FEBRUARY 5, 2017
WHEN THE LEGENDARY AUTHOR Beverly Cleary sat down to write her first children’s book in the 1940s, she had no roadmap to guide her through the process. As a children’s librarian in Yakima, Washington, she had discovered the gaps that her own work would one day fill. “There was very little on the library shelves [they] wanted to read,” she wrote years later, remembering a particular group of “lively nonreaders” that visited her library. One boy asked Cleary, “‘Where are the books for kids like us?’ Where indeed. There weren’t any.”
We don’t live in Cleary’s world anymore. Today, the shelves are bursting with children’s books, and while this is good news for young readers it can be daunting for aspiring authors. Writers must negotiate a crowded publishing marketplace and an even more jam-packed self-publishing scene. Indeed, a recent Bowker report painted this in stark terms: authors registered ISBNs for more than 725,000 self-published books in 2015.
Cheryl Klein, the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books/Scholastic, opens her book The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults with a much needed dose of publishing reality. Reflecting on her own struggles to surface new books in this environment, Klein outlines the problems that all authors face in the 21st century: “[G]iven that more than 300,000 new books are professionally published each year, we publishers often don’t have much time to convince booksellers and readers of the pleasures of a particular project — why they should purchase this book over that one.”
Facing a stack of more than one million self-published and traditionally published books, it seems almost foolhardy to write a new novel. But Klein follows her somber statistics with strategies for aspiring authors. By the end of The Magic Words, readers may discover plenty of reasons to write a book — even if the manuscript never leaves the shoebox underneath your bed.
Who better to steer aspiring writers through the sea of content than an editor? Klein’s supportive but realistic bedside manner is the best kind of guidance. She justifies her role as a gatekeeper and demystifies the publishing process at the same time. For example, early in the book, Klein encourages aspiring writers to perform an unexpected but useful task: “Write the flap copy for your book […] [W]henever you have to write a compelling 250-word summary of a novel (as I frequently must do), it forces you to define its key characters, actions, and points of interest in a coherent version of the book.” Even the best writer can struggle with this kind of fundamental exercise. But it is a skill that will come in handy years down the road when trying to publish your manuscript. The earlier a writer can articulate this kind of description of their work, the better.
Klein’s book also includes concise descriptions of the seven “age bands” that categorize young adult and children’s books: board books, picture books, easy readers, chapter books, middle grade novels, young adult novels, and new adult novels. Her practical description of each age category shows aspiring writers exactly where a particular book would sit on the library or bookstore shelves. I’ve covered the publishing industry for a decade, and I still need a cheat sheet like this to keep the genres straight in my head. Klein shares Newbery Medal–winning author Linda Sue Park’s advice that writers read “at least 500 books in the age band they hope to work in before they sit down at a keyboard.” That’s a daunting task, but a necessary one.
I occasionally advise aspiring children’s book authors, and I like to add a slight twist on Klein’s 500 books assignment: read at least 100 books with children. It is so easy to forget the uniquely cozy and chaotic experience of reading a book to a kid (or, for bonus points, a group of kids). My one-year-old son just reminded me of a toddler’s obsessive focus on simple details like balls, bottles, or bananas in a storybook.
Klein also encourages her writers to “[t]alk to — and even more, listen to — actual kids. What activities are they involved in? What do they and their friends do together for fun? What technology are they using? What are they thinking about on the personal, national, and global levels?” She suggests authors mine their own childhood memories, too: “On YouTube or in your music library, find your favorite songs at ages eight, twelve, and sixteen,” she writes. “As you listen to the song now, try to remember listening to the song then. Where did you listen to it — in your room, in a car, with friends? Identify one specific time you heard it and write down all the situational and sensory circumstances of that moment.” I don’t plan on writing a children’s book, but I loved doing this particular writing exercise with my daughter.
Even though library bookshelves are more densely populated than they were in the days when Beverly Cleary sat down to write, the publishing industry still has a long way to go before it reflects the multicultural world we live in. In The Magic Words, Klein often returns to the theme of diversity, a perennial problem for the publishing industry. In 2015, the Cooperative Children’s Book Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Education combed through 3,400 children’s books from US publishers. Out of that huge sample, they only found 361 books written by people of color. The study reached a somber conclusion: “publishing for children and teens has a long way to go before reflecting the rich diversity of perspectives and experiences within and across race and culture.”
It’s not that there’s no market for such books, or no interest from publishers. “[In] the present climate in children’s and YA publishing,” Klein write, “we see intense demand both for more books that centralize marginalized cultures and people, and for more authority, empathy, and humility within those books when they are published.” She urges aspiring writers to think about how one’s cultural experiences shape one’s writing: “Make a list of all your personal cultures, including your race/ethnicity, religion, sexuality, gender identity, dis/ability, and socioeconomic class.”
“Where are the books for kids like us?” asked Beverly Cleary’s readers in the 1940s. Much has changed since then, but too many kids are asking the same question these days as the publishing industry still grapples with the problem of diversity. Editors like Klein can help find those books, and empower those would-be Clearys to write them.