Picture books are expensive to produce and often don’t bring in great profits to publishers, unless a book becomes widely popular. So they are very picky about what manuscripts they accept. Houses publish picture books out of love for the genre and for their literary, artistic value. Besides picture books, there are other categories of children’s books, and each category requires a certain type of formatting and a certain level of vocabulary. Writers must do more than write a good story—they must write to the category and level their story fits.
At a writing conference, an editor of children’s books critiqued ideas presented by those in the audience. One idea was about all the things a kid could do if she had wings. The writer said the story would end with “and if you had wings, no one will ever forget you.” The editor commented that wanting to be remembered was an adult concern, that kids didn’t care. Another editor mentioned that those who write about kids and their horses are usually senior citizens who think every kid loves horses. Some things interest kids of every generation, while other things depend on changing culture and lifestyles.
In Jennifer’s book, Blue Ribbons, Sheridan faces a conflict when he wins a blue ribbon for his photo, his first entry ever in the county fair. His elderly grandmother, who hoped to win her first blue ribbon for her painting, places second again, winning her ninth red ribbon. He can’t stand for her to be disappointed so he switches ribbons to make her think she’s won first place. His good intentions create a greater problem—the Senior Center plans an exhibit of his grandmother’s paintings and books a reporter to cover it. Does he confess before the truth comes out? Or does he try to get away with it?
Read the beginnings of ten classic kids’ books. How does the author grab your attention? What makes you want to keep reading? In Charlotte’s Web, E.B. White grabs our interest in 96 words. “Where’s Papa going with that ax?” said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast. “Out to the hoghouse,” replied Mrs. Arable. “Some pigs were born last night.” “I don’t see why he needs an ax,” continued Fern, who was only eight. “Well,” said her mother, “one of the pigs is a runt. It’s very small and weak and it will never amount to anything. So your father has decided to do away with it.” “Do away with it?” shrieked Fern. “You mean kill it? Just because it’s smaller than the others?”
See our sample query and cover letters on our website.
See our sample query and cover letters on our website. Lively book manuscripts that support the school curriculum are often easier to sell, and they stay in print longer. For instance, Joyce Milton’s nonfiction early reader, Dinosaur Days has sold more than one million copies and gone into more than 60 printings since it was first published by Random House in 1985. Very few children’s picture books or middle grade novels can boast the same success. In fact, bookstore owners have told Shirley Raye that if a fictional children’s book hasn’t “made it big” within six to nine months of its appearance on the shelves, then it won’t.
You must pay attention to story and sentence structure, as well as grammar, punctuation and spelling. Clean up that sloppy copy. Imperfect diction, grammar and punctuation are clear indicators to an editor that he or she is dealing with an amateur. If your queries are continually rejected, but you’re convinced that your ideas are marketable, it may be the quality of your work that is the problem.
See our samples of correct formatting on our website.
Remember that most manuscripts are rejected because the subject matter (or genre) is wrong for the chosen market. Why would you try to sell an article about introduction to taxidermy to Ranger Rick magazine? And Highlights for Children doesn’t publish short stories about junior high crack addicts. Eerdman’s Books for Children is not interested in YA novels about teenage witches. Get intimately acquainted with the publication and/or chosen book market you are targeting.
Find a writing buddy. Join a critique group or take a weekly writing course—anything that will keep you motivated. You’ll find a new sense of purpose, revitalized vigor and new sources of inspiration from your fellow wordsmiths. Remember that success can be contagious. Expose yourself to it!