could see developing into a children’s book of your own? While my husband’s agency generally does not represent children’s books, I would be happy to give you some feedback on your idea so that you can pursue publication on your own. Let me know in the comments if you’d like to chat.}

If you’re looking for some good books to check out, be sure and get your free copy of Anne Bogel’s Paper Gains: A Guide to Gifting Children Great Books here.

This is Day 28 of my series 31 Days ~ Preserve Your Story, linking up with The Nester’s annual 31 Days of Change.

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10 thoughts on “A Mini Readership {Preserve Your Story ~ Day 28}

    • I still can’t figure how it made it through all of those drafting and editing stages! They would have done better to turn it into two separate stories. The animal storyline was something like The Mitten, Jan Brett’s classic, which I looove (gifted to us by my best friend/librarian). Pancakes had potential but it turned out about like the ones I make some Saturday mornings, never round, never golden. :/

  1. Oh, this post has my heart beating a bit faster. I agree, it is not a simple pursuit to write well for this genre. A few years ago I was able to squeeze in a continuing education course on illustrating children’s books at an art school in New York and I was amazed by all that goes into the process. The professor used Where the Wild Things Are to demonstrate the intentionality and connection of the images and words. In the story, the borders of the illustrations grow as Max’s dream grows, the pictures eventually becoming a full bleed. Jan Brett is another master of the interplay between word and image. Along with a well written story, I suspect that often it is the subtle, very intentional details that push exceptional books into the favorite category. Loved this post and your thoughts. Thank you!

    • I totally agree. Art adds another dimension. We read “Time for Bed” and “I Love You, Stinky Face” today, and my son and I both commented on the photos (before reading your post!). There were details in the artwork of “I Love You, Stinky Face” that I’ve never noticed before. Subtle, but when you do notice them you realize what an impact it has.

    • So glad to see you here, Annie. I looove your writing and your beautiful watercolors. I’m so interested in all of these subtleties that go into telling the story in full. Especially when you’re going for such a low word count as in a picture book, it helps to think of the author and illustrator as a team of storytellers. I absolutely love what you shared here about Where the Wild Things are and will enjoy taking a second look at the artwork on our next read of it. And yes on Jan Brett as well. The last illustration in The Mitten where Baba is holding the stretched out white mitten always makes me laugh. The picture tells the story there. Thanks so much for giving your input especially as an artist. Have you ever painted/drawn (or thought of doing) a sequence for a story?

  2. GREAT post!
    I loved Paper Gains, too. It had some of our favorites. Here are a few more:
    I’ll Read to You, You’ll Read to Me
    Time for Bed
    Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?
    I Love You, Stinky Face
    Lentl
    I think your little ones would love these if you don’t have them already! Most of them we stumbled into. “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” became a favorite after the speech therapist introduced it to us. “Lentl” was an unexpected find. One we picked up at the library. Jake loved it so much, Aunt Niecey bought it for him for Christmas a few years ago! Don’t let the title “I’ll Read to You, You’ll Read to Me” fool you. Your kids will love it even before they can read! Once they can read, it elevates to another level of fun!

    • We have several from Eric Carle including Brown Bear, but will have to check out some of these others, especially I’ll Read to You, You’ll Read to Me as E is turning into a reader right before my eyes!

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  4. Pancakes for Supper? is why I get so frustrated when randomly picking books off the library shelf – promising titles can end up being so flat and disappointing. I know it’s not easy to write a top-notch children’s book, but that doesn’t make me any happier to find the ones that leave me wondering how on earth they got published. Because yes, sometimes there are some that have me thinking I could do as well.

    My favorite board/picture books are ones that are fun for the kids to read, and yet still fun for me to read to them. I just wrote a couple of posts with some of our favorites, so I’ll leave it at Mo Willems, Jane Yolen, Kevin Henkes, and Sandra Boynton,

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