Wanted: Children’s Book Writers (Part One)

According to the US Census figures, almost 54 million citizens were between 5 to 17 years old in 2010. That number represents a huge audience for children’s books. Gobbling up Where the Wild Things Are and devouring Harry Potter’s adventures sharpened their appetites for more books, books of all genres.

“All publishers are seeing more manuscripts than they can ever imagine, and it has slowed down the whole process of really looking at books. If there really is talent there, it will be found, it will be recognized,” one editor told author Judy Mandell.

These tips will lead you closer to getting editors to recognize and reward your writing talents.

1. Consult the stars: Tiger Woods analyzed Jack Nicklaus’ swing, Denzel Washington scrutinized Sidney Poitier’s acting method and Oprah Winfrey gleaned wisdom from Maya Angelou. Each new generation of greats learns lessons bequeathed from stars illuminating the road to success.

Up-and-coming writers benefit from dissecting best-selling and prize-winning children’s authors’ literary works. As candidates for mentors, search lists of the most popular books for particular age groups. Study books that won the Newbery Medal and the Caldecott Medal, for example. Analyze your secret mentors’ techniques for pacing, suspense, creating scenes, developing characters, using humor and crafting other elements of first-rate literature.

2. Write about wizards, (or not): “We want to publish the kind of books that will come anywhere near the Harry Potter numbers,” Simon & Schuster’s editorial director said during the height of the series popularity. But merely having boys straddle broomsticks won’t work magic on a stale manuscript. Ann Brashare (The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants) and Cornelia Funk (The Thief Lord) wrote fresh, original stories focusing on young readers’ interests…without mentioning muggles.

To discover how children’s interests change as they mature, dip into psychology books or enroll in childhood development classes, eavesdrop on kids at the mall, notice which movies and TV shows different age groups and genders watch, and recall your tender years when wearing white socks entailed instant banishment to Nerd Land. When you meet kids with their noses in books, ask open-ended questions such as, “What do you like about that story?”

3. Plot to cross over: Credited with creating the mold for young adult or adolescent novels, J.D. Salinger demonstrated that readers as young as 12 can handle complex plots with several major characters when themes relate to readers’ present life concerns and challenges. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is said to continue to be a favorite of teens and adults. Other crossover books, the Dark Materials trilogy, Lemony Snicket books and just about anything by Stephen King and John Steinbeck, confirm that an intriguing story, not the protagonist’s age lures audiences.

Consider writing and marketing your manuscript to publishers of adult and teen lit. Take your cue from Harper Lee, Pulitzer Prize winner for To Kill a Mockingbird. The classic recounts pivotal events during Scout’s childhood that are told in retrospective when Scout is an adult. Mockingbird explores weighty issues—mental disabilities, racism, rape, incest. Serious topics are appropriate for adolescents if the issues are integral to protagonists’ coming of age, give readers ideas how to cope with problems in their lives, and provide insight into human nature.

After years of rejection letters, I finally took my own advice. I stopped pitching Ken’s War as an adult novel, and sent the query to publishers looking for young adult novels. Ken’s War is slated to be published in the spring of 2014.

4. Wake up your inner child: Barbara Park, best-selling author of Junie B. Jones books, received this letter from an elementary school student: “I know Junie B’s not real, but could she come to my school?” Park says she creates imaginary characters with realistic traits by “being fairly immature.” Others say Park has a natural knack for writing in a child’s authentic voice.

“Immature” authors who can tap into their inner-kids still do adult-like planning to flesh out believable characters. They jot down key characters’ ages, full names, family members, pets, biggest fears, burning desires, bad habits, quirks, secrets, speech patterns, favorite foods, views of the world, hobbies, clothing, bedroom layouts and so forth. Pre-work leads to realistic characters with character-driven behaviors. Writers who know their characters inside and out know how each character reacts. They don’t ask, “How would I react if faced with this conflict?” They ask themselves, “How will my character react?”

5. Consume kid stuff: What’s your favorite children’s story? Pippi Longstocking? The Cat in the Hat? Charlotte’s Web? National Velvet? Even though today’s youngsters enjoy yesterday’s classics, it’s vital for 21st century authors to appreciate that those stories stand the test of time, thanks to enduring themes and characters’ distinctive personalities.

After you’ve got a handle on what makes the old classics classic, scour modern books. Note differences and similarities between books published decades ago and books published weeks ago. Today’s stories emphasize the child’s point of view, don’t allow adults to swoop to the rescue or spout sage advice, and sometimes take detours around the “happily-ever-after” route. Pore over Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl, Louis Sachar’s Holes, and books by Nancy Springer, whose catchphrase at writing workshops is “Power to the kid!”

If anything was helpful, please share this article with writer friends who like getting published.

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