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Ten tips for aspiring children's book writers

By Mary Rodd Furbee

1. Consider why you want to write children's books.
If you want to write books for children, it helps to be a little crazy. I developed a passion to write nonfiction biographies for middle-school children about four years ago. My daughter's experiences made me realize that there were hardly any children's books on America's founding mothers. It hit me, hard: This was what I had to write. There was a need. The subject was fascinating. I knew I could do it, and found the prospect exciting. If you have a similar passion, perfect. If not, perhaps you are meant to do something else. It's hard to write books, harder still to write books for children. It's difficult to get published, and you'll face a lot of rejection.

2. Don't expect to make big money or make it quickly.
Writing books for children is like starting a business. You must invest both time and money. I hoped to make money writing my first books, but I didn't. Four years and six published books later, I still haven't made as much money as I could have in most professional writing or editing positions. It's the rare children's book that hits the bestseller list or wins a Newbery Award, and the rare full-time children's writer who makes a living.

3. Read children's books.
When I decided to write biographies of women in American history, I read biographies, histories, books about writing biographies, and lots of middle-grade fiction and nonfiction. It's amazing what you can learn by reading the books you want to write - be they board books for infants and toddlers, picture books, early readers, middle-grade novels or young adult nonfiction. Read the best authors - over and over. If you can, take a class in children's literature or writing for children.

4. Learn everything you can about writing for children.
Read articles, visit websites, join writers organizations, and buy a few all-important books (see resource list below). Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCWI). Belonging gives you an edge when you query a publisher, and they hold useful conferences and workshops. All this will cost some money, but it's an investment in future success.

5. Find out which publishers are interested in the kind of books you want to write.
Do some research. Books in Print is a good resource. It's available through libraries in database and book form. The Children's Book Council publishes an annotated list of children's book publishers (send a 6x9 self-addressed stamped envelope with postage for three ounces and $2.00 to the address listed at the end of this article.) Literary Marketplace, Writer's Market and Writer's & Illustrator's Guide to Children's Book Publishers and Agents list detailed information about the types of manuscripts publishers seek and how to submit. I also browse in bookstores and at

6. Follow publishers' guidelines.
Once you've identified potential publishers, read their submission guidelines - carefully. Then obey them - religiously. Some publishers want submissions to be exclusive; others accept simultaneous submissions. (That means you can send it to other publishers at the same time.) Some want to see the entire manuscript; others want an outline; still others want sample chapters. Call editors only if the submission guidelines specify that you may. It's a good idea to call receptionists at the publishing houses to make sure the editors listed are still there. While you're at it, double-check the spelling of names.

7. Be a pro.
Submissions should be error-free-and gimmick-free. Double-space. Use page numbers. Use paper clips and/or rubber bands, not staples. Don't use colored paper or fancy binders. Entire books have been written about properly formatting your document: If you are unsure how to proceed, read one.

8. Include a dynamite query letter.
A query letter is a pithy, enticing pitch about the book and about you, the author (in that order). Books about writing and getting published usually feature query letters. Read them for ideas, but don't imitate. Be yourself - your best self. Write, revise, and proofread as many times as it takes to make your letter shine. Below is the beginning of a query letter I used. I followed this with concrete information on page length, target audience, and my writing experience. (If you have no experience, don't apologize for it; just leave that part out.)

Dear Ms. Smith,
During the American Revolution, colonial women sewed flags, tore sheets into bandages and threw garlands at the feet of victorious generals. But they did so much more. Wealthier married and widowed women had significant power on the homefront. Middle-class women owned and managed newspapers, printing houses, taverns and boarding houses. Poorer women labored doubly hard as indentured servants and slaves while their menfolk were off waging war. Frontier women tilled the soil, shot the game and fought off native raids in what historians dubbed the "Battle for the Back Door." Women in all walks of life - couriers, spies, army cooks, nurses - traveled with and cared for soldiers fighting on the frontlines. They were helpmates and heroes, loyalists and patriots, upper-crust Easterners and earthy frontiers women, peace- and war-making natives. It's a rich and diverse history, yet largely untold in children's books about the Colonial and Revolutionary War era.

9. Be prepared to wait.
John Wiley & Sons, which published my book Outrageous Women of Colonial America, contacted me one year after I sent a query letter and a one-page proposal! Others took three to six months to send rejections. Rather than getting miffed, I wrote and submitted proposals for other books, signed a couple of contracts with smaller publishers, and got busy writing.

10. Join a writers group or start one.
Without the support of my fellow writers, I would never have become a published children's book author. Writing is solitary, and everyone needs encouragement and feedback. My local group (Morgantown Writers Group) gave insightful feedback on my very first manuscript: Anne Bailey: Frontier Scout (to be published this fall by Morgan Reynolds). I also found encouragement at the West Virginia Writers summer conference at Cedar Lakes. In fact, I won a prize for that same first manuscript in the WVW annual contest, which made me realize: Gee, I guess I must be good at this! Do yourself a favor: Join a group or start one. Happy writing!

Mary Rodd Furbee is a clinical instructor at West Virginia University (WVU) School of Journalism. Her books for children and adults include Outrageous Women of Colonial America and the forthcoming Outrageous Women of the American Frontier (John Wiley & Sons). For more information, visit her website:


Books and journals:
Publishers Weekly
Literary Marketplace
Writer's Market
Writer's & Illustrator's Guide to Children's Book Publishers and Agents

The Children's Book Council, 568 Broadway, New York, NY, 10012.
Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustra- tors, 8271 Beverly Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA 90048. Email:

Children's Writing website:
Librarian Today:
Publishers Weekly:
Literary Marketplace:
School Library Journal:
Institute of Children's Literature:
Children's Literature Web Guide: