I often get emails from people looking to break into children’s publishing. I don’t have all the answers, but I do have some general advice I find myself giving again and again. Below are three steps, in order of importance, that I think writers should focus on:
1) Write a Really Good Book
First time writers don’t sell books based on partial drafts or outlines. They sell finished manuscripts. And there are a lot of finished manuscripts in the world. That means the first step is completing a book and revising it until it is airtight. Don’t expect an agent or editor to look at a sloppy manuscript and see the potential–that same agent or manager has hundreds (not an exaggeration) of other manuscripts to consider, and they’ll take the one that demonstrates the greatest professionalism and craft. Taking an example from my first book, Peter Nimble, I did about 15 complete re-writes before showing it to an agent … and then did another 3 drafts before the book went to an editor. I have yet to talk to a professional author who didn’t go through the same level of revision before finding a publisher.
2) Join SCBWI
The “Society of Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators” (SCBWI) is a national organization with local chapters all over the country. This group is a fantastic place for both professional and aspiring writers and illustrators to gather and discuss craft and business of children’s publishing. The annual conferences are often attended by agents and editors who are looking for new books. I have a number of author friends whose careers were launched when they met an editor at an SCBWI event who requested to see their really good manuscripts (see above point).
3) Query Agents
If a lot of industries, the “it’s who you know” rule applies. Not so in publishing! Book agents read and consider manuscript submissions from unknown writers all the time–that’s their job. Nearly every writer I’ve ever met was pulled out of the “slush pile” from an agent who discovered them. Your job is to query agents who will best understand your work and be in a position to sell it. This means doing a bit of homework, by reading the Writer’s Market and finding agents who are looking for material like your book. The internet is awash with resources about how to approach agents. A good place to start might be Kidlit.com, a website run by children’s book agent Mary Kole. She answers questions about the dos and don’ts of querying better than anyone!
The above steps aren’t a guarantee of any success, but they are a good place to start! Also, I might as well link to this brief but eloquent video of Neil Gaiman talking about step one (which is really the only step that matters):
Too often Mary and I read library books or listen to audiobooks only to forget that we ever read them–without that spine on our bookshelves, it’s easy to forget. In 2013, Mary and I decided to start keeping a master list of every book we read … and we decided to make it GIGANTIC. We did this by painting over an old piece of thirftstore art with white primer:
We decided to leave a tree and girl on horseback just for fun:
Then we started writing down the titles of books that we read with a black Sharpie. I was House Scrivener because Mary has the handwriting of a serial killer:
Our rules were pretty simple. Only write each title once (per year). That means if we both read a book or if we re-read something, it wouldn’t clutter our list:
One year into the experiment, it’s become a nice ritual. You’d be surprised how the prospect of adding to the list motivates you to finish a book! Here’s the list hanging above our piano in the library:
I like the idea that in 30 years, we will have an entire room filled with pictures like this!
A few weeks ago, I did a Creative Mornings talk at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum on the topic of “Childhood.” This was my attempt to connect children’s literature to a broader audience–specifically talking about what it means to work in an industry where the audience (children) are separate from the buyer (grownups). Of special interest might be the anecdote I tell about Tom Angleberger at minute 15 … an event he has since claimed didn’t occur (it totally did). Also, of course, I finish things off with a yo-yo show!
Creative Mornings is a fantastic organization. Find out about the next event in your own city and check it out!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of sitting down with Paul Guggenheimer of Essential Pittsburgh to talk about Children’s Books. I’m a big fan of public radio, so this was a huge thrill. An excerpt from the transcript:
Dazzled by the bizarre and eccentric characters of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, children’s author Jonathan Auxier has always been fascinated by peculiar storytelling.
Auxier loves his job, but admits it can sometimes be difficult to write for children of different ages because their maturity and ability are so varied.
He says reading aloud is one of the best ways to connect with a child. Not only is the time great for bonding, but reading a more complicated story to a child can expose them to a reading and thought level above their norm. He tries to juxtapose fun plot lines and characters with interesting rhetorical styles in his own work.
“So in the instance of Peter Nimble, the book is actually fairly dense on a word level, it’s got very complicated language structure. I was working out of a tradition of 18th century neoclassical writers…but the story itself has a very childlike sensibility and I love mixing that.”
You can hear the whole interview (12 min) on the WESA website.
Many might disagree, but I would argue that this is perhaps one of the most important children’s books written in my lifetime. Here’s an excerpt in which I discuss how this book interacts with Peter Pan:
It has been observed that I am somewhat obsessive about JM Barrie’s Peter Pan. More than once, people have asked me what I think about Pan adaptations and sequels written by contemporary writers. My usual response is that I think those writers could better use their time creating their own characters to discuss similar themes. Spinelli has done just that. The fugitive shadow of Peter Pan skitters all throughout Hokey Pokey without ever once needing to be mentioned. To every person hoping to write an “updated” version of Oz, or Wonderland, or Grimm’s Fairy Tales, I would direct them to this book.
The best response to this post came from Tom Angleberger who objected that he didn’t actually think this was a book for kids (Betsy Bird wondered as much in her excellent review … which is what prompted me to pick up the book in the first place). It’s an interesting question, and one that I suspect I’ll be chewing on for a long time.
You can click here to read my full review … better yet, just read Spinelli’s book. Because it’s AWESOME.