Children’s Writing Weblog

Turn a Personal Story into a Children’s Book

Posted on: August 31, 2009

Suppose you’ve just experienced a divorce and lost custody of your kids. Or a family members has recently died of cancer. Or you struggled in school as a child because you have dyslexia.

Many authors turn difficult periods in their lives into books for children, hoping to help young readers through similar painful experiences. Here are some tips to think about when creating and selling books based on real-life events:

Remember that you’re writing a children’s book, not a personal essay intended to purge your soul from a painful memory. Children want to read about how they feel. Many writers create a young character and tell the story through that character’s eyes. Don’t write in first person if the “I” is you, the adult author. Instead of explaining how bad you feel that your kids no longer live with you, show how a five-year-old character feels about only getting to see Daddy every other weekend.

Books for younger children (up to age eight) centering around a personal crisis are generally most effective if the author uses a fictional vehicle for imparting the information. If you want to stick closer to nonfiction, write a book that focuses on the child at the core of the event, and is told in a narrative format with a beginning, middle and end. Older children can deal with more traditional self-help books, with each chapter concentrating on a specific aspect of the problem. However, mixing the advice with personal anecdotes from other children who have gone through the same thing will make the information more appealing and relevant to the readers.

Targeting appropriate children’s book publishers with these manuscripts is important. Look in subject index of Children’s Writer’s & Illustrator’s Market under “Self Help” and “Special Needs” for publishers. Browse the children’s nonfiction section of a large bookstore, and examine reviews in Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal and Horn Book (trade magazines found online and in most libraries) to see which publishers do similar types of books. Check out websites for editorial guidelines (if you can’t find them, send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the children’s editorial department asking for guidelines before you write and submit your manuscript). You can also look at books written for parents to help their children cope with an illness, loss or divorce, and query the publisher asking if they’d like to publish a children’s book on the same topic.

Though many mainstream publishers will buy books that deal with special issues, some topics have too narrow an audience for a large house to market the book successfully. In this case, many authors have elected to self-publish. If you get several personal rejection letters from editors who praise the book but say the audience isn’t broad enough, you might consider publishing it yourself. But self-publishing should be approached cautiously; color illustrations are essential for picture books, making them very expensive to produce. And you must be ready to devote at least a year of your life to selling and distributing your book. Most self-published books are sold primarily online or through direct mail. Can you purchase mailing lists of parents with children who could benefit from your book? Stories on adoption, specific childhood illnesses, or those that might fit in a pediatrician’s waiting room or hospital gift shop are examples of books with a very targeted audience.

Laura Backes is the Publisher of Children’s Book Insider, the Newsletter for Children’s Book Writers. Want to learn how to become a successful children’s book author? Come hang with the Fightin’ Bookworms at http://cbiclubhouse.com Whether is writing picture books, chapter books, young adult novels, finding children’s book publishers — or anything else — you’ll find all the answers at the CBI Clubhouse!

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