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- author Jackie French

Saturday 28 December 2019

Guest Post: 5 Crucial Pieces of Advice from Children’s Lit Experts

Contrary to popular belief, writing and publishing a children’s book is anything but easy. Indeed, as any veteran children’s author can tell you, it takes a great deal of skill, nuance, and industry knowledge to bring a great kids’ book into the world.

If you’re an aspiring children’s author, your biggest obstacle right now is probably that last element. Children’s publishing is highly competitive, and you’ll need all the info you can get to gain an edge over your fellow kidlit visionaries!

That’s where this post comes in. After speaking to several of our experienced children’s editors, designers, and authors at Reedsy, I’ve pinpointed five essential industry tips that every children’s author should know. Let’s dive right in with tip #1.

1. Read extensively in your demographic
You’d be surprised how many authors seem to think that if you’ve read one kids’ book, you’ve read them all. Glance through just a few reviews on this blog and you’ll see how patently untrue that is: a book like Nop appeals to a completely different audience than a book like The Invincibles, in terms of both subject matter and age group.

So for your book to succeed, you first need to familiarize yourself with the favorite titles of your chosen demographic. Children’s editor Anna Bowles, formerly of Hachette Book Group, recommends visiting your local library or bookstore to figure out what they are.

'Look around and take note of how books are categorized, the popular subject matters in different age categories, and the style of illustrations and cover designs,' Bowles says. 'Also pay close attention to which books are chosen for particularly prominent display.'

If you want your book to become a bestseller, these are the titles you should read. They reflect the preferences of both the kids who read them and the adults who buy them, and they demonstrate the appropriate  level of vocabulary and text-to-picture ratio for that age group — all crucial factors in any children’s book’s success.

2. Find a fresh take on your subject
While you do want to emulate the language and tone of successful books in your demographic, what you don’t want is a story that’s already been 'done' many times over. Again, the children’s book market is hyper-saturated and competitive; your book must offer something truly different in order to succeed.

Children’s book designer Kim Fleming emphasizes that this is especially important when publishing a picture book. 'How do you approach a universal theme in a unique way or explore an important lesson that hasn’t been done before?' she asks. 'Or, otherwise put: why should your picture even book be published in the first place?'

Of course, there’s a fine line between an original take and an irrelevant take: some stories remain untold not because no one’s thought of them, but because kids simply aren’t interested. For this reason, Bowles advises 'a familiar topic + fresh angle approach,' balancing the comfort of convention with the intrigue of something new.

Need an example of this formula in action? Look no further than Dragons Love Tacos, the picture book sensation of 2012. Though children’s books about dragons are everywhere, this story puts a delightful new spin on the subject by having the dragons enjoy some Mexican food… and experience some unfortunate-yet-hilarious side effects after accidentally ingesting spicy salsa.

3. Convey a profound message
Another common misconception about children’s books is that they’re inherently shallow. Sure, many kids’ books seem silly on the surface — but only because silliness grabs kids’ attention. Look closer and you’ll find that the most popular, enduring children’s books tackle a variety of profound themes, from anger and isolation in Where the Wild Things Are to greed and the environment in The Lorax.

Bowles stresses that children are more 'emotionally sophisticated' than adults think, and that children’s books should lean into this. 'Your story might be about talking animals and presented in simple terms, but it cannot be simple-minded,' she says. 'Many of the best picture books deal with serious topics such as grief, loneliness, managing anger or learning independence.'

Also keep in mind that 'in simple terms' does not mean 'without subtlety.' Heavy-handed moral lessons are bound to dissuade readers, especially kids. This is why children’s author and writing coach Yvonne Jones suggests focusing on the parents as you devise your book’s message.

'Have an underlying moral in your story, to appeal to parents during the marketing phase,' Jones says, 'but weave it into the story in such a way that it doesn’t appear didactic or preachy to the child. The Llama Llama stories by Anna Dewdney are a wonderful example.'

4. Don’t hire your own illustrator
This one might sound strange, but bear with me: if you want to sell your children’s book to a traditional publisher, you should hold off on getting it illustrated. Yes, even if it’s a picture book! Your publisher will inevitably bring on one of their in-house illustrators for the project, and that illustrator won’t want any input from you — they’re the expert, after all.

Kim Fleming, an illustrator herself, explains this more diplomatically: 'The collaborative nature of picture books means you should aim to get the most out of an illustrator, and not simple dictate what you want. Letting the illustrator bring their ideas and unique flavor to the narrative will grow your story beyond what you had ever imagined. The more freedom they have, the more likely it is they will excel.'

Fleming also notes that picture book authors don’t need to include pagination, as the illustrator will take care of this as well — and again, it’s actually better for your book. 'The illustrator or editor will break up the pages into groupings they feel work best for the story,' she says.

But even if you can’t keep your illustration opinions to yourself, please do refrain from hiring an illustrator unless you plan to self-publish. Otherwise, you’re doomed to waste a great deal of time, money, and effort.

5. But definitely get an agent
Getting an agent for your children’s book, on the other hand, is anything but a waste of effort. In fact, it’s pretty much the only viable route for kid lit authors hoping to publish traditionally. But with the market so saturated, how can you find an agent willing to take you on?

Naturally, the ever-reliable Anna Bowles has some advice. 'Know where your book fits into each agent’s list,' she says. 'In your submission, talk about what different publishers are currently offering, and where your book might fit among the trends and sub-genres — in conjunction with the unique angle it presents.'

Bowles also points out that, cynical as it might sound, it’s good to know whether your book is a 'prize winner' or a 'unit shifter': is it utterly revolutionary and unique, or a fun, marketable contribution to the canon? 'The goal is to produce a book that’s both, but if yours is more strongly one or the other, show awareness of this in your submission,' Bowles says.

This final tip shows how industry knowledge can get you just as far as a 'prize-winning' idea — if not much farther. So once you’ve written your children’s book, remember to be practical, stay on top of your demographic, submit to agents, and believe in yourself! With these expert tips in your arsenal, you can accomplish just about anything.

Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a marketplace that connects self-publishing authors with the world’s best editors, designers, and marketers. She's very passionate about helping authors reach their dreams, and enjoys reading and writing short stories in her spare time. She hasn't attempted to write a children's book yet, but maybe someday...