Hello from Crystal Bowman! I’ve been writing for children for more than 20 years and am still learning the process because there is always more to know. I enjoy teaching and mentoring writers and prefer a positive instructional approach. I’d rather tell writers what to do rather than what not to do. But sometimes we can learn from our mistakes and even the mistakes of others. So this post is going to focus more on what not to do in order to keep your children’s story from landing in the slush pile.
Avoid clichés like the plague!
Even novice writers know that phrases such as green as the grass, quiet as a mouse, and soft as a kitten are red flags for an editor. But did you know that the stories themselves can also be cliché? Story lines such as the ugly ducking becoming the swan, or the shy introvert becoming the hero have been done before—too many times. Just as your language needs to be creative and original, the story line does as well.
Some writers struggle with how to write fiction for the Christian children’s market, so they decide to have their story take place in heaven. Not a good idea. Angels with broken wings or singing competitions in the heavenly realms are not going to make it past the first round. I’m not saying a book on heaven isn’t needed in the children’s market, but many kids are not totally at ease with the whole idea of heaven anyway, so these fictitious stories are just going to confuse them. Stories on heaven are fine, but they need to be more realistic.
Avoid perfect endings.
About ten years ago Michael Berenstain took the Berenstain Bears series into the Christian market. It was an instant success and it’s still going strong. These books are good examples of how to weave Christian messages and lessons into stories about everyday life. The stories are fun and humorous, yet offer practical take away without being preachy or cheesy.
Another thing I like about the Berenstain Bears books is that they don’t have the “perfect ending” cliché. Brother and Sister don’t always win their soccer game, but they learn about sportsmanship during the game. Brother doesn’t become best friends with the bully, but he does learn to respectfully defend himself. Kids need to have endings that are satisfying and hopeful, but “happily ever after” endings are for fairy tales.
In one of my I Can Read! stories about a rabbit named Jake, the conflict in the story is that he was not good at playing baseball. No matter how hard he tried, he could not hit the ball. When Grandma spends the afternoon with Jake, she helps him practice until he can finally smack the ball. The last two sentences in the story read like this: After dinner Jake played baseball with his family. And Jake hit the ball almost every time. The word “almost” is the key to a good ending rather than a perfect ending.
That hurts my ears!
Another fast track to the slush pile is to write a story in rhythm and rhyme without mastering the craft. Awkward sentence structure, irregular rhythms, unnatural language, and forced rhymes are a big negative and will make an editor cringe. If you have a gift for rhythm and rhyme, that’s great! But you still need to become an expert at writing in verse before pursing publishing in that genre.
Love those animals!
Unless your name is C.S. Lewis, do not have talking animals in a story with talking humans. Kids love animals, and there are many benefits in using anthropomorphic animals as characters, but then all the characters must be anthropomorphic (as in Berenstain Bears).
Writing for children is far more challenging than most writers realize—until they try it. But if you keep learning and growing and improving, you just might see your name on the cover of a children’s book—the one that made it past the slush pile!