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:
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.