11 Secrets of Children’s Book Authors

iStock.com/Sasiistock
iStock.com/Sasiistock

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.”

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

10 Secrets of Ice Cream Truck Drivers

asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus
asiafoto/iStock via Getty Images Plus

Ever since Good Humor founder Harry Burt dispatched the first jingling ice cream trucks in Youngstown, Ohio, in 1920, kids and adults alike have had a primal reaction to the sight of a vehicle equipped with a cold, sugary payload. Today, ice cream trucks spend May through October hoping to entice customers into making an impulse beat-the-heat purchase. To get a better idea of what goes into making ice cream a portable business, Mental Floss spoke with several proprietors for their take on everything from ideal weather conditions to police encounters. Here’s the inside scoop.

1. IT CAN GET TOO HOT FOR BUSINESS.

The most common misconception about the ice cream truck business? That soaring temperatures mean soaring profits. According to Jim Malin, owner of Jim’s Ice Cream Truck in Fairfield, Connecticut, record highs can mean decreased profits. “When it’s really hot, like 90 or 100 degrees out, sales go way down,” Malin says. “People aren’t outside. They’re indoors with air conditioning.” And like a lot of trucks, Malin’s isn’t equipped with air conditioning. “I’m suffering and sales are suffering." The ideal temperature? "A 75-degree day is perfect.”

2. THEY DON’T JUST WANDER NEIGHBORHOODS ANYMORE.

An ice cream truck sits parked in a public spot
Chunky Dunks

The days of driving a few miles an hour down a residential street hoping for a hungry clientele have fallen by the wayside. Many vendors, including Malin, make up half or more of their business by arranging for scheduled stops at events like weddings, employee picnics, or school functions. “We do birthday parties, church festivals, sometimes block parties,” he says. Customers can pay in advance, meaning that all guests have to do is order from the menu.

3. SOME OF THEM DRIVE A MINIBUS INSTEAD OF A TRUCK.

For sheer ice cream horsepower, nothing beats a minibus. Laci Byerly, owner of Doodlebop’s Ice Cream Emporium in Jacksonville, Florida, uses an airport-style shuttle for her inventory. “Instead of one or two freezers, we can fit three,” she says. More importantly, the extra space means she doesn’t have to spend the day hunched over. “We can stand straight up.”

4. THEY HAVE A SECRET STASH OF ICE CREAM TO GIVE AWAY TO SPECIAL CUSTOMERS.

A picture of an ice cream truck menu.
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The goal of any truck is to sell enough ice cream to justify the time and expense of operation, so freebies don’t make much sense—unless the truck happens to have some damaged goods. Malin says that it’s common for some pre-packaged bars to be broken inside wrappers, rendering them unattractive for sale. He sets these bars aside for kids who know the score. “I put them in a little box for kids who come up and ask if I have damaged ice cream,” he says. “Certain kids know I have it, and I’m happy to give it to them.”

5. THEY’RE CREATING CUSTOM ICE CREAM MENUS.

An ice cream nacho platter is shown
Chunky Dunks

While pre-packaged Popsicles and ice cream sandwiches remain perennial sellers, a number of trucks are mixing up business by offering one-of-a-kind treats. At the Chunky Dunks truck in Madison, Mississippi, owner Will Lamkin serves up Ice Cream Nachos, a signature dish that outsells anything made by Nestle. “It’s cinnamon sugar chips with your choice of ice cream,” he says. “You get whipped cream, too. And for the ‘cheese,’ it’s a caramel-chocolate sauce.” The nachos work because they’re “streetable,” Lamkin’s label for something people can carry while walking. “The next seven or eight people in line see it, and then everyone’s ordering it.”

6. THEY DON’T ALWAYS PLAY THE ICONIC JINGLE.

Before most people see an ice cream truck, they hear that familiar tinny tune. While some operators still rely on it for its familiarity, Malin and others prefer more modern tracks. “Normally we play ‘80s rock,” he says. “Or whatever we feel like playing that day. We rock it out.”

7. POP CULTURE CHARACTERS ARE SOME OF THEIR BEST SELLERS.

A Captain America ice cream treat
Doodlebop's

While adult customers tend to favor ice cream treats they remember from their youth, kids who don’t really recognize nostalgia tend to like items emblazoned with the likenesses and trademarks of licensed characters currently occupying their TV screens and local theaters. “Characters are the most popular with kids,” Byerly says. “SpongeBob, Minions, and Captain America.”

8. THEY KEEP DOG FOOD HANDY.

At Doodlebop’s, Byerly has a strategy for luring customers with pets: She keeps dog treats on hand. “The dog will sometimes get to us before the owner does,” she says. “If the dog comes up to the truck, he’ll get a Milkbone.” That often leads to a human companion purchasing a treat for themselves.

9. SOMETIMES RIVALS WILL CALL THE COPS.

Though there have been stories of rogue ice cream vendors aggressively competing for neighborhood space over the years, Malin says that he’s never experienced any kind of out-and-out turf war. Ice cream truck drivers tend to be a little more passive-aggressive than that. “I have a business permit for Fairfield, so that’s typically where I’m driving,” he says. “But sometimes I might go out of town for an event. Once, a driver pulled up to me and asked if I had a permit. I said ‘No, I’m just here for an hour,’ and he said, ‘OK, I’m calling the cops.’ They try and get the police to get you out [of town].” Fortunately, police typically don’t write up drivers for the infraction.

10. SOME LUCKY CUSTOMERS HAVE AN APP FOR HOME DELIVERY.

An ice cream truck driver.
George Rose/Getty Images

Technology has influenced everything, and ice cream trucks are no exception. Malin uses an app that allows customers to request that he make a special delivery. "People can request I pull up right outside their home," he says. If their parents are home, there’s one additional perk: "I accept credit cards."

This article originally ran in 2018.