Notes From a Panel – Children’s Book Nuances.

This post was inspired by a cool masterclass I attended – held by the wonderful Dawn Meredith (you can find her at http://dawnmeredithauthor.blogspot.com.au/) – where she addressed some of the generalities and nuances of writing books for kids. Dawn has been a slush reader for Scholastic, has had some of her own children’s books published and is a teacher specialising in children with reading difficulties. She’s also a fantastic, generous person to boot and kindly let me post some of the notes I made.

There will probably be a few children’s book posts forthcoming (I will list them in my writing craft page) as a lot of ground was covered in this class! This one is about the kinds of children’s books out there; since not all children’s books are picture books.

Board books.

These are deceptively simple-looking hardback books intended for the very youngest of readers (toddlers). They are mostly made up of pictures, but for all their simplicity, they still have a theme and purpose and even a simple story arc. The few words they do have must be chosen very carefully because they are one of the first avenues whereby a parent can introduce new words to their child.

Picture books.

These are the books people usually think of when someone says ‘children’s books’. They are not, however, merely short stories with illustrations. In most cases, the illustrations add a whole new level of context and meaning to the book that would not generally be understood from the words alone. For example, you could have a story about a girl being stalked by a tiger in the forest, but the drawings show two children in their bedroom – one playing the tiger and the other the girl – making the overall story not so much about a tiger and a forest, but the joys of siblings and make-believe.

Picture books are usually hard-cover, but soft-cover options and electronic options are also available. They can be fictional or non-fictional and, according to Meredith, historical fiction is presently quite popular.

Picture books are usually not more than 800 words long and about 32 pages in length and the story generally begins around pages 4-5. Most will aim for a ‘centre spread’ in the middle of the book where things are heating up in the story.

Picture books can vary greatly in their complexity (think of Graeme Base’s Sign of the Seahorse, which is almost an epic) because they are intended for audiences ranging from kids who are being read to, right through to those who are fully independent readers (6-7 years).

Word choice is still really important and varies depending on the age-range a book is intended for, with simpler sounds and word-structure generally used for the younger reading ages and more advanced sounds and word-forms and multiple-syllable words coming in as the reading age increases. For those interested in writing picture books, it’s helpful to read a range of picture books to get a feel for the words that are used.

Things to know about getting picture books published:

  • As a first time author, it is unlikely you will get to choose the artist for your book
  • Unless you are Shaun Tan or Graeme Base, you won’t generally get to do the artwork for your own book – though you are always welcome to offer to show a portfolio.
  • The first line (and all the others, but especially the first) of your book needs to be perfect to win over a big publishing house like Scholastic or Penguin. These guys get many thousands of picture book manuscripts a year (everyone thinks they can write a picture book), but don’t actually publish all that many. Therefore, just to make it past the slush pile, your story must grab them straight off.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (kids from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for your intended market.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

Chapter books.

These are for middle-to-upper primary school kids and set at about a 8-12 year-old reading age. They are often stories of high adventure set at around 1000-5000 words in length (a common length for short stories in general).

Again, they can be fiction or non-fiction pieces and some are based on specific topics taught as part of the school syllabus (curriculum). For example, Dawn wrote her non-fiction Sir Donald Bradman chapter book (which ended up in schools) because there was such a big demand for information about him by children doing school projects on famous Australians.

A cool tip – Australian children in years 3, 5 and 7 (and 9) are required to sit NAPLAN tests in order to gauge their overall literacy and numeracy. As a writer and member of the public, you do have access to past papers online. You can, therefore, see what kids in the past have been tested on. This can provide great insight into the kinds of books and topics and word-choices a school might be looking out for in terms of reading materials, especially if you are into writing non-fiction.

Things to know about getting chapter books published:

  • Your manuscript format must be perfect and it must comply with the specific manuscript rules of the individual publishing house you are going for.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (kids from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for them.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

Novellas (middle-grade books).

These are books of between about 15000 to 50000 words. They are making a comeback, particularly in the e-book market where books falling outside the picture book and novel-length ‘norms’ are now able to be released inexpensively by the publishing houses and priced appropriately.

Novels.

These are books of between 55000 to 110000 words (55000 – 80000 words is what most writers of young adult novels aim for). Young adult books are booming right now. Dawn’s tip was that, with the centenary of Gallipoli coming up in 2015, war stories, particularly those focusing on the human element of war and the impact on families, will have a ready market.

Young adult – This is the term for the ‘more sanitised’ books for teens and young adults. They still often contain a fair bit of violence and sexual innuendo, but sex (certainly not gratuitous, descriptive sex) is rarely described. There is also no swearing.

New adult – This is a new term for those YA novels with all the gory bits and swearing and descriptions of sex left in. If you are going to write this stuff, however, be aware that, as with any good story in general, detailed descriptions of sex and violence should only ever be used sparingly and when it is appropriate to the context of the story and not simply for controversy or shock-value.

Things to know about getting young adult and new adult published:

  • YA stories (new adult) with lots of sex, violence and swearing are often harder to get published that those without.
  • YA stories with lots of sex, violence and swearing can be very hard to get into school libraries (the gatekeepers of school libraries are adults and they often won’t buy books seen as ‘inappropriate’ for school-age children), which is important when you consider that school and public libraries do still account for a big percentage of where kids get their books from (and, yes, writers do get royalties – PLRs and ELRs – from books borrowed at public and school libraries).
  • Teens really like to buy sequels (books in a series) so if you can make your YA or new adult book a series or trilogy; then do so.
  • It is good to give the publishing house the ‘option’ of a series so make the world and its mythology big enough to support a series, but at the same time, it is important that the first book in a series be capable of standing alone, just in case the publishing house does not go forward with the next volumes.
  • Teens will also buy books from the same author, even if the series is new, once they are familiar with the author. A good example is Scott Westerfeld – the popularity of his writing has tipped over into quite a few YA series that are unrelated in genre and characters.
  • Getting ‘test readers’ (teens from the target age group of the book you have written) to read your work before submission can be a useful way of gauging if a book works for them.
  • Getting professional feedback from professional editors who read and edit and work in the genre and age-group you are targeting can also help.

General tips for improving your chances in children’s writing and writing in general:

Be connected to the writing community.

  • Facebook
  • Blog
  • Tweet

Subscribe to buzzwords and Pass-it-on which are sites that scour the net for the latest children’s book news and writing comps and so on.

Become a book reviewer – occasionally a publishing house will want someone to review a book. Do this – you can make good friends and contacts that way.

You can even offer to write/contribute ‘teachers notes’ to kid’s books, especially chapter books.

Thanks again to Dawn Meredith. If you get a chance, be sure to catch one of her master-classes. She is a fountain of knowledge and if you come prepared with questions about ‘the biz’ she will give you some really handy tips! I have caught her twice now at Conflux in Canberra and she is also appearing at the Conflux Writer’s Day in April 2014.

Also, check out this article from Writer’s Digest – which pretty much spells out what to do with regard to word length.

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