Over the past few years, I have been asked this question a lot.
Honestly, till I started writing ‘Beato Goes To’ books, I wanted to ask this question to every children’s book author I had met.
Book reading and signing at Sarah Smith Elementary School
So, what is involved in writing a children’s book? How long does it take? Is it easy to do? Here is a snapshot of my writing process.
You Have to Start With a Good Idea
I can’t tell you how many people want to write a children’s book, think they can write it, do end up writing one, and then never publish it.
We all have stories about our pets or our kids visualized in our heads, and a lot of them may be good. But you need to figure out why is this story meaningful and why would parents buy it for their kids? Is it just something you want to write down on paper, or do you see yourself as a published author who sells a lot of books?
Go to bookstores and libraries, talk to kids, find out what teachers are looking for. Based on that, modify your idea and come up with an idea for a great book! Then, pitch it to publishers and agents.
One thing I hear from teachers and librarians is that they are looking for more diverse books, showcasing characters that kids can identify with, and written by diverse authors.
Writing For Kids Requires You to Think Differently
I have being writing professionally for 15+ years, but it’s always been for adults, and mostly non fiction. Writing for kids was new to me and required a steep learning curve. When I wrote the first draft of ‘Beato Goes To Greenland,’ I had to go back and edit it at least 20 times. Most of my long sentences and big words were cut. My editor came back with pages full of red marks and crosses.
In Greenland, Beato sees 1000 pound musk oxens and compares their stink to his dog brother, Russo.
I needed to learn what would be exciting to a 5-year old reader and keep his/ her attention through the pages. Some facts that I thought were interesting, may not be to a kid (for example, I tend to write vivid descriptions of food). And other things I found silly, would make a young reader chuckle (like a stinking musk oxen).
Children’s books need to be humorous, educational and exciting. They need to have a resurrecting theme and a take-away message. Though I don’t do rhyming sentences in my books, some authors use them to repeat a message.
It Takes a Long Time to Write 32 Succinct Pages
Because you only have 32 pages in a traditional children’s picture book, the added challenge is to convey everything you want to tell the reader in a “short and sweet” way. My books include a lot of information about a country’s geography, geology, society, wildlife, culture, food, festivals, and more; which makes it even tougher to communicate briefly. I have to pick and choose which aspects of the country I need to highlight, and which ones I can do without.
I decided to talk about kuningan in Bali because I witnessed it firsthand, and could relate it to Christmas in the west.
Often times, someone from that country would ask me, “Why didn’t you mention that we have a XYZ festival too?” Sorry to disappoint but I only got 32 pages to work with!
The Research is Immense
I try to travel to the places that I write about (though may not have visited every single place mentioned in the book.) The illustrations are largely based on my photographs and whatever Beato is seeing and feeling, is what I actually felt in that place.
It took me 3 visits over 2 years to Japan to gather pages for ‘Beato Goes To Japan.” I hiked with a Yamabushi master, learned calligraphy, saw Mt Fuji, strolled in the gardens, read manga, took a selfie with school kids.
Then it was another 8-9 months of writing, fact checking, editing, illustrating, creating layouts and graphics, before the book goes to print.
Sketch of a page from Beato Goes To Brazil
You Can Write and Illustrate
Many authors illustrate themselves, which adds to the timeline mentioned above. I have a team of illustrators who are really good at what they do and wonderful to work with. I send them photographs, along with brief notes. They add some of their imagination and creativity, before presenting sketches. We generally go back and forth a few times to make edits. Once approved, the sketched are filled with color, and more edits are made. We work digitally and this process takes 3-4 months.
You need to decide if you want to do both or focus on one aspect of the book.
Allow More Time For Fact and Cultural Sensitivity
I know many children’s book authors who write about science, nature, zombies, etc. and I know they probably spend more time in research and facts than on the writing process itself.
Japanese tradition mandates you don’t make eye contact, and place your left palm over the right, when wearing a kimono.
Since I write about places and cultures, I have to use several different resources to verify that I am correctly spelling a name, correctly representing a tradition, or even the fact that something I mention actually still happens. You want to ask people who are from that country and have attention to detail to to advise you and review your book. For example, in Japan it is rude to have your back towards a religious shrine. Also, if you are wearing a kimono, your left palm should be over your right; otherwise you are considered dead.
Still have more questions? Write them in the comments section below and I’ll be happy to help you write your children’s book!