Advice for Writers

If you’re a writer trying to break into the children’s literature market, my number-one suggestion is to become an active member in the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI). Not only will you learn a ton about both the business and the craft of kids’ books, but you’ll meet some of the most welcoming and supportive colleagues you could ever hope to know.

Like just about everyone you encounter in the book business, I think writers should read as much as they can. Start with Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott. Some people call it a craft book, but I think of it as more of a guide to what the writer’s life entails, what makes it so difficult, and why it’s worth doing anyway.

Then read all the good books you can find, from literary classics to modern commercial works. Some new writers avoid reading within their genre, because they’re afraid they’ll lose their unique writing voice if they read other strong voices. The most convincing counter-argument I’ve heard is this: A developing writer who refuses to read great books is like an art student who won’t study Michelangelo, or a music student who avoids listening to Beethoven. Learn from the masters, then develop your own style. (I sincerely regret that I don’t remember who said this.)

Here are a few books I recommend for writers. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books ever written — though some are — but I see each as an example of excellence in a specific area. I revisit them when I need inspiration to strengthen those particular aspects of my writing.

  • Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery. If you’ve ever had a writing instructor tell you that the setting of your story should be a character, and you didn’t know what that meant, you’ll see.
  • Holes, by Louis Sachar. A primer in how to weave and tie up multiple plotlines.
  • Frindle, by Andrew Clements. Another lesson in plot — specifically, an ending that is both surprising and inevitable.
  • Anything by Kate DiCamillo. If you want to write literary novels for children, pick up any of her books and learn why she is a legend in her own time.
  • Bud, Not Buddy, by Christopher Paul Curtis. This Newbery Medal winner shows the power of narrative voice, as does Curtis’s Newbery Honor Book, The Watsons Go to Birmingham: 1963.
  • Okay for Now, by Gary D. Schmidt. Another great example of voice. I love how the subtle changes in voice reflect the protagonist’s development through his story arc.
  • The Complete Tales of Winnie-the-Pooh, by A.A. Milne. I can’t think of any book I’ve read, ever, with a stronger ensemble of fully developed characters who are unabashedly true to themselves.