A monthly column by Anthony D. Fredericks
Every so often, a friend will hand me a children’s book manuscript and ask if I would look at it and offer an honest review. I’m always delighted to do so. But, over the years I’ve discovered that almost every one of those potential book projects suffers from a critical mistake. To me, this is the most damaging slipup any children’s writer can make. Indeed, I can review a manuscript for a mere six seconds and I will instantly know that the author has committed this blunder. When I ask about it, she will often hang her head and sheepishly admit that, yes, she is guilty of breaking this rule. And, what is that rule:
If you are going to be a successful children’s author
you MUST read children’s books on a regular basis.
Interestingly, many novice writers think that just because they’ve raised some children (and told them stories at bedtime) or read a book or two to their grandchildren, that they are ready to write their own book for kids. Unfortunately, just being around kids does not adequately prepare you for writing children’s books. You need to soak yourself in the culture of children’s literature. You need to know the language, the themes, the concepts, the tenor, and the presentation. And, the ONLY way to do that is to read children’s books every day…every week…every month. Without fail!
Reading current children’s literature – on a regular basis – has enormous benefits for you – particularly as a nonfiction author. Here are just a few:
A. Introduces you to a wide range of authorial styles.
If you want to get a sense of what good writing is all about you need to sample many different kinds of writing – both fiction and nonfiction. In so doing, you are getting a full picture of what writers can do with words, concepts, thoughts, and ideas.
B. Shows you language patterns that resonate with readers.
When you read the stories and books of other authors, you can get a real sense of the language appropriate for different age groups. Knowing the language of kids is essential to writing books that resonate with kids. This is an important piece of homework.
C. Gives you the opportunity to compare good stories with bad stories. In order to appreciate the good, you need to experience the bad. In order to know what good books do you need to experience the bad ones. The bad books give you a frame of reference necessary to your compositional efforts.
D. Allows you to see how different authors handle similar themes.
By exposing yourself to a wide variety of storytellers, you can get a sense of how various authors tackle universal themes. How do they voice those themes? What words or images do they include? How are the sentences crafted or paragraphs shaped? By studying the various ways of presenting a story, you are giving yourself an education available nowhere else.
“So, Tony, what should I read?” you may ask. Good question! Here’s my response: Everything you can. Read old books and new books; books from big publishers and books from small publishers. Read books at the top of the best-seller list and those at the bottom; read picture books and YA novels. How do they differ? What makes some books stand out from the competition and others sink to the bottom of the barrel? How does one writer’s writing style propel a book into the hands of readers, while another’s make a book seem like radioactive waste?
|“I have advice for people who want to write. I don’t care whether they’re 5 or 500. …you need to read. You can’t be a writer if you’re not a reader. It’s the great writers who teach us how to write.” – Madeleine L’Engle, children’s author
Here’s the absolute key to success as a children’s author: If you want to write children’s books you have to read children’s books! One without the other is like vacationing in Maui without going to the beach or a Manhattan without the maraschino cherry. Read, and keep reading, lots of children’s books and you will notice a decided improvement in your own abilities to craft nonfiction stories…memorable stories…for a new generation of readers.
Tony is an award-winning author of more than fifty children’s books, including Mountain Night, Mountain Day (https://amzn.to/2y6scM2). This blog post was excerpted from Chapter 4 in Tony’s latest book: Writing Children’s Books: Everything You Need to Know from Story Creation to Getting Published (https://amzn.to/2Jv48rm) which will be released on September 1, 2018.