Secrets of Successful Children's Book Authors

Five well-known writers share how they got their start.

"If you ask a hundred different authors how they got published, you'll get a hundred different stories," says Pam Mu?oz Ryan, author of Mice and Beans, one of Child's 50 Best Books of 2001. But aspiring writers -- and fans -- can learn and be inspired by the tales of those who've flourished in the field.

Q: What advice do you have for people who want to write children's books?

A: "Join the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (in Los Angeles)," advises the prolific and renowned author and illustrator Tomie dePaola, whose latest book, On My Way, was recognized by Child as one of the Best Books of 2001. (Call 323-782-1010 or go to www.scbwi.org.) "And write about what you know. You have to sit down and do the work. There's no secret to it. A lot of it is luck, but you also have to really and truly believe in yourself."

"There are the rare, overnight success stories about debut books, but more often, success is based on a mountain of starting over and rewriting, of dedication to the craft, and persevering when the statistics are never in your favor -- and in publishing, they're not," adds Ryan.

Furthermore, there is no one path to success. After several years of submitting stories on her own, Ryan finally broke into the children's market by acquiring a literary agent.

Says Michael Hoeye, who self-published his first two books, including The Sands of Time, a Child Best Book of 2001: "Publishing my own books was an incredible education, but it was the scariest thing I've ever done. I felt like a cartoon squirrel out on a limb in a tree and I couldn't stop sawing off the branch. Self-publishing isn't for everyone." (Penguin Putnam recently bought the rights to his books and is rereleasing them.) DePaola advises sending query letters instead of unsolicited manuscripts: "I know an editor who says 'If you can't tell me what your book is about in one short paragraph, then you don't know what it's about and I'm not interested.'"

On the other hand, unpublished writers may want to send manuscripts, says Eileen Spinelli, author of Sophie's Masterpiece, a Child Best Book of 2001. "Send them to as many editors as possible and don't give up," she says. "You might want to get an agent after your first book is published. The main thing is don't become discouraged."

Q: When did you first realize you wanted to be a children's book author?

A: "I didn't know I wanted to be a writer until I was an adult," says Ryan. "Although I've loved books since the fifth grade, it never occurred to me that I could write them. I knew that I wanted to do something that had to do with books and I thought that would be teaching. After college, I taught for a few years, got married, had children, and then stayed home with my kids for over 10 years. During that time I went back to school one night a week to get my Master's degree in post-secondary education. After I turned in several papers, one of my professors asked me if I'd ever considered writing professionally. Until that point, it had never occurred to me. Coincidentally, a few weeks later, a colleague asked me if I would help her write a book. The seed was planted and I couldn't stop thinking about the possibility that I could be a writer."

Some people know earlier: "I started writing at age 6 and later got into writing poetry," says Spinelli. "When I had kids, I rediscovered children's literature."

Q: Where do you get ideas for your stories?

A: "Ideas come to me from everywhere-my own life, sometimes folktales," says dePaola. "Strega Nona came to me out of the blue, but I often get ideas from kids. The Quicksand Book is a good example of that. Children will come up to me and say, `Why don't you write a story about....'"

Q. How do you handle rejection from publishers?

A: "Rejection can be devastating," says Janet Stevens, author of And the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon, a Child Best Book of 2001. "You can get your heart broken. The main thing to realize is that there are so many different editors with different tastes. You have to remove yourself from it emotionally and just keep trying. You don't have to be the best author and win all the awards; you just have to appeal to kids -- that's what's most important."

Q: What are some other challenges you've faced?

A: "It's hard to find time to write when you're raising a family," says Spinelli. "You get interrupted a lot and it becomes hard to make writing a priority. But if you really love to write, you'll find the perseverance and patience that you need."

"The hardest thing to learn is how to communicate with your audience," says Hoeye. "You can't lose your voice. You must have a distinct sense of who you are and who you're trying to talk to." One way he honed his skills was by writing letters. "My first book, Time Stops for No Mouse, started as a series of letters to my wife who was traveling in Africa," says Hoeye. "I didn't know I was writing a book. It was just a way of entertaining her, but it kept growing and growing. To write a book straight through can be bewildering and intimidating."

Q: What surprised you most about this business?

A: "I was surprised by how much public speaking is involved," says Stevens. "Authors are expected to give talks at luncheons, conventions, festivals, and conferences. It takes confidence, but it's great for promoting your books."

"What surprises me is how many people go out and buy books," says dePaola. "It's so great to see kids reading." Ryan adds: "There's always delight and gratitude when readers embrace one of my books."

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Copyright © 2001 Child.com.

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