I have a writing coach—in fact, I have a number of them. Some work on retainer for an $18 one-time payment; many of them work for free. They are available day or night, weekday or weekend, holiday or workday. I hire my coaches at the bookstore or library. They live between the covers of carefully scrutinized children's books. My coaches are also called mentor texts.
A mentor text is a well-written book that gives you the structure, the language, the arc that you could use for your own work. It is especially useful when you hit a wall. I have a fat folder of research on an unsung, feisty American woman with lots of kid appeal. But where to start? What to put in and what to leave out? Should I use chronological, flash-back, anecdotal structure? I was stuck.
Then I came across Kathleen Krull’s Dolley Madison: Parties Can Be Patriotic! (Bloomsbury, 2015) at my library. A quick scan of the first page and I wanted to yell, “EUREKA!” I had found the coach to lead me out of my literary dead end. Kathleen Krull readily came home with me and has stayed for the last couple of weeks.
Dolley Madison is part of Krull’s series on Women Who Broke the Rules. That’s also an apt description of the heroine of my current work-in-progress. Studying the way Krull skillfully wrote Dolley Madison is like having her seated beside my desk, patiently tutoring me. Here are some of the things Kathleen Krull has taught me so far:
1. Use a topic sentence with details--but not always. Note how this topic sentence is followed by the quick fire of four telling details.
All the rules in the new country of America were stacked against women. They were like property, first belonging to their fathers, then their husbands. They couldn’t attend college. No respectable jobs were open to them. They couldn’t vote or have any role in government.
2. Use a relevant quotation to hammer home your point. The paragraph above ended with “In fact America’s FF (Founding Fathers) believed women in politics would be unnatural— ‘the world turned upside down.’”
3. When facts are skimpy, frame them with period details you know to be true. Instead of stating the bare bones fact that Dolley’s first husband and her child died of yellow fever in 1793, Krull fleshes it out this way:
Then the deadly yellow fever reached town in 1793. Spread by mosquitoes, the horrible disease killed one of every five people in Philadelphia. The victims, alas, included Dolley’s new baby and her husband.
4. Know your theme before you start and refer to it often. Krull’s first sentence is “Dolley Payne was born with extra zip.” The last two sentences of the first chapter are: “Good thing she had a third secret weapon working for her. That extra zip.” In another chapter, “Would Dolley come to the president’s house…and help? Would she! Dolley jumped in with her usual zest.” The last chapter tells us that in retirement at Montpelier, after a tumultuous and popular reign as First Lady, Dolley “was still the hostess with the mostest.”
5. Use emotional details. Emotion is what makes us connect to characters, even historical ones. With deft strokes, Krull includes heart touching details that bring Dolley, an 18th century woman to 21st century life. Here are three of them:
Any of Kathleen Krull’s many titles are a master class in nonfiction writing. Stop by your library or bookstore and invite her over. She may be just the coach you need.
You might think you’re organized, but are you really, really organized?
I thought that I had a great filing system. It's one that I had been using for years.
Then, I read my friend Nancy I. Sander’s blog on writing journals. Previously, I always began each project with a new folder where I stuffed every slip of paper, note, magazine article, and photos on my current project.
When the folder became unruly, I switched to a file box. When that box was totally crammed, I moved to tubs.
My materials were together, but they were a mess. I was continually looking for a line, phrase, page, etc. that I knew I’d written, but couldn’t get my hands on.
I assumed that this was just part of the creative process. It never occurred to me, until reading Nancy's first post, that there was a much, much better way to keep track of your work. I’m embarrassed to say that I have actually spoken at conferences on organization and writing. Yikes!
Nancy is truly the master of organization. Imagine this - a Table of Contents! And notes!
More importantly, imagine being able to know exactly where your images, quotes, resources, reference tools, opening and closing lines, etc. are!
Nancy explains her system in a series of seven posts. After these first few, each one will include organizational skills that every writer needs to know, right down to putting a sticker on the upper right-hand corner of your journal’s Table of Content since you will be flipping back to it so often.
One of my favorite posts was an explanation of the topics Nancy puts in her journal. This gem will always be on the inside cover of my writing journals.
I love notebooks, markers, stickers, and glue sticks. As a former librarian, I love cataloging information. This writing journal stuff was made for me. And now I can say (thanks to Nancy) that yes, I am really, really organized.
In case you haven’t figured it out by now, writing for children isn’t easy. There’s more to this literature than meets the eye. And, as is the nature of children, one size certainly doesn’t fit all.
One thing an author has to decide early on is who their intended audience will be. A book that is appropriate for a toddler won’t cut it for a fifth grader. It’s not uncommon for authors to start a project without a clear picture of who will be reading the final product. It is important to know a little about the types of books appropriate for each age group and the generally accepted word length.
Books for babies, birth to about 18 months, are sometimes called novelty books. Usually 16 pages at most, they are often wordless or have a single word per page. They may have interesting textures to touch, make noises, or have pieces a baby can manipulate. Of course, their most important characteristic is they are durable and can survive teething and/or bath time.
Board books for toddlers, from about 18 months to 4 years are usually 24 pages. The word “board” refers to the type of binding and the pages which are thick cardboard. The word count ranges from none to about 100 words. Topics often include first words, labels, or finger play.
Concept books, for ages birth to 4 are books that teach concepts like letters, numbers, colors, or things that go. The maximum word count here is around 500 words.
Picture books are books for ages 3 to 8. The artwork is crucial to the story or concept. They are usually 32 pages. But nonfiction picture books can sometimes be 40 pages. While the word count for a story picture book ranges from zero to about 600 or 700 words, nonfiction picture books are typically longer. They are often in the 1,000 to 3,000 range.
Early readers are books written for kids ages 5 to 7 who are just learning to read. They are written to a specific reading level using leveled vocabulary. The word count begins around 250 words for the most basic reading level and goes all the way to about 3,000 words for more advanced readers.
Chapter books, also called young readers, are for ages 6 to 9. The word count varies depending on the age and grade level of the reader. They start at about 4,000 words for a book at the first grade level and go to about 10,000 words for a third grade book.
Middle grade books, often called MG, are written for ages 8 to 12 in grades 3 through 6. They begin at about 20,000 words and go to 55,000.
Young adult (YA) books are written for ages 12 and up. The word count ranges from 55,000 to about 80,000. The lower end of the word count is for preteen and young teens, while the higher words counts are for older teens through young twenty-somethings.
As with picture books, nonfiction MG and YA usually have higher word counts than fiction. They are typically between 5,000 and 85,000 words.
It’s important to note that the guidelines listed here are not set in stone. Editors and agents all have their own ideas about what they consider appropriate. But an author who doesn’t have a grasp on who their audience might be will probably have a tough time selling their idea to a publisher. After all, identifying the audience is an essential part of a query, proposal, or elevator pitch. That makes it really important to know who will read the finished book and keep the word count within acceptable limits.
Yes, there are exceptions. But it’s never a good idea to assume that your story is the exception. A word count that doesn’t fit the general guidelines might be the one reason an editor or agent chooses not to read it.
Tackling a picture book biography can be daunting! You’ve done your research, read books and articles, taken notes and have stacks of facts. Sometimes too many facts. Way too many! How can you sum up a person’s life for a child?
One way is to narrow your focus on just one aspect of their life – their childhood. Children love to know what people were like when they were their age. It makes an instant connection between your subject and your reader.
As you research, look for anecdotes, stories and incidents from your subject’s childhood.
Keep these questions in mind --What inspired their future endeavors? Was their skill, talent or aptitude apparent in their early years? Did they have a defining moment that led them down a particular path? Was their future success or achievement hinted at years before they discovered their life’s purpose?
Here are a few outstanding mentor texts that focus on a person’s childhood:
Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim
An inspirational story highlighting Civil Rights leader John Lewis’s desire to encourage people to think, feel and act. But who can he practice his empowering speeches on when he’s just a young farm boy?
The flock of chickens he’s tending!
Words Set Me Free: The Story of Young Frederick Douglas by Lesa Cline-Ransom
As a child, Frederick Douglas dreamed of a future where everyone was treated equal. He knew he had to do one important thing before that could happen – learn to read. No matter how difficult or how many obstacles he faced, he knew he MUST succeed.
Me…Jane by Patrick McDonnell
Almost all children have a favorite stuffed animal. So did Jane Goodall. She adored her stuffed chimpanzee which led her to a life devoted to studying, living among and helping animals.
Before He Was a Jazz Giant: A Song of John Coltrane by Carole Boston Weatherford
John Coltrane LOVED all the sounds of his childhood. And what he heard as a young boy helped shape his amazing musical career.
Dig deep and search for those special childhood moments in a person’s life that have shaped their future. Having a child read about someone’s younger days and CONNECT to them is an amazing accomplishment. Imagine them closing a biography and thinking, “Hey, they are just like me!” or “I’ve done that, too” or “I know how that feels.”
Not only will your reader gain a deeper understanding into someone else’s life, they will believe that they too, can do amazing things in their life.
Because after all, we all started out as kids.
When I came across Dapré’s quote while doing some research on the Internet one afternoon, I loved it! I actually said out loud, “Yes!” You see, to write for children, we need to be where they are and listen to how they talk. We need to watch how they move and interact with the world around them.
This was much easier to do when my daughters were at home because we were “that house”—the house where all of the neighborhood kiddos gathered. I never had to work at being around children. Today, as an empty nester, I find myself having to work a little harder when I want to interact with my readers.
If you find yourself in that same situation, or if you write for the picture book market and you only have teens in your house, you’ll also have to get a little more creative to observe and interact with your readers. So, here are four tips to help you in that quest.
Yes, this will take some time, but it’ll be time well-spent. Get to know your audience and watch your writing become more raw, more real, and more relevant.
One key element that makes narrative nonfiction so compelling is the sensory details you weave into the story.
The reader feels part of the scene when they can hear the rattle of buggy wheels on cobblestone, or smell the putrefying flesh at a crime scene. The best way to collect those sensory details is to personally experience your subject. For example, I know that the skin of a beluga whale feels like a peeled hardboiled egg because I went to Sea World and touched one. But when a deadline’s looming, or travel isn’t in the budget (and you can’t time travel) there are still plenty of ways to sniff out those details.
3. Maps – When writing about Lincoln, I kept a map of D.C. on my wall so I could trace his travels through the city. From the White House could he smell bread baking at the Capitol, or hear the cattle grazing beneath the Washington Monument? And using a map of the White House I could ascertain Jefferson’s view from his office window. It faced west, so I could safely say, “Through the geraniums growing on the windowsill (a detail from a letter), Thomas could watch the cattle graze in the distant meadow. How many times did his imagination look even further west across an entire continent…?”
4. Google Maps Street View – It’s the next best thing to being there. When writing about George Washington Carver I viewed several of the houses he stayed in, and determined how close a lynch mob came to his doorstep. Now Street View also features the Grand Canyon, Eiffel Tower and the International Space Station.
5. YouTube – You can find everything from a video of a praying mantis laying eggs to a 1940 first full color newsreel of The Tournament of Roses. Your senses will be delighted with these sites, and you can pass those details to your reader.
What sites do you rely on to give your stories that whiff of reality?
Here’s something that gets forgotten on the writer’s journey – the importance of getting to know and support folks in your local bookstore.
People get into bookselling for the same reason authors and illustrators get into creating books – THEY LOVE BOOKS.
You sit alone, crafting your story to the best of your ability, revise, revise, revise with the help of critique partners and ultimately, you hope, with an acquiring editor. But when that book comes out, the next part of the journey is to get the book into children’s hands.
Librarians and educators are key allies. And so are the people who run bookstores. If a bookstore loves your book, they’ll display it prominently and recommend it to patrons. They may host your launch party, pitch your book to schools and, possibly, set up an arrangement where you can personalize the books people order.
So how can you build that relationship?
BOOST You think it’s a struggle making it as an author? It’s a struggle making it as a bookstore. Look for excuses to post about your local bookstore on social media.
BUY Your budget may be limited. But bookstores, especially small ones, remember every customer. Plus, there’s nothing like seeing what bookstores put on their shelves to help you understand what kind of stories and storytelling people love.
BE THERE Make regular trips to your local bookstore. While you’re there, sign your books they have in stock and see if you can help out with a storytime. On July 13, I’ll present storytimes at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. as part of the two-year birthday celebration for Interabang Books in Dallas. I stay in close touch with friends at my local Barnes & Noble and Express Booksellers, which sells books to schools and non-profits.
And here’s the best part. I’ve met wonderful people at these bookstores – people who inspire and encourage me. These are people that believe books matter. So make friends with a bookstore and the amazing people in it. You’ll be glad you did.
According to Urban Dictionary, the word “rad” is used when “awesome” and “cool” just aren’t enough to describe something. Who doesn’t want their writing to be that great? Well, here are three tips to make your writing totally RAD:
*Read books geared for the age group you’ll be writing for—board books, picture books, middle grade, YA, etc.
Make a trip to your local library and check out as many books as you can carry. Whether it’s board books or YA books or anything in between, get to know what’s trending, what’s winning awards, and what never goes out of style. Because trends change so quickly in publishing, you’ll want to focus on books published in the past three years (as well as a few classics). And, you may want to check out the latest Newbery and Caldecott winners.
If you want to write for kids’ magazines, flip through a few issues to get a better idea of what they publish or study back issues featured on their websites.
As you read, take time to study the text. What makes them work? What do you like? What don’t you like?
*Allow yourself to go new places in your children’s writing.
Don’t trap yourself in a corner by saying, “I only write in rhyme” or “I only write chapter books.” Step out of your comfort zone and try sharing your stories in a variety of ways. When we think we’ve arrived in any area of writing, that’s when we stop growing. That’s when we stop getting better. That’s a dangerous place to dwell. Keep learning! Keep getting better! Keep stretching yourself as a writer!
Sometimes I write in rhyme like all of my What Is… books, and sometimes I write in narrative like my books with Mitchell Lane Publishing. Sometimes I write inspirational text like my Dinosaur Devotions and sometimes I write silly concept board books like my Counting Cows. Every story has different needs. Every story has a different tone. And, every story challenges me.
Early in my career, former editor at Waterbrook Erin Healy suggested I write every story in both rhyme and narrative to discover which way the story really needed to be told. I took her advice, and I’ve been doing that ever since. I challenge you to do the same!
*Dig into the emotion of every story.
It might be funny or sad or sweet or inspiring but whatever it is, let that emotion flow onto the page and run through your entire text.
My friend and fellow NF Ninja Peggy Thomas taught me “The Spaghetti Rule” at our recent Next Page retreat, and I loved it. She said you should be able to pick up a single piece of spaghetti from your story—that one long noodle that runs from cover to cover. Yes! That doesn’t just apply to the theme of the book but also to that emotion.
I think one of the best examples of this Spaghetti Rule can be found in The Rough Patch by Brian Lies. It’s beautifully written and illustrated, and that emotional thread is apparent on every page. If you haven’t bought his book yet, you should. Trust me on this one!
So, are you ready to take your writing from kind of cool to totally RAD? Then study up, try new things, and write a great story. By taking those three steps, you’ll be on the road to RAD.
When I look back over my 15-year writing journey, one thing that stands out is the importance of writing mentors. These writers took the time to teach and listen, and consistently pointed me in the right direction. I would not be where I am today without their guidance.
My first mentor, Joanne, was a local writer whose work I admired. I screwed up the courage to invite her to lunch, and her encouragement was the push I needed to start submitting my work. Her invitation to a local writer’s group also opened a door to the writing world for me.
I met my next mentor at my first SCBWI meeting. As I listened to the critiques, I quickly realized how much I had to learn about writing for children. When the moderator mentioned a class she was teaching, I signed up on the spot. I continue to benefit from Laurie’s wisdom and insights to this day.
My agent has been another mentor to me. Before becoming an agent, Vicki modeled professionalism and a sincere desire to help other writers as our region’s SCBWI advisor. She continues that work today as an agent, and I continue to benefit from her example and direction.
There are too many others to list them all here. But I am so grateful to each one! The children’s writing community is amazingly generous and helpful.
So what should you look for in a mentor? To me, a good mentor is someone who is kind but honest about your work. They offer wise counsel and career advice. They help make you a better writer and human being.
A good mentor models success. They don’t need to be a New York Times bestseller, but they consistently achieve results in their own life in areas you want to emulate.
And finally, after listening and giving feedback, a good mentor will step back and let you make your own choices. Ultimately, it is your work and your career. You need to do what feels right to you.
The other side of this equation, of course, is becoming a mentor yourself. Wherever you are on your journey, don’t forget to extend a hand back to someone a step behind. There is nothing more rewarding than helping others succeed!
Who have been the mentors in your life? How have they helped you? Take a moment to thank them, and maybe give them a shout-out in the comments!
Lisa Amstutz is the author of 100+ children’s books. She serves as a volunteer judge at Rate Your Story and as Assistant Regional Advisor for SCBWI: Ohio North. Lisa offers critiques and mentorships for children’s writers as well as website design services. Learn more at www.LisaAmstutz.com.
Over the years my books have won various awards. For some titles, I worked with my publicist at one of my publishing houses to submit my books for awards. Basically, here's the plan we came up with (that I also use when I’m submitting titles on my own):
1. Prepare a budget for awards submissions. Be sure to include the cost of each of your books submitted, plus postage and envelope to mail it in, and the charge for submissions. If working with a publisher, find out if they have a budget for awards, too. Many do.
2. Make a list of places to submit your book to for awards. Note the cost for submission and the qualifications for the award. Only submit your book for awards if it meets their required criteria.
3. Be sure to include places that don't necessarily offer an award, but honor your book by including it on their list of recommended reads.
4. Make a calendar. The calendar notes the deadlines for each place you're submitting your book.
5. Start submitting. Especially submit to award sites that are free.
Here’s a link to my blog for a list of potential places to submit your book for awards:
The philosophy of the publicists I've worked with has been: Don't worry about whether your book wins the award or not. Submit if it's within your budget for one main reason: EXPOSURE. When you submit your book for an award, it lands in the hands of judges, many who are important folks in their circle of literary influence. For my titles that met the submission criteria, my publicists submitted my books for the Caldecott and Newbery awards and even for the Pulitzer Prize hoping solely for exposure.
One other thought...rather than aim for expensive awards such as the Mom's Choice Award if it's too far above your budget, consider contacting several mom bloggers who have a couple hundred of followers each. Offer to give them a free copy of your book if they'll review it on their site. I have one independent publisher who likes this approach and it has
earned them thousands of dollars of sales of my books and great exposure...for a much more reasonable cost!
-Nancy I. Sanders (www.nancyisanders.com) is the bestselling and award-winning author of over 100 books with publishers big and small including her how-to book for children’s writers, Yes! You Can Learn How to Write Children's Books, Get Them Published, and Build a Successful Writing Career.
We are eleven authors who support readers and writers through our writing, author visits, and workshops.
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