Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Are you a contender?

It’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a… contest!!!  (not mine, read on for deets)image

Think your book’s a winner?

If you’ve written and self-published a children’s book, click on through and submit it to Aviva Gittle’s “Top 10 Self-Pub Children’s Books of 2013” contest.  She’s extended the deadline to January 7 just in time for YOU to enter.

You’ll need to send her a PDF copy, hard copy, or free download link (given that the entry deadline is so close, opt for one of the digital choices!).  Full rules and entry guidelines here.

Also, check out her new blog series, Birth of a Children’s Book!

Interview with author / illustrator Ann D. Koffsky.

imageIf you could interview any kids’ book author or illustrator living today, who would it be?

Can I confess something?  As a freelance writer for magazines and newspapers, I have to do a lot of interviews.  But here’s the thing… I HATE interviews. 

It’s not you, it’s not me; it’s the phone.  I’m just not a telephone person.  I’d rather walk five to ten blocks and be disappointed that a friend is out than use the phone to tell her I’m coming over. 

This isn’t a phobia or anything.  If it needs to be done, so be it.  I get ‘er done and move on.  I do love talking to interesting people, from cardiologists to paralympians, from chefs to students with a dream, and learning from them all… but I still hate using the phone. 

That means my dream interview format is… the EMAIL INTERVIEW.  Aka pestering people at random in the wild hope that they’ll get back to you with something interesting.

imageLucky for me, WRITERS WRITE.  It’s what we do, and we’re good at it.  So I was thrilled when a very special writer / illustrator (or probably the other way ‘round) whose work I’ve been following for a while got back to me with her wonderful email responses.

Finding a niche

Some novice authors think that they will be most successful if they write for a huge, general audience.  That can work for some, but perversely, sometimes choosing a small, specific niche audience can offer a greater chance of success.

Ann D. Koffsky (Ann-with-no-E, the opposite of Anne of Green Gables) is a kids’ writer with a niche:  like me, she sticks mainly to books for Jewish kids and families.  Unlike me, she’s totally talented at drawing.

image Ann started as an illustrator for others’ books, but in the last few years, has come out with a few of her own as well. 

These days, everywhere I look in the world of Jewish children’s and educational publishing, there’s Ann.  In addition to her writing and illustrating, she blogs and creates beautiful children’s colouring pages on Jewish topics, available free on her site.  And last Passover, when I sat down with my son to do a holiday puzzle we had lying around, I looked at the box and realized the illustration was Ann’s, of course.  She’s everywhere!

image The Interview

Here’s where you pretend that I am all slick and erudite and deep-voiced like those people who talk about literature on the radio.  Thanks!  :-)

WriteKidsBooks:  How is a kids' book different from an adult book?

Ann D. Koffsky:  If you mean specifically a picture book, as opposed to a chapter book or YA [young adult], I think the biggest different is right there in its name:  "PICTURE book."  Pictures are the main vehicle for telling the story.  A kids’ book is a visual experience — a grown-up book is all text. That, to me, makes it a vastly different product and means of communication with your audience. It's like the difference between a movie and a song!

WKB:  What is your favourite children's book of all time?  (I’m Canadian; I get to spell “favourite” with a “U”!)

ADK:  Harold and the Purple Crayon by Crockett Johnson. Some books are classics for good reason! I love this book because of how seamlessly the text and the pictures work together to tell a story. And, it's so clever and brilliant — deceptively simple pictures hide true genius! And feel free to spell however you like :)

WKB:  You write and draw mainly around Jewish themes.  What drew you (no pun intended!) to this specific niche rather than to a more general audience?

imageADK:  It's a cliché, but in this case it's true: you write what you know. I am a Jewish Mom, and my kids are in Jewish schools, and a lot of our lives revolve around all that stuff. So it's in my head, and I guess when I start thinking creatively, it's what comes out.

Please check out Ann’s latest book, Frogs in the Bed:  My Passover Seder Activity Book, which you can preorder now from Behrman House Publishing.

Her coloring pages – for Jewish holidays and also for many wonderful secular occasions – are all available free at her site.  Just click the cute honeypot to visit her now.

Thanks for reading!!!!

Now, back to my question:  If you could interview (or READ an interview with) any children’s book writer or illustrator alive today, who would it be?

Famous first words.

How to start a story?  The words you pick are important, and to prove it, let’s see if you can match up these famous first words with the story they’re taken from. 

I’ll let you know the answers in a few days, but I think you’ll be able to figure it out on your own.  ;-)

(By the way, I started out trying to pick only ten, but the list gradually bulged to 11, then 12, where I put my foot down and left it the way it is now.)

1 Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy. The Tale of Despereaux,
by Kate DiCamillo
2 Once upon a time there were four little Rabbits, and their names were - Flopsy, Mopsy, Cotton-tail, and Peter. The Jungle Book,
by Rudyard Kipling

“‘Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.”

The Very Hungry Caterpillar,
by Eric Carle
4 This story begins within the walls of a castle, with the birth of a mouse. The Phantom Tollbooth,
by Norton Juster
5 Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. The Tale of Peter Rabbit,
by Beatrix Potter.
6 These two very old people are the father and mother of Mr. Bucket. Murmel Murmel Murmel,
by Robert Munsch (got to throw in a Canadian!)
7 It was seven o’clock of a very warm evening in the Seeonee hills when Father Wolf woke up from his day’s rest, scratched himself, yawned, and spread out his paws one after the other to get rid of the sleepy feeling in their tips. Where the Wild Things Are,
by Maurice Sendak
8 There was once a boy named Milo who didn’t know what to do with himself—not just sometimes, but always. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,
by C.S. Lewis
9 Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump, on the back of his head, behind Christopher Robin. Charlotte’s Web,
by E.B. White
10 The night Max wore his wolf suit and made mischief of one kind and another his mother called him “WILD THING!” and Max said “I’LL EAT YOU UP!” so he was sent to bed without eating anything. Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (Sorceror’s Stone in the U.S.),
by J.K. Rowling
11 When Robin went out into her backyard, there was a big hole right in the middle of her sandbox. Winnie the Pooh,
by A. A. Milne
12 In the light of the moon, a little egg lay on a leaf. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,
by Roald Dahl

I can think of so many more great ones, but I will stop at 12.

image This probably isn’t that hard a test, because a great opening line, followed up with great writing and great characters, sticks in our memory… in many cases, forever.  So most of these matches should be obvious.

I’ve included this not just to trigger your memory of wonderful children’s-book opening lines, but because I think all these lines (in different ways) make a terrific point:  the story gets going RIGHT AWAY, right off the bat. 

As a children’s book author, you can’t fiddle about and take ten pages to introduce your characters and their daily life.  You have to start in with something exciting almost right away.  You have to get kids asking questions, like:

  • What?  A hole?  How did it get there?
  • Who is Winnie the Pooh and why is he bumping on the back of his head?
  • What’s Max going to do with no supper?
  • What the heck kind of wolves can tell time?
  • What IS papa doing with that axe?

It’s also interesting to see that the older a kids’ book is, generally the longer the author takes to warm up.  That’s true in adult writing as well.  Modern audiences are not known for their patience, and a long warm-up line like Kipling’s probably couldn’t make the cut in modern children’s writing (in some cases, Kipling’s writing seems more aimed at adults in any event). 

The older kid’s books also start out in a way that everybody tells you not to today.  I put two of them together to show it off deliberately:  “Once [upon a time] there were four _____ (children, rabbits) whose names were ________ (Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy; Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, Peter).”

Modern books of all kinds don’t generally introduce characters in this kind of up-front way. 

In a film course, I once learned that in old movies, a character at home might say, “I’m going to the store.”  Then, the director would show the character driving to the store, getting out and going inside to pick up some milk.  Today, if the scene is included at all, it’s about ten seconds – a guy tells someone he’s buying milk, and flash – he’s back home with the milk (unless something happens at the store that you need to show!).

So why did they make them clunky like that?  They had to!  Viewers 100 years ago would have found it confusing if the milk just appeared in the character’s hands.  And now that movies have been around for a while, we know the conventions and would find that sort of storytelling deathly dull.

imageDitto with children’s books.  It’s deathly dull to start out “This is Veronica and she is six years old.” 

What would your kids do if you showed them a new child and announced, “This is Veronica and she’s six years old”?  If they’re anything like mine, they would probably ignore her.

But what if you start with, “This is Veronica and she’s going bump bump bump down the stairs by the back of her head”?  “This is Veronica and she found a big strange hole in her sandbox.”  “This is Veronica and she’s heading out with an axe.” 

That last one, at least, might get them to look up from their book.

(Oh, yeah, did I mention that all 4 of my kids are big readers?  Wonder where they got that from!)

So these books are some of my favourites.  What opening lines or first words of kids’ books stand out in your memory???

Monday, December 30, 2013

Basics, Part 1: What is a children’s book?


Seems pretty simple, right?  But you’d be surprised – not everybody who tries to write one actually knows what they’re trying to accomplish.

But if you’re looking for specifics that will lead you invariably to success, you may come away from this post slightly disappointed.  Sorry!  (for a few of those tips, see Part 2 of this series)

Honestly, I’ve read all the books and blogs and ebooks that promise to tell you exactly how many pages you need to have, and exactly how your book has to look; how the illustrations must be formatted, font, type size, and more. 

I’m not going to do that.  It’s bossy and kind of mean and besides, none of what used to be conventional wisdom is totally true anymore.  I’m not a professional publisher, and if I was, self-publishing would have already blown me out of the water and made all my pompous pronouncements worthless.

Quick tip to double your odds: read it out loud.

Ezras_Aliyah cmyk_small

Actually, I believe you can MORE than double your odds of a book’s success just by following this one piece of crucial advice that’s overlooked more often than you’d think:

Read it OUT LOUD.

Read it OUT LOUD.

Read it OUR LOUD.

(ha ha ha… see what I did there?)

Yesterday, I had Word open and was tootling around in the final manuscript of a kids’ book when my 6-year-old son came up behind me.  (He was home sick with a cold.)

“Want me to read it to you?” I asked.

“Nope,” he said, but he continued to read over my shoulder, which everybody here knows drives me craaaaaaaaazy.

After a few minutes, while it sunk in that I was flipping around in my ADHD style aligning illustrations and wasn’t going through the book in a linear way, I asked again and he said yes.  So I read it out loud to him, the whole thing, start to finish.

And instantly found not one, not two, but FOUR changes I needed to make – urgently! – in a 27-page book.

Now, these weren’t catastrophic errors.  This book is long past that stage.  These were minor lumps and bumps; places where the reading wasn’t clear or the wording of a sentence was awkward on the tongue.  Mistakes you’d only catch by reading it aloud.  Mistakes I wouldn’t have caught if there hadn’t been a little guy standing behind me willing to listen all the way through.

But if you’d have asked before I read it through, I’d have said it was ready to go to print, and I would have been wrong.

This book is a bit of an exception:  most of what I’ve written has started out as a story, been read to the kids and their friends a few times, and revised several times based on what they like and how well it reads out loud.  In this case, it’s been sitting neglected on my hard drive since July and we don’t have a printer here, so they haven’t heard it yet.

BOY, was that a mistake.

Would Microsoft release a new operating system without beta-testing it first?  (okay, don’t answer that!)  Would General Mills put out a new flavour of Cheerios without giving it to a bunch of typical families for feedback?  Would Hollywood release a movie without focus grouping it to death first?

Sometimes, dogs will get through anyway.  Like professionally-“edited” books that are full of typos, breakfast cereal that is so woefully bad nobody eats it, cars that catch fire when driven at highway speeds, multimillion-dollar movies that flop during opening weekend and are never heard from again.

But you have to do your best to up the odds, and the quickest, easiest way to do that is to “beta-test” your book with actual kids.  This isn’t expensive and it isn’t hard: 

Print it out!  Gather kids!  Read it to them!

Like this:


Of course, what you do with their feedback is a topic for a whole ‘nother post, like how to tighten up bits where they squirm and get restless and what if they don’t understand some of the language or the plot.

Read it OUT LOUD.

This is especially true for poetry, by the way.  Just because the rhymes all cap off nicely at the end of the lines doesn’t mean it scans perfectly.  Ask me how I know.

Oh, and even if your book is for older kids and isn’t really meant to be read aloud, do it anyway.  If not with children, by yourself in a room, unless your manuscript is prohibitively long, in which case you need to get as many eyes – kids’ and adults’ – on that thing as you possibly can if you really want to double your odds of creating a hit.

If you don’t have willing victims kids standing peering over your shoulder, who are your victims children of choice to test-read your books aloud???

Avoiding the #1 mistake: tossing in values.

A lot of people decide to write kids books because they think kids today are “lacking in values” (not sure what this means) or need good, wholesome stories that “reinforce values.”

I love values!!!

(just not in most kids’ books)

Look, I like values as much as the next person, and as a parent, I do my best to share mine with my kids, all day, every day.  But not in kids’ books.

Basic Principle #2:  Almost without exception, your book should be about STORY, not values.

Trying to force values into a story where they don’t belong is the #1 mistake of beginning (and some not-so-beginning) children’s authors.

If you believe that the “moral” of the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears is “never intrude on strangers’ homes,” that’s lovely.  But you still have to tell the story, in a compelling way.  You must create the characters and weave the plot from beginning to middle to end.  And you cannot throw in a clunky ending where Goldilocks is somehow punished for her curious nature unless it flows naturally from the story.

Believe it or not, I have read a couple of bad versions of the Goldilocks story lately which forgot this rule.  Yes, this even happens (more rarely, thank goodness) in professionally-written and -published books.

So what were the values or moral lessons in these two versions?

Goldilocks:  Moral #1

In one version, Goldilocks learns the lesson to never, ever go into people’s houses without permission.  Blah.  What kid doesn’t know that?  It was actually a good book, too, right up until the point where the (professional, published) author decided to inject the moral.  No idea how that got past the editors.

Goldilocks:  Moral #2

In the other, the bears learn the lesson that they must forgive Goldilocks and welcome her into their home.  They shake paws, invite her to stay and everybody winds up being good, good friends.

In neither case does the “moral” outcome flow from the story.  In both of these books, the ending felt tacked-on and perfunctory.  This happens a lot with modern fairytale adaptations, because writers feel they can’t just publish a straight story without offering some kind of clever twist (they’re probably right).

Just for fun, can you think of other morals / values we’d like to impart through or force onto this familiar tale?

Of course you can… that’s why so many of these books are flooding the market.  But it’s also why so many of them are simply awful reads.  Here are just a few off the top of my clever little head:

  • Goldilocks comes to understand the importance of taking care of others’ property (no more oopsies with the chair).
  • Goldilocks learns that sharing isn’t just one-sided and goes down to the kitchen to whip up a fresh batch of porridge.
  • Goldilocks realizes how privileged / spoiled she has been, with her curly golden locks, and spends an hour styling Mama Bear’s hair into a slightly-coarser, browner version of her own fabled ringlets.
  • The bears, having discovered how much they actually love company and hate long walks through the dreary woods, relocate to the nearest Big City.

Well, you see where I’m going with this.  All of these “endings” are artificial – they feel forced.  And so do most values when you stick them where they don’t belong.

Of course, there are exceptions to every rule, and some truly lovely kids’ books that do happen to impart values.  I’d love to hear about great ones you’ve found. 

Or, just for fun, use the Comments section to post any great “alternative endings” you can think up to that Goldilocks story!

Writer vs Author?

In my last post, I used the word “author” in the heading and “writer” in the body of the post.

In general, I call myself a writer and have for years, pretty much the whole time I’ve been writing freelance. 

Many people, reading my serious writing, have tried to call me a “journalist.”  I felt awkward letting them do so since, although I write well, I don’t technically have a journalism degree.  It felt a bit like being caught practicing medicine without a license… but not quite, because I wasn’t putting anyone’s health at risk.

When she was just getting started, Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club and many more) once announced proudly that she was an author.  “A contemporary author?” the inquirer asked.  “I realized,” writes Tan in the The Opposite of Fate:  Memories of a Writing Life, “that if I were not contemporary I would be the alternative, which is, of course, dead.”

Since then, despite her rise to prominence in the North American literary scene, she has insisted on calling herself a writer:

A writer writes-she writes in the present progressive tense. Whereas an author, unless she is clearly said to be "contemporary," is in the past tense, someone who once wrote, someone who no longer has to sharpen her pencil, so to speak.

And if as brilliant a luminary as Amy Tan – a kids’ author herself, by the way! – can call herself a writer… so can I.

What do you call yourself as you dive headlong into this writing adventure?  Remember, even if you haven’t published a word, if you write… you’re a writer!!!

Two kinds of authors.

There are two kinds of people who want to write kids’ books.  Which one are you?

I know, I know, I didn’t tell you what the two types are yet.

But I want you to think about it before I answer. 

Ask yourself:

  • Why do you want to write kids’ books?
  • What are my strengths as a children’s author?
  • What are my weaknesses?
  • Who do I want to write books for?

Okay, so what are the two types?  I’ll give them nicknames, but remember – these categories are very broad and these titles are just generalizations.

“The Mom Writer”

Not just for moms, this category includes grandmas, grandpas, aunts, uncles or friends - anyone who wants to share good stories with their own kids, grandkids, nieces, nephews and any other children in their lives.  These folks generally aren’t in it for the money, fame and adulation (which is good, because there isn’t much here).

A writer in this category usually has two huge things going for her:

  • Story – you know what they want to write.  Whether it’s based on truth (“the time grandpa ran away from home as a boy”) or fiction (“the penguin who wanted to live in Hawaii”), this is an incredible strength.
  • Audience – you know who you want to write for.  Believe it or not, authors often take a long time figuring out exactly who the story is for.  If you know that Mackenzie, who’s a 5-year-old girl, will really enjoy your penguin story, then you have a leg up already.

One big downside for those in this group is taking your story and making it more general – making sure that other 5-year-olds will also enjoy your book.  Another may be that you don’t have all the skills to take your words and make them absolutely perfect.  We’ll talk about both of these things more in a later post.

“The Pro Writer”

Okay, in truth there are very few actual, “professional” children’s writers, but that’s okay.  In this group, writers are probably hoping to make a little money while telling stories that are either important or fun.  This group may include teachers, librarians and others who enjoy sharing good books with children.

If you’re a writer in this category, you probably also have a few things that make you special:

  • Literature – generally, you love kids’ literature.  If you raised kids, you loved telling them stories.  You may have strong opinions about what makes a book great, good, or simply awful.
  • Writing skills – you may have a lot of writing experience, from your career or in your personal life.  Perhaps you’ve also written stories or articles for adults to enjoy, and you probably have a love of language that you’d like to incorporate into your kids’ stories.

In this group, the big downside may be a lack of specific direction – you know what you want to do but don’t know exactly HOW to get started.  You may not have a story fully-formed in your heart, just bursting to get out.  This is the group that’s most likely to suffer the dreaded Writers’ Block, but that’s okay… we can fix that, too!

If you don’t see yourself fitting into one or the other of these categories neatly, that’s okay.  There’s always going to be some overlap – moms who are natural wordsmiths, librarians with a story to tell.  That’s okay.

There is one more group… but this blog probably isn’t for them.

“The Gimme Big Bucks”

These are the people who are in it for the money – only for the money.  Or maybe the fame and fortune (perhaps they’ve never read a kids’ book to discover that the authors usually aren’t rich and famous?).  There are ways to self-publish children’s books (make that “books”) and try to get money quickly. 

One thing I’ve seen a lot lately is people who republish public-domain books.  They download the text free on Project Gutenberg, auto-design a spiffy cover, then “print” their own brand-new edition of Anne of Green Gables, Little Women or the Wizard of Oz.  They sell it for cheap to hook Amazon.com book buyers who don’t realize that their edition is full of typos (thanks to bad OCR when the original book was scanned) or formatted amateurishly so it’s almost unreadable.

(Formatting is another one of those things we’ll talk more about in a later post!).

Worse is when people like this swipe stuff (“swiper, no swiping!”) and put together a collection of items that aren’t public-domain:  illustrations, quotations, even story excerpts.  The self-publishing cops may catch up to them eventually, but generally, copyright holders need to pursue their own claims against these guys – there’s no organized effort to stop copyright violators in the print-on-demand world.

Another thing this type of person will do is put out a “series” of books, written quickly and badly, in an effort to become the next J.K. Rowling or Eoin Colfer.

Enough said about this type of person.  Let’s ignore ‘em and move on!

I hope those of us in the “good guy” categories can use this blog to come together to learn and share ideas to create and publish great kids’ stories together.  Deal?  Good!

Which type are you?  Do you fit neatly into one or the other of these categories, or do you belong in a special group all your own?

So you want to write kids’ books?

Yay, you!

This blog will share what I’ve learned over the last few years about independently creating your own kids’ book and offer help and advice.

Let’s start with my First Basic Principle:

It has never been easier to write and publish your own children’s books.

The sad flipside of that is very sad indeed:

It has never been easier to write and publish a truly lousy children’s book.

The ease of self-publishing has caused an unprecedented flood of – frankly – lousy kids’ books “on the market.”

A few other downsides to the modern self-publishing model:

  • You have to edit your own books. This is where many writers skimp – and it shows.
  • Traditional publishers provide art; you’ll have to round up your own somehow.
  • You have to self-promote. That’s hard.

So what are the upsides?  There are SOooo many!

  • Your book can be available for sale worldwide almost instantly (once it’s ready)
  • Nobody can tell you what you can and can’t write (what sells is another story)
  • Create books for specialized markets (eg religious, disabilities, special family situations)
  • Complete control over the look and feel of your final book.

Through this blog, I hope to help you save money, time, and create books that are absolutely excellent. If you have written and self-published a kids’ book, and would like to know what I think of it – either privately via email or publicly reviewed on this blog, please contact me at Tzivia@TheFamilyTorah.com and I’ll let you know how I can help you.

Also, if you provide legitimate services to kids’ authors and illustrators, please contact me about advertising or guest posting on this blog.

Welcome, and – although this is my only blog without the word “Adventure” in the title, I hope we’ll have a grand adventure together.

Want to visit me elsewhere on the web?