Expert Tips From Award-Winning Children’s Author, Aaron Shepard:
9 Mistakes Artists & Writers Can Avoid When Creating Our First Book For Kids
“The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.” —Madeleine L’Engle
By Thea Fiore-Bloom, PhD
Want to write or illustrate a book for children?
Want to skyrocket your chances of creating a good one, that kids and publishers might love?
That’s why I tracked down award-winning children’s author Aaron Shepard, who kindly agreed to relieve 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 laugh or cry as I write, or to pound the desk.”
But Shepard sure didn’t sugar coat the fact that there are a legion of big, hairy obstacles to creating, never mind selling, a quality book for kids–especially in the current publishing climate.
Read on to discover how to navigate around nine of the most common mistake-icebergs that are often responsible for shipwrecking the dreams of many first-time children’s authors and illustrators.
9 Mistakes You Can Avoid When You Create Your First Children’s Book
Mistake Number 1: 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.)
Mistake Number 2: Think a Kid’s Book Has to Teach a Lesson
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.
“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.
Mistake 4: Think It 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.”
Mistake 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.”
However, not all books require research. The amount of research will depend on your individual story.
Mistake 6: Never Starting
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.
“Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.” –Louis L’Amour
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.
Mistake 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 on Amazon, 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, then self publishing may be a good option.
“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.
Mistake 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.
Mistake 9: Give 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.”
This post is dedicated to John, Meng and daughter Sophia. I can’t wait to see your children’s book in stores some day.