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Make Real Dough Writing Kid Stuff
by Beth Fowler

Four trends drive publishers' search for manuscripts for children's books and other media.

1. Demographics - According to US Census figures, there were 3.4 million more 10- to 14-year-olds in 2000 than in 1990. Kids in this age group have developed reading habits already.

2. Buying behavior - "USA Today" (July 15, 2002) reported that 14- to 17-year-olds bought 35.6 million books in 2001, six million more than they purchased in 2000.

3. Harry Potter's spell - Best-sellers have sparked kids' appetites for more books. "We want to publish the kind of books that will come anywhere near the 'Harry Potter' numbers," David Gale, Simon & Schuster's editorial director said.

4. "Read me a story." - The number of 3- to 5-year-olds read to daily by family rose 4% from 1999 to 2001. (Federal Interagency Forum on Child and Family Statistics.)

There's money in publishers' budgets and space on school, library and household bookshelves for your works. You can profit on the trends.

* Get a grip: Giving characters elfin ears won't transform leaden manuscripts into gold. Without hobbits, Ann Brashare ("The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants") and Cornelia Funk ("The Thief Lord") focus on young readers' interests.

To discover how children's interests and intellect change as they mature, dip into psychology books and books about raising children, enroll in childhood development classes, eavesdrop on kids at music stores and playgrounds, and notice which movies and TV shows different age groups watch. When you meet bookworms, ask open-ended questions. ("What do you like about that story?") Once you've got a grip on what grips different age levels, you can write about interesting, age-appropriate subjects and problems for your intended audience.

* Change with the times: The classics "The Cat in the Hat," "Charlotte's Web" and "National Velvet" are exceptions that prove the rule — tastes change from generation to generation. Acquisitions editors receive too many manuscripts featuring overworked subjects such as anthropomorphized animals, talking objects, ugly ducklings, Santa Clauses and stories in rhyming verse. Uncounted old stories are passe because they don't appeal to modern readers. Learn what makes classics classic, then scrutinize modern books by R. L. Stine, Joan Aiken, Meg Cabot, Jerry Spinelli and Nancy Springer, whose motto is "Power to the kid!"

Compare and contrast books published yesteryear and this year. Today's stories emphasize the child's point of view, delete adult rescuers, and sometimes detour the "happily-ever-after" route. Words that were taboo when I was a squirt can be OK. John Marsden, award-winning novelist for adolescents, is proof that teenaged sex passes muster if handled thoughtfully.

Once you know what 21st century kids (and publishers) want, you can…

* Rewrite classics: Today's youngsters still enjoy some of yesterday's classics thanks to timeless themes and distinctive characters. You can retool stories in the public domain (works with lapsed copyrights) as did Cathrene Valente Youngquist whose "The Three Billygoats Gruff and Mean Calypso Joe" is a spiffed up revision of an oldie. David Wiesner's 2002 Caldecott Medal winner, "The Three Pigs," features the familiar porkies in an unfamiliar world. Barnaby Books (www.barnabybooks.com ) is one publisher of picture books about legends, fairy tales, fables and folklore.

* Write real: Publishers want stories reflecting children's experiences living in cities as well as the 'burbs, coping with divorced parents, bickering with stepsiblings, and encountering peers with different values and ethnicities. Case in point: Coretta Scott King Award-winner Jacqueline Woodson writes about young people struggling with difficult, credible family situations. Woodson's "Our Gracie Aunt" deals with abandonment and foster parents.

* Lay it on light: Kids resent heavy messages. When an engaging protagonist learns a lesson in an entertaining story, readers learn too without having it spelled out. When editing your story, ask, "What messages does my story communicate, intentionally or unintentionally? What morals are implied? What morals are bellowed?"

"Sosu's Call," by Meshack Asare, is about a boy in Africa who can't attend school due to a disability. Villagers shun him because they think his bad legs bring bad luck. The boy finds a special drum to call villagers in from fields and saves them from a deadly storm. The villagers reward their hero with a wheelchair so he can go to school. The story, which won an Award for Outstanding Book for Young People with Disabilities, subtly explores acceptance and encourages examination of assumptions about people with disabilities.

Barefoot Books (www.barefoot-books.com) focuses on themes that encourage independence of spirit, enthusiasm for learning, and acceptance of other traditions.

Besides realistic fiction, publishers buy entertaining non-fiction books and multi-media for educational use. ABDO (http://www.abdopub.com/ ) publishes non-fiction about history, sports, animals, science, geography, culture, countries, and famous people for students in grades K-8.

* Go beyond books: Kids snap up more than traditional books. Teleplays, puppet plays, screenplays, stage plays, radio scripts, video scripts, audio books, software, CD-ROMs, magazine articles, activity books, stories and games; newspaper lift-outs, brochures, booklets, internet site text, and comics tied to movies, TV shows and video games were authored by someone. That someone could be you, next time.

* Study success: Analyze best-selling and prize-winning children's authors' works. Look to Book Sense's (http://www.booksense.com/) top teen books where independent booksellers chose "Big Mouth & Ugly Girl," Joyce Carol Oates' story of a boy and girl entangled in a plan to blow up their school. Study Linda Sue Park's 2002 Newbery Medal winner, "A Single Shard," set in 12th century Korea. Find award winners at http://www.ala.org/. Examine stories for pacing, suspense, foreshadowing, scenes, dialogue, characterization, conflict, humor and other elements of first-rate literature.

* Use resources: Click on Children's Books at Gotham Writers' Workshop (www.writingclasses.com/index.html). Visit Aaron Shepard's Kidwriter Page (www.aaronshep.com/kidwriter), Sue Reichard's site at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/childrens_writing and visit www.write4kids.com/ebooks.html, a library of how-to info for novice and experienced children's writers. Check out Paula W. Graham's "Speaking of Journals" (www.boydsmillspress.com/) and Liz Koehler-Pentacoff's "The ABC's of Writing for Children." Pick up info about magazine and book publishers, agents, workshops and more at www.signaleader.com/childrens-writers/. Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators at http://www.scbwi.org/.

Children (that's people from toddlers to young adults), have always and will always love entertaining, imaginative, well-written stories. Although children's publishers receive more manuscripts than they can look at or use, one editor told Judy Mandell in "Book Editors Talk to Writers," "If there really is talent there, it will be found, it will be recognized." And paid for. You can make real dough writing for children.

© Copyright 2003, Beth Fowler

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