By Heather Fenton
A few months ago, I decided to stop writing picture books. Not permanently. I just wanted to put them on the back burner while I concentrated on finishing my YA novel, which was progressing at glacial speed (and I don’t mean the current accelerated “global warming” glacial speed). Since I hadn’t as yet had any picture book manuscripts accepted for publishing, it seemed like a sound idea.
The same week I came to this conclusion, I received two rejection letters for PB manuscripts I had sent out six months earlier. Aha! Confirmation of my brilliant decision. Picture books must not be my forte. I shall make my mark in the world of YA.
My son’s second grade teacher, Mr. D, pulled me aside one day while I was volunteering in his class. “I hear you write children’s books,” he said. “Oh, no, no, no,” I said, blushing. “I haven’t published anything. Hopefully someday…” “Would you read one of your stories to the class during Writer’s Workshop?” he asked. The class spends an hour and a half every week writing stories, editing them, illustrating them, and then reading their final version to the class. “Well, they probably wouldn’t be interested…there aren’t any pictures to go along with the story,” I answered. “The kids can draw the pictures,” he persisted. Having no more excuses, I agreed.
I e-mailed Mr. D four different manuscripts, and he picked one he thought would fit well with other parts of their curriculum. I then did a storyboard of sorts, laying out the text as I imagined it would be in a 32-page picture book. Meanwhile, Mr. D worked with the kids’ art teacher to have them practice drawing the sea creatures that populated the story.
The following week, I came to class and read the story. Then I handed out one page to each student, and they spent the next 45 minutes illustrating the line(s) of text on their specific page. We put them all together into a “book,” and then I reread the story with all of the kids’ pictures.
What an experience! To see the expressions on their faces as I read, to look at their amazingly creative – and often hilarious – illustrations was beyond words. Pausing at one illustration that didn’t really match the text, it turned out several students didn’t quite understand a particular plot point (I clarified that part when I got home). Discussing the theme and underlying message, I was elated when the kids got it right on the nose! (Mr. D was actually a little off on the message.) The kids said they related to the main character, even though he was a crustacean, and sometimes felt the same way he did.
We ended with a Q&A session that made me feel like an actual author at a book reading: When did you first start writing? Second grade! How do you find the time to write? Not sure – I’m still figuring that out. How do you decide what to write about? Ideas come from my life, my kids, what I see, what I read…How long does it take you to finish a story? Sometimes a week, sometimes a few months, sometimes a story never feels completely finished. What inspires you? You.
Those two hours with those twenty students, ages seven and eight, reminded me why I started writing children’s stories. And it gave me the renewed energy and inspiration to write two new picture book manuscripts over the next few weeks. Just don’t ask me about the progress on the YA.
Along with the inspiration I took from that experience, it also made me realize that – wait for it – we’re writing for children. Children are our audience and yet, writing is such an adult process. I’m an adult writing these stories. They get read and critiqued by other adults in my writing groups. Then they’re sent to adult editors or agents. All necessary and beneficial and crucial, but let’s remember to add another step in the process. Find a focus group! Share your works in progress with members of your target audience. They may not point out your grammatical errors or advise you on word count, but you’ll be able to gauge their interest in the story and characters, their grasp of the vocabulary level, whether or not they understand the underlying themes, if your story makes them laugh, sparks their curiosity, etc.
Find your audience in a local school, your town library, a youth group – even my daughter’s scout troop does a storytelling activity.
Do you have opportunities to run your manuscripts by members of your target audience? Have you found it helpful to your writing?
A member of SCBWI and three wonderful writing groups, Heather Fenton writes mainly picture books, but is expanding her literary horizons and delving into the world of YA.