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Editorial: Read Before You Write

A member of the child_lit listserv recently posted a query which anyone who works with children’s books will find familiar: “A former student contacted me to ask if I could give her information about how to get started in writing and publishing children’s books.” Even given this little information, the good members of the listserv — one of the most durable of forums in our field, founded in 1993 — provided some good advice, such as encouraging the student to join SCBWI or visit Harold Underdown’s Purple Crayon website, a great place for both new and experienced children’s writers to find up-to-date information about goings-on in children’s book publishing.

I should have chimed in with an invitation to visit hbook.com and subscribe to this magazine, but, honestly, the question made me too grumpy to be wholeheartedly helpful. It made me feel like the rabbi on Orange Is the New Black who made the conversion-seeking Black Cindy work for it—to really mean it, and not just want the kosher meals instead of the regulation prison slop—before he agreed to give her religious instruction. Don’t even think about publishing until you’ve actually started writing, and don’t even think about writing until you’ve done a whole lot of reading. And not of websites or how-to guides; that’s just dilly-dallying. Read children’s books. Lots of children’s books. Although my grumpiness is resurfacing to tell you that if you haven’t already read lots of children’s books, for love, I’m probably not going to be interested in what you think you have to contribute. Harshing your buzz? Deal with it and dig out your library card.

Writers come to children’s and young adult literature from many directions. They were impassioned child readers; they were teachers or librarians (check out history teacher Steve Sheinkin’s Most Dangerous, school librarian Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, and children’s librarian Mary Downing Hahn’s Took, all reviewed in this issue); they were adult writers who were encouraged to try something different (the Newbery Medal was created with this very intention). I don’t much care where you come from, just so long as your first question isn’t “How do I get published?”

A relatively new road to the realms is the MFA. The first MFA program specifically dedicated to writing for young people was founded at the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 1997; it has since been joined by Hollins University in Roanoke, Simmons College in Boston, and Hamline University in Saint Paul, while several other general MFA programs have added children’s/YA literature as a specialty. (We’re building a directory of all pertinent programs; corrections and additions are welcome.) I admit I was leery at first, fearing a glut of New Yorker–ish artiness, and while there is some of that, eh, it was ever so. But having taught in the Simmons program, and having visited VCFA and Hamline, I see students getting as rigorous instruction in the heritage of their declared interest as they are in how they best might join our crowd. Knowing where you come from can only help when it comes time to put pen to paper, and while I am generally loath to say anything to encourage more children’s books in a time (still) of over-publishing, good books are always welcome.

***

With this issue we say goodbye to Horn Book publisher Ian Singer, who is leaving to become chief content officer at the reference publisher Credo. For the past five years, Ian has been everything an editor could wish for in a publisher: helpful, responsive, clear, and always respectful of the division of church and state. We will miss him!

From the September/October 2015 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Roger Sutton About Roger Sutton

Roger Sutton has been the editor in chief of The Horn Book, Inc, since 1996. He was previously editor of The Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books and a children's and young adult librarian. He received his M.A. in library science from the University of Chicago in 1982 and a B.A. from Pitzer College in 1978. Follow him on Twitter: @RogerReads.

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Comments

  1. Hello,

    Chatham University’s MFA program includes a children’s writing track. Katherine Ayres (NORTH BY NIGHT) is the coordinator. Her email is kayres@chatham.edu.

    Best,

    Leah Pileggi

  2. Well said, Roger! Now we can forward this article to all those who ask that question — or, worse, ask us to read their story/novel when all they REALLY want is an introduction to an editor.

    Your article gives these aspiring writers better advice and has more helpful information than the more blunt “Why I Won’t Read Your _____ing Screenplay” published some years ago in the VILLAGE VOICE. And the title is politer, too!

    Thanks for writing this!

  3. ChristineTB says:

    Amen. No one ever asks a Doctor “How do I get the hospital to let me work on patients?” (without having to go to college first).

    Somehow there’s an urban myth that writing for children is effortless, profitable and intuitive.

    Do the work. Do the research. Take classes (multiple). Attend conferences. Read a lot. Write even more. THEN submit.

    And DO NOT send unsolicited manuscripts via email to authors you’ve never met asking them to read it, submit it for you, write it for you, or mentor you.

    Keep up the grumpy, Roger. That question about how to get published gets tiring

  4. ChristineTB says:

    Libby, that Village Voice article was one of my favorites!

  5. Becky McDonald says:

    You can’t grumble and rant enough on this subject to suit me. Rave on, Roger!

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