11 Secrets of Children’s Book Authors
Whether it was Maurice Sendak, Beverly Cleary, or R.L. Stine, your first contact with literature likely came from a children's book author. And even as some parts of the publishing industry flounder, children's literature remains strong, with sales rising nearly 3 percent in the first five months of 2018 alone. We asked some kids' book authors what it takes to work in the field today, from limiting their page count to striking a balance between writing for kids and for parents.
1. The plots vary by age.
Children’s literature is a wide umbrella. Kids start out with picture books—shorter, fully illustrated stories that are usually read to them aloud by an adult. These books may follow one simple idea rather than explore a more developed narrative arc. Around age 6, they move on to chapter books like Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen by Debbi Michiko Florence. “Chapter books are the point where the child sits down and reads a book by themselves for the first time,” Michiko Florence tells Mental Floss. “It’s a full story with a single, short plot line.” The last stage before YA (young adult) is middle-grade, which offers plots that are slightly more complex to readers ages 8 to 12.
2. Some start as artists.
Illustrations are a huge part of picture books, and it’s easier for children’s book authors to get their manuscript in the door when they have some original drawings to send along with it. For authors like Calef Brown, writer and illustrator of such books as We Go Together, the art came first and the writing followed. “I went to art school and studied illustration,” he tells Mental Floss. “Picture books had been in the back of my mind, so I decided to try it. My work is so colorful and playful, kind of quirky, so I started writing these short poems that matched that. I was mainly interested in finding something that I could write that would fit with the voice of my work.”
3. It's hard to make a living from it.
As is the case with writers working across the publishing field, there’s no one typical salary for children’s book authors. But in general, it’s difficult to make a living off this type of work alone. "Too many people think if you got a couple books out there you’re doing OK and you can make a living just from royalties, etc.,” Brown says. “I think for 97 percent of people that’s not the case. Most people who do well in terms of sales still visit schools, still do conferences, still do other things to help supplement that.” In addition to making kids books, Brown also does teaching and freelance illustrations.
According to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, first-time authors usually receive an $8000 to $12,000 advance for a 32-page children’s book they have to split with the illustrator (often the illustrator takes home an even larger advance than the author). If their book earns back the advance in sales, writers will start receiving anywhere from 3.5 to 6 percent in royalties.
4. It's unusual to write just one chapter book.
When her draft of Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen was accepted by a publisher, Michiko Florence had no plans to write a follow-up. But in the world of chapter books, it’s rare that a book stands alone. To make Mochi Queen feel more like the start of a series, Michiko Florence’s editor encouraged her to add things that would pay off in later books. “She had me insert things about the character that could be carried on throughout the entire series, because kids like to read and recognize, ‘Oh, this character always does this or she acts a certain way,’” she says. One of these additions—the fact that Jasmine’s favorite character is a flamingo—played a central role in the fourth book in the series: Jasmine Toguchi, Flamingo Keeper.
5. Kids 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 high school, and she kept her students in mind when writing her middle-grade novel Property of the Rebel Librarian. The book follows a young girl as she sets up a secret library to lend out the books her middle school has banned. Varnes tells Mental Floss, “[Some of my students] did not like authority and they were frequently in trouble. I wanted to write a main character that would appeal to them—who wasn't doing something terrible but who was rebelling 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 No-Good Nine, says he turns to his own child for help at the end of the writing process. “It is amazing to have a kid to be like, ‘Hey, can you read this?’ I can’t think of anything more valuable than constantly reading to kids and hearing what they have to say."
6. They're often in touch with their inner child.
In addition to interacting with actual kids as they write, some children’s books authors also reflect on their own childhoods, keeping that perspective in mind when crafting a voice. “I have to stay attuned to what I liked when I was a kid,” Brown says. “There’s some stuff that I think is funny, that adults think is funny, that kids won’t. So I try to put myself in that space and stay connected to it.” Very young children usually find things that are obviously out of place funny, like nonsensical language, while a darker or more subtle joke might go over their heads.
In Michiko Florence’s case, writing from a more youthful place comes naturally. “My inner age falls between 8 and 12. Some of my most vivid memories are from that age,” she says. “I feel like my natural voice skews younger.”
7. They want to please adults, too.
A picture book may say ages 3 to 8 on the cover, but children's book authors are aware that grownups are usually the ones who will be reading their text out loud. “You’re writing for two different people,” Marciano says. “The kid is looking at the pictures, and then you've got an adult interpreting whatever you write.”
As a father himself, Brown knows firsthand that what’s popular with kids isn’t always easy for parents to tolerate. He tries to make their lives a little easier by adding interesting wordplay that keeps readers of all ages entertained. “If you have a book your kids like and they want you to read it aloud to them, if the writing is bad it can be really painful. That’s the other audience I’m thinking about. Librarians, parents, and teachers—is there stuff there that’s valuable for them?”
8. It might take just a few hours to finish a draft …
Exactly how long it takes to complete a children’s book depends on the writer and the project. Michiko Florence was writing on and off for two years before she had a draft of Jasmine Toguchi, Mochi Queen she was ready to send to agents and publishers, but when she was writing the follow-ups under a contract, each book took about two to three months to finish drafting.
Picture books are a different story. According to Marciano, “When you have the idea and you know what to do, you can write a picture book manuscript in a couple of hours, so it’s like a song. You hear so many songwriters talk about their best song they wrote in eight minutes or something like that. So I think picture book writing is probably most similar to writing lyrics.” Of course, that’s only the case if the author is just writing the words. Doing the illustrations on top of that adds significantly more time to their workload.
9. ... But that doesn't make it easy.
One common assumption people outside the industry make about children's book writing is that it's easy compared to other types of writing. But sometimes the very things outsiders discount as easy—writing simple prose that kids can connect to—are the hardest parts to get right. “It’s a challenge to keep it very simple and readable,” Marciano says. “I was not a great reader when I was kid, so I’m very cognizant of trying to get readable, short sentences. Not too much unnecessary descriptions. I want it to be something 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,” Varnes says. “You have to grip kids from the beginning and carry them throughout the novel. I don't think there's anything wasted."
10. They aren't trying to teach you something.
Children’s books that end with a neatly packaged lesson have become a cliche of the genre—and it’s one that many writers today try to avoid. "Some people are good at writing books that teach you about loneliness or bullying, etc., and can embed that into the book without hitting you over the head with it, but I don’t try to make my books overtly educational,” Brown says.
If a book does end up teaching the reader something, that may be a welcome byproduct, but not the writer’s explicit intent. “I don’t think anybody likes to be lectured. I know as a child I didn’t like it,” Michiko Florence says. “When I write a story I write to entertain, not to teach. If they learn something that’s great, but that’s not my goal.”
11. They're children's book connoisseurs.
Most novelists will tell you they read widely within their genre, and the same goes for children’s book authors. Michiko Florence says, “I think that’s a typical thing that all writers tell people to read, but you’d be surprised at how many people want to write for kids and say they don’t have time to read. But if you don’t read you’re not going to know what’s out there and what kids expect. You have to know the market.”