Hey friends! Today I’m bringing a special guest to you, my special readers!
Karen Ferreira is an illustrator, award-winning creative director and owner of GetYourBookIllustrations. She helps self-publishing authors get amazing, affordable illustrations. She has spent many hours learning about self-publishing and enjoys helping others succeed in this field. In fact, she’s one of my newest favorite resources to recommend to the many children’s book authors I coach through the writing and publishing process. Without further ado, welcome Karen!
Start by telling us more about GetYourBookIllustrations.
As a keynote speaker on my annual conference, Children’s Book Mastery, I interviewed Marcy about how to make your book appealing for children and adults and full of heart. Marcy gave such valuable pointers that I wanted her audience to benefit from her advice too. In this article I share the highlights of our interview.
We explored the following:
- What doesn’t make a good children’s book
- Key elements to create a book full of heart
- How to take the reader on a journey despite word count
- How to build emotional support into your book
- What a character interview is and how to use it
- How many children’s books should you read to hone your craft?
- Showing versus telling
We wrapped up with Marcy’s top tip to help children’s authors succeed. Make sure to read to the end so you don’t miss it!
What doesn’t make a good children’s book?
Karen: So, I know that pretty much anyone could go through the steps of writing a children’s book, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be a good book. So, I’d like to ask you first, what actually doesn’t make a good book?
Marcy: There’s a good list of things that don’t make a book good. Those things are being really didactic and preachy. Kids live in a world where they’re lectured to all the time, taught all the time, and so, we want to avoid that in our books for kids because we want to give them a chance to see other kids overcoming obstacles and taking responsibility and ownership for their decisions.
Books that really don’t have a strong character or even a plot-line, don’t do that well in the industry. Those books tend to be called ‘quiet books.’ Some have sold and done well. These are books that are sweet but don’t really have a storyline.
We want to see characters change, learn, and grow because that’s real life.
Marcy: We want to set kids up for realistic expectations of real life. Those are a couple of things that make books not very good.
Rhyme comes up a lot, and I am not a rhymer. If you’re not perfect at it, you should avoid it. It actually does more damage in the sense of the success of your book when kids are being pulled out because the rhyme or the meter or the rhythm doesn’t work, versus just having a real smooth book that works.
If you’re going to write in rhyme, you should definitely have a very good, solid editor who edits in rhyme and can give you that kind of feedback. Otherwise, don’t try.
Karen: That makes a lot of sense. Yeah, I’ve also heard you can judge, if it takes away from the storyline at all then don’t try.
Marcy: Yeah, if it can be told equally in prose as it could in poetry, then just write it in prose.
Does age matter?
Karen: Okay. What’s interesting, you mentioned about the strong character and the strong storyline versus just something cute. That seems to also become more and more true as the age goes up. Like a book for a 1-year-old often—or 2-year-old often is kind of just cute. Is that right?
Marcy: It is right. That’s a very good point. Age does matter, even so, you want to keep the adult’s attention. So, in children’s book writing, you’re not writing just for a child, you’re writing for the adult buyer who’s going to read that book over and over and over.
Key elements to create a book full of heart
Karen: Right, okay. So, what stood out for me from your children’s books that I read was it’s really full of sensitivity and tenderness and full of heart. What are some of the key elements that sets an okay book apart from a really good engaging book that’s full of heart?
Really what it comes down to is: Can the reader feel the story versus just read it?
By that I mean, there’s a level of emotional engagement that they feel. Agents and editors will not acquire a book that doesn’t have an emotional connection to the audience in some way. And especially to them, first of all.
And that’s just as important when you’re self-publishing as well. You want to have that emotional connection with your readers. That’s what brings them back to it over and over.
How to take the reader on a journey despite word count
Karen: That makes total sense. Then, since it has to be quite short, a children’s book obviously gives you limited words to work with, so how do you still take the reader on a complete journey despite that?
Marcy: You have to do it strategically, with some intentionality. So, for example, if I had 50 thousand words to build out a story, I still want to be intentional and thoughtful. But I’ve got so much space to develop and play and build-out.
Whereas in a picture book, if I’ve got zero to seven hundred words, usually over twenty-eight pages of story, I have to pay attention to the pacing right away. Like, where are those pages turning and what’s happening and why does the kid want to turn the page? I have to pay attention to where the climax is.
Being mindful about how that story folds out. I use a story map. It’s basically an outline. It’s my guide for where I’m going to build in certain aspects of the story to make sure everything’s covered.
It’s also about remembering that children’s books have a partnership with an artist and with the artwork. My words need to tell part of the story, but that illustrator is telling the other half of the story and I need to leave space for that. They’re bringing their own creativity to the story.
Children’s books are the most difficult type of literature to write. It’s the most difficult for the reason you said—we have so few words to do it in. We have so few pages to do it in, but you have to engage an adult reader/purchaser and this child who’s going to beg them to read it again over and over and over.
Karen: Yeah, exactly. I know you wanted to show us a little presentation in this regard.
Marcy: Yeah. You had asked how I built into Speranza’s Sweater, specifically, so much empathy and emotion. So, I put a few things together to show that.
Marcy: So, first, why does emotion matter in books? Why do we want to include it? We touched on it already. It’s what makes a book good. If you think of any movie you’ve watched or even book you’ve read as an adult, it’s the same.
The ones that really stick with you, you felt something. I watched a movie recently where everybody died in the end and I didn’t care. I felt betrayed by the writers of the movie because they didn’t develop the characters strongly enough in that movie for me to care that they all died at the end.
And this actually really matters psychologically for the kids as well. So, this is from a website: ‘Children who are socially and emotionally healthy tend to demonstrate, and continue to develop, several important behaviors and skills. They usually have a more positive mood. Listen and follow directions better. Have closer relationships with caregivers and peers. Are able to recognize, label and manage their own emotions. Show empathy, can understand other people’s emotions, express their wishes and preferences. Are able to gain access to ongoing play and group activities, are able to play, negotiate and compromise with others.’
Right now in our general society, there are not a lot of emotionally healthy children. And there are not a lot of emotionally healthy families and adults. There has been so much brokenness, whether it’s through poverty or through lack of education or circumstance. Families are struggling, and so then are our kids. And so, what’s the importance of building this into our kids’ books? Well, it’s one of the few places where kids can go and experience something really healthy.
Even if a child does have that in a family setting, they probably aren’t experiencing it at school or in all the homes of their friends. We have an opportunity as writers to give them a safe place to go.
We want to show other kids, or other circumstances, where a character is confronting an obstacle or conflict or tension and overcomes it in a healthy way, because they’re not getting that necessarily in their everyday life.
They’re getting to see a childlike character overcome things on their own without an adult preaching the answer to them. If your book is preaching the answer to them it’s not a good book anymore. That’s real life.
In our kids’ books, we want to give them the opportunity to see that children can and do make good decisions or when they make poor decisions, can overcome that too.
Marcy: We want to give them the opportunity to catch the lesson. This is an example of Weirdo and Willy that I kind of brought up a bit ago.
Willy gets teased every day. So, they said it on Monday, ‘Willy is a weirdo, Willy is a weirdo.’ They said it on Tuesday and Wednesday, but on Thursday, something strange happened. And what happens is that a Weirdo shows up.
He’s a creature whose name is Weirdo. He hears them saying ‘weirdo’ all the time and he thinks, Oh, they’re calling me to play. And so, this creature shows up, but he actually ends up terrifying all of the bullies. All the bullies just run away and Weirdo’s just like, ‘Why doesn’t anyone want to be my friend?’
And so, it ends up being this story where I’m flipping language, turning it from something negative into something endearing, but it’s also a story of bullying and of learning to love yourself. And what is the importance that we put on other people and what they think of us?
One reviewer made a comment that they were disappointed that at the end of the book, the bullies don’t have this major transformation story. They do show up again in the end, but it’s not like they repent, or they realize how wrong they were, and they make amends. And it got me thinking, ‘Yeah, why didn’t I do that?’ And the reality is, because I based this on my own childhood and some bullying I had.
The writing of this book was really of my own journey as well, and how the book ends is that Weirdo and Willy don’t need the approval of the bullies anymore. That’s why it doesn’t matter that they don’t transform because Weirdo and Willy have transformed. And so, this again is an opportunity for kids to catch a lesson. There’s never in this book where I just straight out say, ‘Hey, kids, learn to love yourself.’ There’s no adult saying, ‘But Willy, you’re not a weirdo, those kids are just mean. Here’s all the things I love about you.’
Speranza’s Sweater is a story of a child who’s removed from the birth home, placed into foster care and ends up in an adoptive family. So, I wrote that book to give kids an example to see themselves reflected in the story. ‘Hey, there’s a book about a foster kid. I’m a foster kid. Oh, she’s been caught for lying. I’ve been caught for lying. She was loved anyway. Oh, maybe I’m loved anyway, too’. Like, they get to develop that.
But then I have also gotten lots of feedback that kids who are not in foster care have read this book and suddenly had a new understanding of what it must be like for their classmates or their friends or whoever they might know who has to move from home to home or isn’t living with their birth family. It gives them an inside look. So, what was foreign and therefore scary before is now familiar and filled with compassion.
How to build emotional support into your book
Marcy: I love this quote. Flannery O’Conner is known to say:
‘I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.’
All of the books I’ve written for children, if I think about it, were me working out something that mattered to me, either in my own childhood or right now, or things I’m experiencing with my kids. And I don’t understand what I’m thinking until I’m able to read this draft that I’m putting together. And that was true for Weirdo and Willy.
I was in grade 4 and we were out at P.E. playing softball, and my team went out into the field, and I didn’t know how to line up. Wherever I went in line, kids would tell me the opposite. I didn’t know where to go. No one would let me in. So, I asked the teacher, ‘How do you want us to line up?’
The whole entire class began to chant at me: ‘Nark, nark, nark!’, which means ‘tattletale.’ I was mortified. I was already this shy kid, super insecure. And now my entire class is chanting this at me.
I started crying at lunch and some of the kids started to say, ‘Oh, I didn’t do it. It wasn’t me.’ Now I’m angry, ‘Yes, you did! You all did! You’re all mean people!’ That stuck with me. I hadn’t meant to tell on anyone or do anything wrong.
Years later, I’m with Tara Lazar on her website, participating in Storystorm, which I think happens each January now. But one of her blog posts was on how to come up with ideas, and it was around taking a story in your life that, if you could rewrite it, how would that story go? And immediately this childhood story came up. Oh my goodness, if I could rewrite that childhood story, a ‘nark’ would have shown up and eaten them all.
So, when I began to write that story, I was rewriting my childhood story, that was painful, into a story kind of the way I wish it had gone. What makes it so special now is, after 38 revisions or whatever, the book went from the character eating all of the bullies to make me feel good, to the characters not needing the approval of the bullies anymore.
How do I build the emotional support in? I’m building it in because I had to be aware of myself and my own journey with this story, with my part in it, but also my deep care for it. It really does mean that when you have a story idea, stop and think about what is your real connection to this? Why does it matter to you?
Marcy: I had a student I was coaching who was having writer’s block with her children’s book. And she’d never had writer’s block. And as we spoke together, what came out was that she had been bullied as a child and she was experiencing deep guilt about putting this beloved character into a bullying situation because it had been so hurtful to her as a kid and she had to recognize that.
There’s an awareness of yourself that sometimes doesn’t come out until you’re in the middle of the story. And so, knowing your character is really important.
What I had her do after that was have a conversation with her character. Have a conversation and just tell that character like, ‘I’m so sorry that I’m putting you here, know that I love you and I’m not trying to cause you harm. And the reason you’re here is because I want kids to know that just like you, they can overcome.’ Just to have a real honest conversation with her character. It did something-it gave her space to feel peace, to move forward with that story.
Karen: I love that, that’s such a cool way to do it.
Marcy: Yeah, it’s amazing. I often recommend doing character interviews because I think the more that you know your character—even if it’s only 28 pages of a story where you are using this character—the more you know that character, the more you’re going to care for them, the more your reader is going to care for them.
A character interview is essentially a list of questions that you ask your character and you write the very first answer that comes to mind. I know this feels a little bit like playing with multiple personalities. I’m sure you’re thinking: But Marcy, this is a character in my head. It’s not going to answer me, but it is part of who you are. You will be surprised and maybe even a little freaked out, but in a good way, at the kinds of answers that you’ll get from your characters.
Some of the things I like to ask are, ‘What are you most afraid of?’ Then I just write the very first answer that comes, and sometimes it surprises me. It’s not what I thought.
So, I’ll ask, ‘What’s your greatest fear? What gives you the most excitement or happiness in life? What do you feel the most sad about?’ I’ll ask them emotional questions, but I also might ask like, ‘What’s your favorite food?’ Just so I know.
Writing that first answer can sometimes surprise you, but write it down anyway. At the end of that document, you’ll be amazed at how much you learned about your character. You’ll have a greater sense of who they are and how they’re going to change through your story and how they’ll act.
Showing vs. Telling
Marcy: Be so thoughtful about your audience and how they’re best going to both experience your book versus just have it preached to them. That’s your showing versus telling. Your art is going to show quite a bit.
Showing versus telling is both done in the artwork, but also in not just saying it. For example, ‘Speranza also visited her brothers. She couldn’t help but smile to see them happy and laughing.’ I don’t just come straight out and say, ‘Speranza was happy to see her brothers.’ I’m showing it with her smile. I’m showing it with what her eyes are doing, what her shoulders are doing. Again, giving you an opportunity to show it in the words, in the language.
How many children’s books should you read to hone your craft?
Karen: Thank you, that’s very helpful. All right, and then I know also that reading children’s books is essential for authors to hone their craft. How many books should they read?
Marcy: All of them. I wouldn’t put a number on it. I just think read as many as you can until you feel like you understand what makes a book good. One of the ways to understand that is to pay attention to what attracts you to the book. There’s a lot to be said about your own attraction to a story, even as an adult because there is still a childlike person in each of us, right? We might be embarrassed to say we love picture books, but we totally do.
Karen: I’m not embarrassed to say I love them.
Marcy: No! Be surrounded by books, and not just what’s up-and-coming. I think that’s important for trends and to understand what’s being done and where kids are at. What’s the industry saying kids want right now?
And also, classics. They’re classics for a reason. They’re timeless, they’re universal. They are still being read because there was something about them that didn’t only matter in the 70’s or the 60’s or the 50’s when they were being written. And so, going back to those and saying, ‘What made this timeless and what made it universal?’ and building that into your own writing. So read lots and lots.
What is your top tip to help children’s book authors succeed?
Karen: Okay, good answer. Alright and then my final question for you: What would be your top tip to help children’s book writers succeed?
Marcy: My top tip for children’s writers to succeed would be, to not quit growing as a children’s writer. So, there’s ‘don’t quit’—but don’t just not quit writing, but don’t quit trying to grow.
When webinars or conferences or critique groups or these options come along, where you can learn more about the craft of writing, but also have someone else give feedback, take advantage! In that critique kind of setting or session, be willing to submit your work to feedback from people in the industry who know, so that you continue to grow. Every book is going to be a little better than the last book, or it should be because you should be growing as you go.
Don’t quit growing.
Karen: Good tip. Thank you so much for that. Thank you so much for coming on, Marcy. That was really awesome.