The Lily Cafe is thrilled to welcome Jacqueline Levering Sullivan! She is the author of 4 children’s novels and is here to talk about what actually goes into writing a book for children.
It Takes More than a Weekend to Write a Children’s Book
I am no longer amazed by the number of people I meet casually who tell me they have always wanted to write a children’s book. Recently, at a formal fundraiser dinner, a woman sitting next to me, on learning I was a children’s author, pronounced, “I’ve always wanted to write a picture book, and some weekend I plan to do just that.”
Picture books are usually 1,000 words or less and sometimes have no words at all. So how hard can it be. Right? This assumption is probably one of the major misconceptions about writing for young readers.
A few years ago at a launch party for a friend’s book, a member of my critique group and I were waiting for the event to begin when we were approached by a woman who asked if we were children’s authors. When we replied that we were, she said, ”Oh, I bet you must make a lot of money. “ Having just received a royalty check for $10.18, I couldn’t help it. I immediately burst out laughing.
My experience conducting workshops or reading submissions at conferences has revealed that most often aspiring writers have many misconceptions about writing a children’s book. For example, publishing is not guaranteed. Dealing with rejection is part of the process. And the money doesn’t roll in. Writing is hard, and writing for children is even harder. I think writing picture books is the most challenging because when you have only a few words to tell your story, each one must earn its place.
Out of all the children’s authors I have met, I know of only one who actually makes a living as a children’s author/illustrator. And his income is not just from his books and commissions. It also includes school and library visits, plus presentations at conferences.
When I was teaching at the college level, it wasn’t unusual to have a student talk enthusiastically about becoming a writer, but in the end, some of these same students were really only excited about the idea of being a writer but not enough to accept the amount of work it took. It is important to feel challenged and excited about writing, especially for children.
The following are some suggestions for those of you who are planning to write a children’s book:
- Begin by reading a lot of children’s books. When I began to write for children, I checked out ten books at a time from the children’s library that was then attached to the Claremont Graduate University. I even typed out the texts of picture books to see what they would look like in a manuscript format . Reading children’s books will also help you recognize what defines the various categories. For example, a picture book and an easy reader are very different, even though they both have illustrations. What are the books that appeal to you the most and why? Research the publishers whose books you like. Send for their catalogs and note what is distinctive about the books they publish. Read the submission guidelines. Study them carefully. If you decide to submit a manuscript, follow those guidelines exactly.
- Take a class at a local college on writing for children.
- Join SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). Take advantage of the writers’ retreats, workshops and conferences they offer.
- Join a critique group or start one. (SCBWI can help you find one in your area.)
- Write the book you want to write. It doesn’t matter what the trend is. When I started to write, middle grade and young adult dystopian novels were becoming popular, but I wanted to write historical fiction. My first book, Annie’s War, takes place in 1946.
- Do research if necessary. When I was writing Lovesick, which takes place in 1953, I even read through my high school yearbooks, in addition to researching historical events. You want to make sure that even small things are historically accurate.
- Submissions will require a query letter that must grab an editor’s attention. Resources are available that are helpful guides to writing query letters. These can be found online or in books about writing. Don’t use gimmicks or try for clever language. Just be yourself. And make sure your letter and your manuscript have been carefully edited.
- Most publishers have a three to six month response time frame. If you have had no response after six months, it usually means your manuscript has been rejected. Very few publishers confirm they have rejected your submission. So don’t wait, start another project. Keep writing.
- Talk to the librarians in the children’s section of your local libraries. They can be very helpful and often have lists of topics they feel are lacking in their collection. They want to encourage authors to write the books that can fill that void.
- I would like to say there is a perfect way or the perfect formula to getting published, but one doesn’t exist. Do your best to educate yourself about the world of publishing children’s books. Books are available to help you learn more about the process. Online journals such as the Children’s Book Insider list up to date publishing opportunities. If you have a passion for writing for children, listen to yourself and find the story you were meant to write. Take yourself seriously as a writer and be persistent.
About Jacqueline Levering Sullivan
I was born in Tacoma, Washington, a city on the beautiful Puget Sound. It is always in the background of most of my writing. The Northwest was the perfect place to grow up. The long, rainy days never bothered me. They meant I had plenty of time to read, and I seldom had my nose out of a book.
Though there was a war on during most of my young life, and food and clothing were rationed, there was no limit to my imagination. My neighborhood friends and I loved to play war, talking in bad French accents and pretending we were in the French Resistance. We dug foxholes in the yard of a very obliging neighbor, had wonderful picnics at Point Defiance Park and put on elaborate plays for the amusement of our astonished parents. I sometimes fished with my father in Puget Sound and went clam digging on the shores of the Pacific.
I spent my summers at my grandmother’s in Walla Walla, Washington. Just like Annie, I spent the sixth grade there. Being with my grandmother was always a treat, especially since she had a grocery store. My cousins lived nearby, and we managed to find adventures running through the endless gardens and orchards.
Since I had asthma, I was often home from school. In junior high I used to write romance novels in longhand on big lined school tablets. I hid them in shoe boxes because I feared my mother would think them silly.
In the fifties I graduated from college, married and moved to California where I began to teach high school. In 1961, I had a son. When he was about six months old, I started to paint and for the next twenty years I worked in oils, studied printmaking and earned a Masters in Drawing and Painting. When my son was small, he used to paint his own pictures in the bottom corners of mine.
By the time my son was in high school, I was a single mother living in Claremont, California. In 1984 I started teaching at Pitzer College where I met my husband Jack. We married in 1985, and Claremont became my permanent home. One day I was visiting a neighbor, and we started talking about the internment of the Japanese during World War II. My neighbor’s daughter overheard our conversation and was amazed to find out that even though she was studying WWII in school, she had no idea what we were talking about. That very afternoon, I went home and started writing a story about the war, fully intending to write it just for her and her sister and brother. The story became a novel, then it inspired a picture book. Though I never sold either of those books, they were the beginning of the process that led to Annie’s War.
I began Annie’s War as a story about a girl trying help her family cope with the aftermath of WWII. It soon became clear that I was writing Annie’s story to satisfy my own curiosity about how the real Miss Gloria came to be such an important part of our family. How was it that in the 1940’s, a time when prejudice was commonplace even in the Northwest, my grandmother willingly bucked the attitudes of some of her neighbors, to give Gloria a home and a job? Why was it that I had such strong images of Gloria as a part of my young life? Since I had only my own memories of that time and a few I heard from older members of my family, I set out to create the story that could have been ours.
Books by Jacqueline Levering Sullivan
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Thank you so much to Jacqueline Levering Sullivan for such an insightful guest post I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did. Be sure to check out her books.