YES, IT'S TOUGH to break into children's publishing, and yes, even considerable success brings emotional satisfaction more often than financial rewards. But if you feel connected to kids, you may have what it takes.
"Teachers can legitimately claim they know what kids enjoy, what excites them," says author Lynn Plourde, a school speech therapist for 21 years in Maine's public schools. She has seen how kids like "funny, playful stories" and put that knowledge to good use while writing 17 picture books, many of which, with titles like Teacher Appreciation Day and School Photo Day, are aimed at the lucrative school market. Toni Buzzeo claims her years as a school librarian in Gotham, ME, helped her to "more quickly target ideas with a modern sensibility," and to sense "what would work in today's publishing world." The result: 11 picture books.
If you decide to pursue your writing project, here are some tips on getting it written and to market. Also, explore the resources under Where to Learn More.
Don't be didactic. This can be difficult for teachers to learn! Children get lectured enough in school and church. They don't need it in literature any more than adults do.
Keep it short and simple. Where the Wild Things Are is under 250 words. Sheep in a Jeep is 83. Chapter books can be longer, up to 40,000 words. (If you're J. K. Rowling, this may not apply. But remember how often her work was rejected.)
Avoid alliteration (Sammy Snake!). Also cuteness (Thammy Thnake!). And "defective animal" stories (The Snake Who Couldn't Hiss!). Avoid rhyme unless you are very good at it and the story demands it. These are all on the short list of editor pet peeves.
Read it aloud. This gives you a sense of the rhythm of your story, and reading to kids helps you monitor the "fidget factor"-places where the story bogs down. Don't tell your audience who wrote it-they'll react more honestly.
Think visually. A picture book must have lots of scenes to illustrate. Test yours by folding eight sheets of paper in half, making a 32-page booklet-the size of most picture books. Paste your story into this dummy to see where the illustratable scenes fall. If you have only three, you're in trouble.
Workshop it. Joining a writing group or taking a class gives you deadlines, advice, encouragement. Investing money in a project spurs you to finish it.
Type it up, double spaced, after a thorough spell-and-grammar check. (Avoid references to illustrations or layout unless they are vital to understanding the story.) Now you're ready to send your manuscript out.
Send it in without illustrations. This "actually increases your chances of finding a publisher," according to the Children's Book Council." Why? Just take their word for it.
Do your homework. Check bookstores for recent publishers of your kind of book (humor, fantasy, historical).
Get an agent…or not. If none of the publishers you've turned up accepts "unsolicited" manuscripts from first-time authors (increasingly the case), you might need an agent. But there's a Catch-22: You often need to be published to attract an agent. "Getting an agent can be as hard as finding an editor," warns my editor at Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
So my advice is: Pursue editors first. To do this… …send a query. This is a letter that makes a succinct pitch for why your book should be published: It's timely, it's unique, there's a demand for it, etc. You can enclose a sample of the manuscript. With luck, they'll ask to see the whole thing. Or, alternatively, attend an SCBWI conference (see sidebar) and request a manuscript consult with an editor.
Last, be patient. It can take three to six months to hear back. Which is exactly enough time to tackle that second children's book idea of yours.
Amy MacDonald's 14 children's books include the international bestseller Little Beaver and the Echo. Others are listed on www.amymacdonald.com. This article was published in NRTA Live & Learn Fall 2007.
Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.