Why We Keep Telling You Not To Rhyme

You have an idea for a picture book! That’s great! And you want it to rhyme! Why is everyone running away from you?

Here’s a handy list of reasons why KidLit experts will reflexively push you away from rhyme. Does this mean you CAN’T do it? Never! Rules are meant to be broken. And there are lots of bestselling rhyming books out there. But below are the reasons why we want you to question whether or not your book MUST rhyme.

1.) Rhyming is super hard. Telling a complete story in 500-1000 words is hard enough. But add the necessity of perfect meter? That’s like doing gymnastics, and then deciding it’s not difficult enough so you light the uneven bars on fire. Which, good for you, if you’re Simone Biles. But you better be sure, because if you’re off by even a LITTLE, you’re going to set your manuscript on fire.

Take a look at authors like Anna Dewdney, Chris VanDusen, Mem Fox or Sandra Boynton. If your rhymes aren’t as clean as those, they’re not market ready. You can also listen to rap, (some) slam poetry, or musicals for some really strong writing dependent on rhyme. Even on Twitter, the Limericking account offers a near daily tutorial based on the day’s news. There are role models out there, and you should be holding your work against theirs if you think rhyming is an absolute must for you.

A page of excellent rhyme from Chris Van Dusen’s King Hugo’s Huge Ego

A page of excellent rhyme from Chris Van Dusen’s King Hugo’s Huge Ego

2.) Only Dr. Seuss is Dr. Seuss*. He’s one of the bestsellingest authors OF ALL TIME, and as agent and genius Jennifer March Soloway is fond of reminding us, no one is going to be him, again. Ever. He has the benefit of precedence, a money-hungry, business-savvy estate, movies based on his works that exponentially expand his reach and popularity every year, and a once-in-a-generation talent. There will never be a graduation display at a bookstore that does not feature Oh, The Places You’ll Go. Even the most perfunctory of kids’ sections will carry a Seuss title or three.

So, I think it’s cool that you dropped a bunch of acid in Baja too, but your weird off-kilter rhyming book full of nonsense words will probably slip through the cracks, because Mr. Geisel already has that corner of the market covered.

Even if someone like you cares a whole awful lot, no one can rewrite The Lorax, they’ll not. Also you’ll note my meter is off in that stupid joke caption. METER IS HARD, OK?

Even if someone like you cares a whole awful lot, no one can rewrite The Lorax, they’ll not.
Also you’ll note my meter is off in that stupid joke caption. METER IS HARD, OK?

*Note: is it a bummer that he was a big ol racist? YES. Will that effectively stop his legacy? Seemingly not.

3.) Most stories don’t need it. One of the main things I ask writers when they have an MS in rhyme is, WHY does this story demand to be told in rhyme? Does the form inform the function?* If you don’t have a reason, then just focus on the story. Story telling is hard enough, and most early picture book manuscript drafts suffer from a lack of proper, satisfying story arc as it is. What do I mean by proper story arc? I mean a beginning, a conflict, rising action, a climax and a resolution. That’s a lot!

For picture books that accomplish this with minimal words, take a look at Ed Vere’s BANANA!, or Jon Klassen’s I WANT MY HAT BACK. You can also (cough cough) read my book (coughs more violently), Also an Octopus, which is a story about how to tell stories by telling a story about an octopus.

It is also easy to ignore plot altogether when writing in rhyme. As my agent (best agent) Jennifer Laughran noted: “I would add that generally speaking, many manuscripts I get that are in rhyme are setting a scene, but they aren’t telling a story. It will be like ten stanzas about how Silly Sally is scared of Biff O‘Malley but they just go around in circles rather than progressing to fisticuffs or WHATEVER. Most people who write this kind of manuscript have not done the NEXT thing, which is to dummy it out and figure out what the pictures would be OF. Because if it is just Silly Sally staring stupidly at Biff for 14 spreads, that’s a problem. Every page turn has to move us forward, and every stanza has to give us something in the way of character AND plot progression. Which is hard when you are trying to figure out what else rhymes with Sally.”

 
A perfect moment of rising action.

A perfect moment of rising action.

 

*For examples of form informing function, read Sonnet 43 versus The Raven. Each demand rhyme but for very different reasons.

4.) It can be an immediate deal breaker. Don’t have an agent yet? I wish you the best of luck in finding one! It can be a really long and hard process for lots of writers. And it can be made even HARDER with bad rhyme. Why? Agents get TONS of queries every day. A big part of their job is keeping up with them. So, there’s a lot of stuff that can be a quick deal breaker. Lots of that is personal and subjective to each agent, but one thing I’ve heard consistently is that bad rhyming (which is often bad meter) is a quick and EASY no.

(It is also almost impossible to sell rhyming books in translation, because the words won’t rhyme anymore.)

A few books with perfect meter include: Goodnight Goodnight Construction Site, Each Peach Pear Plum, Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes, and Llama Llama Red Pajama.

Want to know if your manuscript has healthy / clean meter? Have someone ELSE read your work out loud. If they stumble while reading it, it’s likely because the meter is off. Don’t read it yourself, because you know how it’s SUPPOSED to sound. And even most writing partners are dynamic readers, and so they’ll manage to make an uneven draft sound passable. If you REALLY want to test a manuscript, find a terrible reader, someone with little to no emotional inflection, and ask them to read it out to you. The mistakes will jump right out at you in their voice.

There are also short cuts like slant (or near) rhyme, that can feel lazy, and are tricky to read correctly. They really only function if your performance of the text is perfect, like in Kendrick Lamar’s Swimming Pools.

Even Lin Manuel Miranda has gotten roasted for using some slant rhymes in Hamilton! You know, the musical with amazing lyrics that won basically every single Tony? But again, the play benefits from professional performance. Your book will not. Your book will be read by anyone who picks up it, including learning readers, and as such it should sound good no matter who performs it.

Read this out loud and tell me if it doesn’t roll off the tongue perfectly. Dewdney was a master.

Read this out loud and tell me if it doesn’t roll off the tongue perfectly. Dewdney was a master.

5.) There’s a million ways to make rhyming sound stupid. And your meter being off is only the beginning. Rhyming makes cliches even more difficult to avoid because things like Cat and Hat and Fat and Rat and Sat and Mat have already been rhymed together into the ground. It induces eye rolls all the easier because rhyme is a pattern we all know how to follow, which makes words predictable. It’s hard to make it fresh.

Mac Barnett’s Guess Again! is a book whose premise is completely predicated on subverting our expectations through rhyme, which makes it both a delightful kids’ book in its own right, and also a pretty solid satire of rhyming books in general. He, and Adam Rex (master illustrator and excellent rhymer himself) take what could be boring, predictable kids’ book rhymes and make them something weird and fun and fresh.

 
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Rhyme can also push you into wonky syntax that doesn’t quite make sense, and is easy to mock. Like Yoda talk, but you’re not Yoda, so it’s weird, not cute. An example I always think of is in (my favorite Disney Movie) Mulan, when she’s singing about her imminent meeting with the matchmaker:

Ancestors
Hear My Plea
Help me not to
make a fool of me

Why does this stick out? Because WHO has ever said “Help me not to make a fool of me?” That bit of weird tongue twistery is demanded in order to stay in form for rhyme. And it feels weird every time I hear it. BUT the thing about both Hamilton and Mulan is that they have 2 other hours to couch a little bit of weird rhyme here and there. There’s NO WHERE TO HIDE in a picture book manuscript. Remember you have, like, 500 words! If THIRTEEN of them are off (as in Mulan) that’s a significant passage!

In Conclusion:
Am I dream pooper? Yes. I’m sorry I’m like this.
Is this good advice? Yes.
Am I your Real Dad? No. I’m also not your boss, or god.
Can my advice be ignored entirely in the face of lots of new rhyming picture books all the time? Absolutely.
If you master rhyming rules, are you allowed to break them? Yes, that’s the rule for all rules.
Is sticking to prose the best idea? Yes, for you, for me, for most of us.
Are you good at rhyming and also writing a picture book and at a level at which you are likely to be published and make millions of dollars and retire onto your own private island? Probably not, but I’d love for you to prove me wrong.

Spooky Scary Stories for All Ages (Beyond Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark)

Tis the season to be spooky! Here’s a list of recs for some Kid Lit Halloween reading at all ages. Disclaimer: I have not read Gretchen McNeil, the reigning queen of teen slasher novels, and this is a ME problem, not a HER problem, so if you’re looking for updated Christopher Pike, then look to her! I also did not include juggernaut favorites like: Goosebumps, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark and Lois Duncan because I figured you could find those on your own.

The Scariest Book Ever by Bob Shea (4-6): This book is exactly what the title promises! Or, if it’s NOT, it’s at least the most hilarious Halloween book ever. Like The Monster at The End of This Book, this book is full of VERY DIRE WARNINGS that should ABSOLUTELY be listened to.

The Dark by Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen (4-6): This book is gentle spooky, more eerie and than scary. And ultimately, we are invited to value the dark, as it allows us to see the light. It’s a great read-aloud, and if you want the spookiest version, try Neil Gaiman’s narrated eBook version.

In a Dark Dark Room by Alvin Schwartz (6-8): An early reader classic! The very short stories in this book vary in levels of scariness, and include the story on which Carmen Maria Machado based her short story, The Husband Stitch. It can definitely be given to younger kids who do not think The Dark is scary at all.

Nightlights by Lorena Alvarez (7-9): This is a GORGEOUSLY illustrated graphic novel that is legit spooky for the younger reader. It’s also set in Colombia, which is rad. It starts off whimsical, and rapidly gets creepy AF. Maybe not the best gift for the easily spooked, but will be spot on for those who don’t mind some scary.

Ghostopolis by Doug TenNapel (9-11): A rare comedy / horror book for the younger set! This story takes us into the technicolor underworld with a cast of unlikely characters. It’s also ultimately a story about loss, which can be rough for some kids, and also exactly what other kids need.

Coraline by Neil Gaiman (10-12): We have moved into the portion where books that scare the shit out of adults are being introduced. Tough girl Coraline accidentally wanders into an alternate dimension where everything SEEMS great. But her Other Mother is not quite what she seems. If you want a less psychologically scary and a more spooooky story from this same author, The Graveyard Book won a Newbery and is lovely.

Doll Bones by Holly Black (11-13): Holly Black has a terrifying imagination, and this story of growing up and out of the games you liked as a younger kid is no exception. Featuring a haunted doll made of a dead girl’s bones, three great main characters, and that feeling of a fairytale while still being set in the real world, Doll Bones is a Newbery Honor for good reason.

Dread Nation by Justina Ireland (12+): What’s scarier, institutionalized racism or zombies? Why choose? Reanimated corpses meander all over this Civil War era novel. It gets gross and grim and honestly it’s a delight the entire time.

Anya’s Ghost by Vera Brosgol (13+): Judging just by the illustrations I thought this book would skew a LOT YOUNGER, and then I opened it and there’s body dysmorphia, smoking and infidelity among teens. So, you know. It’s really for teens. And it’s GREAT. When Anya falls down a well, she accidentally brings a ghost back out with her when she emerges. And that ghost has motives of her own.

The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson (14+): Lovers of the Sixth Sense will enjoy this solid ghost story, and its sequels. When a copy-cat starts reenacting Jack The Rippers murders in London, Rory Deveraux (an American teen) is the only witness. Probably because she was the only one who could see him. It’s creepy and upsetting and real, real fun.

Gideon the Ninth by Tasmyn Muir (15+): Lesbian necromancers in space! A horror / comedy / sci fi / fantasy mash up! This is the most wildly creative debut I’ve read in a while and it goes back in forth between being hilarious and very gross and dark constantly. If you’re wondering why everyone’s dressing up as a corpse on Twitter and Tumblr, this is why.

So No One Came To Your Bookstore Event

Ouch. Firstly, I’m sorry. That sucks for everyone involved. There’s no worse feeling— as a bookseller or an author— than sitting with a bunch of empty chairs, watching the minutes tick away as no one walks into the store. Or worse, they walk in, but with complete disinterest in the event.

Authors and booksellers both have terrible and hilarious stories about events no one came to. The day they hit the New York Times Bestseller List. Or, the author who realized no one was coming, got rip-roaring drunk and snuck out the back. It’s because AUTHOR EVENTS ARE REALLY HARD TO GET PEOPLE TO. People complain that national tours are basically only for the ultra famous, but having also worked in publishing I can see why. A big name is not a guarantee for a big crowd, but it’s a BETTER bet. And yes, it would be nice if there were enough money to send everyone for the exposure but tours are SUPER expensive, and the results, for most of us, is mixed.

I was a bookseller who handled events for years, and now I’m an author. In both roles I’ve had plenty of events with no one at them. So with that history in mind, here’s a little guide for both booksellers and authors to follow in the worst case scenario that NO ONE CAME.

1.) PROMOTE

This is ALL predicated on the assumption that BOTH parties did everything they could to promote. That means the author and the booksellers should already have been in contact on social media. That means this event should be listed in the bookstores emails to customers, with signs in the windows leading into the event, and— if the budget allows for it— handouts to promote the event. If you do not have the bandwidth to do any promotion for a particular event, do not host it.

The author should be beating the drum on social media on the days leading into the event. Tag the bookstore. Likewise, bookstores, tag the author. RT each other, share. Bookstores should not expect authors to do ALL the promotion, and authors certainly shouldn’t expect that of bookstores, either.

The fact is, authors have the best line to their own fans, but bookstores can often find connections that authors may not have known about. The local cartography club, or a teacher who’s a fan and can get his students there. Who knows.

There’s still a good chance no one is coming.

2.) Be nice.

This seems like a no brainer, but it’s not, so let’s get into it. Everyone’s disappointed. So don’t ignore the author. Make sure there’s a bookseller on hand who knows their work, and can make that author feel at home. As the author, take it as an opportunity to make pals with a bookseller. They’ll have recommendations coming out their ears for you, and be more than willing to share. Chat. We’re all in this together.

Booksellers: Have the author sign ALL THE STOCK. Even if you end up returning some of it. There’s no worse feeling as an author when ALREADY no one has come to the event, and then the bookseller pulls 3 copies of the 20 ordered and is like, just sign these. We know what that means. Indulge us at least in this small courtesy.

Authors: Sign the damn stock. Be nice about it. Get to know the store. Buy something small— a card, even— budget allowing.

 
Updating this blog post with my pal, comedian, Red Scott’s perfect comment summing up why you should NOT be an asshole at your poorly attended event.

Updating this blog post with my pal, comedian, Red Scott’s perfect comment summing up why you should NOT be an asshole at your poorly attended event.

 

3.) Be prepared.

Booksellers: Don’t put out 50 chairs if no one has expressed any interest in the store about the event. Maybe start with 10. Put them in a circle. It doesn’t look as bad that 4 out of 10 chairs are filled as it does when 4 out of 50 are. Little touches like that can make the author feel way less HORRIBLE about the fact that no one expressed interest in the project they literally bled into for years. Because that’s what books are. Our BLOOD. So it’s DEVASTATING when no one cares. If no one on your staff cares about the book, then don’t accept that event (barring local author book launches, which are a totally different beast.) So be flexible, figure it out. One time, only two teens showed up to an event, so we walked them around the block to get cupcakes with the author. Did we plan that? Not really. Was it great? Yes.

Authors: Sure, you have a presentation that’s great for 40 people. But if only 1 person shows up, maybe have a back up plan. I mean, if that ONE person is dying to see your power point by all means get at it. But maybe a conversation would be better. With story time aged kids, I opt to read my story, but also two that THEY choose. Let’s just try to have fun now. If you do, everyone else is more likely to as well. Authors set the tone here, so may as well make it a good one.

4.) Be realistic.

This is for authors. Know this: 10 people at a bookstore event is actually pretty ok. That’s ten people who COULD be at home watching Netflix, or at soccer practice, or whatever. Sure, it’s not GOOD and it’s definitely not GREAT, but don’t sneeze at any number of people who show up. Those are just your new friends, and new biggest fans because they got to have some real quality time with you, the author they wanted to meet. More public events have between 5-15 people than 50+ that’s just how it is.

Events are not free for bookstores to put on. They staff an extra person most of the time, print materials to support the event, and also spent time booking, planning and promoting. So if no one comes, they’re taking a hit, too.

5.) Be selective.

This is for booksellers. We’ve all had things slip through the cracks. Maybe the person who booked the event left the company. Maybe things just got out of hand. But when you’re filling out your tour grids and considering who you’d like to host, remember that NO is a very kind answer. Don’t think you could possible get people to come? Say no. Don’t think anyone on your staff cares about the book? Say no. Suspect your community is only sorta interested in a topic? SAY NO. You are doing no one any kindnesses by booking things you’re likely to forget about. Even if you’re hyper selective, bad events will happen. So why not try and limit it?

6.) For Kids Books Only

School events are a metric ass ton of work to put on, but also far and away ALWAYS a great option for bookstores and authors to pair up. There’s guaranteed headcount— even if there aren’t guaranteed sales— and the school library will (should, tbh) buy a copy of the book so kids can keep reading it after you leave. So if you’re busting your balls organizing your own tour, which most of us do nowadays, put your effort into getting into schools. You get a guaranteed shot to talk to exactly the kids you wrote your books for. And some school visits will be better organized and better behaved than others. But it’s worth it.

Stay Outta the Wardrobe

In reading for an agent as well as slush for a publisher, it was just a normal day to find a handful of submissions that listed The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe as a comp title. Without having ever read it, I saw this as indication that the author did not have much contemporary kids’ lit reading under their belt. And now, having read it, I’d love to communicate what will likely be read as a screed, that will serve as my argument never to use this as a comp title ever again. I hope it will help aspiring kids’ writers maybe look elsewhere for foundational texts on which to base their work.

It is worth noting: I was warned before reading it that this was a very Christian book, and I should say here, none of that bothers me. I am not a Christian, and I am not opposed to Christian literature. I love Harry Potter. I don’t mind the notion of a hero dying for the sins of others. As a Jew, often I find deeply Christian media passes right by me, since I’m likely to catch only the loudest of references. So none of my critique of this book will come from that angle.

Also, all this being said: I did like the dinner scene with the Beavers, and that scene, only.

#1: The Problem With Portals from an Imperialist Perspective:

It is a truth universally acknowledged that British literature is embedded in a violent and colonial history. And so, the notion of a portal fantasy bears all the more weight— because what does it mean to pass into a whole other world, completely different from the one you know? Here, four British children wander into a foreign land where they are immediately clocked as being very important and also wreak all manner of havoc. Would Narnia be better if they stayed out? Probably! Is Mister Tumnas written like a ready-to-be-saved native with little to no guile or agency? Yes. Is it hard to believe that four random kiddos who don’t seem to know anything about anything can wander into another land and be perfectly fit to rule it for years to come? Absolutely it is. Is any of that questioned in the text? No. Instead, the reader is meant to accept it. For, why wouldn’t children of the British Imperialist legacy not be suited to lead a land they know nothing about? Of course they are, by Lewis’s imagining. That same arrogance defines British history, and every page of The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe drips with it.

Some Alternative Portal Fantasies to Consider:
Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan Maguire
Labyrinth Lost by Zoraida Cordova
In Other Lands by Sarah Rees Brennan

#2: The Narrator Doesn’t Like Kids

Leaving aside the treatment of Edmund, who’s written as a sniveling, lying, selfish little asshole, I mean when the narrator speaks directly to the kids. I listened to this book on audio instead of reading a physical copy, so I can’t pull exact quotes. However, there are several times when the narrator says something to the effect of: ‘if I told you about all the monsters that were there your parents wouldn’t let you read this,’ or when the girls find dead Aslan, ‘maybe you’ve cried a whole bunch in a day, but you probably still don’t understand the misery these girls felt in this moment,’ or some such. What these asides— which I would argue are also moments of apparently authorial laziness— tell kids is that the author does not respect their audience enough to take the time to communicate with them. This is the opposite of someone like, say, Mister Rogers, who’s love for children was apparent through his willingness to engage with them under the radical notion that they were people, with emotional lives as rich as adults. Often, the narrative camera in Lewis’ work veers away at the very moment that a child might be invited in to something they may not have understood previously. But that is precisely what fiction is FOR. To help us live lives we do not. Cheating kids of that because the author is easy too lazy or too arrogant to think they couldn’t possibly understand the profundity of their imagination is an indication that that particular author shouldn’t write for kids.

Some Alternative Books with a Vocal Narrator to Consider:
A Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket
Flora and Ulysses by Kate DiCamillo
Whales on Stilts by MT Anderson

#3 All That Sexism

Phew. If Lewis didn’t like kids then he straight up HATED women. I don’t know what went wrong for him— other than a life spend in unquestioned patriarchy— but he does not much care for femmes of any stripe. I’m told this only gets worse as the series goes on, but man, it was plenty in just this one book. The titular Witch is not great — lacking the intelligence and grit of a truly interesting villain. It could be argued that Lucy is given a great deal of page time, but she too lacks any cleverness. She’s just a sweet, gormless little girl who wanders off, and then gets shit on by her older brother— her lack of agency makes her an uninteresting force in the story. Susan is basically sentient wall paper, who’s gifted a bow and arrow but told NOT TO USE IT by Father Christmas, because, essentially, women can’t be trusted in battle. All is made right in the world by Peter, the Professor, and Aslan, a male lion and also the most stunning visual metaphor for patriarchy there is. The lion figure cuts an accidental brilliant critique of itself— real male lions are powerful, yes, but lazy, capricious and abusive creatures, a danger to the females and the young of their species. They are, indeed, the greatest metaphor for patriarchy there is.

Some Alternative Fantasy Books with Strong Female Characters to Consider:
Graceling by Kristin Cashore
The Girl of Fire and Thorns by Rae Carson
The Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi
Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
The Star Touched Queen by Roshani Chokshi
The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
The Girl From Everywhere by Heidi Heilig
Forest of a Thousand Lanterns by Julie C Dao
Eon by Allison Goodman
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson
Literally anything these days, FFS

So. Please stop using this book as your comp title. There are so many better, more exciting, smarter, cooler, more complicated books out there. Get thee to a library or bookstore and find them.

Middle Grade Vs. Young Adult

I was born in 1984, so when I went to the bookstore as an eleven year old, I  went right to Young Adult section. On the shelves there were Judy Blume, RL Stein’s Fear Street books, Madeleine L’Engle, and Lois Duncan. I’d grown out of Goosebumps (shelved over in the Chapter Book section) and was happily devouring all the Christopher Pike and RL Stein and other teenage monster and murder books I possibly could. My sister, then 14 or 15, was reading things like VC Andrews, which were safely shelved in the Adult section. Probably because of the incest.

Children’s literature has obviously come a long way since then. The market is deep with more content than ever before, and full of experts well poised to advise young readers on where best to look for their next favorite book. And I should say before anything else, I am only ONE of these people. So my word is not law, and I’m perfectly happy to be proven wrong on all things. But I’ve been thinking a lot about the difference between Middle Grade and Young Adult fiction, which serve as a fascinating reflection of the rapidly increasingly amount of expert opinions on children’s literature. And I’m particularly interested in understanding this through the lens of “shelving” or “merchandising,” which is just placement into what are, ultimately, artificial categories.

 Kids read across categories constantly— you can’t throw a rock in a school book fair without hitting a kid who’s reading the millionth Diary of a Wimpy Kid book (a firmly MG series) at the same time as reading something like The Hunger Games (firmly YA)— so I recognize whole heartedly that when I talk about ages, I’m really talking about marketing, and what the adult gatekeepers feel comfortable with selling to different ages. Kids will always be there to prove us wrong in all things. 

So.

Roughly, MG is aimed at kids aged 8-12. YA is for 12 and up. Wait, you might be thinking, 8 is a second grader. And 12 is a 6th grader! And a 12 year old doesn’t need to read what an eighteen year old is reading… that’s a huge swath of ages! And yes! You’re correct! That’s part of why the distinction between what’s meant for sixth grade and up, as opposed to up to sixth grade is wonky and ever changing and also completely subjective and different from one bookstore to the next. I believe that there are actually 5 major categories within these two big categories. There are books meant for ages 8-10, 8-12, 10 and up, 12 and up, and for ages 14 and up.

EXAMPLES!

8-10: 

Alvin Ho Allergic to Girls School. The protagonist is younger, his POV is limited, and there are copious (and gorgeous) spot illustrations by LeUyen Pham. Bird and Squirrel is a graphic novel that also fits under this age group really well. Fortunately the Milk is also in this category, as is Attack of the Fluffy Bunnies, and the classic The Iron Giant. These offer plenty of plot and humor to keep the reader moving, that—while offering some opportunities critical thought— can allow these books to be enjoyed as just fun, silly stories. In other words, there is very little life experience needed in order to understand these stories. They are narrative for the sake of fun, or else for gentle nudging in the direction of empathy building. It is frankly, the category of the 5 that I understand the least. 

8-12: 

The One and Only Ivan. Yes, this is also a book with copious spot illustrations, but the content is complex enough to allow it to age up, as well. Ditto Flora and Ulysses, which also won the Newbury, and features a squirrel. For a book without spot illustrations, George is a gorgeous example of a truly 8-12 book. I would argue this is where classics Charlotte’s Web, From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E Frankweiler, The Egypt Game and The Little Prince would fall as well. Yes, absolutely kids age 8-10 will get a ton out of these books, too. But the emotional worlds of these novels are challenging, and will be as fulfilling to a 12 year old as an 8 year old. Themes of mortality and identity arise. I have a theory that this is the category that yields the most Newbery wins, but it’s just a theory. This category also includes series like Diary of a Wimpy Kid, and Captain Underpants, which may not win nearly as many awards as they probably deserve, but also inspire more life long readers than many other books can arguably claim to— so this age group as a catch all makes sense. It’s the age when a lot of us learn to love reading. But I still think it’s distinct from both the age group that proceeds it, and the one that follows. 

10 and up: 

This is the category that I believe many aspiring writers mistakenly categorize as YA, because in fact— when they were this age— that is what category those stories would have been in. But times have changed, and the best books in this category that I can think of now are things like The Percy Jackson series, The School for Good and Evil, When You Reach Me, Tiger Rising, Wonder, Murder is Bad Manners, Coraline, and classics Where the Red Fern Grows, Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry, and A Wrinkle in Time. Concepts like metaphysics have been introduced, there might be a first kiss. Characters die, mental health issues arise. Fantasy worlds become more complex, moving out of simple fairytale and into alternate, often subversive, universes. Adults are flawed now, and deeply so. Maybe there’s murder, and maybe our POV character sees that murder. There are words like kleptomania and existentialism. Sure, kids younger than 10 can EASILY get through some of these titles. But will they get everything? Will they have enough life experience to feel it? Probably not. This is also where the Harry Potter series, I’d argue, begins (with books 1-3). Some people call this category tween, but also some people insist that giving up coffee is great, and just like I will never give up coffee I will never call this “tween.” But that’s a me problem. 

12 and up: 

What is YA, even. It starts here, however dubiously, with titles like Cinder, The Princess Diaries, Stargirl, The Hunger Games, Twilight, Endangered, the 4th and 5th Harry Potter books, Dread Nation, the Leviathan Trilogy, The Dark Materials Trilogy, The Bartimaeus Trilogy, To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Nimona, and Dumplin. Our main characters are in high school now. There’s kissing for sure, and death, and even potentially fights to the death, even televised fights to the death. Murder and makeouts abound. Racism is pointed, and adults are not only deeply flawed, but may also be chief antagonists. While there isn’t a ton of is sex on the page, we have certainly moved into a world where we are AWARE of sex. You probably won’t see the term blowjob, but you’ll know someone is slutty or has a bad reputation. And it’s also where the importance of voice becomes undeniable. So many of these books feature strong narrative voices that define the book. This, to me, is true YA.

14 and up:

I don’t think we can talk about this category without addressing the elephant in the room, which is the adult buying power in the YA market. It is absolutely true that adult readers turn to YA in droves, and I think I know why— because where literary fiction for a while seemed to find story arc predictable and pedestrian— YA will always offer a satisfying story arc, because they are all stories (in one way or another) about coming of age. This is true in the 12+ category, but here’s where it gets complicated. Books in this category, like Trail of Lightning, The Hazel Wood, The Bone Gap, The Poet X, Speak, The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, In Other Lands, We Are Okay, I’ll Give You The Sun, Long Way Down, Aristotle and Dante Discover The Secrets of the Universe, the 6th and 7th Harry Potter Books, and What I Saw and How I Lied are all, arguably, coming of age stories, just like the books in the previous category. But in these books, protagonists don’t just witness murder, the proverbial camera shows us it. There is blood, and there are penises, masturbation jokes, sexual violence and there’s a close up on things like substance abuse, unreliable narrators and you WILL see the phrase blow job on the page. There’s drinking and there’s drugs, and there’s probably no lesson to be had from them. This is where, I think, VC Andrews probably should be shelved. But it’s also where a lot of the adult shoppers are hovering. And so there’s a valid argument that the adult reader— by having so much power in the market— has swayed YA to an older place. That 14+ place. Which. I understand why that can be bad. But also, this is the category with a lot of MY favorite books. Me, an adult, who reads YA. I am the problem and I know that. 

And don’t even get me started on books that I think are actually YA, that were packaged as adult. 

The Overton Window on what we think it’s ok to talk to kids about is always changing. And there are a lot of titles I didn’t include in these categories because I think they complicate things even further. A Series of Unfortunate Events probably initially was considered 10 and up because all the murder. But, after it’s overwhelming popularity, the age it was considered appropriate to share it with changed. Drama by Raina Telgemeier is probably more a 10+ book too, since it deals with crushes— but because her packaging is so perfect and kids love Smile SO MUCH it ends up going younger, again, due to the author’s overwhelming popularity. The Goats is a classic YA novel that was probably originally considered for ages 12+, but as our opinions about sexual violence have changed, I’d hanker a guess that upon rereading it, most booksellers would opt for 14+ nowadays. 

The point to all of this is: there are distinct differences between these categories, and there’s a lot of market to know. If you are intending to write a book for these ages, you should be aware of how diverse they are, and also what subcategories they fall into. Those categories don’t have to be exactly as I’ve defined them here, but if the last YA book you read was Are You There God It’s Me Margaret, you have a lot of reading to do before you write your own MG or YA novel.

So you want to write a kids' book? oh no.

As a human person who has been a children’s book professional for my entire career (really: Children’s bookseller with a focus on school programming and events, children’s book marketer, eBook person, read for children’s agents, interned in children’s editorial, am now an author with books coming out for young adults, little kids—fiction and nonfiction—, and an all ages nonfiction book), everyone I know who has a friend, auntie, hairdresser or loose social connection who wants to write a kids’ book sends ‘em my way. Which is cool, but also a lot of work, especially since I tell all people the same thing.

SO now I have written this handy guide to getting started!

CAVEAT TO ALL OF THIS: What I say will sound harsh, and it is. And for everything I say, there are examples that break the exact rules of what I will tell you, and kudos to those people! But in my experience, and from what I have seen this is what I have learned. Please feel free to prove me wrong repeatedly and often. Anyway. Onwards.

HERE ARE 5 EXCEEDINGLY DIFFICULT STEPS TO GET INTO THE MAGICAL AND DEEPLY FRUSTRATING WORLD OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE!

STEP 1: GO TO A BOOKSTORE TO RESEARCH

Yes, a bookstore. Not a library. The reason for this is that libraries are amazing and perfect and librarians are marvelous creatures we don’t deserve BUT libraries also tend to have older books, some of which have gone out of print, and so they may not give you a sense of what kids’ books are like NOW. So, go to a bookstore.

Go to the children’s section, and specifically look in the age group you’d like to write. See what books have 3 or more copies (this means the book buyer believed this book would sell), and take a good hard look at them. Read them. Ask the booksellers which are their favorites. Buy those favorites (or write them down and get them from the library if you’re short on funds—NOT AMAZON, that’s super rude to the bookseller who just helped you). Read those books. This will give you a good picture of what kids’ books are like now, and what kind of quality there is in the market. This marketplace is denser, more expert and more refined than it’s ever been, and doing this background work will really help you understand that. Remember, you’re walking into an industry FULL of career professionals, so. Don’t walk in unprepared.

IF there is not a bookstore in your area, check the kids’ Indie Next list. These books are nominated by indie booksellers, and their placement on the list is paid for by the publisher so it shows two things: 1.) a bookseller LOVES this book enough to take time out of their day to make a nomination and 2.) the publisher who made that book is willing to invest money to make sure everyone knows that bookseller loves it.

STEP 2: ASK YOURSELF FIVE HARD QUESTIONS

This is where I sound mean, but this is because everyone thinks they could write a kids’ book. And the fact is 98% of those people are wrong. Writing is hard, that’s just a fact. And even writing books that seem really simple is very difficult. So now that you’ve taken a good hard look at what the market looks like these days, ask yourself: IS THIS BOOK PROJECT I HAVE UP TO SNUFF?

It can be hard to know that for yourself— we are all hit with both crippling doubt and somehow ALSO completely unrealistic confidence— so here are the five questions to ask yourself to get at your answer:

1.) Do my kids’ love it? You're a parent or a teacher, and you wrote a thing and the kids in your life LOVE IT. But those are YOUR kids. Chances are, they probably love it because they love you. Which is wonderful, because love is never bad. But it is misleading, and does not mean that the book is up to professional snuff.

2.) Does my story have a very important lesson? Often, when we write for kids’ we do so because we think we have some wisdom that they NEED to know, nay they MUST know. But the fact is books with a didactic tone tend to be terrible (again this is one of those rules that has absolutely been broken but by and large this is true), and also writing to shout at someone is much less compelling than writing because you have a story that demands to be told. So ask yourself: is this a story, or is this a lesson? If it’s a lesson, start over.

3.) Am I the only person who can tell this story? The kids’ book industry is slowly and painfully becoming slightly more diverse, which is unequivocally a good thing. But it does mean we are becoming much more finely attuned to WHO tells WHAT stories. So if you are a very kind white lady who’d like to write a story from the point of view of a Guatemalan migrant child who has been kept in a detention center, ask yourself firstly: am I the ONLY person who can tell this story? And also ask yourself: am I telling this story because I think I can SAVE someone? If the answer to this latter question is yes, I beg of you to reconsider. Saving people through narrative can often end up being deeply condescending even when it comes from the absolute most pure intentions. I will write a whole separate post about sensitivity readers, which is a whole other thing.

4.) Do I understand what age group I’m writing for? You might think that this question would come first, but frankly, sometimes this comes down to marketing, which assumes a good product to start with, so I’ve put it later. But there are huge differences between a picture book (ages 4-8), a chapter book / early reader (ages 6-10), a middle grade book (ages 8-12), a YA book (ages 12+) and a high YA book (ages 14+). Having been to the bookstore will really help you get a hold of this, but here is a very reductive way I’ve found that helps me explain the differences to non-kid book people:

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This is mostly a joke, and does not speak to things like upper middle grade books (for ages 10+) and non fiction picture books (which can span all ages), or the difference between regular YA and high YA (which to me is often the difference of sex . violence on the page or off it) but it does cover some basic differences in tone.

5.) Am I willing to put in a ton of hard work on this project? If the answer is no, the good news is we’re done here! But the fact of the matter is WRITING IS HARD WORK and that’s that. I have no words of wisdom here, just a grim sigh, a shrug of my shoulders and a pat on the back. It sucks. It’s lonely. It’s a career paved with rejection. Have fun!

STEP 3: WRITE YOUR FACE OFF.

There is no shortcut. There is no quick route. The only way to write a kids’ book is to write it. And then rewrite it. And then rewrite it again. Join a writer’s group, in person or online. Find the humans who understand you and your work, and show them your words. Let them tear them apart so that you can rebuild them, stronger. Kids’ writing is just like all the other writing in the world, except that your audience has zero compunction about walking away from you WHILE YOU’RE READING TO THEM. So, write, write, write. Then write some more. Then have a drink.

And remember: For every JK Rowling, Rick Riordan, Jeff Kinney and Mo Willems in the world, there are ten thousand aspiring writers, a thousand published writers, and like, twenty more writers who actually make a living at it.

STEP 4: FIND AN AGENT

Remember when you went to the bookstore? Dope. Which were your favorite books? Which ones did you read and feel like, this author gets it, this author is up to something cool, I want to be like THIS author? Well, figure out who that author’s agent is. Figure that out for all your new favorite books. And write personalized queries for each of those agents, following their guidelines TO A TEE. DO NOT STRAY FROM THE GUIDELINES. DO NOT PUT LITTLE SARCASTIC COMMENTS THAT BELY YOUR DISREGARD FOR THOSE GUIDELINES IT IS NOT CUTE IT IS SIMPLY GROUNDS FOR IMMEDIATE DISQUALIFICATION.

Having read for agents here’s what I can tell you with absolute confidence: Good ones receive a billion queries a day, so be patient. They will notice if you submit sloppy work, so double check, then check again. Some mistakes are OK, we’re all human, but it doesn’t bode well if there’s a bajillion spelling and grammar errors.

BUT MOST IMPORTANTLY: If you have written something that is meant to be illustrated DO NOT FIND AN ILLUSTRATOR YOURSELF. That is the publishing house’s job. It does not matter if your cousin is a professional painter, or your office mate is a good drawer. You’re just making it easier to say no to you. And mostly, agents say no, because they only take work they are deeply passionate about.

And YES, you absolutely need an agent. It’s their job to see to the business side of your career, be your advocate, and to have all the contacts with editors that is necessary for any kind of success in selling a book. Typically, they take 15% of your advance once a book has sold, and frankly they’re worth every. fucking. penny.

STEP 5: BUCKLE THE F IN

Finding an agent is super hard, and even if you DO get one (CONGRATULATIONS!!!! Many writers don’t, so allow yourself to celebrate this!) you still may NEVER sell a book to a publishing house. I’ve said it once and I’ll say it again: WRITING IS A TERRIBLE JOB AND NO ONE SHOULD DO IT but if you— like me— just have to, despite your better judgement, financial needs and logic, then get ready for an avalanche of rejection. Just, like. All the time. On Sundays. On your birthday. All the time. Even successful authors have books rejected, so welcome! You’ve joined the ranks of the perpetually miserable.

And while that sounds super mean, also know: We’re happy to have you here. Misery loves company. Come find me at a bookstore, and let’s hang out. We can toast to our many rejections together, and help build the armor we’ll both need to get through it. Everything I’ve said here is true, but if you’re really a writer, you’re willing to do this hard work, and you believe in it and in yourself, then none of this will stop you. You’re a goddamn machine, and you’ll chug along anyway.

Neither of us may ever be bestselling authors. But at least we looked a near-impossible feat in the eye and said: BRING. IT. ON.