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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
* 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
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
Besides realistic fiction, publishers buy
entertaining non-fiction books and multi-media for educational use. ABDO
) 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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