Writing is hard. Any writer worth his (or her) salt knows that writing takes time, patience, practice, Zen-like discipline, and at least a few temper tantrums. I’m not saying that every step of the process is a Sisyphean task, but it’s inevitable that writer’s block, or difficulty finding an agent, or a particularly harsh rejection letter will produce some pain.
This applies to all kinds of writing, whether it’s the Great American Novel, a hot paranormal romance, or a searing indictment of the two-party system. And this applies, most importantly in my mind, to kids’ books, as well.
Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing children’s books is easy. Let me rephrase that: Nothing gets my goat more than writers who think that writing good children’s books is easy. We get a lot of queries at DGLM, a fair share of them for picture books. I’m the guy around here whose world view most resembles that of a twelve-year-old, so naturally, I’m the guy who represents juvenile fiction and nonfiction. I see them all. And, I greatly respect all the writers who toil away at their keyboards day after day – even the ones I choose not to represent. But, I’m disturbed by the queries that say, “I wrote this picture book manuscript on a lark last night. Want to be my agent?”
As it turns out, writing for kids is really tough. The younger the audience, the harder, if you ask me. In a picture book, you’ve got 3,000 words or less to tell a whole story. That’s it. With so few words in a book, every word counts. Just a few mistakes – poor word choice, awkward phrasing, ridiculous rhymes – and the entire thing falls apart. Then there’s the whole issue of age-appropriate language and content; it’s easy to miss the boat if you’re not aware of the audience you’re writing for. Those issues are rather concrete, though, and I think the more adept technician can learn the rules and turn out something that won’t offend. What isn’t so easy to mimic or learn is most important, and I feel that even many published writers miss the mark on this: to write for children, you must view the world through the eyes of a child. I don’t mean this in a touchy-feely, New-Age way (for the most part). What I look for in a manuscript is an understanding of how a child sees, explores and understands the world. Not being a writer myself (I leave that to people far more talented than me), I’m not sure if this is something that can be learned. I’d be interested to hear what others think about that.
I work with a wonderful author who definitely sees the world through children’s eyes, Anne Rockwell. Through her words and illustrations, she’s able to explain rather complex concepts to children. Though some of her books have less than 300 words, they all speak volumes. More impressively, most of them would still be engaging without her (or her collaborator’s) brilliant illustrations. Though the books are short, Anne works as hard as any author I’ve met. Her research is nothing short of remarkable — you can ask her about her sources for a book she’s doing on Toussaint L’Ouverture – and she hones and crafts a manuscript for weeks.
In my humble opinion, the literature written for children is the most important; it provides inspiration and comfort to these impressionable readers. I don’t mean, in any way, to discourage anyone from writing anything. Getting a great new submission makes my day, and I’d love to represent more picture books (despite the difficulty of the market), and middle grade and young adult fiction. But I do want to encourage authors, of every stripe, to respect the art and craft of writing. I want to represent authors who write not because it’s easy, but because they have something to say and they’re willing to work their butts off to make it happen.