Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Some Thoughts on the Children’s Book Publishing Industry After Having Finished Reading the Book “The ABCs of Writing for Children”

I finished reading the book “The ABCs of Writing for Children”. It is a terrific book for anyone interested in writing for children, illustrating children’s books and also would be interesting for those who love children’s literature.

The book is compiled of snippets of quotes from 114 different children’s authors and illustrators. The topics are divided by chapter.

I have really enjoyed reading this book. It is a great book to read before going to bed as it is inspirational and interesting and not a stressful read.

Before I read this book I was a picky consumer. I read a lot of children’s books to my family and I don’t want to waste my time or theirs on twaddle. I also began writing customer reviews on Amazon (for no pay) in 1999 (again, just for fun). I liked gathering my thoughts about a book and publishing them. To date I’ve reviewed 300 books on Amazon, over the last eight years, to me that is not a lot. When I began writing the reviews there, Amazon did not give much information to the consumer. I relied on other customer reviews to help me understand what a book was about and so I thought I was doing the same for others with the reviews that I wrote.

In 2006 I attended a conference about children’s literature and heard six children’s book writers and illustrators speak. I realized then, for the first time, how long it can take to write and also to illustrate a book. I will admit that I had no clue, for example, that an illustrator may take six solid months up to more than a year to make the artwork for one children’s picture book. I didn’t know any illustrator ever spent that much time on their part of the picture book creation process.

One of the speakers that I heard speak was Bruce Deegan. From Deegan, who works closely with the author, Joanna Cole, on the Magic School Bus books, I learned that the illustration job is much more than just making the art. I learned about how the number of words on the page is limited and how sometimes getting the illustrations to match the text and to all fit on one page can be a challenge. I learned that tweaks in text in the editing process might alter the illustration, too. I learned that the flow from one page to the second page on spread must not just flow well but complete a thought. What can be covered in that topic must fit on the one or two page spread. Boy, was it a lot more complicated than I ever imagined. I mean, I always knew when I thought an illustration didn’t seem a right fit for the page but I didn’t notice what of the good illustrations made the book and story flow better. While I have always appreciated beautiful art in children’s books I will admit that I hadn’t realized how much thought goes into what seems to be more basic children’s book illustrations.

Reading this book “The ABCs…” has given me a different perspective on the children’s book publishing industry. I learned a bunch of new things that may influence the way I write reviews. I now hesitate to be as harsh as I sometimes have been. Or perhaps instead, while I may have though a book was mediocre, I may now appreciate the good of it and appreciate all the work that went into creating it and getting it published and give kudos for that alone. At this point it seems that to have done all the work to write the book, to illustrate it, to get it actually published is saying something.

Then again, there are books out there that are just plain average if not junk (twaddle). There are boring stories and stupid stories. Frankly I don’t understand how they got published after reading all the personal accounts of how hard an author worked to get a certain wonderful book published. I am surprised at the number of rejections that the writers get, yet so many persevere. Then again, I guess I’d blame the publisher and the editor. If a publisher has it in their mind to publish something on a certain topic then I am sure they can find someone to write and illustrate that book even if readers or other authors, illustrators or publishers would not think it was good enough to be published.

To boot I read several times that $5000 is a common fee for a children’s writer to be paid. The pay is obviously higher for those who write bestsellers and go on to write more books which the publishers beg to be written. However the idea of someone working for six months to three years to create the text for one children’s book is daunting to think that all they may earn is $5K for that work. It doesn’t even compare to what an entry level job in the normal workplace pays, such as a cashier at McDonald’s would earn more! Additionally, beyond the time spent creating the book, the author must spend hours trying to get their book published, or have the money to pay an agent. After reading that I have come to the conclusion that those who write for children do it mainly to create and out of the love of the work!

The book also explained some other things that I didn’t know about the children’s book publishing industry. I learned the typical way that an author would write a children’s picture book and submit it for possible publication. It explained (although I knew this) that the author doesn’t have a say about who the illustrator is and often, how they interpret the story (unless they are also the illustrator). Repeatedly they said that the text should tell about 50% of the story and the illustrations should tell the other 50%. This left me confused as if I am just the writer how can I have a vision for the story yet not include all of that in the text if the text is all the publisher will see?

It was also made clear that some children’s book authors resent the parental oversight of the books that the children read. There was a chapter on censorship which basically covered parental objection to books used at schools and present on the library shelves. Of course the authors all thought that most times the challenges were wrong and misguided. For example, not liking that a book was banned as the word ghost was in the title or that the book was about ghosts. Those authors clearly have a passion for their story about ghosts but have no respect for the choices of some parents to not expose their children to ghost stories. Where is the tolerance? I found it lacking. If I were to write a book I’d feel strongly that what I wrote is a good thing but if someone objected to the content I’d say “that is your prerogative”. Period. I respect other people’s choices, other parent’s decisions about how to raise their children, even if I parent differently. (My recent discussion of the subject of magic in children’s literature is one big issue with parent’s choices and censorship.)

The book got a little more serious when the topic turned to the content of the book, specifically about mature themes and problems that children can have which are written about in children’s books. This is the part of the book that got me thinking and where it turned from being “good bedside reading” to being “food for thought”. This was a small section of the book but the topic still has me thinking.

It was clear that the authors have their own agenda and they feel the children have a need for being exposed to certain kinds of material. Putting certain topics into the books is not done for amusement or for shock value. It seems to me that they do it as it is what some children really experience and they feel that if just one child is helped by reading the book, then it would be worth it. In one story the author had written of a child who was sexually abused. She met a girl at a book signing and later found out that she was being molested by relatives and that her book was the first time she had read about the issue and then sought therapy and help her and to stop being molested. The author stated she felt her book was worth it due to it reaching some children.

My perspective as a parent is that perhaps not all children need to be exposed to something so serious and innocence-shattering (especially if they are young) if a percentage (20% by some estimates) are the ones who will experience childhood sexual abuse (by the time they are 18). Also speaking as a parent I would not like it if a school in which my child was enrolled in was pushing the reading of a certain book when I thought the content was not something that I wanted my child exposed to.

Another issue is the availability of children’s books to children such as in libraries where the child may connect with the book without a parent’s intervention or chance of censorship. This is the parent’s problem or prerogative, I know. But the fact is that kids can sneak or they can accidentally stumble upon certain books or content in books even if that content is not right for their age or maturity level. I can see on one hand, how an author would want to have certain topics out there but on the other hand once the book is published it may also fall into the hands of a child who is younger or not yet ready for that content.

(Confession: I snuck and read certain books from the public library and the school library, and as thirteen year old I bought books with my own money at the local department store, that my parents didn’t know I was reading, which were intended for older teens or adult audiences! Also, though, they didn’t monitor what I read and gave me full freedom to pick what I wanted to read there were some books that I did intentionally not tell them about which I know they would have not allowed me to read.)

One other comment about the book, I read it cover to cover. I want to share that the books flow was a bit backward in order of content, in my opinion. In the beginning I felt uplifted and interested. I was motivated and the sense I was getting from the book was to just write, try it, and go for it. The feeling was so strong for me that I almost stopped reading the book at that moment to try to write a children’s book. I would like the book to END that way not start off that way or leave me feeling that way in the MIDDLE.

However I kept reading the book, wanting to read it cover to cover right then. At some point the feeling was more grim, that it is very difficult to get a book published and that even after the work of writing it is done (or illustrating it), it can take years of self-promotion to try to find a publisher. After publication also, the writer and/or illustrator may spend many hours and months doing marketing and self-promotion. The idea that a person JUST writes or JUST illustrates is not an accurate picture if actually being published or actually making lots of sales is desired. So at that point in the middle of the book I thought, “Oh forget this! Getting published is nearly impossible!”

And by the end of the book, the content was talking about all the other great books out there that a person could or should read and learn about topics X, Y, and Z, I felt overwhelmed and had that feeling that I was not ready to write until I bought about 100 more books on the craft of writing and learned everything in them.

Now as a contrast. I will throw in that right before I read this book I was more than half way through the new book “Chapter After Chapter” in which the author said the opposite thing, so I had that going for me and I want you to know this tidbit also. We readers and potential writers were warned by the author Heather Sellers to not get hung up with buying or reading a zillion “how to write” books. So instead of taking the advice in “The ABC’s…” I am going to take the advice of Sellers and pick a small number of crucial, great books to read and to use, and then I am going to STOP reading about how to write and just write. Period.

I will also say in case you are curious, why did I stop reading “Chapter After Chapter” if it was so great? The reason is that I first bought “Chapter After Chapter” and began reading it, then bought “The ABCs…”. I was so pumped up and excited by what I was reading in “Chapter” that I stopped reading it in order to read specific information about the children’s book writing craft and industry. Now that I’m done with “The ABC’s” I am going back to finish “Chapter”.

I wrote more about “Chapter After Chapter” in this past blog entry.

Back to “The ABCs of Writing for Children”…it is a very good book. If you are at all thinking of writing a book for children this is a must read. If you are a lover of children’s books such as perhaps a librarian, teacher, homeschooling mother or a parent and want more information about the industry this would also be an easy read which is entertaining.


P.S. Today while editing and revising this blog entry to prepare it for publication I had a brand new book idea. So perhaps I’ll investigate that as an alternative to my other ideas! Hooray!

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1 comment:

At A Hen's Pace said...

Thanks for such a thorough review!