Telling Stories to Children
Self-publishing a children’s
book isn’t all fun and games
B; R;;; J;;
Aspiring children’s book authors have it
tough. They’re trying to push their work into
a glutted field, with far more supply than demand, and publishing houses aren’t known
for investing in unknown writers.
On the surface, the growth of self-publishing tools and digital marketing channels seems like the perfect answer for a children’s book author who hasn’t been able to catch the at- tention of a publishing house.
However, the process of creating and marketing a children’s
book is very different from that for a piece of fiction or nonfiction meant for adults. For instance, being able to write does not
necessarily mean being able to write for children. Gail Kearns,
cofounder of To Press & Beyond, an advisory service that helps
self-published writers develop professional-quality books, says
that many children’s book authors write from an adult point of
Young at Heart, Young in Mind
It’s a problem that Penny Paine, children’s author and art direc-
tor at To Press & Beyond, has noticed as well. “[Many children’s
authors] haven’t had any child development courses,” she says.
“They don’t appreciate that a three-, four-, or five-year-old won’t
comprehend some of the feelings or issues they bring up.”
Often, authors want to write children’s books because they
want to impart something they appreciated as a child, or to send
a message, which can make their story overly didactic. Thus,
adults sometimes compromise one value to illustrate another,
Paine says: “It might be fine to have a child do something very
brave, but then the punishment will come in.” Paine is aware
that fairy tales often incorporate this structure: heroic action
leads to less-than-ideal consequences. For children’s books, she
says, this structure can be a problem because it can make the
book harder to sell.
And even during the writing process itself, many children’s
book authors overlook that they’re telling stories to children.
Kearns has found herself stripping out words from overwritten
texts. Moreover, many children’s book authors forget to incor-
porate dialogue or develop a plot. “Try to have something that
is exciting in the story, so it does have that movement, and a
resolution at the end,” Paine suggests. “Hopefully, there’s a
crisis of some sort.”
Action is especially important, as children’s books are now
competing in a world of video games, movies, and digital en-
tertainment. Describing abstractions like feelings isn’t easy, and
often the language used in adult novels to describe even things
like sounds and smells doesn’t resonate with children. Paine
recalls working on a book that tried to describe the frustration
of being bullied. “It’s very difficult to use the words and show
it in the pictures,” she says.
One trick? Use action verbs. “You need to have some movement in the story and in the illustrations as well,” Kearns says.
“Sometimes we go through 20 drafts with a client, and it’s not
even final at that point. Once you put illustrations with text,
the text will change.”
The Illustration Challenge
Few children’s book authors are also illustrators. Traditional
publishing houses prefer to find an illustrator to work with their
authors. To Press & Beyond also provides this service for its
clients. But for authors who don’t work with a traditional publishing house or a publishing services provider, the process of
finding an illustrator can be both daunting and expensive.
Karen Inglis, who has self-published four children’s and
young adult books since 2011, got lucky. She began searching
for an artist to do black-and-white illustrations for her book
“I couldn’t find somebody I could af-
ford, or who had the right ideas,” she
recalls. Although Inglis herself couldn’t
draw, she doodled an alien for Eeek and
went online looking for a Photoshop
expert who could clean it up. Eventu-
ally, she found Kundalic Damir, who
did such a good job she asked if he also illustrated children’s
books. He didn’t, but they began working together. Damir re-
did the cover for Inglis’s first book, The Secret Lake, and provided
illustrations for her children’s book Ferdinand Fox’s Big Sleep.
Inglis is very precise in describing how she wants the illustrations to look. “Were I working with a completely different illustrator who’s done a lot of children’s books, I could see it being
different,” she says, noting that she is separated from Damir (who
Ryan Joe is a writer living in New York City.