A Monthly Column by Anthony D. Fredericks
|WELCOME: What was formerly known as the “Navigating Nonfiction” column for this blog has now been transformed into the “Write Angles” column. Our intent is to offer readers a wider range of topics and a more inclusive view of writing children’s books. Not only will we provide insights into a plethora of challenges and concerns; so too will we examine a range of philosophies and strategies that will inform, instruct, and inspire. In so doing, we invite readers to share this column (via social media) with friends and colleagues beyond the range of Eastern PA SCBWI. We also solicit your views and questions. Do you have a pressing issue, an unanswered question, or an unresolved concern? Let us know (firstname.lastname@example.org). We’ll do our best to respond in a future column. Once again, welcome aboard!|
The Need to Read
I’m not a big fan of stories with talking animals. Giving various critters anthropomorphic qualities is a cheap way of getting a message across. But, I read them! I don’t particularly enjoy dystopian novels where great suffering or injustice is the driving force behind the plot. But, I read them! I’m not crazy about picture books that try to press a philosophy or moral on kids. But, I read them! Why do I read books I don’t like? It’s a way of researching what I don’t enjoy to help me write books that I will enjoy . . . and that readers will, too.
Not long ago, in a writing workshop, someone asked me if there was a secret to becoming a successful children’s author. I replied that there were actually several secrets to success: treating writing as a job rather than a hobby; making writing a priority every single day; staying in perpetual contact with your audience (walking around playgrounds, talking to kids regularly, visiting schools, etc.); and reading! Reading everything you can get your hands on—the good, the bad, and the very, very ugly!
It’s often the “ugly” books that make the biggest difference in your writing.
For me, there are two types of “ugly” books—those that deal with topics or themes I don’t find interesting or compelling, and those that are just plain bad. And, trust me, the market does not suffer from a lack of very bad books. The opening of multiple self-publishing venues has given a wide swath of the American public permission to pen a children’s book and get it “in print” without the need for editorial intervention or professional proofing. Scroll through children’s books currently online and you will encounter a rash of titles that are beyond boring, beyond review, and beyond comprehension. They give new meaning to the phrase, “OMG—I can’t believe someone actually wrote this!”
But, why subject yourself to this bad literature? (I use the term “literature” very loosely.) Simply because it helps you realize the need for a higher level of writing in your own work. By sampling all the books out there that (1) you don’t enjoy, and (2) are unprofessionally written, you get a sense of what not to do and what you should be doing as an authentic children’s author.
When I do school visits, kids will frequently ask, “How long does it take to write a children’s book?” When I respond that it often takes me two years and between 25 to 30 drafts to craft a children’s book, their eyes expand into saucers and their mouths are agape. “He must be the slowest (or dumbest) writer in the world,” they undoubtedly say. But, my underlying philosophy has always been that I won’t put a book out there that I wouldn’t want to read myself . . . or read to my children . . . or my grandchildren. How do I know if a book is good enough? Easy! Is it comparable to the “ugly” books out there, or has it risen above?
Reading a wide range of children’s books might be the most important practice you can integrate into your writing routine. In that vein, don’t confine yourself to the books in your local public library (librarians are quite knowledgeable about the criteria for good books and won’t waste their limited financial resources on second-rate literature). Visit “big box” bookstores in your local area. Book buyers for those stores often have insufficient backgrounds in children’s literature and will often include marginal literature in their displays. Spend an afternoon a month in those stores and you’ll see what I mean.
Also consider spending time surfing the Internet to see what people are putting online. Kindle will have a wealth of “ugly” children’s books that scream “amateur” via two-dimensional illustrations, sagging plot lines, undistinguished characters, and a clear lack of focus.
Yup, reading “the good, the bad, and the ugly”—on a regular basis—will give you both perspective and insight into what should (or shouldn’t) be in your book. You’ll definitely know what to leave out . . . and what to put in!
Tony is an award-winning writer of more than 50 children’s books, including the 2018 CBC/NSTA Outstanding Science Trade Book Tall Tall Tree (https://amzn.to/2JCeMJZ). He is also the author of the ebook Writing Children’s Books: 701 Creative Prompts for Stories Kids Will Love (https://amzn.to/2FMITxt) [“. . . one of the best guides that I have found with prompts for creative children’s book ideas” —Amazon 5-star review].