Chapter 3: The World of Children's Literature

This is a sample chapter from the third edition of The Complete Idiot's Guide to Publishing Children's Books. The complete text of the chapter is included, with minor corrections, but the format has been altered to suit the Internet.

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In This Chapter

Crucial to writing or illustrating for children is acquiring an understanding and knowledge of what children want to read, have read, and continue to read. You need to immerse yourself in the world of children's literature. Just as it's not enough to think you have a good idea for a business and immediately pour your life's savings into it, it's not enough to assume children's books are the right thing for you. What would you do if you were starting a business? You'd research your prospects. Check out the competition. Look at how a similar business might have thrived in the past. The same goes for children's books.

This chapter navigates you through your possibilities, giving you an overview of children's literature and touching on why understanding your audience is crucial.

The Children's Books Buffet Table

Remember how Mom used to nudge you into exploring new foods? "Just try it," she'd say, as she served avocados or a new casserole. And as you grew up, you encountered many new favorites.

Children's literature is like that. You have your favorites now, but there are many dishes you don't know. As you try new ones, you'll find many reading levels, age groups, styles of writing and illustration, and audiences you also like. You'll see there's no one right way to write or illustrate or one group who will be your audience. And you'll notice that the tone you use in a book for a witty and worldly sixth-grade boy isn't the same tone you'd employ in a toddler's picture book. For example, Island of the Blue Dolphins (a historical novel by Scott O'Dell) and Goodnight Moon (a picture book by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Clement Hurd) are both considered classics of children's literature, but the audience for each is vastly different.


When you write or illustrate, you do so in the hopes other people, your audience, will see your work. You need to understand your audience--especially difficult in children's books because you're not a member of your audience and big differences exist from one child to another in reading abilities, visual skills, and maturity. Your audience ultimately determines your style and tone.

To really get a feeling for what works for a toddler, 10-year-old, or early teen, you must get to know the various books out there for those age groups and learn how publishers differentiate genres. Don't rely on vague memories of the books you read as a child. Children's books are different today and are changing all the time.

Find out what children, as well as critics and librarians, think are the best. Now, don't overreact. You don't need to go out and get a Ph.D. in children's literature. I'm just suggesting some selections from the buffet table.

The Classics

Who can forget his favorite bedtime story? I loved Virginia Lee Burton's Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel. My daughter loved Molly Bang's Ten, Nine, Eight. Many titles endure the test of time and generations of readings: Make Way for Ducklings, Curious George, and Charlotte's Web. Even books published in the 1970s, 1980s, or 1990s, from picture books like Dr. Seuss's Oh, the Places You'll Go; Vera B. Williams's A Chair for My Mother; and Chris Van Allsburg's The Polar Express, to novels by Judy Blume, Virginia Hamilton, or Lloyd Alexander may now rank as classics.

Class Rules

Don't assume that books you loved as a child are actual classics or would be loved by children today. New classics come along and old ones retire. People tend to believe "the classics" are a fixed pantheon, but every generation adds and subtracts to suit new tastes, conditions, and assumptions about what's good for children.

Although you might rattle off the titles of adult classics such as The Great Gatsby, Bleak House, or The Odyssey, getting to know titles throughout the many age levels and genres of children's literature might prove more difficult. Here's an introduction (I go into more depth in Chapters 8 and 9).

Ask a Librarian

If you haven't read a children's book in 20 years and don't know where to look for a good starting place, ask your local children's librarian to show you around the world of classic children's literature. Children's librarians are experts on the classics and the very latest new books, and chances are they'll enjoy sharing their expertise with you.
Follow these steps to ensure you receive some good take-home reading material:

Can You Keep a Secret?

If your local library doesn't have much of a children's collection or is too far away for easy access, a local school is an alternative resource. If your children attend school, you have a very good reason to find out what books the kids are reading at what level and ask about other recommended books.

Finding the Very Best

Playground Stories

In this chapter I advise you to consult experts, children, best-seller lists, and "best of" lists, but all this should lead in one direction: developing your own taste. When I was getting started in children's publishing, I read Alison Lurie's Don't Tell the Grown-Ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature. This had a big influence on my developing tastes because the book provided support for ideas I already had.

Newspapers, magazines, and even television shows often put together "best of" lists that you can consult for guidance. Some come out at the end of the year, while others are more occasional. For example, School Library Journal, one of the nation's most respected reviewers of children's books, got together a panel of experts as the millennium approached to determine the "100 Significant Books" of the twentieth century. The list was published in their January 2000 issue. Here are some examples from the list you might not know:

If you want to learn more, consult a guide book. Consider Anita Silvey's The Essential Guide to Children's Books and Their Creators. She's the former editor of the Horn Book Magazine, a highly respected children's book journal. Her guide compiles hundreds of entries on noted authors and illustrators, plus essays on specific genres. It's a great book to keep with you throughout your career. For now, you might want to start with the Basic Reading List at the beginning of the Silvey's book, neatly broken down into different genres and age levels.

Hot! Do Touch That!

Beyond immersing yourself in the classics, you also need to know what's hot now--what kids are reading and parents are buying for their kids today--besides Harry Potter! After all, thousands of new children's books are published every year in the United States and Canada. The old standbys do retain steady sales year after year, but it's worthwhile to keep a finger on the pulse of kids' immediate reading preferences.

It might seem like an overwhelming endeavor as you explore all the new titles bursting forth from the publishers ("Just how am I going to read everything?" Answer: "Don't try to"), but you can streamline your mission. Follow the leader as we return to the library. . . .

Go Back to the Library

When you return all those children's classics you checked out, ask the librarian to show you today's hot titles. If the books are really hot, you might have to get on a waiting list for specific titles. Join the list and get an idea of what kids are enjoying nowadays. Or ask if the library has another list--one of the annual lists of recommended titles put out by different organizations.

What's Selling?

Get a different perspective on the latest books for children by visiting your local bookstore's children's department. From stocking the shelves and talking to customers, employees in this department know what's selling. They see what children and young adults choose, and they may have noticed that those self-selected titles are quite different from what parents and grandparents buy.

Can You Keep a Secret?

For recent books children like, check out the annual IRA/CBC "Children's Choices" list available at the IRA website. For librarians' "best of" lists, find the "Notable Children's Books" list at the American Library Association's website. To find out about what's hot in bookstores, check the American Bookseller's Association's "Book Sense" lists. Your local bookstore may have copies on hand, or you can find the latest list on the ABA website.

If you ask for books to give an elementary school student, they may suggest classics like The Secret Garden or The Wind in the Willows--books you'll also find on the School Library Journal's list of 100! But the staff is just as likely to say "We see a lot of kids choosing titles from The Magic Tree House books and from Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events," two popular recent series. If you ask about picture books, you may be handed a classic such as Kay Thompson and Hilary Knight's Eloise or a recent book, Laura Vaccaro Seeger's Dog and Bear: Two Friends, Three Stories.

Booksellers also meet with sales representatives from book publishers, who provide overviews of all the new titles coming out each season. Pick a bookseller's brain sometime, and you'll probably hear about stacks of both really wonderful new literature and classic stuff.

Talk to Children

Most children tend to be honest and direct, so talk to them about what books they like. Ask your cousins', neighbors', and friends' kids what they like to read. Of course, if you have kids, ask them, too. If they feel comfortable with you, they'll tell you what they like and what they don't. Children like to make adults happy (well, most of the time), so don't telegraph the answers you want to hear when discussing books with them. Don't suggest possible titles, and don't settle for what they read in school. Ask them what they read when they get to pick their own books.

If you have time, go back to your library or bookstore. Sit quietly in a strategic spot and watch what children pull from the shelves and read. As you do, remember that children's tastes can outweigh any marketing plans. The initial popularity of the Harry Potter series came from word-of-mouth through kids in the United Kingdom, not what the publisher did. That's kid power!

Class Rules

Children reveal their feelings through their bodies. If you're reading a picture book to a toddler and he starts to squirm, either he has to go potty or he's not interested. Now you need to find out why. Try different books and see which he prefers. You can do the same thing with older children; just be sure you pay attention to their body language, not to what they tell you afterward.

If you're able to gather a group and talk about certain books, do it. Perhaps a teacher you know will welcome you as a guest storyteller, or you might even become a regular volunteer. Bring a stack of various picture books and read for half an hour to first graders. Read the books beforehand, so you can keep your eyes on the children and not on the page. Gauge their interest and reaction to the material. Be careful of your delivery--you don't want to bore the kids with a monotone reading, but you also don't want to slant their reaction by giving an animated show. See if the story and the illustrations deliver the goods. This experience not only helps you continue to learn about what children respond to in books, it also helps you gauge reactions if you ever try out your writing on children--a tricky but potentially enlightening thing to do (see Chapter 12).

It all comes down to this: you want to write or illustrate for children, so get to know what they find amusing, interesting, or fascinating.

The Least You Need to Know

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Copyright © by Harold Underdown 2008 ( Google + Profile ). All rights reserved. One copy may be printed for personal use, but may not be otherwise reproduced, either on paper or electronically.