Writing for kids: Not as easy as A-B-C

  • Article by: JOHN EWOLDT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 4, 2011 - 2:07 PM

The Twin Cities has a thriving children's literature community, despite the fact that the work is hard and the payoff often is minimal.

Susan Marie Swanson has one of those jobs that looks so easy that, well, any Tom, Dick or Jane could do it.

How hard could it be to write a short book with only a few hundred words and pages filled mostly with illustrations?

Swanson knows. The St. Paul author took 10 years to write her latest book, "The House in the Night," which won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 2009. Over a decade, she wrote bits and pieces, organized each idea in a separate file folder, then tweaked and re-tweaked.

"It's not rocket science," she said about writing, "but the process requires almost an alignment of planets to get a published product."

If it's challenging for those who make their living at it, writing a children's book can be even more daunting for aspiring writers. Even some successful children's picture book authors in the Twin Cities said the odds are stacked so high against them that they almost feel like The Little Engine That Could. A single, slim tale can take years of work, even with the support of advanced degrees, for paltry economic reward.

But that doesn't keep people from trying. Many people think they can write a children's book in a weekend because they're short, said Brett Waldman, of Tristan Publishing in Golden Valley. But he said it also has to inspire, intrigue and uplift.

Tell that to the guy who sold a million copies of "Walter: The Farting Dog."

In voices steady with patience, local children's book authors talked about the reality behind the "weekend" fantasy.

The art of writing

People think that anything that has to do with kids -- teaching, day care or writing -- is easy, said Alison McGhee of Minneapolis, who has written 15 children's books.

"I spent five years working on 'Someday' on and off," she said of her chronicle of motherhood. "It has 252 words, which means I wrote the equivalent of a word a week."

McGhee started as an adult novelist and thought that writing short children's books would be easy. "I was an arrogant adult novelist," she said.

The difficulty lies in the economy of language. It's similar to writing poetry, but in a poem for adults you can use metaphor and description. With picture books, you have to ground the story in ways that a child will be able to feel and understand, said McGhee.

As important as writers think their words are, a kids' book is first and foremost an illustrator's book, said Emilie Buchwald, a children's author and founding publisher of Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis. "You can have the most marvelous text, but without great art, it won't work," she said.

Adding to the complexity is the separation between author and illustrator. A common misconception is that an author finds an illustrator and together they find a publisher. But publishers go to great lengths to find the right illustrator for a certain text. If a writer and illustrator send a picture book to a publisher, one of them is probably going to be told to "get rid of your partner," if there's any interest at all, said Buchwald.

Getting started

When would-be writers realize that riches and recognition might not come their way, the motivation and satisfaction might have to be just in finally putting their idea on paper.

People always have a great idea for a story -- in their head, said Tracy Maurer, author of more than 80 books, mostly nonfiction. But know that the end product will not be the book you envisioned. "Write it anyway and keep writing," she advises. "If you're frustrated, look for and read books that are like the ones in your head."

While many authors don't have formal training in writing for kids, others immerse themselves in the craft. Maurer got a Master of Fine Arts in Writing for Children and Young Adults degree at Hamline University. She also attends workshops at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis (which has four upcoming classes on writing for children and young adults), goes to Minnesota Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators conferences, and gets inspired by poring over early manuscripts of kids' books from the Kerlan Collection at the University of Minnesota.

Sound bites

But not every children's book author finds writing a long haul.

Rick Kupchella, former KARE-11 news anchor, overcame the intimidation of writing the Great American Novel by starting small. "I decided to quit waiting for the opportunity to write the big book and write about the messages I was working on with my girls at the time," he said.

Kupchella attributes his writing comfort to his experience in writing for television. His advice: Write simply, knowing that the words are driven by visual images.

The hard part was publishing and publicity. The pay is "ridiculous" for the amount of effort, he said. Although he sold about 25,000 copies of his two books, "Girls Can! Make It Happen" and "Tell Me What We Did Today," he said it was a humbling experience to show up at some book signings with "a huge number of chairs and only a few people."

For some, just getting a book published remains the ultimate, although elusive, goal. Gryphon Press, a small publisher in St. Paul, gets about 5,000 manuscripts a year and publishes 20, said Buchwald. Those lucky enough to get published usually get about 5 to 10 percent of the cover price in royalties.

Despite the odds, the desire to tell a story never dies. "There's always room for a well-told tale," Buchwald said.

John Ewoldt • 612-673-7633 or jewoldt@startribune.com.

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