After crafting three noir short stories in between novels, I’ve now really wandered into the dark side. I’ve come out with a children’s book and not one of those edgy YA ones, but a heart-wrenching middle-grade one with a pink cover.
I’ve already discussed here a couple of years ago of why I’ve entered this territory. As often is with the case with me, the story—not the genre—pulls me like a magnetic attraction. As the story emerges then I usually try to push it into the form I THINK that it should take before I finally SURRENDER (hopefully sooner than later) and follow it towards its natural inclinations, voice, and rhythm.
Actually I thought I had embarked on a women’s novel until my agent and her agency intern at the time informed me that the voice of the tween was stronger than the thirtysomething-year-old looking back on her life. “You mean I have a YA novel,” I said weakly. I didn’t have anything against YA novels, but I just didn’t picture myself as writing one. So I returned to the desk and the computer and started deconstructing and reconstructing and yes, they were right—I had a book for younger readers on my hands, but I learned later that it wasn’t YA. It was an age category younger than that—middle grade, which in the case of my book means 10 years of age and up. (Here’s not a fast and firm rule, but a guideline—usually your core youth readership skews two years younger than the age of your protagonist.)
Since my published fiction up to this time has been geared towards adults, I’ve faced a steep learning curve. Writing is writing, but publishing is always another matter.
Myths About Getting a Children’s Book Published
1) It’s easier to sell a book for children than for adults.
We’ve all witnessed the Harry Potter and Twilight series phenomena. Young people are finally crazy about books. So that must mean that means publishers are on the hunt for children’s book writers and stories, right? While that may be true, it’s also true that many, many people—perhaps more than any other genre—want to write children’s books. Many editors (mine, in fact) even write themselves for this market. As a greater number of people are competing for limited slots, competition is pretty fierce. Once I got a literary agent, my first mystery sold in a manner of weeks. In contrast, the sale for my middle-grade book took a number of months.
2) It’s easier to write a book for children than for adults.
What can be so hard about writing a book for children? There are not many words, especially in picture books. If we are used to writing 1,000 words a day, than a book that totals 1,000 words shouldn’t be that difficult, right? I have never attempting to write a picture book because of one word—poetry. I’m convinced that you need to be a poet to write picture books, and I’m definitely not one.
In terms of middle-grade literature, the standard word count is 40,000, but I hit 50,000. It’s not difficult for us established mystery writers to reach our word quota. But with children’s book, it’s not about volume, but about each scenario and point of view on the page. My observation is children’s books are much more heavily edited than mystery books for adults. Anyone else have an opinion about this?
3) You need to have children to write a book for them.
I know that some of my girlfriends furrowed their brows when they heard that I was writing a book for middle-grade children. I don’t have kids, after all. So what would I know about being a kid in this day and age? But the thing is, we were all children at one time. We often talk about the good ole days, how we were different when we were young than “this generation,” but the truth of the matter is deep down inside there is not much which separates “them” from “us.”
Technology is, of course, the great divider, but it’s actually not that difficult to learn how tweens and teens communicate this days. If you’re reading this blog and you’re over forty, you’re more with it than most people of your generation. Being a mystery writer and engaging in blatant self-promotion through websites, blogging, Myspace, Facebook, Twitter, etc., is actually a training ground in learning new ways to communicate. And what are we communicating? Love, lust, anger, information, selling and buying—the same old stuff.
And ironically, as a children’s book writer, you need to always take the viewpoint of the child. That may mean the parents are not seen in a favorable light. The writer has to literally stop thinking like a parent or teacher, but literally like a child.
So, What’s the Payoff?
I’m still not clear how average advances for children’s books compare against ones for adult books (for picture books, the author and illustrator split royalties 50-50), but I’m told that children’s book deals tend to be lower. I’m sure that this differs from case to case, but in general don’t be chasing a children’s series because you expect the same riches bestowed on J.K. Rowling.
My children’s writer colleague said it best: “When you receive that letter, e-mail from a kid saying how much your book means to them, it’s all worth it.”
Juvenile Mystery Series Recommendations
I had the great opportunity to serve under Sujata Massey in judging the Edgars in the YA category last year. It was wonderful to get acquainted with the work of some great mystery writers for the children’s market. I’m also always on the lookout for good mystery books for my friends’ children. Encyclopedia Brown, Harriet the Spy, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys are all classics from my era, but there are some newer series for younger readers:
CLASSIC P.I. a la Raymond Chandler: My favorite current mystery series is NATE THE GREAT by Marjorie Weinman Sharmat. These are easy readers (meaning that children 4 to 8 can read them themselves). The child sleuth, Nate, of course, has a dry wit and cool detachment that makes his adventures a delight to read. The plots and puzzles are very well constructed. The CHET GECKO series by Bruce Hale for middle-grade children is also popular. Here a gecko plays Sam Spade with plenty of references to noir movies (titles include FAREWELL, MY LUNCHBAG, THE BIG NAP, MALTED FALCON, and THIS GUM FOR HIRE). Adults will get the references better than children themselves.
CALIFORNIA FEMALE a la Sue Grafton: Wendelin Van Draanen, the author of the SAMMY KEYES series, incorporates a literary device used by Sue Grafton and Jan Burke. She’s made up a California coastal city, but modeled it after a real town. Grafton has Santa Teresa (Santa Barbara) and Burke, Las Piernas (Long Beach and its environs). Well, Van Draanen offers Santa Martina, which is actually Santa Maria, a city which I have come to love. SAMMY, like Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone, is full of pep and vinegar. Grafton even states in her blurb for SAMMY KEYES: “If Kinsey Millhone ever hires a junior partner, Sammy Keyes will be the first candidate on the list.”
SCI-FI MEETS THRILLER a la Dean Koontz: I heard Margaret Peterson Haddix speak at this year’s Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and I knew that I’d have to run out and read her books. Her popular SHADOW CHILDREN series deals with overpopulation of the earth and how “shadow children,” born after a family’s second child, are either executed or imprisoned. Her series centers predominantly on a shadow child, Luke. Her new series involving time travel, THE HIDDEN, deals with how a set of adopted children discover their true historic identities.
JAMES BOND or SPY THRILLER a la Robert Ludlum: “Foyle’s War” is hands-down my favorite current PBS Masterpiece series. Its writer, Anthony Horowitz, also behind a very popular spy series for children, I just learned from Barry Martin, the proprietor of Book’em Mysteries in South Pasadena. It’s the Alex Rider series and you can read more here.
SHERLOCK HOLMES PASTICHE a la Laurie King: Laurie King has Holmes’ wife, but Nancy Springer has Holmes’ younger teenage sister, Enola, as her star protagonist in her award-winning series.
JAPANESE HISTORICAL a la Laura Joh Rowland and I.J. Parker: There’s a samurai apprentice boy sleuth in Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler’s series set in Japan in the 1700s.
There are a number of standalones, especially for YA readers—dark stuff that would make some hardboiled mysteries for adults look light weight. Have you come across an interesting mystery for younger readers? Have you thought about writing a book for the middle-grade or YA market? If so, please comment. If you would never consider writing for children, we’d like to hear from you, too.
I also want to make note of my mystery colleagues who have recently published books for the youth market: Susan McBride (her DEBS series debuts this week and it’s listed on Kid’s Indie Next List [formerly Booksense Picks]—congrats, Susan!) and Lauren Henderson. Susan, Lauren and I all have the same editor at Delacorte. And Chris Grabenstein has his hands full with a launch of a children’s book, THE CROSSROADS (been getting great reviews) and his next installment in his John Ceepak mystery series for adults.
I’ve asked Susan to stop by here today so if you have any questions or comments for her, please leave her a note and she may reply. And thanks, Murderati, and specifically Pari Noskin Taichert for having me here. Happy last days of summer or back to school!
JAPANESE WORDS OF THE WEEK: kurai and pinku.
Kurai means dark, not only visually but emotionally/spiritually. In terms of noir, it’s usually phoeneticized as “nowaru.” There’s even an anime series with two female assassins by that same name.
One guess what pinku means—the Japanese love their gairaigo, their transliterated words from foreign languages (most often English). For those who haven’t waken up yet, pinku is pink. Remember the Pink Ladies, a Japanese girl band from the 1980s? I guess pinku also refers to Japanese soft-porn movies from the Sixties to the Eighties. Learn something every day from Google.
Oh I love NATE THE GREAT. Um, I mean my daughter does. Thanks for the other suggestions.
I interviewed Robert Cormier (I AM THE CHEESE, FADE, etc.) and he said he didn’t think of himself as a YA writer. He simply wrote novels where the main characters happened to be children.
Do you–I mean, your daughter (?)–have a favorite NATE THE GREAT? I haven’t read all of them, but I like the ones set in San Francisco with Nate’s cousin, Olivia Sharp.
Once you hook in a YA reader, I suspect you’ll keep that reader for life. So even though you never intended to write a YA book, it may turn out to be a brilliant career move!
Hi Naomi – great post. When it comes to Myth #2, I think children can be a much more honest audience. If you’re boring them, they won’t continue to listen politely – in fact, they’ll probably come right out and say so!
Didn’t I read somewhere (maybe on your blog) that you’ve been thinking about writing a YA book? You would be great for this market–talking about hooking a young, loyal audience!
You’re very right. I’m quickly learning what kids like and don’t like. That’s why I think thriller writers would be great for younger readers–they love stories with a lot of surprising twists and turns.
Great post, Naomi. I learn so much from you every day.
Naomi,How wonderful to have you here today. You’re welcome back anytime!
I’ve been toying with the idea of writing a YA for several years. It’s natural, I guess, when you live with kids in that age group. Your myths and responses give me quite a bit to think about.
As part of my training, I’m on the YA Edgar committee this year and am finding the submissions fascinating. I can’t comment beyond that — but can say that I am truly enjoying this stint and am learning sooooo much.
Even more interesting is listening to my children’s comments on the books that speak to me the most. We don’t always see eye to eye.
BTW: I love the cover of your book — pink notwithstanding.
It’s funny to talk to authors who write for middle-graders/YA and have tweens or teenagers at home. Plotlines are often discussed at the dinner table, and occasionally the kids come up with some good advice (there’s a lot of bad advice as well). One YA author sat down with her young-adult children and literally asked them what they thought that she did wrong in raising them (her mother character in her novel was very flawed). Now if that isn’t guts, I don’t know what is.
As published mystery authors for adults, we tell aspiring writers not to write for the market, but here’s the feedback I’ve been hearing:
Publishers are on the lookout for good middle-grade books that boys might like. I guess the YA market is glutted and there’s a lull in terms of picture books right now. But just like anything else, write what your heart/passion leads you to. And it’s all cyclical, right?
Louise: You give me too much credit. But gracias.
Naomi, wonderful post! I’m so looking forward to reading 1001 CRANES. The cover is gorgeous, and I can’t imagine it won’t fly off the shelves into tweens’ anxious hands! Thanks for mentioning THE DEBS, which debuts on August 26 (just sent you a copy, btw!). You’re so right about YA/Children’s books being a different world from mysteries. I’ve been learning a lot these past two years while getting the first two books in the series done. Feels like I’m starting over in some respects, though I’m ever-grateful for the foundation I built with my mysteries. It’s helped in more ways than I ever imagined.
Thanks for stopping by! I’m sure people have missed seeing you at mystery conventions–I know that I have (although I’ve had to miss out on quite a few myself).
And yes, mystery writing, just like journalism, is a great training ground for building writing endurance. And it’s nice to already have relationships with bookstores and librarians. Even though 1001 CRANES isn’t a mystery, I just had an event (very well attended!) at Book’em Mysteries and will be at the Mystery Bookstore in Westwood in mid-September. There are less bookstore events in the children’s market–more of the presentations take place in schools and some libraries.
I don’t understand the YA market. I’m 24 and have been out of high school for only 7 years, but I don’t recall anyone above middle school age reading YA type novels. In high school, you’re already reading stuff like The Great Gatsby and Hamlet, and I imagine if anyone in my high school had been caught with a YA novel, they would be made fun of. What age are YA novels marketed for?
I know I read my first adult novel in third grade (Jurassic Park), though it took me a month to finish it. I read the sequel (The Lost World) in sixth grade when it came out and finished in in three days. I’m not saying that to boast, but the point is I didn’t find either of the books challenging to read at the time I read them. I understood Jurassic Park in third grade, it just took me a while to read it.
And is Harry Potter an indication that we don’t really need YA books? When the first one came out, I saw elementary school kids reading it. Adults read those books, so if elementary students can read it as well, maybe YA books aren’t needed? I don’t know; all I know is i went from The Giver and Where the Red Fern Grows to Romeo and Juliet and Lord of the Flies, then on to Wuthering Heights and Heart of Darkness.
The last YA books I remember reading besides The Giver (if that even counts as YA)would be some sports-related novels I read in maybe fourth and fifth grade.
Is the YA market a relatively new one? I just don’t get it. And is the YA market needed because kids like these books, or because they can’t handle adult books yet?
BTW, great cover for 1001 Cranes.
Oh yeah, speaking of James Bond type books, don’t forget the Young James Bond series by Charlie Higson.
Naomi, thanks for a great post! I’ve been reading a lot of YA this year (for the same reason you did last year) and it’s been a real eye opener. I was frankly amazed at the breadth and depth of the subject matter. About the only thing that makes a book YA, it seems, is the young protagonist. pretty much any subject is fair game.I’m fascinated by the guideline of the readership skewing two years younger than the age of your protagonist. I guess it’s because kids can’t wait to get older.
Naomi – -just wanted to say HI and thanks for being here today. I’ll get more up later… crushing…
Children’s literature is still developing. Although its roots go back to the early 20th century ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6580051.html?q=pioneers+children%27s+literature ), Dr. Seuss didn’t really come onto the scene in the 1950s. In terms of early readers before that, there were Dick and Jane books–not the most stimulating.
I was also reading classics at a young age, so I understand where you’re coming from. I think that YA books were created to attract young people to reading by exploring characters, environments, situations, and themes that they can easily relate to. I meet many adults who tell me that they read mostly YA books, so the label may indeed be a superficial one.
Re. wanting to be older
I wonder at what age the trend goes in the opposite direction. Maybe 3-0?
Hang in there!
Naomi,For a small country town, the place I live in is rotten with Authors(said with love)…
One is Gary Crew who has published about 12 books in the YA/teenage genre. A few years back he had a couple of his books (Strange objects and Angels Gate) short listed for the Edgar Alan Poe Mystery Fiction Award. He has a slew of other awards… including the Ned Kelly award for Crime fiction.
One book of his that I particularly like is The Lace Maker’s Daughter.I read it a couple of years ago, but remember that it was very suspenseful and dark with the teenage protagonist delving into her namesakes murderous past, while confined to her home due to her own anti-social behaviour.
My 19 year old daughter recently re-read this and was very complimentary too. This lead to my 24 year old daughter piping in with points that she had enjoyed. It’s probably the only book the three of us have each read and enjoyed. We normally don’t get that much of a cross over.
So I’d put The Lacemaker’s Daughter in the interesting mystery read for younger readers and well not all that aged readers pile.
Thanks for the prompt, Naomi. I wrote what ended up being considered YA, but I wrote it as a baby-boomer nostalgia mystery for my friends ‘of a certain age’. Had fun writing, as the characters are amalgams of the people I grew up with and the various products of the time: cars, tv, movies, baseball championships, spoiled rich kids, normal families with secrets. Peyton Place meets Twin Peaks. Made it through to the semis in the Amazon contest last year, good reviews from complete strangers!
Unfortunately, I can’t seem to get an agent interested enough to take a look at the pages. Setting 1970s midwest US, opening with a 14 y.o. girl burying her boyfriend in the woods with her father. Title: Sins of the Children. Any takers??
LACE MAKER’S DAUGHTER–sounds fascinating. Seems right up Murderati’s Alex Sokoloff’s alley.
BTW, I asked for recommendations of other middle-grade or YA mysteries on some other listservs and received these responses:
HANK THE COWDOG by John R. Erickson
And Little Willow, well-known in the children’s lit community, offered these:
THE WESTING GAME by Ellen RaskinThe DOLL IN THE GARDEN by Mary Downing Hahn…and additional titles by Mary Downing HahnVarious books by John BellairsTHE CREEK by Jennifer L. HolmTHE BODY OF EVIDENCE series by Christopher Golden- Start with the first book: BODY BAGS
She also has two related booklists:
Mind Readers and Ghostly Visitorshttp://slayground.livejournal.com/324469.html
Teen Mystery and Horrorhttp://slayground.livejournal.com/172714.html
Have you received any feedback from these agents? How about critique groups?
I do know that the 1970s is considered “historical” for the children’s market and therefore potentially problematic. I also had first set my story in that same time period but rewrote it to be set in the present-day.
RAT LIFE, which won an Edgar in the YA category last year, is in the Vietnam War era, but elements of the story almost require it to be.
Based on what editors have told me, you want your protagonist to be a couple years older than your target audience, so perhaps your character needs to be older to be under the YA category. I’m not saying that you should change from a creative standpoint–you might find an agent/editor who will go for it. It just might be more difficult.
Great list, Naomi!! And much appreciated, as the mother of five. My 12 year old read the shadow children series last summer. She’s really developed her own tastes, however . . . she read A GREAT AND TERRIBLE BEAUTY and the two sequels–all three books in less than a month. The first 400+ pages, the second 500+ and the third nearly 600. Needless to say, I was proud of her 🙂 She really enjoys historical fiction. When she was younger, she loved the SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE EVENTS and read all of them between her 8th birthday and Christmas, and then had to wait for 6 months for the last book to come out, which was frustrating to her (and she had the audacity to say to me, why can’t authors write faster????)
My oldest, in high school, is not a big reader (very sad) but she loves the FEAR STREET series by RL Stine which has been around for a long time. She loves a lot of the so-called “Chick Lit” YA novels. She also loved Lois Duncan (yeah! One of my favorite authors when I was younger) and Joan Nixon Lowry (though she had to read it for school and at first didn’t like it, then loved it and aced her final.)
For young readers (7-10) I strongly recommend Trixie Belden. I devoured that series. They are being reissued. They are a little outdated (even I didn’t know a Ford was a Jalopy until I looked it up in the dictionary, and that was in the 1970s.) I haven’t liked how they’ve updated the Nancy Drew series, however, so I don’t recommend those as strongly as I used to. Or maybe I was just looking at a dud.
For the younger readers and those still liking mom and dad to read, the Bailey Kids, Magic Tree House, etc are great for encourging imagination. My 7 year old loves the magic tree house. He has a “magic” rock and makes up stories about where he goes with his magic rock (and they usually involve video game characters that come to life . . . .)
There are so many great young children’s and YA books out now. I agree, though, that many are dark–as dark as any adult book, though they usually are not sexually explicit even if they address sexual themes.
Another great series is the Scott Westerfield UGLIES and sequels. Again, my 12 year old read them when she was 10 and 11. They are a bit meatier, and she didn’t like a lot of the exposition in the middle of the books which she said was “pages and pages of just explaining stuff.” But overall, she liked the books.
Thanks for the suggestions, Naomi. I’ll give the idea about character ages some consideration. And I’ll keep querying! Maybe I gave up too early.
Thank you for including my suggestions! I’m flattered.