Want to Write Children’s Books? Study The Craft and The Business

Photo Credit: Susan Yin via Upsplash

Recently, my friend Greg emailed me asking for feedback on his first picture book manuscripts. In addition to specific manuscript feedback, I offered him general thoughts on getting started in the children’s book industry. I wanted to save my friend some time and energy. And maybe some headaches and heartache, too.

Turns out that Greg appreciated my thoughts. And then it dawned on me: If you’re beginning to write children’s books with the goal of seeking publication (or contemplating doing so), you might appreciate my thoughts, too.

As I was working on this post, it became clear that my email to Greg could become the basis for at least two posts: studying the craft and the business; and writing and submitting manuscripts. For this post, I’ll focus on the former.

My suggestions are by no means exhaustive. They’re just a start. After all, there are whole books on this subject! Still, my list is quite a bit to tackle. So choose a thing or two and go from there.

My suggestions are also not original or esoteric. (And yet someone else might send you off in a different direction.) These just happen to be steps that I’ve taken. I’m still working away and hoping they’ll pan out!

A neat thing: You can do a lot of learning for free (with your feet up and while sipping on a cup of coffee or tea or whatever suits your style).

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Read and study lots and lots and lots of current books. Did I say lots? Hang out at B&N and read what’s on their “featured” tables and shelves. Ask the children’s bookseller for recs that fit the kind of books you’re writing and attempting to publish. Ask your local children’s librarian. Head to the “new” section at your library for recently published and/or acquired books. Find popular and recommended books online and locate them at your library. Mine offers an online hold service which I utilize often, maybe too often for busy librarians, but I sure do appreciate it. Put that library card to good use!

Google away! Google can give you an education. One website, blog, podcast, etc. will lead to other links that will increase your knowledge of craft and business. Of course, not all of the info is current or worthy, but much of it is. You’ll figure out the difference.

Subscribe to free e-newsletters, blogs, etc. There are so many good ones out there that you’ll need to be choosy! If you oversubscribe, just unsubscribe. If you wish you hadn’t, re-subscribe. No biggie, either way. When these pile up in my inbox, I steal an hour here or there to catch up. I relish the time and info! Here are several that I subscribe to:A

Children’s Book Council

Jane Friedman

KIDLIT411

Lee & Low BooksM

Picture Book Builders

Publishers Weekly Children’s BookShelf

Sub It Club

We Need Diverse Books

Writing for Kids (While Raising Them)

Join social media. You don’t have to live there and you don’t have to be on every platform. After all, you need to write! And do the dishes and laundry and… To start, choose a platform that appeals to you, somewhere you think you can show up regularly. You’ll make connections, learn about opportunities, and yes, even learn about craft and business. Some of the above links also have Facebook Groups that you can join. I avoided social media for years; now I miss it when life gets too busy for me to show up.

Join a Critique Group. You’ll gain a lot: accountability, feedback, camaraderie, and support. It’s par for the course to deal with rejections and self-doubt as well as plenty of alone time. So it’s helpful to have some peeps who get the journey and keep you company (and commiserate and celebrate with you) along the way. Here’s an interview with my critique group.

Take classes and workshops at your local writing organization. If you’re lucky enough to have a local writing organization, check out their website for offerings. I met my critique group at a local workshop at WriterHouse. If you can’t afford a class or workshop, keep an eye out for free events like author readings and social get-togethers.

Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). If there’s only one thing you can afford to spend money on in order to further your writing life, choose this! It’s the biggest and most reputable professional kidlit organization nationally and internationally. The first year fee is $95 ($80 to renew) and grants you access to invaluable resources. There’s a place for any writer there, from beginner on. Here’s a blog post I wrote about the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Conference.

Those last four suggestions go beyond studying the craft and business to making connections. Get involved with others in the kidlit community to whatever extent you’re able. It’s a big, vibrant community filled with writers, illustrators, editors, agents, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and readers. Connections are key in kidlit, and the neat thing is, most people in it are very nice. They love writing and reading, just like you. I think it’s safe to say that most of them also love kids.

If you decide to go for it, congratulations on that first step! Truly. You’re pursuing a dream and that takes courage. Your journey will have ups and downs, as all journeys do. Every now and then, take stock of where you’ve been and where you want to go. Each step counts and is cause for celebration.

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It’s helpful to go in, from the very start, thinking long-term. It takes time to develop craft, understand the business, and make connections. And yes, to earn some income. Patience and persistence will be your best friends throughout the process (for me, it’s also coffee and chocolate).

Goodness knows, I’m still very much learning and finding my way through this wonderful world. There are so many steps I’d like to take including reading more books on craft, taking an online class, and attending a national SCBWI conference. One step at a time. The journey is endless which I love; it means that the learning is endless, too.

And to state the obvious: write. While everything else counts, it’s the writing that will teach us the most.

Oh! And have fun along the way.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Meet My Writing Critique Group!

(from left to right) Me, Priya Mahadevan, Marc Boston, Jane Jackson

If you’d like to get to know my writing critique group, read on! This interview appeared in the spring issue of Highlighter, the newsletter for the Mid-Atlantic Chapter of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). (Wow, that’s a mouthful!)

The interview is reprinted below with permission from Highlighter. Thank you to author Dionna Mann, Highlighter’s Content Editor, for interviewing us!

Photos credits go to Delaney Boston, Marley Boston, and Liana Tai.

Critique Group Spotlight: ImagineInk

Members

Amy Lee-Tai, Jane Jackson, Marc Boston, and Priya Mahadevan

How It Formed

In May 2014, Amy, Jane, and Marc met at a writing workshop led by Kathy Erskine at WriterHouse. Two months later, Amy contacted the others about forming a children’s critique group that nurtures diverse voices. ImagineInk was born! Priya joined in May 2017 after Amy learned of her through a local magazine. All members are committed to helping each other transform ideas from imagination to ink.

What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions.” — Priya Mahadevan

How It Functions

Each member sends a manuscript four to seven days before each meeting, with the understanding that sooner means more consideration. Every three weeks, usually on a Tuesday, they gather at a coffee shop downtown. While they remain flexible with the day of week, they meet during the school day since they all have young children. Meetings last about three hours. After some chitchat, they begin critiques. The person receiving a critique remains quiet (or is supposed to!) and takes notes. They share business news as time allows. Since they get along so well, their biggest challenge is not going off on tangents about their personal lives or politics. Amy, the former school teacher, is usually the one to keep them all on track.

What They Love About Their Critique Group

AMY: I feel lucky to be part of a diverse group filled with kind-hearted deep thinkers who are passionate about kids’ books and social justice. All of this shines through in their stories, critiques, and interactions. While meetings are meaty, the camaraderie and humor keep things fun; I leave feeling reenergized to do the hard work of writing and revising.

JANE: The shared experience, incredible support, humor, understanding, and fun combine to make this group shine. I have so enjoyed their wit and wisdom as I continue to grow as a writer. Also, these are three of the most thoughtful, kind, patient, and interesting people I know in Charlottesville.

MARC: I’m blessed to be able to commune with a fantastic group of creative, intelligent, and spiritual souls. It’s the personal connection I feel with each of them, which has grown over the years, that I hold dear. I trust their opinions, relish their support, and am energized by their open-minded objectivity, genuine hearts, and authentic spirits.

PRIYA: When I was invited to be part of this group, it seemed like I had already known the others for a long time. What stood out the most was that empathy and love were the driving forces in all their writings and interactions. I am constantly amazed at the subject matter that inspires their writing and at the presentation of those ideas. This allows my own creativity to expand.

How They Have Grown as Writers

AMY: The group has served as a reality check regarding my characters. Do my young characters ring true? Their emotions and thoughts? Their motivations and choices? Their actions and reactions? Given their parental experiences and open hearts, these writers help me keep it real! Their rich use of language has also been instructive: Marc’s playfulness, Jane’s wit, Priya’s poetry. I learn more from seeing them shape their words over drafts than I would from merely reading a final draft.

JANE: The critiques have informed and improved, dramatically, my understanding of plot points, structure, and flow. I have learned to manage the action sequences, and do so with humor and fun phrasing, making my work more readable and enjoyable. I absolutely credit the group’s positive attitude and expertise in delivering such helpful critiques!

MARC: Our group is truly interested in seeing each of us flourish as writers. They hold me accountable! I write much more than I otherwise would, and they make great suggestions for each manuscript. They’re not afraid to be honest—always sending me back to the drawing board if a piece appears to be missing something. We’re a beautifully diverse group, which inspires me to be very mindful of seeing life and the world from a broader perspective.

PRIYA: In a word, accountability. This group has instilled in me a discipline to write, no matter what. We help each other tweak our pieces to a point that we feel confident enough to submit them. We each have a special something we bring to the table, and each of our perspectives ends up helping us grow not just individually but also as a collective.

Member Bios:

Amy is the picture book author of A PLACE WHERE SUNFLOWERS GROW, winner of the Jane Addams Children’s Book Award. Connect with her at amyleetai.com and on Instagram.

Jane writes middle-grade fiction along with some short stories and the occasional essay. While she plans to seek publication one day, for now, she’s simply enjoying the writing process. Jane can be found on Instagram and Twitter.

Marc is a freelance writer and the author of two picture books: THE GIRL WHO CARRIED TOO MUCH STUFF and WHAT ABOUT ME?. Find Marc at marcboston.com and follow him on Instagram.

Priya is the author of two picture books: PRINCESSES ONLY WEAR PUTTA PUTTAS and FEY FEY SAYS NO. Find more details at priyamahadevan.com and follow her on Facebook.

Two Different (But Connected) Worlds: Writing One Book and Building a Writing Career

During the 2013-2014 school year, I started to dip my toes back into the children’s book world.

I had published one book in 2006. So, I had gone through the process of researching, writing, revising, promoting, and sharing a book. I had learned an awful lot and, to this day, I draw from that amazing experience.

But I’d been out of the kidlit world for several years. Plus, picture books and the industry, not to mention the online world, had changed a great deal during the intervening years.

I felt that I was starting all over again.

Or really, just starting.

In 2006, I didn’t see myself as part of the kidlit world. I’m not sure I even knew there was a kidlit world!

For me, it was all about that one project, a beloved family project: writing a story to the best of my ability and working with my publisher to put out the best book we could. It was still a substantial undertaking, but for me, it was a self-contained world.

I was completely oblivious to writing organizations, critique groups, online presence, networking, agents… even books lists and awards. All of these were the furthest things from my mind. And for my purposes back then, that worked just fine.

It was a blissful existence.

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Fast-forward to the 2013-2014 school year. My kids were growing up. They were pretty much done with picture books, but I wasn’t. I kept borrowing them from the library; I kept reading them in bookstores.

Duh! I wanted to write more books. In fact, I had already started writing one the previous year.

I joined SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators), an international organization. I joined WriterHouse, a local organization. These were big steps — to identify myself as a writer, even though I didn’t completely believe it.

I subscribed to writing blogs, bought craft books, borrowed stacks of picture books. And I devoured them.

That March, I attended the VA Festival of the Book, right here in Charlottesville, as I had before. But that year I went with the lens of a writer.

That May, I took a workshop at WriterHouse with author Kathy Erskine – my first ever creative writing workshop.

Still, I hadn’t really committed to doing this. Writing. Trying to publish more books. And building a writing career.

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Then that July, I attended a local SCBWI gathering led by author Anne Marie Pace. At one point, she asked attendees to share their goals. My goals had crystalized sometime between Kathy’s workshop and Anne Marie’s gathering. These goals had been hanging out in my head, gathering courage.

When it was my turn, I said, “Join or start a critique group, build a website, and then query agents.”

There! I said it. To the whole group. I was now officially accountable, at least to myself.

And guess what? I’ve been doing it…

I started that critique group the next month. And I’ve been writing regularly ever since.

I built that website. Or rather my awesome designer Ashley Parkin built it with input from me.

I started to query agents and editors last April. (More on this in a future post.)

I’ve attended writing gatherings, workshops, classes, and conferences.

I even joined social media and started blogging. Who, ME?

Each of these steps over the past few years has made me stretch in new directions. Some of that stretching has been exhilarating. And some of it has been painful. All of it has taken some combination of courage, patience, and commitment (and chocolate).

All of it has made me grow.

I still have only one book, but I’m a different writer now. And I’ll continue to grow. The growth is never-ending which, in my book, is a pretty cool thing.

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So, writing one book, and building a writing career – these processes have been connected, of course. And they’ve both been incredible. But they’ve been different.

Perhaps the biggest difference, other than the obvious ones of scope and intention, has been the level of initiative and independence required of me.

While working on A Place Where Sunflowers Grow, I had the guidance of my wonderful editor, Dana Goldberg (and the support of the team at Children’s Book Press, now an imprint of Lee & Low). We had a plan and, together, we tackled it.

Now, I’m the captain of my own team-of-one. As it should be, it’s on me to build this career.

Thankfully, I can call on support from various sources: my critique group, individuals in the kidlit world, my family, my friends. The fabulous folks at Lee & Low continue to help promote my book. I value all of this greatly, and I couldn’t do it alone.

But, of course, I hope to work with an editor again one day (and dare I say, an agent). There’s nothing like two (or more) people working together closely to bring a book into the world.

So, I’m digging deep and doing what I need to do. It’s a different kind of proud than holding a published book, but I’m proud nonetheless.

Because I’m sending my heart out there into slush piles. And because I’m trying.

If you’re also following a dream, keep at it! I’ll be right there with you.

Until we meet again,

Amy