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Writing for Children: Getting Started

Alison Stanley gives the benefit of her experience for success in the expanding children's market.

To help you on your way, here are ten top tips:

1. Read, read, read

• Read as many children’s books as you can – picture books, young fiction, novels, teen reads, non-fiction, the classics, the prize-winners – and find out just what is being published… and what children like to read.

• Look at children’s magazines and newspaper supplements as they will give you ideas about current trends.

• Read reviews in national newspapers, read children’s literary magazines such as Books for Keeps and Carousel (see Magazines about children’s literature and education on page Magazines about children’s literature and education).

2. Get out and about

• Visit your local bookshop and browse in the children’s section.

• Go to your library and talk to the children’s librarian. Children’s books are read by children but usually bought by adults – so find out what parents, teachers, librarians and other professionals are recommending for young people.

• Visit Seven Stories, the Centre for Children's Books (see page Seven Stories, the Centre for Children’s Books).

• If you have children, don’t just go by what they are reading, ask their friends too – children have wide reading tastes, just like adults. Ask permission to sit in on their school ‘storytime’ (or a literacy hour or a guided reading session if educational publishing is what you are interested in).

• Go to a festival! There are many literature festivals held throughout the year and most have children’s literary events (see page Children’s literature festivals and trade fairs). All children’s literature festivals will have a sprinkling of new and well-known authors and illustrators in attendance, and most authors and illustrators will be accompanied by a representative from their publishing company. So you can see and hear the author/illustrator and even do a bit of networking with the publisher! You will also be guaranteed some fun. Festivals are also a useful way of seeing children’s reactions to their favourite authors and books in an informal situation.

3. Watch, listen and… learn

• Familiarise yourself with the children’s media: watch children’s television and listen to children’s radio programmes (see the Television, film and radio section beginning on page Television, film and radio), and check out the websites listed throughout the Yearbook. Look at children’s character merchandising and greetings cards.

• Enrol on a creative writing course where you can meet others who also want to write for children. Or apply to do a postgraduate course in writing for young people, where you will be guided by published authors and other publishing professionals.

4. Network

• Being an author or illustrator can be a lonely business – don’t work in a vacuum. Talk to others of your discipline at festivals, conferences and book groups. Join the Federation of Children’s Book Groups where you can network to your heart’s content. Find out if there are any writer/illustrator groups in your area. If you are already published, join the Scattered Authors Society.

5. Never underestimate the job in hand

• Writing and illustrating for children is not an easy option. Many people think they can dash off a children’s story and a few sketchy illustrations and that they will be good enough to publish. But if you have researched the marketplace you will realise that it is a hugely competitive area and you have to be talented, have something original to say, have an unique style… and know how to persevere in order to get your work published and out to a wider audience.

6. Use your experiences

• Having your own children, or working in a child-related profession is helpful but shouldn’t be relied on to bring you a new career as a children’s writer or illustrator. (Never use this line when submitting a manuscript: ‘I wrote this story for my children and they enjoyed it so please will you publish it?’ Any story you write for your own children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, etc is likely to be enjoyed by them because children love attention.) Publishers will only want to take on something that has appeal for a wide range of children – both nationally and internationally – never forget that publishing is a business. However, do use your experiences in terms of ideas, especially the more unusual ones, like seeing your first alien fall from the sky!

7. Research catalogues and websites

• Look at publishers’ catalogues and websites, not just to find out what they are publishing, but because many of them give guidance for new writers and illustrators. When submitting a manuscript or portfolio to a publisher, it is a good idea to let them know that you know (and admire!) what they already publish. You can then make your case about where your submission will fit in their list. Let them know that you mean business and have researched the marketplace.

8. Submit your material with care

• First decide whether to approach an agent or to go it alone and submit your material direct to a publisher (see How to get an agent on page How to get an agent, Do you have to have an agent to succeed? on page Do you have to have an agent to succeed? and Publishing agreements on page Publishing agreements for the pros and cons of each approach.) Check that the agent or publisher you are thinking of approaching accepts (a) unsolicited material, and (b) is interested in the type of work you are doing. For example, don’t send your potential prize-winning novel to an educational publisher, and don’t send your ideas for a Guided Reading Series at Key Stage 1 to a ‘trade’ publisher without an educational list. And don’t send your illustrations for a children’s picture book to an agent who only deals with teenage fiction – there will be zero interest from them and you will be very disappointed.

• Submit your work to the right publisher/agent and the right person within the company. Ring first to find out who the best person for your work might be, whether it be in a publishing company, an agency, a television production company or a children’s magazine. Also ask whether they want a synopsis and sample chapters or the complete manuscript or, for artwork, a selection of illustrations or your whole portfolio.

• Presentation is important. For example, no editor will read a handwritten manuscript. It should be typed/word processed, using double spacing with each page clearly numbered. (Should an editor be interested in your work, it will be photocopied for all involved in the acquisition process to read. Photocopiers have a habit of chewing up pages and there’s nothing worse than pages being missing at a crucial part of a novel.) If your manuscript is accepted for publication, the editor will want the text electronically.

• For illustrations, select work on a paper that can be easily photocopied – a white/cream background with no unusual textures for your first pitch (such as sandpaper or glass – yes, it really has happened!) And remember, publishers’ photocopiers are notoriously bad at reproducing colour accurately, so if you are relying on the vibrancy of your colour to wow an art director, bear in mind that by the time they have been photocopied a few times for interested parties to see, the colours will not be the same. If your artwork is computer generated, send hard copies with your disk – it saves time when being shown around.

9. Identify your USP

• Ask yourself what the unique selling point (USP) of the material you are submitting for publication is. You may have an original authorial ‘voice’, you may have a particularly innovative illustration style or technique, or you may have come up with an amazingly brilliant idea for a series. If, after checking out the marketplace, you think you have something truly original to offer, then believe in yourself and be convincing when you offer it for publication.

10. Don’t give up!

• Editors receive hundreds of manuscripts, and art directors receive hundreds of illustration samples every day. For a publisher, there are many factors that have to be taken into consideration when evaluating these submissions, the most important of which is ‘Can we publish it successfully?’ – i.e. ‘Will it sell?’. Publishing is a big business and it is ever more competitive. Even after an editor or art director has seen and liked your work, there are many other people involved before something is acquired for publication: the marketing manager, the publicist, the rights director, the book club manager, the sales director and, of course, the financial director. You will find this mantra repeated again and again in many of the articles in this book: Have patience, keep at it. If you believe in your ‘product’ eventually someone else will too. And meanwhile, keep perfecting your craft. After all, you are doing it because you enjoy it, aren’t you?

Alison Stanley has been a senior commissioning editor of children’s fiction at Puffin Books and at HarperCollins Children’s Books.

If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at:

Writing for children: Tips and Advice

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