Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Views from the Bookstore - Part 1

Share |
Views from the Bookstore - Part 1

Welcome back after the long weekend!

On Thursday, I'll be running the second part of my chat with picture book writers, but today, I'm kicking off the week with a new series of three postings in which I chat with another set of experts in the world of children's publishing -- three women who choose the books that line the shelves in their respective book stores. I was keen to hear them reflect on topics important to children's book writers from their unique perspective.

WENDY MASON has been the children’s literature specialist at Indigo Yorkdale since the store opened in 1999. A lover of children’s books, she also has a collection of original works by Canadian illustrators, including incredible pieces by Barbara Reid, Kady McDonald Denton, Ted Harrison, and Werner Zimmerman.

HEATHER KUIPERS is the owner of the independent Toronto children’s book store Ella Minnow. (Don’t understand the name? Try saying it aloud!)

CATHY FRANCIS was co-owner of the Libris Award Winning Specialty Bookshop, The Flying Dragon. After closing the store last June Cathy has become 'A Seeker of Knowledge' through books, travel, and long walks in the woods.

ME: Heather, as the buyer for your children's bookstore, you must have read hundreds, if not thousands, of children's books -- the good, the bad, and the ugly. If you could give three pieces of advice to writers aspiring to create successful and well-loved books, what would it be?

HEATHER KUIPERS: My advice is largely for writers of picture books. First, single words do matter! I have been surprised how often I’ve been going through a picture book that I am considering for the store thinking “like it, like it, good, good, like it, whoa! What was that? I can’t sell that!” based on a single poor word choice. Referring to a child as “bad” for instance in a story, or using the adjective “pretty” to refer to a little girl when no other characters in the story are introduced with qualifications. Some buyers won’t notice, but it’s a shame to have your book disqualified for something that could be changed so easily.

Second, avoid the excessive use of fuzzy bunnies, puppies, kitties, and other large eyed critters as the main characters in picture books. If you MUST use them, give them a properly defined shape and expressive faces. Placid-looking, pear-shaped pastel critters do not make dynamic book characters.

Third, please read several hundred children’s picture books. Some of the themes out there are very overdone. Make sure at least 100 of the books you read have been published in the last three years to see what is appealing to modern eyes and ears. Take a really good look at the pictures and notice the colour schemes and the length of the stories. Story length is actually very important. Modern stories are shorter than classic ones. Ideally you’d like to have your story fit into one or both of two scenarios- a read aloud at school and bedtime. Teachers and librarians can usually only give about seven to ten minutes to a book and parents will rarely take on a very lengthy story just before bed since most kids expect at least two books before settling down. Children do not care to renegotiate this based on the length of a book.

ME: Cathy, do you agree with Heather? What other pieces of advice would you add?

CATHY FRANCIS: Expanding on Heather’s advice to read hundred’s of books, I’ll add: immerse yourself in the world of children’s literature, educate yourself in its rich history, be passionate and optimistic about your work, know your market but do not be limited by it.

Let yourself go, be creative, but most importantly, enjoy the process. Write every day. You don’t have to finish the book today, just write a sentence, don’t rewrite it just write another and another. I watched a writer at the beginning of her career. The first piece I heard her read in a workshop make me laugh and cry. It took eight years for her to finish that book and I had to give her the paper to print it out. But her persistence and patience paid off and her book became an award winner. Her tip for writers is “Just mail it.” The difference between a published and unpublished book is “a stamp.”

There is a great temptation to bypass traditional publishing and self-publish. But be prepared to hear booksellers say they don’t take books on consignment. It is a difficult road to travel. Are you prepared to hire your own editor, illustrator, book designer and then market and distribute your book? Do your research and consider carefully.

ME: And finally, Wendy, is there additional advice that you'd like to pass along to kidlit writers, given your experience as a buyer and seller of children's books for Indigo Yorkdale?

WENDY MASON: It is important that the writer recognizes the picture book as a format with a variety of purposes. Picture books convey their message through a series of visual images with a limited amount of text (or none at all). Picture books can have a wide range of purposes. They can impart information, tell stories, teach concepts, or introduce rhythmical patterning schemes and repetitive refrains. They can assist the reader or listener in developing visual acuity, and they can elicit verbal responses for vocabulary development.

Heather mentioned the importance of word choice and I couldn't agree more. There is a misconception that anyone can write a picture book when in fact doing so requires tremendous word discipline. The simplicity is the complexity.

Picture book writers should be keenly aware of their audience. Excellent picture books work effectively for a variety of ages. From preschool years to primary years, from series picture books to middle years, from older readers (and that includes adults) to the current graphic picture books, picture book writers must be attentive. Try out your manuscript with a group of kids, whatever the target age. Kids are the best for honest feedback. Parents and grandparents are most often seeking recommendations for picture books that will, in some way, be of educational value yet still retain joy and excitement of discovery. They also pay attention to visual appeal. Usually they succumb to the child's request for the latest popular picture book but they also balance the purchase with new titles of interest. Teachers and librarians seek quality recommendations for picture books that dovetail into curriculum.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Susan Hughes

Susan Hughes is an award-winning author whose books include The Island Horse, Case Closed?, No Girls Allowed, Earth to Audrey and Virginia.

Go to Susan Hughes’s Author Page