October 6, 2022

11 secrets of children’s book authors

Whether it was Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary or RL Stine, your first contact with literature probably came from an author of children’s books. And although parts of the publishing industry collapse, children’s literature remains strong, with sales increasing almost 3 percent in the first five months of 2018 only. We asked some writers of children’s books what it takes to work in the field today, from limiting the number of pages to finding a balance between writing for kids and for parents.

1. Plots vary according to age.

Children’s literature is a large umbrella. Children start with picture books, shorter, fully illustrated stories that are usually read aloud to them by an adult. These books can follow a simple idea rather than exploring a more developed story arc. Around the age of 6, they switch to books with chapters like Jasmin Toguchi, Queen of Mochi by Debbi Michiko Florence. “The chapters are the moment when the child sits down and reads a book on their own for the first time,” Michiko Florence explains to Mental Floss. “It’s a complete story with one short plot.” The last step before YA (Young Adult) is the Intermediate Level, which offers slightly more complex storylines for readers aged 8 to 12.

2. Some start out as artists.

Illustrations are an important part of picture books, and it’s easier for authors of children’s books to kick their manuscripts out when they have original designs to send with them. For authors like Calef Brown, writer and illustrator of books such as We go together, art came first and writing followed. “I went to art school and studied illustration,” he tells Mental Floss. “Picture books were in my head so I decided to give it a try. My work is so colorful and playful, a little quirky, so I started writing these short poems that matched that. I was mainly interested in finding something I could write that would match the voice of my work.

3. It is difficult to make a living from it.

As with writers working in publishing, there is no typical salary for authors of children’s books. But in general, it is difficult to make a living alone from this type of work. “Too many people think that if you have a few books on the market, you do well and you can make a living just from royalties and so on. who are doing well in terms of sales are still visiting schools, still giving lectures, still doing other things to help supplement that. In addition to creating children’s books, Brown also does freelance and educational illustrations.

According to Society of children’s book authors and illustrators, novice authors typically receive an advance of $ 8,000 to $ 12,000 for a 32-page children’s book that they must share with the illustrator (often the illustrator wins an advance again more important than the author). If their book recovers the advance on sales, writers will start receiving between 3.5% and 6% royalty.

4. It is unusual to write only one chapter of a book.

When his draft of Jasmin Toguchi, Queen of Mochi was accepted by an editor, Michiko Florence had no intention of writing a sequel. But in the world of chapter books, it’s rare for a book to stand alone. To do Queen of mochis feeling more like the start of a series, Michiko editor Florence encouraged her to add things that would pay off in later books. “She asked me to put in things about the character that could be picked up throughout the show, because kids like to read and recognize, ‘Oh, this character always does this or he acts a certain way.’ One of those additions, the fact that Jasmine’s favorite character is a flamingo, played a central role in the fourth book of the series: Jasmine Toguchi, keeper of flamingos.

5. Children are a source of inspiration (and feedback).

If you want to write children’s books, it helps to know some kids in the real world. Allison Varnes taught in high school, and she kept her students in mind when writing her mid-level novel Property of the Rebel Librarian. The book follows a young girl as she sets up a secret library to loan books that her college has banned. Varnes told Mental Floss: “[Some of my students] disliked authority and often struggled. I wanted to write a main character they would like – who didn’t do something terrible but who rebelled against something because she felt it was the right thing to do.

John Bemelmans Marciano, grandson of Madeline author Ludwig Bemelmans and author of books such as Madeline at the White House and The nine not good, says he looks to his own child for help at the end of the writing process. “It’s amazing to have a kid who thinks, ‘Hey, can you read this? “I can’t think of anything more precious than constantly reading to children and hearing what they have to say.”

6. They are often in contact with their inner child.

In addition to interacting with real children while they write, some children’s book authors also reflect on their own childhood, keeping this perspective in mind when creating a voice. “I have to stay tuned to what I loved as a kid,” says Brown. “There are things that I find funny, that adults find funny, that children won’t do. So I try to put myself in this space and stay connected to it. Very young children generally find things that are obviously out of place, like absurd language, funny, while a darker or more subtle joke may fly over their heads.

In Michiko Florence’s case, writing from a younger place comes naturally. “My inner age is between 8 and 12 years old. Some of my most vivid memories are from that age, ”she says. “I feel like my natural voice is younger.”

7. They also want to appeal to adults.

A picture book may show the age of 3 to 8 on the cover, but authors of children’s books know that adults will usually read their text aloud. “You’re writing for two different people,” says Marciano. “The kid looks at the pictures, then you have an adult who interprets everything you write. “

As a father himself, Brown knows firsthand that what is popular with children isn’t always easy for parents to tolerate. He tries to make their lives easier by adding interesting word games that keep readers of all ages entertained. “If you have a book that your kids love and want you to read it out loud to them, if the handwriting is bad, it can be very painful. It’s the other audience I’m thinking of. Librarians, parents and teachers, are there things that are of value to them? “

8. It may take a few hours to complete a draft …

The time it takes to complete a children’s book depends on the writer and the project. Michiko Florence wrote intermittently for two years before having a draft of Jasmin Toguchi, Queen of Mochi she was ready to send to agents and publishers, but when she wrote follow-ups under contract, each book took about two to three months to complete writing.

Picture books are another story. According to Marciano, “When you get the idea and you know what to do, you can write a picture book manuscript in a matter of hours, so it’s like a song. You hear so many songwriters talking about their best song that they wrote in eight minutes or something. So I think writing a picture book is probably more like writing lyrics. Of course, this is only the case if the author writes only the words. Doing the illustrations on top of that adds a lot more time to their workload.

9. … But that doesn’t make it any easier.

A common assumption that people outside the industry make about writing children’s books is that it is easy compared to other types of writing. But sometimes the very things that strangers find easy – writing simple prose that kids can relate to – are the hardest parts to pull off. “It’s a challenge to keep it very simple and readable,” says Marciano. “I wasn’t a big reader when I was a kid, so I’m very conscious of trying to keep sentences short and readable. Not too many unnecessary descriptions. I want it to be something the kids want to read.

Keeping the word count under control can also be a struggle. “Because it’s shorter, you have less time to do everything,” explains Varnes. “You have to grab the kids from the start and carry them throughout the novel. I don’t think there’s anything lost.”

10. They are not trying to teach you anything.

Children’s books that end with a neatly wrapped lesson have become such a cliché – and it’s a cliché many writers today try to avoid. “Some people are good at writing books that teach you about loneliness or bullying and so on. said.

If a book ends up teaching the reader something, it may be a welcome by-product, but not the express intention of the writer. “I don’t think anyone likes to be lectured. I know when I was a kid I didn’t like it, ”says Michiko Florence. “When I write a story, I am writing to entertain, not to teach. If they learn something, that’s fine, but that’s not my goal.

11. They are connoisseurs of children’s books.

Most novelists will tell you that they read a lot in their genre, and so do authors of children’s books. Michiko Florence says: “I think it’s a typical thing that all writers tell people to read, but you’d be surprised how many people want to write for children and say they don’t have time to write. read. But if you don’t read, you won’t know what’s out there and what kids expect. You have to know the market.