Thursday, July 27, 2017

If you want to write kids’ books–read, read, READ! (with 6 of this summer's favourites)


What’s the best way to ensure that you’re writing kids’ books that are relevant to today’s readers? 

When I say readers, by the way, you can assume I also mean all the gatekeepers between you and your readers: editors, agents, publishers, and anyone else who gets to vet your book before it’s approved for publication.

And the best way to make sure you’re writing the books they want to see is… to READ kids’ books.  A LOT of kids’ books.

Now – just to be very, very clear here, I’m not telling you a) to read books in order to copy them, or b) to read books in order to write more marketable books.  You probably shouldn’t be thinking about marketability as you’re actually writing your book.

But reading what’s out there on the children’s-book shelves will give you an edge in a few ways, by helping you answer the following questions for yourself:

  • Who are the protagonists of kids’ books today?
  • What kind of situations do they find themselves in?
  • What’s the art like?
  • How wordy are they?  (hint: not very!!!)
  • What kind of vocabulary do they use?
  • What kinds of resolutions / messages do publishers seem to prefer?

Now, if you’re like me and you live in a non-English speaking country, all of this puts you at a distinct disadvantage.  And even if you live in a totally English-speaking country, there are a few reasons you might not have visited your local bookstore or library lately. 

For example, many children’s authors are older parents or grandparents – you may have read a lot of kids’ books at one point, like when your kids were younger.  You just haven’t checked out new books recently.  But why should you bother?  Classics are classics are classics, and what makes a book great doesn’t change from one generation to the next… right?


Even when it’s difficult, you must check out what kids’ books are out there, not just to scope out the competition but to make your own stories stronger and more contemporary-feeling.

Here’s one tip that I sent around to my local SCBWI chapter a few months ago:  search for current popular kids’ books on YouTube.  We had just had a Skype meeting with a publisher in L.A., so everybody was fired up about writing books for a U.S. audience, but many people in the crowd weren’t really sure what that entailed. 

Fortunately, there are MANY popular kids' books being read aloud by native English speakers on YouTube, including many of the books the agent had placed on her recommended-reading list for authors submitting to her. 

Wondering what books she suggested???  Here are the two books she mentioned most:  Llama Llama Misses Mama ( (along with all the other Llama Llama books by Anna Dewdney!) and Dragons Love Tacos (  I'm betting that whoever can write the next book like those will get a sweet deal from her publishing company!

I’m very lucky to be in Toronto visiting family right now, so I took this opportunity to walk into my local library last week to scope out (aka “take home half of”) the kids’ picture-book section. 

Here’s my haul:


These are all fairly recent.  I’d heard of two of these beforehand and was psyched to see them in stock:  School’s First Day of School by Adam Rex, and Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam by Fawzia Gilani-Williams, from Kar-Ben, the same publishing company that published my book Yossi & the Monkeys.

The first of these, School’s First Day of School, has been on my wish list since before it was released because – omg, what an amazing concept.  Everybody dreads the first day of school, and there have been so many books written about it that it’s actually kind of a yawn.  But what about the school itself???!?  This is a concept that you just “get” immediately and the art is so appealing and retro that I have loved it from afar for a very long time (Amazon says it was released last June, so I have wanted it at least since last March)

The book itself did NOT disappoint.  The art is so pleasingly both childlike and retro, innocent with just the perfect amount of cuteness.  Even the font chosen is just perfect. 


Even though the book’s premise is clear, it goes in a lovely direction and the ending, which I won’t spoil for you, is both sweet and satisfying.

The second book, Yaffa and Fatima: Shalom, Salaam , is set in Israel and is about Jews and Arabs getting along, so naturally, I grabbed it as well.  It’s based on an old story which is actually from the Talmud about two brothers who loved one another so much and took care of one another during tough times.

Here, the story has been adapted so it’s about two friends, one Muslim and one Jewish, and they also take care of one another through tough times.


I like the story of this book very much, though there isn’t much to it.  I don’t necessarily love the artwork as much.  To me, it feels very heavy, dark and sombre, and I don’t know how much it would appeal to children.  The tricolour look is very retro as well, harkening back to when printing was done in black and white with spot colour, but it’s not retro in a good or cheerful way, in my opinion.

Three books at the library were new to me and I grabbed them kind of randomly based on the art and what I thought would be interesting:  This is a Ball, by Beck & Matt Stanton, Graduation Day by Piotr Parda, Show Way by Jacqueline Woodson, and Rude Cakes by the delightfully-named Rowboat Watkins.

My top pick of these is This is a Ball, which is light and silly.  Just the sort of goofy thing publishers are desperate for these days:


You can’t really see them, but I love the soft, rounded corners of these books (it’s a series) as well as the matte finish on the cover.  As for the silliness within, well, my kids are a bit older but my 9-year-old son chortled somewhat on our first time reading the book together, so I’d call it a winner.  I don’t know if younger kids would “get” it or call out the reactions that that they’re supposed to as you read.  Maybe after the first time reading it?

Anyway, it’s silly and degenerates into mayhem.  And kids love mayhem, so I can see why these books have been a hit.  The art is simple and repetitive, as in the Elephant and Piggie books by Mo Willems, and there’s always room for more of that.

On a more serious note, there’s Show Way , which relates an intergenerational tale of slavery and its legacy.


Since wordless books are so big these days (even though anyone who knows me in real life knows how I feel about them!), I chose to check out one of these:  Graduation Day.


I’ll admit, mainly I don’t get it.  My kids spent about three seconds checking it out and then kind of scratched their heads and put it down.  I just don’t get it.  If you’ve read this, feel free to try to explain it to me.  I don’t even know what to DO with a wordless book if you have a kid on your lap waiting for a story…maybe that’s the problem.  Do you just sit and LOOK at the pictures together?  What about a classroom full of kids?

However, happily, I was in for a treat.  Last but not least, and I know I said above that my top pick was This is a Ball, but I actually wrote that before I had had a chance to read Rude Cakes out loud to my kids.  So fun!


We loved it!  THIS is why I adore children’s books.  Seriously!

The art is fabulous, the story is sublimely weird, and both children were bemused and entertained by the very thin, at-times bizarre, but solid plotline which resolves nicely into a fairly traditional ending.  In case you’re wondering, Rowboat is a man – apparently a “fellow” of Maurice Sendak, though who knows what that means.  It’s not his real name, according to the Internet.

Just to recap the message here – if you want to write for kids, you’ve got to READ.  In the genre.  Today’s stories, not the books from 10, 15, or 20 years ago.  Living away from an English-speaking country is no excuse, not with YouTube available for one and all.  Read as much as you can and buy the books that inspire you the most.  I’ve provided Amazon links, but anywhere you can get ahold of them is fine – we adore Better World Books because they ship to us for free.

It’s pretty simple, really.  Read, read, READ.  Never stop.  Hopefully it’ll all sink in and your next book will be just that much better, more interesting, more fun, more contemporary, just because you’ve got all that awesome reading under your belt.

What are you reading to inspire yourself these days?  Any new books I need to add to my MUST-READ picture books list this summer???  Let me know in the comments or via email!


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