Writing for Children by Rebecca Talley

Many people make the mistake of thinking that writing for children is easier than writing for adults. That’s simply not true.

Children are much smarter than many adults think. They can spot a condescending tone, a sermon disguised as a story, or false notions wrapped in truth. Kids are savvy consumers and definitely know what they like and don’t like to read.

Writing for children demands the same kind of commitment to detail, dedication to research, and smooth writing techniques that adults expect. In fact, writing for children can be even more demanding because of the tight word counts and adherence to vocabulary/comprehension levels.

If you are interested in writing for kids, you might want to consider the following advice:

Spend time with children. You can do this by volunteering at a school, a Boys’ and/or Girls’ club, library, or after-school program.

Get to know the kids. Ask them questions and listen to their answers. Observe the kinds of books they read, the games they play, and the way they speak. Try to discover what issues concern them.

Read. In order to understand the children’s market, you need to be familiar with the books that kids read. Read from a variety of genres to see what is expected in each genre. Learn the vocabulary that populates children’s books and magazines. Determine what issues are acceptable for which age groups. Get a feel for the word count in each category of children’s books.

Share your writing with kids. Ask schools and/or libraries if you can read your story to their kids. You’ll be able to tell what works and what doesn’t when you read your work to your target audience. After you read, ask questions to determine how the kids understood your story. Apply what you learn to your work.

Observe kids. Take a notebook and go to a park. Listen to the kids play. Watch how they react to each other and their mannerisms. Pay attention when you’re at a restaurant, movie theater, or the mall.

Make a librarian your BFF. A librarian can tell you what books are popular, what the kids like to read about, and how they react to specific storylines. Take some time to pick a librarian’s brain and you’ll find she has golden nuggets of information.

Writing for children is as difficult as writing for adults, but it’s also very rewarding. Using your words to create a story that touches the life of a child is one of the greatest rewards of writing.

Rebecca Talley grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She now lives in rural CO on a small ranch with a dog, a spoiled horse, too many cats, and a herd of goats. She and her husband, Del, are the proud parents of ten multi-talented and wildly-creative children. Rebecca is the author of a children’s picture book “Grasshopper Pie” (WindRiver 2003), three novels, “Heaven Scent” (CFI 2008), “Altared Plans” (CFI 2009), and “The Upside of Down” (CFI 2011), and numerous magazine stories and articles. You can visit her blog at www.rebeccatalleywrites.blogspot.com.

Children’s Picture Books

Thanks for taking the time to write your blog.  I’m just getting my feet wet in the publishing world, and you have given me a place to start.  I have written a children’s picture book.  I’ve been rejected by three publishers so far, and searched dozens of other LDS publishers who are not accepting submissions in this genre.  Would you please direct me?  I don’t know what to do next.

The difficulty with picture books is they cost more to produce and yet the expected sales are lower than books for adults.

Extra costs for a picture book include the cost of illustrations, which can run in the thousands of dollars if they hire a really good illustrator, plus the cost of full color printing, which can be double or more than a book with no color on the pages.

In order for a publisher to justify the risk, you’re going to have to have a pretty awesome story line or be an established author with a large following to guarantee sales.

What you need to look for is a publisher who specializes in picture books. I don’t know if your content is specifically LDS, but if it isn’t, or if it can be changed to reflect general Christian ideas, you might want to try a Christian publisher. (Google “Christian Picture Book Publisher).

I’m not sure what to advise your for specific LDS content… Readers? Ideas?


The Plight of the Picture Book

Thanks for taking the time to write your blog. I’m just getting my feet wet in the publishing world, and you have given me a place to start. I have written a children’s picture book. I’ve been rejected by three publishers so far, and searched dozens of other LDS publishers who are not accepting submissions in this genre. Would you please direct me? I don’t know what to do next.

Picture books are tough for small niche publishers, unless they specialize in picture books. Full color layouts and quality illustrations are very expensive.

Picture books, in general, don’t sell well unless you win an award. (Think about how many you buy vs how many you check out at the library.) If your picture book targets an LDS market, sales will be even smaller, making it unlikely that the publisher will make a return on the investment.

Of course, there are exceptions to this—but it requires killer illustrations (which the publisher usually provides), an exceptional story line, and most of the time, it must appeal to both children and adults.

Where do you go now?

I’d suggest you join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators) or at the very least, scour their site for information. Attending one of their conferences may also help. Networking with others who write picture books will steer you in the right direction.

Don’t forget to vote for your favorite Christmas stories!

Voting ends at midnight, September 30th

LDS Board Books

How well have children’s board books performed in the LDS market? Is this an area for which publishers would like to see more submissions?

I don’t have any figures on this but yes, I think there is a market for it and I think the larger publishers will consider board books.

If they’re not selling well and/or LDS publishers aren’t looking at them, in my opinion it’s because:

  • Board books are expensive to make due to their construction, the board, full color images and the gloss on the pages to protect them.
  • Limited audience = small print run = less mark-up = higher risk.
  • Some of the board books I’ve seen look like they’ve cut corners with the illustrations. They just aren’t attractive. Ugly pictures = low sales.

That said, as a consumer, I would LOVE to see more LDS specific board books (with CUTE pictures) that I could use during Sacrament meeting to keep the kidlings quiet.

Go to your local LDS bookstore or look at their websites and see who’s doing board books right now. Then send them a query.

Dumb Books for Children

Why do some [books] become “classics” while others which are just as good or maybe better never even heard of, or in some cases never even published?

Classics become so because:

  • they impress an editor/publisher as something that will appeal to a lot of people
  • they actually get published
  • they are marketed or promoted in a way that catches the attention of key people—like book sellers, reviewers, librarians, teachers, Oprah—who then recommend the book to others
  • people start reading the book and then tell all their friends and neighbors about it
  • the book speaks to universal themes in a way that touches a wide variety of people,
  • as word spreads about the book and people read it, the majority of those readers respond positively

A book must meet all of these criteria or it won’t become a classic.

I have a sister-in-law who has written several children’s books and has yet to get any published, and they’re good. I’ve read some of them, and they’re a lot better than a lot of the junk I’ve seen in libraries and bookstores. It makes no sense, really. How do such dumb books manage to get published and other really good ones don’t?

I’ve asked myself that question many times. The answer is: the publisher thinks they can sell it. Period. Either the author has name recognition, or there’s a marketing hook, or it fills a niche the publisher is looking for. It also comes down to timing.

Let’s say a publisher is looking for a St. Patrick’s day picture book. They look through the submissions on that topic and pick the one they think will sell the most copies. Maybe they’ve got a good mss by a new writer and a not as good but still okay mss by an established author who routinely sells hundreds of thousands of copies of each title. Financially speaking, the better bet is the established author. Hopefully then, the next publisher the new author submits to will not have any other St. Pat’s mss in their slush pile.

Another scenario is, the publisher has looked for six months and finally has a decent St. Pat’s manuscript turned in. It’s not the best, but library contacts keep telling them they get lots of requests for St. Pat’s books in March, and there are only one or two out there. So the publisher crosses his fingers and goes into production on the mss he has. Then, six months later, he gets a phenomenal St. Pat’s mss—but he can’t publish it because he already has one at the press. And even though the demand is great in March, there is NO demand the rest of the year, so he only needs one St. Pat’s title. Regretfully, he passes.

Now. Some publishers refuse to publish mediocre stories and would rather wait for quality. But if they wait too long, they’re out of business. Other publishers would choose the better story over the well-known author, but their expenses on the new author’s book are going to be twice as much. If they don’t find ways to lower their expenses, they won’t stay competitive.

Rock and hard place.

I know this is more in reference to novels, but what do you know about publishing children’s books?

I don’t work with children’s books and haven’t for some time. However I do know that children’s books are more expensive to publish and harder to sell than adult books.

Picture books are very expensive to print because they are full color on every page, or every other page. Good artists are very expensive. Picture books sell based on the quality or cuteness of the illustration.

Chapter books and middle readers cost as much as an adult book to print, even though they have fewer pages. However, you usually can’t sell as many of these books as you can adult books because most adults will buy books for themselves, but use the library for their children.

See more on this topic here and here and here.

They Want You to What?!?

Some publishers want illustrations to accompany a picture book manuscript. If I’m not a professional illustrator, where can I find one? Should I consider finding an illustrator or just submit to another publisher who doesn’t require illustrations with the text?

Who asks for that??!? It is so often NOT the case that a publisher wants you to find your own illustrations for a picture book that I’d say forget them and go with someone else. I’m thinking they just don’t want to pay the extra money to hire an illustrator themselves. You really should not have to pay for an illustrator unless you’re self-publishing.

Most publishers DO NOT want you to send illustrations with your picture book. Bad/mediocre illustrations can hurt a picture book more than bad/mediocre writing, so the publisher is going to want complete control over that. (I’ve purchased picture books with a so-so story because the pictures were gorgeous; but the only time I’ve ever purchased a good story with icky or boring pictures was Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. I just don’t love those illustrations.)

Picture book publishers have illustrators that they use on a regular basis, someone they know will be easy to work with. They will choose the illustrator that they feel matches the style and voice of the book. Sometimes illustrators are paid by the picture and sometimes they share in the royalty with the author.

Generally, the only time a publisher will even consider looking at illustrations provided by the author is if the author is also the illustrator, or if the author/illustrator insist on working together as a package deal.

And to give you an idea of how often I like illustrations sent in by the author (whether self-done or by a “professional” illustrator the author has chosen)–I have NEVER liked them.

Read more here.

LDS Children’s Books

What do you think is the outlook for children’s writers in the LDS market? Any hope of publishing picture books, early readers, chapter books, or MG novels? Lisa Peck seems to be doing well with the CTR series. Do you think there’s room for more series books for kids?

Do publishers shy away from children’s books because of the cost production factor or because the market is simply too small?

Do you think there’s a way to create more desire for children’s books in the LDS market?

I always grimace a little when I read questions like this because there is no easy or good answer. I wish I could say that the LDS children’s market was in an upswing but I’m not seeing it.

Yes, publishers have to look at the cost of production vs expected sales levels when considering any book. It is the rare children’s book that balances out. They cost a lot to produce. The market is simply too small. The bigger publishers can afford the risk. The smaller ones are going to have to really have their socks blown off to take the chance. Children’s books do not sell as well as adult books. Fiction does not sell as well as non-fiction. A fiction children’s book has several strikes against it even before the envelope hits the slush pile.

But don’t despair. Please don’t let the market as it is stop you from writing your children’s books. We NEED good, solid, LDS children’s books–especially at the middle reader level.

As for series books, if you take a look at DBs online popularity rating of middle readers, you’ll notice that there are several LDS series books in the top 100. And as a publisher, I’d much rather take a chance on a children’s book that was part of, or could be made into, a series, than a stand-alone.

How do you create a desire for the LDS children’s market? Same as for any market. You need a fantastic manuscript, a brave publisher and an enthused marketing department.

LDS YA in the National Market

If we look toward the national market, do you recommend we de-LDS the story (keep it clean and have morals, but no overt “Mormon-ness”)or do you think the national market would be open to LDS stories with LDS characters? Maybe it would help demystify our religion (some are still convinced we practice polygamy, etc.).

Okay, I should know this and be able to spout off a list of nationally published YA books that have LDS characters, but I can’t so help me out. Kristen Randle’s Slumming published by HarperCollins is one. And Charlotte’s Rose by A.E. Cannon, published by Wendy Lamb Books. (Although, that’s more of a middle grade book.) Orson Scott Card’s Lost Boys features an LDS family, but given the subject matter, I think that’s more of an adult book than YA. What else?

I mention those to show that national market YA with LDS characters is not unheard of but it’s also not very common. If that’s your plan, I’d suggest that you first publish a non-LDS YA book. If it’s successful, then talk to your agent about publishing LDS books. You can go straight for the YA with LDS characters, but I’m thinking that’s going to be a tough first sell.

Someone disagree with me and tell me it will be easier than I expect it will be. Please.

Publishing YA

A few more comments on publishing YA:

  1. Several of you have posted that you buy lots of YA books and so do your kids. Of course you do! And so do I. I probably buy upwards of 50 YA titles a year—and I don’t have any YA readers at home anymore. The reason? We’re writers—and readers, and so are our children. The people who read this blog are not a true representation of the book buying habits of the average American family.

  1. Scholastic is a great place to buy YA books at reasonable prices. However in most families, once the youngest child in a family moves beyond middle school into the upper grades, the true YA age group, they no longer have easy access to Scholastic book sales. You can still order them online, or watch for the posters at the local elementary school, but it takes an extra effort and most people do not make that effort.

  1. In my opinion, one of the reasons LDS writers are doing well in the national YA market is because their books are cleaner. So many national YA titles contain graphic violence and sexuality, encouraging teens to participate in pre-marital sex and other inappropriate behaviors. As LDS writers, most of us do not include that in our books. Sometimes there is pressure to do so, but we can stand up to that. There is a whole host of non-LDS parents and readers who want well-written YA without the trash. So yes, if you’re writing YA and the LDS publishers are saying, “Great story, we just can’t publish it right now…” go national. Or skip us small potatoes and go national in the first place.

YA Hard to Sell

Hi! Great blog. (Thanks)

Here’s my question: I’ve spent the past year submitting my YA to LDS publishers. Every rejection I’ve received said the same thing – that YA is a hard sell in the LDS market right now. Why is this? YA seems to be hotter than ever in the national market.

Thanks in advance.

YA is a harder sell for a variety of reasons (these are generalities, not specific cases):

1. Adults buy books; teens do not. Teens buy music or clothes or food. Most teens who read get their books from the library. If a teen owns a book it is usually a gift from an adult or something they really, really love and want to re-read.

2. Teens who read are voracious. While a parent will spend money to support their own reading habit (feeling they will keep the book and read it multiple times), they don’t want to spend the same on kids who will read a book in a day and then be done with it. It would break the family budget to keep the kids in reading material.

3. Teens who don’t read rarely make it past chapter 1. Parent won’t invest in a book that may or may not be read. Since most parents are not a good judge of what their kids will want to read, it makes the investment even more risky.

4. Most LDS YA books are a one-time read–a pleasant story, but not something that is going to grab the teen reader and make them want to keep it and read it multiple times. We don’t have any classics yet, nothing on the level of Lord of the Rings or Dune or Enders Game. (Yes, I like fantasy, so those are the titles that immediately pop into my mind. I’m sure you can think of many others.) Think of it like DVDs. We buy the ones we love and know we’ll watch over and over again. We rent the ones that we think we’ll only want to watch once or twice.

5. It costs the same amount to publish a YA book as it does an adult book. Given #1 above, all things being equal, you will sell two or three times as many adult books as you will the YA book.

YA may be selling better than ever nationally, but adult fiction still outsells YA fiction on a national level–and for the same reasons as listed above. This will always be the case. Think of the last 10 books you purchased (not counting Christmas gifts). How many were for your teens and how many were for you?

The good news is that the LDS market runs parallel but a little behind the national market. Trends you see there will eventually show up here. The bad news is that in a small, niche market like ours, an uptrend in YA may be so small it won’t even be noticed.