Writing a children’s book seems easy: how hard can it be to write a few dozen pages, most of which are illustrated anyway? Harder than it looks, if you ask writer Susan Marie Swanson of St. Paul, Minnesota. Swanson’s latest book, The House in the Night, awarded the Caldecott Medal in 2009, took her about ten years to write, edit, and re-edit to perfection.
Often, it’s because they’re so short and simple that children’s books are challenging. More than just tell stories, they should “inspire, intrigue, and uplift,” according to publisher Brett Waldman. It’s not the kind of thing you can do over a weekend. Even someone with advanced degrees can take years to come up with a small volume.
The general (and mistaken) idea is that anything that has to do with children is easy, says Alison McGhee. The former adult novelist learned the hard way that it wasn’t the case: she spent five years writing Someday, a 252-word narrative about life as a mother, which comes down to about one word a week.
What makes it difficult, says McGhee, is in having to pare down the language. Whereas adult literature allows for the use of adjectives and metaphor to describe scenes, children’s books have to use simple words that nonetheless create the mood.
Children’s books don’t even give their authors proportionate credit, according to Emilie Buchwald, an author and publisher. Hard as the writing is, it’s usually the illustrations that bring a children’s book to life—after all, children respond faster to visual cues than to verbal ones. Without great art, Buchwald says, even the most brilliant prose won’t work.
This adds yet another layer of complexity to the publishing business. Contrary to popular belief, writers don’t team up with illustrators and then approach publishers. It’s often the publisher that sends out for illustrators whose style best fits the text. If a writer-illustrator team comes up to a publisher, there’s a good chance one of them will be let go, Buchwald says.
One thing writers should keep in mind is that the writing process can change the story. Some of the most successful children’s books start out with a plot and theme completely different from the end product. The key is to keep writing and get inspired by similar books, says author Tracy Maurer.
In the end, it’s people’s imagination and motivation that keeps the publishing industry going — especially in children’s literature where the competition is stiff and the rewards are often paltry. Authors who make it are usually the ones who recognize that fame and fortune may not come their way. For them, the ultimate reward is not the paycheck, but being able to share their stories and ideas with the world.