Getting a children’s picture book published is almost as difficult as winning the lottery, according to an experienced Chronicle Books editor. Those odds have not deterred Claire Bobrow, who is writing her own second act as an aspiring children’s book author.
Claire’s journey to writing children’s books began several years ago, when she focused on the fact that she and her husband would soon be empty-nesters. She had left her career as a landscape architect over 20 years earlier to be a full-time mom, devoting her considerable talents and energy to volunteer activities. But eventually kids grow up and go away to college, and Claire thought it made sense to start considering her options before her younger child left home. Some friends in the same situation were thinking of returning to careers they had left, while others were exploring new opportunities. Claire was among the latter.
Reflecting on what she really loved doing, she realized she loved reading, and had always enjoyed writing. Thus, when she saw a notice at a local book store for a “Children’s Book Author and Illustrator Conference” for beginners and experienced writers alike, something clicked and she signed up. Attending that conference in January of 2016 was Claire’s “aha!” moment.
The keynote speaker at the conference was inspiring, especially with respect to the persistence required to pursue this career. Claire was excited to discover the many resources available for learning what it takes to be a children’s book author. She was even more excited to discover the community of children’s book authors, both aspiring and published, and the many opportunities to connect with this community in real time and online. She compares the community to having 1,000 cheerleaders, all of them generous with their time, celebrating one another’s successes and offering encouragement after the inevitable rejections.
Claire told me that online critique groups and one-on-one critique sessions with agents and editors, usually in conjunction with conferences, are essential to this undertaking. She also participates in calls for “flash fiction,” writing a story in 100 words or fewer, as these are opportunities to hone the skill of writing concisely. Actively pursuing every opportunity to get feedback on her work writing children’s books occupies much of her time. Persistence is clearly the name of the game. Even though the market for children’s picture books is growing, it can take a new author 5-10 years to get a book published.
Claire shared with me some favorites from her huge collection of picture books, and I was struck by the cleverness of the themes, the sophistication of the writing, and the visual appeal of the illustrations. She believes we’re in a Golden Age of picture books, especially nonfiction picture books.
Successful picture books focus on universal children’s themes—fear of the dark, arrival of a new sibling, first day of school, big occasions such as birthdays or holidays—and generally include lovable characters such as unicorns, ballerinas, or robots, which are enjoying a vogue at the moment. You might think these constants make the writer’s task easier, but that’s not the case. While the successful children’s books include these universal themes and characters, it cannot be generic. Rather, it must have a fresh, cutting edge perspective. And to complicate the process further, the book must appeal to kids in the target age group, but it must also appeal to the gatekeepers— parents who will buy or borrow the book to read to their kids, librarians and teachers who will recommend the book for purchase at libraries and schools, purchasers for bookstores.
Claire explained a surprising facet of the picture book publishing process, viz., the text and the illustrations are totally separate components, and the author and illustrator seldom know one another or collaborate. Typically, an agent will pitch a book to an editor; if the editor accepts the book, s/he then selects the illustrator, who generally spends a year illustrating the book. The entire process, from the time an author has a book contract to the time the book arrives in stores is about 2 years.
Writing a children’s book, like writing any book, requires a series of steps: generating the idea, researching the topic, writing a draft, and then revising and revising and revising. Claire told me the ideas come easily to her and writing the first draft is usually easy as well, but she struggles with the revisions. This is where her critique group is invaluable, providing useful suggestions and helping her maintain her equanimity. This is also where the opportunities afforded by conferences and workshops for one-on-one critiques with editors or agents prove their worth.
Claire’s dream is to establish herself as a children’s picture book author and, perhaps eventually, as an author of chapter books and middle-grade books. She would love to write and publish a book with both heart and humor that would make a kid laugh out loud. In her words, “Writing children’s books is actually very humbling; kids are smart and don’t let you get away with anything. Doing something for kids is really important, and you don’t want to screw it up—that’s the biggest motivator.” In the meantime, Claire keeps at it in order to be ready at all times with three well thought-out stories to pitch.
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