Showing posts with label Blog. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Blog. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Children's Book Genres: Concept Books

Last month, I was at a workshop where I heard children's author David Martin talk about concept books. Since then, I've been inspired to look more closely at these books. If you're curious about concept books, or thinking about writing or illustrating one, this blog is for you.

Above is a general definition of 'concept book' from the University of California Cooperative Extension's website that I really like. To be more specific, you can recognize a concept book by these signs:

1) The book helps children learn age-appropriate concepts (like colors, patterns, shapes, counting, time, the alphabet, opposites, seasons, butterfly life-cycle etc.) and usually does so in a clever or creative way. Concept books are typically the first informational books a child will read. Some people include picturebooks that convey abstract concepts, such as change or fairness, in this category, but scholars like Ann D. Carlson (1991) limit the genre to books that teach tangible, concrete concepts.

Need an example? Emily Gravett's Orange Pear Apple Bear is a classic concept book that addresses the concepts of colors, shapes, and fruits:

2)  The book may or may not have a plot. You will hear some people saying that concept books are nonfiction, purely informational books that do not have a plot, characters, or dialogue. This is actually a generalization and therefore false. It is true that many concept books don't have plots. These are your so-called "list books" books that read like a loosely structured catalog. Alphabears: An ABC Book by Kathleen Hague is a good example of a plot-less concept book. This book introduces a bear for each letter of the alphabet and describes its special qualities in rhyme.

Pomelo’s Opposites by Ramona Badescu is another plot-less concept book.

On the other hand, some concept books, like Mouse Paint by Ellen Stoll Walsh (spoiler alert), do have a plot; they tell a story that has a beginning, middle, and end, while conveying the concept or concepts (some concept books address more than one concept).

In Mouse Paint, three white mice hide from a cat by camouflaging themselves against a white sheet of paper. Then the mice discover three jars of paint: red, blue, and yellow. Each mouse climbs into a jar of paint and as they emerge, they leave puddles of paint on the paper. As they crawl through the puddles, they accidentally discover that they can mix colors to produce new ones and have fun mixing the colors. Finally, they wash themselves clean (in the cat's water bowl) and paint the paper with all the available colors― except for a section of white where they can hide from the cat. This concept book tells a story about three mice while addressing the concept of primary and secondary colors.

3) The book relies on pictures. Concept books are a type of picturebook because they use illustrations to convey the concepts and to tell the story if there is one. Concepts books are illustrated in a range of media, including photography.

Last words on concept books

• Because concept books are useful for introducing basic ideas, patterns, object sets and words, they are marketed for preschool and kindergarten audiences.

• Concept books are not only greatly enjoyed by children, they have often been favorites with award committees; concept books like Donald Crews' Freight Train and Lois Ehlert's Color Zoo have snagged Caldecott medals in recent years. So don't be fooled, concept books aren't easy to write; a lot of thought goes into them and if done well, you can come up with something distinctive with a lot of cleverness packed into it. Lois Ehlert is one author-illustrator who has made a career out of creating concept books.

So if you see a publisher stating "no concept books" in their submission guidelines, you know what they're talking about. Please don't hesitate to leave a comment if you have any questions or thoughts about concept books.


  Check out these rather brilliant concept books!

  • Press Here by Hervé Tullet

  • Alphabet Under Construction by Denise Fleming

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Client Book: The Shark and the Parrotfish, and Other Caribbean Fables

July 23, 2013

I'm very happy about the upcoming release of The Shark and the Parrotfish, and Other Caribbean Fables written by a client of mine, Mario Picayo. As a lover and student of the Aesopica, I enjoyed editing this book which borrows from the Aesopic tradition.

Mario is a strong writer and was very easy to work with, taking all my suggestions into careful consideration. He had to revise the manuscript several times and took it all in stride— mark of a pro!

The book is beautifully illustrated by Barbadian artist Cherise Ward whom we featured in the May 2013 issue of Anansesem. Published by Campanita Books/Little Bell Caribbean, the book will be released later this year, but they've just revealed the cover. Check it out!

Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview with R. Gregory Christie

Publishing Perspectives is an interview series I run here on the blog that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

I recently reached out to author-illustrator, R. Gregory Christie, who despite being neck-deep in projects, took some time out to provide some really thoughtful answers. I met Gregory a few years ago at the African American Children's Book Fair in Philly. Then, he signed my beautifully-illustrated copy of Open the Door to Liberty!: A Biography of Toussaint L'Ouverture, a book that I now feel like re-reading. I'm honored to welcome Gregory to the series!

R. Gregory Christie
Your style of illustrating is very distinctive. You abstract the proportions of your figures and favor loose brush strokes. It's quite painterly I would say. What are your influences and how did you develop your style?

I began painting from PBS shows when I was around 8 years old. It did two things for me, primarily to get over the fear of using color (a common fear among young aspiring artists along with breaking away from realism) and secondly exposed me to professional grade pigments. I asked for paints and star wars figures as a little boy.

I just knew Picasso for a long time but as I got to art school I held a job at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum. My idea and world of art expanded greatly during those years. When it comes to children's books, the first one with Lee and Low Books was influenced by Ernie Barnes, Pablo Picasso and Egyptian art.

Double-page spread from It Jes' Happened

You are a three-time recipient of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. I've heard it said that the types of books chosen for the Coretta Scott King awards are the "liver and brussel sprouts" of children's books, meaning books that are educational and inspirational but not fun for kids to read. Do you think this is a fair assessment?

No, its a shame how the accomplishments of people with pigment often fall through the cracks. In my opinion a "dream deferred" type of thing where the curriculum and value for 'brown books" are unbalanced against "non brown books". This seems to be remnants from the past, we are smarter than that now, I know it! I'm not just speaking about African American stories it's simply brown folks accomplishments in relation to children's stories and I'm not just speaking about whites, saying specifically that there's some evil plan to mess up black and brown people by ignoring black books.

Cover of Brothers in Hope, Coretta Scott Honor Award winner
Also, speaking about my own interests and actions. I doubt that I could name several Native American children's books, Latino classics or Oceanic stories without going to a search engine. It's just that people want to see themselves I guess, but I think we all need to be careful not to be so stuck in hegemony, especially when dealing with foundational imagery and should be careful about negativity when it comes to cultural understanding.

In specific regard to your question, in my opinion a there are a lot of fun books, playful and insightful in terms of cultural understanding with the Coretta Scott King book award choices. Such talk is dangerously close to the line of devaluing of the award and could possibly kill a great or enthusiastic sentiment before we even start to build it in children. Isn't the bottom line to touch the world of a child by opening the door to other worlds?

You've earned a lot of recognition, winning major awards like the Ezra Jack Keats Award and The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award. For many illustrators, illustrating children's books is a sort of backstage business. Do you think children's illustrators should strive for recognition and eminence, or is there a general understanding that illustrators are sort of the underlings of the bookmaking business?

I disagree. In my opinion it's like arguing who really makes a marriage work, man or woman? I imagine it's both and it's within varying degrees. But I am certain that an author illustrator union is as strongly complex and fragile as a marriage. Sometimes the words are on such a higher level than the art and visa versa. But a great editor, and belief in the project by all parties including the marketing department, makes for a good union and can prevent an imbalance.

Last year you launched a crowd-funding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to open up your own bookstore. What got you interested in the book-selling business?

Sagging pants and text talk... babies playing with cursing on the subway and the media, corporations and government rewarding ignorance and systematic memorization over thinking. I'm not a bleeding heart; I've seen so many people give their lives up for a cause..only to see them homeless and sick without support.

In truth and in my opinion, the elephant in the room is that people learn at different paces. We, or at least a majority of people I speak to all have a 'tribe' and cause..but at the end of the day idealistic thinking about a utopian society leads to heartbreak. It's hard to get adults to change.. I think that they can manage, get really great at that, but really can not change. On the other hand kids can, and you have a good 20-year window to expose them to their own possibilities of greatness.

Additionally I think we are moving in a foolish direction to make everything computerized. It's a tower of Babel in my own personal opinion. I got tired of seeing these things so this is my own way to deal with it. The "book business" as stated is so much more; it's more of a "possibilities business" because I have knowledge and sincere belief to offer. My heart is in the right place and the people who get it (what I'm doing) get it. But I do admit it is a commitment and I do miss my freelance life of vacations to Stockholm and Amsterdam. I can really go on and on about this decision but what's most important is for me to take the time to say thank you to the people who believed in me.

Your bookstore, GAS ART GIFTS, also houses an art studio. It sounds like a neat idea. What is the art studio used for?

GAS-ART GIFTS (interiror)―no ordinary bookstore!
To keep some fun along with the discipline. An 11-hour day has cost me relationships, sleep, lots of commuter and gas money but I know it's right and keeps me balanced. In truth, the location makes this idea a long shot. A majority of the people are not ready for this idea and again in honesty it can get discouraging that I own a job rather than a business. However, the brighter side is that I LOVE to paint and have quite a few assignments to do. I can do both, I can go in to another world and also open possibilities I would never have sitting alone in a studio.

You know? This is a unique idea; it will take time for a lot of people to "get" and support it. But I feel that in these times (in the information age), we cant shrug our shoulders and say newspapers, books and magazines, even libraries and cursive writing are on their way out. We (the adults that I think can't change) have an obligation to preserve traditions and use innovation to inspire the people after us.

I've known junkies that proudly say they can sew. Thugs who tell me they can or used to do art, and the point is that somebody showed them something, and even though they made poor life choices, that particular skill seemed to be one thing they were proud of and I got inspired by that. Such a situation makes me think that it's not enough to just also must build confidence and bring forth exposure as you give assignments and tasks. If you can get all those things in a high degree then chances are the students will stick with it and character will grow.

But people get bored and used to a good (and sometimes even a bad) thing, that's where the innovation from our generation comes in and the obligation to make the world a better place through individual relationships, unique thoughts and actions is needed.

You've illustrated over 20 children's books. Be honest you have a favorite?

I like the rawness of The Palm of My they say it's never as good as the first time.

Your artwork has been featured on HBO Kids and the PBS children's show, Between the Lions. What would you say is the biggest difference between working on picture-books and working on a television project?

I couldn't tell you...I am very careful to stay in my lane and do the things that interest me. So when it came to those jobs I found my joy in being a painter and in honesty wasn't too interested in the phase of the projects beyond that. The animators seemed to enjoy their segment of job as well and most certainly took what I did to an interesting level.

You've illustrated many children's books that can be described as socially conscious or social justice books. I'm thinking of books like Brothers in Hope: The Story of the Lost Boys of Sudan, Only Passing Through: The Story of Sojourner Truth, and Keep Climbing, Girls. Are you selective and deliberate about the types of projects you take on?

Yes. It comes down to doing the books that I wish I had as a kid. But eventually after doing so many historical books I wanted something for baby showers and for very little ones to see, so books like Jazz Baby and Black Magic came in to play. The store gives me an opportunity to see the spectrum of my choices in one place. It also lets me see how my personal preferences and choices directly effect fans of my work. That type of feedback is invaluable and rewarding.

Double-page spread from Jazz Baby by R. Gregory Christie

You've also worked on many illustrated biographies of African-American historical figures like Muhammad Ali, Sojourner Truth, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, Louis Armstrong and Richard Wright. Is there something about biographies that appeals to you?

For me, I hope that it just helps to bring out balance that may be lost to the Christopher Columbus and George Washington lesson plans. Even though I may be answering my own question with the word "obscure"...where are the obscure women/Native American/Asian/paraplegic stories? So I guess it's up to myself and other artists to get these stories out there. It's one of the reasons I was proud to do When Thunder Comes with Patrick J Lewis and Chronicle books. That project has a mix of cultures and some powerful poems.

Double-page spread from The Champ: The Story of Muhammad Ali

Can you tell us a little bit about your next project or projects?

These days its about building GAS-ART GIFTS in North DeKalb Mall. I have art students interested in weekly classes and eventually hope to have guest illustrators and their books sold on a 30-day basis. The foundation of the store will be my own books but I'd love to see famous authors and illustrators flown in to sign-sell their books and run a workshop. I want to see local aspiring artists use the space to teach classes in everything from calligraphy to sewing. I also have something HUGE coming out by the end of the much so that I'm not allowed to tell by social media, so stay tuned in to my own blog to see what it is.

In terms of books there are quite a few, and I'm superstitious about promoting a book before I wrap it up, so stay tuned in on the blog for that as well.

What advice would you give to someone considering children's book illustration as a full-time profession?

It is not a "one-book-wonder" type of profession. "I wrote a book" may not be as wise as I've written some stories". It's the same as telling an album producer that you are a singer and you wrote "a" song.

Also it's not wise to cut yourself short by putting the whole package together, meaning that you've written a story and now feel that you need an illustrator so that you can shop it around. It would be like getting your script green-lighted for a huge blockbuster but insisting that your close family and friends play the lead roles. It would be pretty rough to market a film like that and a shame considering that the studio has connections to established actors.

So check out out the many blogs and internet information on the children's book industry and you are halfway there due to the knowledge just waiting for you to learn out there. Also, create. Whether you have a deal or not, find the joy in creating and don't let them kill it with contracts and demands.

Consider that once a manuscript is sold to a publishing company, unless you are very famous, chances are you will not have a say where the illustrator takes the visuals. So if you have a really special story you may want to have so many good ones that you get those out first and save the special story as a mid-career book. Chances are you will be able to truly collaborate to a little bit more of a degree at that point.

Don't give up and find a way to live your dream.

R. Gregory Christie has been working as an illustrator for over 17 years. He has illustrated over forty books, and collaborated with clients such as The New Yorker, Rolling Stone, Vibe, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Kennedy Center, Pete Seeger, Queen Latifah, and Karyn Parsons on a variety of projects. He is a two time recipient of the New York Times’ 10 Best Illustrated Children’s Books of the year Award, The Boston Globe’s Horn Book Award, The NAACP’s Image Award, Once Upon a World Children’s Book Award from the Museum of Tolerance, and a three time winner of the Coretta Scott King Honor Award in Illustration. His artwork has been featured on HBO Kids, PBS’ Between the Lions, The New Orleans Jazz Festival’s Congo Square poster, and for one year on the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway system in New York City.

He currently works as an illustrator and owns and operates a bookstore and art studio called GAS ART GIFTS in Decatur, Georgia. He enjoys teaching young people about art and literacy, and is available for school and library visits as well as other community events. You can follow him on Titter at @GasArtGifts and on Facebook at

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Interview with Nancy Viau

It's a slow Thursday. I work from home and I relish the quiet, but right now I'm battling an infection. It's so hard to be productive when your brain is in a fog. I'm taking it as a sign to slow down, let things slide for a bit. I've given myself permission to just curl up in bed and finish reading Water for Elephants.

Publishing Perspectives is a blog series I started that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

Today I'm happy to welcome picturebook and middle grade author Nancy Viau to the series, and to the blog. Last October when I attended the Philadelphia Stories Push to Publish conference at Rosemont College, I heard Nancy speak on a Writing for Children and Young Adults panel. I remember nodding along vigorously and thinking, "This lady really knows what she's talking about." I recently reached out to Nancy and she generously agreed to this interview. Thanks Nancy!

Your debut middle grade book, Samantha Hansen Has Rocks in Her Head, was noted by reviewers for its humor. How did you go about writing such a spunky, funny, chatty heroine?

I took the experiences of my four kids, mixed them in with those of kids I observed in stores, schools, and on playgrounds, added in a little of young Nancy Viau (my brother will tell you I was loud), and tweaked everything together to create Samantha. A lot of Sam’s spunk comes from the fact that she’s a work-in-progress, and readers connect with that.

I read somewhere that you were initially dead set on writing picture books until a critique partner suggested you write for an older audience (This is the story of my life by the way). You've said that you "dabbled" in writing a chapter book and Samantha Hansen was born. What would you say to children's writers who are trying to figure out where they fit?

I would ask, “What kind of writing do you enjoy the most?” In order to answer that, you may have to experiment. Try writing poetry and prose—everything from adult mystery to teen romance, picture books to chapter books. Send submissions out and get feedback from editors. They’ll tell you if your writing sounds too old for middle grade, too young for YA, etc.

You glean inspiration from nature and it's a theme that runs through your work. Did you have a conscious moment when you realized you wanted to write stories with nature themes, or did it just sort of happen?

Sort of both. Take cookies, for example. They are in the pantry and since I (consciously) love them, I’ll eat a bunch. It just happens. Nature is all around, and since I’m an outdoorsy person who loves science and the natural world, I can’t help but write about it.

Look What I Can Do!, released earlier this year, is your first picture book. What new or surprising skills has writing in this genre/format added to your repertoire?

I’m surprised that I can write a story that makes sense using less than 200 words!

And your second picture book, Storm Song, was released just this Tuesday. Congrats! I haven't read it yet, but I already love it since I love anything to do with rain. Can you tell us what the book is about? Also how long did it take you to write the first draft?

Storm Song is filled with onomatopoeia that describes the beginning, middle, and end of a thunderstorm. The underlying theme is that storms are really very musical, and I thought that if I could get kids to see this, maybe they wouldn’t be frightened when a big storm looms over the hill. In the story, the family spends quality time together and even the dog relaxes a bit. The first draft took six months to a year. I’d work on it, put it aside, and then go back to it.

You managed to get an offer for Look What I Can Do! from Abrams while you were still unagented. Many writers wouldn't dare venture into that territory. What's your advice? 

The one proactive thing writers can do is to go to conferences and meet editors. Pick editors’ brains; find out what’s on their Wish List.

I was browsing the Where's Nancy? page on your website. You make a lot of appearances! What's the secret to a great author event, be it a book launch, meet and greet, book signing, or author visit?

1. Be prepared. Practice what you will do or say. 2. Stay in touch with the organizer of the event so there are no surprises on either end. 3. Be on time. 4. Show up with a smile and an energetic attitude (even if the traffic was horrendous, your kid got sick at the last minute, the hotel had bedbugs, or the parking garage was full). 5. Put the audience first and be grateful they have come to listen to you.

You're represented by Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. What would you say is the most important thing you've learned about working with an agent?

It’s really hard to find the right fit—someone who is your business partner and advocate; someone who understands and respects your passion and the fact that you are not perfect; someone who sees value in your writing and your ambition. What I’ve learned is that you don’t settle for an agent who offers anything less.

You started the KidLit Authors Club which brings together published children's book authors from from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and surrounding states. What, for you, has been the most rewarding aspect of running this group?

Oooh, where to begin…? There are so many rewards! The best part is that, given any moment of the day, I am surrounded by people who have a common goal—getting the word out about our books. We share info and opportunities without hesitation, and it’s that team spirit that has led to our success.

And lastly, what's the most fun or rewarding thing (or both) about being a children's author?

I can act like a kid and no one can say it’s not part of my job.

Nancy Viau is the author of Look What I Can Do! (Picture Book/Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2013), Storm Song (Picture Book/Amazon Children’s Publishing/formerly Marshall Cavendish Children’s, 2013), and Samantha Hansen Has Rocks In Her Head (Middle-Grade Novel/Amulet Books, 2008). Her stories, poems, and activities appear in Highlights, Highlights High Five, Ladybug, Babybug, and many other magazines. She is a member of The Authors Guild, the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, and The KidLit Authors Club—a regional marketing group she started that consists of published authors who bring interactive book parties to bookstores, libraries, festivals, and conferences. You can follow her on Twitter at @NancyViau1.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Types of Books for Children and Teens- Formats Explained

I recently had a client who was confused about the different children's book formats. This is not unusual. I remember when I first started out to learn about children's publishing, I was confused by all the jargon myself. Early readers? Chapter books? Picturebooks? Isn't a children's book just a children's book? Well, hopefully this post will clear up all the confusion.

If you want to succeed in this field, it's important to know the standard genres and formats associated with books for children and young people. This is crucial information both for the purposes of writing your story, and for submitting your manuscript to agents and publishers. When you query a literary agent for example, you need to include the book genre and format in your query letter. The last thing you want to do is come across as an amateur who doesn't know their stuff. Below is everything you need to know to use children's-book-format-speak with ease. Feel free to leave a comment and let me know if you have any questions.

Board books

Board books are the "baby" of the children's book family. Board books are often marketed as infant, toddler, or baby books. They are meant to be read (and played with) by infants ages 0 to 3 and are designed as such. Infants tend to chew, dribble on, and throw down objects, so the pages of board books are made of thick paperboard with a glossy finish to withstand the wear and tear.

Board books are also small in size and typically (although not always) square-shaped– the standard size being 6×6 inches – making them easy for the small hands of very young children to handle. The length varies, but 12 pages is typical and 300 words or less is usually what publishers require (in terms of your manuscript, think one-half to one page). Board books can have a single word on each page, or a few very simple sentences.

Since these books are for pre-emergent readers (babies and toddlers who are just beginning to grasp the basic concepts of books, letters, and print) and early emergent readers, they have very simple subject matter and basic plots. Many of them teach early learning concepts, like the alphabet, numbers, or colors. Lullabies, nursery rhymes, fingerplays, or wordless books are typical for this format. The illustrations in board books emphasize bright, colorful imagery to engage tots.

The pages of board books often have die-cut rounded corners, or may be shape trimmed with a special die cut. Board books can also have special/novelty features to engage very young children, e.g. lift-the flaps, "touch and feel", finger tabs, pop-ups, or books that make sounds. The vast majority of board books are printed and produced in China and Mexico.


Picturebooks are written for children ages 4 to 8 (or 3 to 8). At this time, children typically enter the emergent reader and early reader stages. Also, their attention spans are longer and they can sit still for a longer time. They are now ready to leave board books behind and read longer books, i.e., picturebooks. Recommended word lengths vary slightly from publisher to publisher, but fall into the 400 to 900 word range. In terms of your manuscript, that means 2 to 3 pages.

The number of pages in a picturebook is always a multiple of 8. So 16, 24, 32, 40, or 48 pages; however the standard picturebook length is 32 pages. Why multiples of 8? Well, it has to do with a technical aspect of book bindery, namely, the fact that the pages of books are printed as signatures. This means the picturebook is actually printed on a single, large sheet of paper which is then folded and gathered to create the pages of the book. In terms of size, 8x10 inches (vertical book) is the most popular pictureook size. Other standard sizes used by traditional publishers include 8x8 inches (square book) and 10x8 inches (horizontal book).

Picturebooks are so called because the illustrations dominate the text or are as important. In fact, the hallmark of a good picturebook is that the illustrations and the text accompany and complement each other to the extent that the text would be incomplete without the illustrations, i.e. the pictures play an equally important role as the text in telling the story. It is not uncommon for every single page of a pictureook to be illustrated. Picturebooks are illustrated using a wide rage of media, from water color, acrylic, and color pencils to collage, photography, and digital illustration.

Picturebooks cover an almost endless array of topics and are written in different styles. They require simple, linear plots, i.e. no sub plots or complicated narrative twists. They also require one main character who embodies the child's feelings, concerns and point of view (usually a child or animal character; however, an adult protagonist that children can sympathize with can work as well. An example of a child-friendly adult protagonist is Amos McGee in the picturebook, A Sick Day for Amos McGee by Philip C. Stead). There are many types of picturebooks such as rhyming, rebus, multicultural, wordless, concept, and post-modern picturebooks (the categories can overlap of course). Another type of picturebook is the picture storybook which I describe next.

Picture storybooks

A picture storybook (also called a "story picturebook") is a type of picturebook. The term "picture storybook" is used by some publishers to specify a longer picturebook for older children (more than 900 words is the ballpark). Picture storybooks have more plot development and higher vocabulary level compared to picturebooks. There will also be more text on the page; in fact, in picture storybooks, there may be long chunks of text that take up an entire page.

Another main difference between picturebooks and picture storybooks is the way they are illustrated. Above I explained that picturebooks rely heavily on the illustrations to tell the story. With picture storybooks, the illustrations aren't really integral to the story, but rather, serve the purpose of holding the child's attention. Often, with picture storybooks, the illustrations appear on every other page.

Some publishers use the term "picturebook" to refer to both picturebooks and picture storybooks. This is where people can get confused because they may have read on one publisher's website that picturebooks should be no more than 500, 600 or 900 words, while other publishers state that they accept picturebooks up to 1,000, 1,500 or even 2,000 words. Just remember that publishers who say they accept "picturebooks" longer than 900 words are using the term "picturebook" broadly or interchangeably to include both picturebooks and picture storybooks. Your picture storybook manuscript should be around 6 pages long, and certainly keep it under 9 pages. Shorter is better than longer.

Rebus books

Rebus books aren't usually included in the round-ups of children's book formats I've seen online which is why I'm including them here. Rebus books are a type of picturebook where pictures are used to represent certain phrases, words or parts of words (syllables). These word substitution books are great for getting children engaged in reading. Rebus books also allow children to "read" and understand a story that might have been beyond their reading level if text alone was used. Furthermore, rebus books are valuable for helping children understand a key reading principle, i.e., that words represent concepts.

If you are submitting a rebus story manuscript to a publisher, you can underline or highlight the words you think would make good pictures. Or you can simply send the full text of the story and the editor will pick which words to illustrate. Check to see what the publisher requires.

Easy readers

Easy readers, also called "beginning reader" and "easy-to-read" books, are books for children aged 6 to 8 who are just beginning to read on their own. They have 2 to 5 sentences per page and if they have chapters, the chapters are short (1 to 2 pages). Easy readers have very simple and somewhat predictable storylines, controlled vocabulary, and are grammatically simple. The story is told mainly through dialogue and action with very little description of characters or the setting. In terms of subject matter, easy readers cover themes and topics that children can easily relate to such as family, friends, pets, school, holidays, sports, being left out, first day of school etc.

Much in the same fashion as picture storybooks, easy readers have color illustrations on every page or double page that are included merely to hold the child's interest (i.e., the illustrations are not crucial to the story.) Easy readers are meant to be a stepping stone to longer chapter books; as such, they have a small trim size compared to picturebooks or picture storybooks making the format more "grown up", and they are usually soft cover.

Easy readers have different lengths depending on the publisher. They can be as short as 200 words or as long as 3,500 words (although most easy readers are in the 1,000 to 2,000 word range). That means anywhere from 32 to 64 book pages. Easy readers are commonly used in Kindergarten through 3rd grade classrooms for reading instruction. Many publishing houses have their own brand of easy readers with numbers or letters to indicate different reading levels.

Chapter books

Chapter books are for children aged 7 to 10 who are reading independently. Children can feel a great sense of pride when they begin reading chapter books because they see it as entering the privileged realm of "grown up" books. You'll often find that children who reach this stage start referring to the books they used to read before as "baby books" or "little kid books".

Compared to easy readers, chapter books are meatier, with more complex sentences and plot development, however paragraphs are still short (2 to 4 sentences). They also tend to be character-driven stories. Many chapter books use hooks at the end of the chapter that compel the reader to keep reading. In terms of length, again, this varies from publisher to publisher, however the average range is 4,000 to 12,000 words. Your chapter book manuscript should be 40 to 60 pages. Chapter books may or may not be illustrated; when they are illustrated the illustrations are black and white.

Early chapter books (sometimes called "transition books") have bigger print and slightly shorter chapters on average (2 to 3 pages) compared to more advanced chapter books which have chapters that are 3 to 4 pages long. They are also shorter- about 30 manuscript pages. Chapter books are sometimes written as a series, in fact, some of the most popular and commercially successful chapter books are series.

Middle Grade and YA Books

Novels for young people fall into two categories: middle grade novels and young adult (YA) novels. Both middle grade and young adult novels cover a wide range of genres from speculative fiction and fantasy, to historical fiction, science fiction and more.

Middle grade novels (also known as "children's novels") are novels for children's ages 8 to 12. These books are also sometimes marketed as "tween" or "pre-teen" books. They can be anywhere from 25,000 to 45,000 words long. The vast majority of published middle grade fiction novels have 35,000 to 45,000 words, however you'll see longer word counts for fantasy, sci-fi, and historical fiction middle grade novels (think Harry Potter). When writing a middle grade novel, aim for 100 to 150 manuscript pages. With non-fiction middle grade books on the other hand, word counts vary a lot (from as short as 5,000 words to as long as 100,000 words) depending on what different publishers are looking for.

Compared to chapter books, middle grade novels have longer chapters, more sophisticated themes, and more complex plots (i.e., sub plots, secondary characters etc.) Middle grade novels typically aren't illustrated; however, some stylistic middle grade novels have illustrations every few pages (These are known as "illustrated books", an example being The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman). Some of the most popular middle grade novels are published as a series with each book featuring the same cast of recurring characters.

Young adult novels are books for teens ages 12 and up. These novels can be anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 words long, although YA novels in the paranormal, fantasy, sci-fi or historical genres can be longer, sometimes as long as 120,000 words. The safest bet is to stay below 100,000 words. That's 130 to 200 manuscript pages. By definition, in YA novels the main characters, and usually most of the secondary characters, have to be teenagers. The content and plots of young adult novels can be quite sophisticated, however these books always address themes and issues that are relevant to contemporary teens (self-discovery, dating and sexuality, coming-of-age, mental health issues, substance abuse, school violence, etc.)

Short story collection/Anthology

Generally speaking, publishers are not interested in short story collections or anthologies for children and teens unless they are written by already established authors. The short stories may be by one author (a collection) or by different authors (an anthology). All the stories in a collection or anthology are at roughly the same reading level and target a particular audience/age group. Often, the stories will share a common setting or theme, e.g. bullying.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Interview with Zetta Elliott

Zetta Elliott, PhD
Publishing Perspectives is a blog series that's all about seeking insights from people on both sides of the publishing fence ―the folks who work in publishing and the writers working toward publication.

Today, I'm honored to welcome Dr. Zetta Elliott to the series! I first came to know of Zetta when she reached out to me via email back in 2010 and then I met her at the A for Anansi: Literature for Children of Black Descent conference at New York University that same year. Since then I've been following her blog, Fledgling, and have read all of her excellent books for young people. An outspoken advocate for diversity and equity in children's publishing for many years, Zetta's efforts on behalf of underrepresented writers and their stories have never ceased to inspire me. Many thanks to Zetta for agreeing to this recent interview.

I think of you as a "no holds barred", uber-transparent blogger. You aren't afraid to engage contentious commentators, or offend with what you say on your blog, and you've even shared your annual writing income with your readers. As a blogging author, is transparency something deliberate on your part? Or is it just sort of an inherent aspect of who Zetta Elliott is?

I've said for years that we need greater transparency in publishing, so I’d better practice what I preach! Mostly I think that’s part of who I am—and why I write. Some people blog just to promote their work or their image as an author; I think I use my blog more as a kind of journal, and friends have warned me about my openness. There are risks, but as Audre Lorde reminds us, “Your silence will not protect you.” I don’t expect to reach a point in my writing career when it’s “safe” for me to speak my mind, so I might as well do it now. Telling the truth doesn't just help the speaker/writer, it helps those who are unable or unwilling to speak for themselves—and I do get messages from other writers thanking me for saying something their agent warned them against. I want change in the industry and that won’t come from staying silent when I see something unjust.

You've written 3 well-received books for young people, including the Coretta Scott King Award-winning and ALA Notable Children's Book, Bird, and you also do a lot of work advocating for equity and diversity in publishing. Why heap advocacy on top of being an author? Isn't the best advocacy just to write the books that need to be written?

Well, as you know, there’s a difference between writing books and getting them published. I’ll always write, but publishing is another matter. I have stepped back from the advocacy work; I felt I was becoming too immersed in the children’s literature world and that field doesn't define me as a writer or a scholar. Fighting for access is a burden most white writers don’t have to bear, but writers of color make up less than 5% of the children’s book authors published annually in the US so the advocacy work has to be done. I work with See What We See and that social justice group will tackle inequity in children’s literature when it launches this fall.

Last year, you made 2 funded trips to Nevis, the Caribbean island where your father was born, to connect with your roots and do research for your in-progress family memoir, The Hummingbird's Tongue. I understand that you now have Nevis citizenship and are planning to open your own arts center, Black Dog Arts Center, on the island. What role does heritage and legacy play in your writing and in how you see yourself as an author?

“Funded trips?” I paid for both trips myself, though I did get two grants last year (one to do research in South Carolina, and another to do research in northern Ontario). My author income (royalties and honoraria) pays for my travel; this spring I’m heading to Ghana for the Yari Yari Ntoaso conference in Accra. I think travel is important for any artist. Writing is like wringing a sponge dry and then you have to absorb more ideas and observations.

I was named for my grandmother, Rosetta Elliott, and I want to know her story—that’s what took me to Nevis. I was then invited back to participate in their inaugural book fair. Right now I know more about Nevis in the 1700s than I do about the contemporary country. One day I hope to open an arts center/museum but I don’t think I could live in the Caribbean full-time; mostly I want to contribute something and an arts center could bring in visiting artists to lead workshops for Nevisians so they can continue to tell their own stories.

My father deliberately hid his past; he didn't want his children to feel connected to Nevis and in a way I’m going against his wishes by reversing his migration and digging for the truth. But I think I owe my ancestors a voice. I can do things they couldn't, and that’s why I write historical fiction—it allows me to turn back the clock and write them back into existence.

Speaking of The Hummingbird's Tongue, you write for both adults and children. I've previously had cause to wonder if authors who split focus and write for both adults and children have a harder time progressing their careers. What do you think?

I don’t know—I can’t think of anyone whose career failed because they wrote for different audiences. Really, my role models are people like June Jordan and James Baldwin and Toni Cade Bambara—they wrote for young readers and adults, and didn't seem to worry about their work finding a home. Publishers today prefer to market authors in just one way but hybridity is a big part of life in the African diaspora, and I don’t feel I should have to limit myself to please others.

You're one ideal of the independent, self-driven woman. You travel often and solo, live alone, and you recently blogged about becoming debt-free. What would you say to single women trying to build a career in publishing? 

Being child-free definitely gives me more time to write, and not having dependents makes it easier for me to travel at will. I've worked with kids since I was 16 and I continue to teach children now that I’m an author and professor; no one has ever questioned my expertise but I suppose I move in mostly progressive circles. Being in Nevis last summer I definitely noticed that people were concerned with my marital status and whether or not I had kids—I got the feeling some people felt my “success,” which they admired, came at too high a price. Some people don’t think a woman’s complete unless she’s got a man and/or kids, but those people don’t worry me. I don’t have any advice for single writers—every writer has to make the most of the time and resources s/he has.

In a 2010 article in The Huffington Post, you blogged in detail about your children's publishing journey and how, after many years, you used self-publishing to finally break into an industry that you experienced as being unreceptive to your stories. Since then 3 of your children's books have been published, and you have 2 more on the way. Do you feel vindicated and has publishing changed much since you set out to get published?

I don’t feel vindicated because nothing has really changed—I still struggle to place my manuscripts and publishers still refuse to reflect the diversity of our 21st-century world. I have one published picture book and about 15 unpublished picture books; I published two novels with AmazonEncore, but now my editor has moved on and I’m not sure whether my latest novel will find a home. Self-publishing remains an option but it’s hard work and very time consuming. A friend of mine wants to start a non-profit kids press one day and that’s probably my best option if I want to see more of my work in print.

Speaking of "on the way", let's talk about Judah's Tale and The Deep, your two in-progress YA novels. I'm really excited about both of these books. Please give us a two-sentence synopsis of each book.

The Deep: When fourteen-year-old Nyla find herself at the center of a battle between good and evil, she must learn to wield the astonishing power she inherited from the mother who abandoned her as a child. Far beneath the streets of Brooklyn, Nyla discovers a dangerous world filled with temptations that may lure her away from her friends forever.

Judah’s Tale: When Genna Colon magically opens a portal in Brooklyn, her boyfriend Judah finds himself pulled into the past and sold into slavery in the deep South. When hope of finding Genna fades, Judah must find a way to survive—and belong—in a country torn apart by war.

You describe both books as "urban fantasy" and in other places you use the term "speculative fiction". I know from reading your blog that you're fascinated with the possibilities of magic in the urban environment. You even wrote a scholarly paper on the topic. What, in your opinion, is the value of these types of stories?

They open up possibilities! I always ask myself, “What if?” I imagine alternate endings, alternate routes, alternate realities. Our youth need to develop the capacity to dream because we face many challenges in our communities, and we can’t create change without first creating a vision of the world we truly want to inhabit. Magic is a form of power, so it’s important that children of color know they come from people who have a long tradition of wielding power…

The Deep is the companion book to your 2012 middle grade novel, Ship of Souls (which I really enjoyed), and Judah's Tale is the much anticipated sequel to your 2010 YA novel, A Wish After Midnight (which I liked even more). Now that you've been through the process, what advice can you give to other writers about writing a series? 

It’s hard! That’s not really advice, but it’s the truth. I think sequels are really hard and I've given up the hope of having the second book be “as good as” the first. Judah’s Tale is not yet done and I've been working on it off and on since 2003. I will NEVER do that again. These days I only start projects that I know I can finish within a few months, projects that fit within my academic calendar. The Deep is a companion book, so I didn't have the same burden to maintain continuity—the characters are the same as in Ship of Souls but it’s a totally different story. I see The Deep as the bridge to the last book in that series, not that I have any idea when I’ll find time to write that!

I read a recent post on your blog that seemed to just ooze with frustration. You were lamenting the complacency of individuals and institutions who have the power to do something about the lack of equity in children's publishing but aren't doing anything. The complacency of certain groups aside, are children's publishing diversity activists a close-knit, collaborative community? Or is the disconnectedness of advocacy efforts a part of the problem?

True allies stick together and strive for the same goals. The See What We See “crew” is made up of that kind of committed people. A lot of people TALK about diversity, far fewer talk about EQUITY, and even fewer actually work to transform the publishing industry. Whenever I talk about SWWS, like-minded people come forward and ask how they can contribute, so that’s encouraging. Most institutions and organizations within the children’s literature community are made up of people from the “know something/do nothing” category. There’s nothing I can do about that.

In the blog post I referred to in my last question, you stated in the same breath that you'll soon be leaving the world of children's literature behind. Are you still determined to call it quits and if so, what will you focus on next?

As you pointed out, I’m currently working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue; I have another family memoir in the works that will trace my mother’s African American ancestors who escaped slavery in the US only to “pass” for white to avoid racism in Canada. I have to finish Judah’s Tale (hopefully this summer) and then I have a couple of adult historical novels I’d like to explore, one set in Nevis and the other in London. I’ll still work with kids and promote my books for young readers but I won’t be giving as much of my time to the advocacy work.

Last year you were accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program. Do you think the university has a role to play in diversifying publishing?

It should, but it won’t! The academy is, in general, a very conservative space. Academic publishing is different from commercial publishing, and most scholars publish in order to get tenure; their books are sold mostly to academic libraries, little if any money is earned by the author, and scholars follow the rules and do whatever it takes to get the contract that will get them the job security they desire. The academy has not embraced digital publishing, certain presses are considered more prestigious than others…there isn't a lot of room for innovation. The FFPP is designed to give junior faculty time to polish scholarly essays for publication in peer-reviewed journals. Since The Hummingbird’s Tongue is a hybrid book, it’s unlikely to appeal to academic presses, though I may try to publish an excerpt in Small Axe or MaComère.

As a published author, you've been through the threshing floor of publishing multiple times. What are three of the most important lessons you've learned throughout the A to Z process of writing your books, getting them published, and being a published author out in the world?

Your work doesn't matter to anyone as much as it matters to you. Be prepared to defend your vision and nurture your book from infancy to old age.

Keep writing despite the obstacles and the rejection. Don’t stop and wait for everything to fall into place because chances are, that won’t happen.

Remember why you started to write in the first place and stay true to that because publishers mostly care about the bottom line. Would you write if you never won an award or earned a six-figure advance? I would.

Zetta Elliot is a black feminist writer of stories for children, poetry, plays, essays, and novels. She earned her PhD in American Studies from NYU in 2003 and has currently teaches in the Center for Ethnic Studies at Borough of Manhattan Community College.

Her poetry has been published in the Cave Canem anthology, The Ringing Ear: Black Poets Lean South, Check the Rhyme: an Anthology of Female Poets and Emcees, and Coloring Book: an Eclectic Anthology of Fiction and Poetry by Multicultural Writers. Her novella, Plastique, was excerpted in T Dot Griots: an Anthology of Toronto’s Black Storytellers, and her essays have appeared in School Library Journal, Horn Book Magazine, The Black Arts Quarterly, thirdspace, WarpLand, and Hunger Mountain.

Her picture book, Bird, was a 2009 ALA Notable Children’s Book and won may awards including the Lee & Low New Voices Honor Award, the Coretta Scott King/John Steptoe Award for New Talent, Paterson Prize for Books for Young Readers, and the West Virginia Children’s Choice Book Award. Her young adult novel, A Wish After Midnight, was published by AmazonEncore in February 2010; her second YA novel, Ship of Souls, was published in February 2012. Her short story, “Sweet Sixteen,” was published in Cornered: 14 Stories of Bullying and Defiance in July 2012. Zetta was born and raised in Canada, but has lived in the US for over fifteen years. She currently resides in her beloved Brooklyn. You can follow her on Twitter at @zettaelliott.