How to Avoid the 9 Mistakes First Time Children’s Book Authors Make
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Want to avoid the worst rookie mistakes children’s book authors make? I do. Interested in skyrocketing your chances of authoring a children’s book that lots of kids will love?
A book that publishers will pay for?
That’s why I tracked down award-winning children’s author Aaron Shepard.
Shepard kindly relieved me of several misconceptions I had about creating a worthwhile book for kids.
Shepard is the author of a towering stack of excellent children’s books including The Legend of Lightning Larry, The Baker’s Dozen, The Sea King’s Daughter, The Crystal Heart, The Legend of Slappy Hooper, Lady White Snake, Forty Fortunes and The King o’ the Cats.
“I take the kind of pleasure in writing a book that I hope kids will eventually derive from reading that book—the delight or power of being immersed in a great story,” said Shepard.
“It’s not uncommon for me to cry as I write, or to pound the desk laughing.”
Sounds great right? But Shepard sure doesn’t sugarcoat the facts about getting a book published.
So let’s get the skinny from Shepard on just how to navigate around nine of the most common mistake-icebergs that are responsible for shipwrecking the dreams of many first-time children’s authors and illustrators.
9 Mistakes Children’s Book Authors Make That You Don’t Have To
Rookie Mistake N0 1:
You Think You Need to Find An Artist (if you’re a writer) or a Writer (if you’re an artist)
For Writers: “Unless you’re an artist yourself, editors will want to match you with professional illustrators of their own choice, said Shepard. “Sending someone else’s pictures with your words can count against you.”
For Artists: Likewise, if you’re an artist you can crush your chances of getting published if you send someone else’s story along with your drawings, paintings or collages.
For more practical info for publishing your first book visit Aaron Shepard’s Kidwriting Page.
Artists interested in getting work published should look at this how-to article for illustrators on Artsy Shark and check out the online home of SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.)
Rookie Mistake N0 2
Think a Kid’s Book Has to Teach a Lesson
Maybe the most common mistake children’s book authors commit is structuring their book around a moral.
Shepard put this quote on the flyleaf of one his non-fiction books for children’s writers:
“‘Thou shalt not,’ is soon forgotten, but ‘Once upon a time,’ lasts forever.”
—Phillip Pullman, (the novelist behind the film “The Golden Compass”)
“Too many aspiring children’s authors see their stories as a way to indoctrinate children with heavy-handed messages,” said Shepard.
“Children’s stories do often contain guidance for living, but they should emerge naturally from the story as a lesson to be learned not only by the child but also by the author.”
“In that way, good children’s stories resemble life (which itself is a story),” said Shepard.
Rookie Mistake No 3
Assume That Children’s Books Are Easier to Write Than Adult Books
“Good writing is difficult no matter what the reader’s age—and children deserve the best,” said Shepard.
Many people assume picture books would be the easiest kind of children’s book to create. In fact, the opposite is true.
“Picture books may be the hardest—because they demand conciseness, simplicity, and a visual sense,” said Shepard. “Also, the competition is greater, because more people try them.”
To present only the powerful essence of something complex in public requires a lot of hacking up, boiling down and tossing away in private. Be prepared to repeatedly pare down your story.
Rookie Mistake No 4
Think Your Book Has To Rhyme
“Stories in rhyme are especially hard to do well, so editors look at them skeptically,” said Shepard. “In most cases, you should avoid rhyme.”
Rookie Mistake No 5
Think No Kid’s Book Requires Research
Many seemingly light and delicious kid’s books that may take a minute to consume are often researched.
To responsibly present an intricate children’s book based on myth or folktale requires even more homework.
“When I retold Lady White Snake, I spent almost a full year researching: Chinese opera, Chinese mythology, the evolution of the story and the opera itself, the geography of the relevant places in China, Chinese festivals, even the medicinal powers of the legendary Ganoderma mushroom — all before I even started writing.”
(Check out this short Charmed Studio video post how the research habits of author/illustrator Beatrix Potter helped her create her Peter Rabbit magic.)
However, not all books must be researched.
The amount of research will depend on your story.
Rookie Mistake No 6
Unfortunately, there is also such a thing as too much research.
You can sabotage your creative efforts by thinking you have to know a bit more about your subject, and a bit more after that, before you can start writing or painting.
“I used to read and enjoy a lot of children’s literature,” said Shepard. “But at some point, I think immersing yourself too much in other people’s stories can divert you from creating your own.”
Do some homework on structure and content, but don’t forget to begin.
For excellent, accessible tips on how to structure a plot for your book, you can’t beat Shepard’s, The Business of Writing for Children.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
Rookie Mistake No 7
Assume It’ll Be Peachy To Self Publish
Shepard’s got three words for folks new to children’s books who are thinking about self-publishing:
Don’t Do It.
“That may sound strange coming from me, as I was a pioneer in publishing through print on demand and selling online, and I’m still considered an authority on the subject,” said Shepard.
“But that has mostly been in adult nonfiction, and children’s book writing is a whole different matter. There’s a discipline and development that goes on, usually over several years, when you write for kids and submit to publishers.”
Shepard thinks if you self publish, the process is short-circuited, and the development doesn’t happen. “You wind up publishing books that aren’t up to the standards we want in books for kids.”
If you’ve already sold books to publishers and you want to reprint one or try something new, that’s great, thinks Shepard.
Or if you’re at the point where you’re getting personal comments from editors, but none have been willing to commit; self-publishing could be the way to go.
“But if you’re still getting form letters for rejections, or you haven’t even tried to submit, then you’re almost certainly not ready,” said Shepard.
Rooky Mistake No 8
Think Kiddy Lit Will Be A Quick Ticket To Financial Freedom
“Don’t count on ever making a living from your books, because that’s rare.”
“Even full-time children’s authors usually make about half their money from public appearances.”
Rookie Mistake No 9
Giving Up Too Soon
Despite the challenges to the publishing industry, segments of the juvenile book industry grew eight percent last year alone. (Publisher’s Weekly, 2017)
“Have patience,” said Shepard. “For most authors, it takes years to write something publishable and find a home for it. Treat it more like a journey of discovery, and you’ll be alright.”
Lastly, remember your wild, creative ideas for things like a children’s book, a mural or a mosaic have value. Keep the words of Eleanor Roosevelt close to your heart:
“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”
— Eleanor Roosevelt
Sometimes it’s our fear of greatness not our fear of failure that keeps us from achieving our dreams. Check out our post The Jonah Complex: How Artists Can Overcome Fear of Greatness.
Or get support by reading:
This post is dedicated to John, Meng and daughter Sophia. I can’t wait to see your children’s book in stores some day.
“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” —Madeleine L’Engle
What has stopped you from beginning to write or illustrate your story for children?
Let us know in the Comment section below. 🙂