It’s that time of year again: where I try to convince you to buy books for every child you know this holiday season.
This is my fourth year putting together this list (!!!). It’s always a lot of fun to look back at what I read over the year – like revisiting old friends. I hope you will find some new friends on this list.
I’ve added some codes to help identify particular types of books:
NF = Nonfiction
H = Humor
S = Series
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
Earlier this month, I Pray Today, my second book for babies and toddler was published. Today is the last day of the blog tour to celebrate.
I’ve been working on book reviews all year, though. Each month I gather up a few books I love and share them with my readers. I call it Kidlit Karma. This month I’m sharing some of my favorite books for babies and toddlers. I’m also going to dive into child development to explain why these books work.
Babies can’t see that well. Newborns’ vision is hazy – they like high contrast because it’s easy to see. You’ll often find the youngest babies staring at, say, a black object against a white background. Or a dark ceiling fan moving against a white ceiling.
By a few months old, babies vision has improved a lot but they often have a hard time understanding 2-D representations of objects.
So, books for babies and toddler often have high-contrast, easy-to-interpret pictures. For the youngest, single images on white backgrounds can be a good choice.
Babies love “baby talk” and it’s good for them. Forget what Great Aunt Bertha told you about only talking to your baby like a grown-up. Baby talk exaggerates the sounds of speech which makes it easier for babies to figure out the sounds they’re hearing and put those together into words. So go ahead and talk to babies in whatever way feels natural to you.
The sing-songy cadence of many rhyming books, help capitalize on this tendency. (Writers: be aware that babies are not less discerning than adults. If you write in rhyme, it needs to have PERFECT rhyme and meter.)
Babies love repetition. They drop the same toy over and over to see if dad will still pick it up, they never tire of peekaboo, and they will gladly have you read the same book over and over and over. While at times it’s infuriating (like the 5th time the bowl of oatmeal gets dropped to the floor), it has an important purpose: babies and toddlers learn best through repetition. Like little scientists, they’re testing if the oatmeal really drops every time. They’re also learning social information: “Will dad pick it up every time?” “Why is his mood changing as I keep dropping this?”
So many books use some kind of repetition: like the repeated phrase “Ciao!”
Speaking of actions, getting a toddler to sit still is a lost cause. They’re busy little beings. It’s easy to read with an immobile baby – harder to keep a toddler still and focused. So many books for toddlers include some kind invitation to action to help keep them engaged with the book.
That could be an action built right into the page, such as lifting a flap or holes designed for little fingers to poke into.
Babies and toddlers are also still working on fine motor skills – such as the ability to grasp and flip a book page without tearing. They need to explore the world and practice these fine motor skills – but it can be murder on a book.
So most baby and toddler books are board books – those chunky cardboard-style book pages that can withstand chewing, banging, other forms of baby love. They even have rounded corners to prevent an eye or mouth from being poked.
Adults Have to Like Them Too
Since your baby will be asking to reread the same book 10,000 times (and they will), books also have to please the adult doing the reading. A newer trend is to write book series’ that focus on topics of interest to a parent (like science, great literature, etc.), but at a level simplistic enough for a baby. No, your toddler won’t be doing astrophysics calculations in their crib. They’re in it for the baby faces and birdies, but the parent can appreciate the science.
In two months, my second book for children, I PRAY TODAY, will be published by Ancient Faith Press. When I did this the first time with GOODNIGHT JESUS, there were things that surprised me about the process.
I wrote the first draft of GOODNIGHT JESUS when my oldest daughter was a year old. By the time it was published, she was six. That’s not uncommon.
I wasn’t totally unprepared for this. Before I started writing for children, I was an PhD student. Academic publishing is notoriously slow. When I submitted research papers for review, I had to wait 6 to 9 months for a response.
Then I was a freelance writer working with textbook publishers. Even though I wasn’t writing the textbook, I got an idea of how involved the process is. I dealt with editors, copyeditors, the person who checks copyrights, the contractors drawing the diagrams, the fact checkers, the authors, … The lists goes on.
In the children’s book market, two years from acceptance to published book is a good turn around. GOODNIGHT JESUS was around 2.5 years from acceptance to publication. I PRAY TODAY will be 1.5 years. Understand that it takes time for everyone to do their jobs at every step of the process. No, that doesn’t make it any easier to be patient.
Also, if you ask me how the book is going, don’t be surprised if I have no idea.
2. YOU DON’T GET TO PICK THE ILLUSTRATOR – AND THAT’S OK
One thing that consistently surprises people is that children’s book author’s don’t pick their illustrator. Not every publishing house or every editor does things the same, but this is consistent. Someone at the publishing house – an editor or art director usually – picks the illustrator.
The author also doesn’t get a lot of say over what the images will look like. So if the editor thinks your story is best told with space aliens instead of the bunnies you envisioned, then you get aliens. Maybe you had pictured your story taking place in a big house in the country, but the illustrator draws it as a big city apartment.
Editors also get cranky if you include too many art notes (notes specify what the illustration should look like on a page). So unless you need a specific image for the text to make sense, leave out the art notes. In GOODNIGHT JESUS there was just one art note. The line “A kiss for George – reach higher!” doesn’t make much sense without the art note: “Child is too short to reach the icon.” That’s it. The only art note in the whole thing. Yes really.
Most writers cringe at the thought of losing control of their story like this. And most readers are flabbergasted as to how you get a coherent story that way. But believe me when I say that 999 times out of 1000, it works out.
Here’s the thing: editors, art directors, and illustrators are really good at their jobs. They can envision artwork that will not just compliment your story but actually make it better. When I envisioned GOODNIGHT JESUS, I imagined a child interacting with static icons. One of the other brilliant people came up with the idea to put the baby right there in Jesus’s arms. It makes these people alive and engaging. It’s also a powerful statement of faith and child-like perception. And it’s something I never would have thought of.
As hard as it is for authors to give up the control, it frees the illustrator and art director to come up with their own vision. Would they have thought of this if I had laid out my vision in explicit detail? Probably not.
So I’ve learned to sit back and watch in awe as these people work their magic. And I feel super appreciative that they are making my work look so good.
3. HOW MUCH WORK I HAD AFTER THE MANUSCRIPT WAS ACCEPTED
My manuscript was accepted! Time to sip wine and wait for the checks to roll in, right?
Not at all.
No matter how perfectly polished you think your story is, something will need to change.
Look back at the inforgraphic in #1. See how many times it says that the author is doing something. Yeah.
For awhile your manuscript will disappear into the publishing black hole as it works it’s way through the invisible stages of publishing. But soon enough, they’ll be putting you to work. First comes the editor’s take: a marked-up version of your manuscript with notes about unclear passages, weak words, and bumpy meter, for instance. Even in my super sort manuscripts, there were changes to be made. Once I finished the edits, it went back into the black hole for a bit longer.
Because GOODNIGHT JESUS and I PRAY TODAY are both board books, they’re very short and had few edits to make. (I still find it weird to submit a “book” that’s shorter than some of my grocery lists. But I digress.)
Eventually, it lands on the desk of the copyeditor who inevitably finds a whole pile of missed commas, punctuation errors, and other silly mistakes. They send me a corrected version and ask me to look over it. I cringe at my mistakes and thank all of creation that someone caught them before I got to look like a fool in print. And I work as an editor – it happens to the best of us.
And then the early illustrations are done and they ask for feedback. And then the proofs need to be looked over (digital copies of the pages as they will appear in print). And then… you get the idea.
The exact amount of back and forth depends on the publishing house, but there are always edits to be made and things to do. Instead of feeling defensive when other’s find errors, I think about how awesome it is to have so many people working so hard to make my work the best it can be.
This may just be me, but every sneak peek at the artwork makes me super excited. I just want to shout out to the rooftops “I WROTE A THING AND SOMEONE MADE REALLY PRETTY PICTURES FOR IT!” And then I would hold them hostage while I make them look at all the pretty pictures. It’s a little like having a new baby – you have to show everyone just how darn cute it is.
But there’s also this thing called copyright. And marketing plans. And other adult things I’m forgetting that also mean it’s a bad idea for me to post everything on the internet.
So instead I post when I can and save my intense enthusiasm and forced photo appreciation for my immediate family. You’re welcome.
5. HOW MUCH WORK THERE IS AFTER THE BOOK IS PUBLISHED
Ok, so my two-ish years are nearly up! The illustrator and all the people at the publishing house have done their magic to make my book as wonderful as possible. It’s being printed out and will soon be a real book!
So now can I sip wine and wait for the checks to roll in?
Once upon a few decades ago, a publisher could put out a book and people would just buy it. There are a lot more books being published these days (yay!) which means that there is a lot more competition (boo!). So unless you’re already a household name, expect to spend some time on marketing your new book – a website so your readers can find you, social media so you can keep in touch, connecting with readers through school visits and speaking engagements, … None of these things are strictly required, but they do help potential readers connect with your work. I happen to enjoy such work, so expect to see website changes and social media posts about I PRAY TODAY in the near future.
But hey, soon I can go full fan-girl over this fabulous thing I made. (Or is that just me?)
With two months left before I PRAY TODAY is fully birthed into the world, I’m still having to keep my enthusiasm to myself. But expect to hear a lot more soon.
You can also check out the lists for 2015 and 2016.
BOOKS FOR BABIES AND EXPECTANT PARENTS
No one is too young for a book! Nothing says love more than cuddling up in the lap of a grownup and listening to a story. And since reading to children is the number one best thing you can do to promote school success, you’re also making an investment in their future success. These books have stiff, durable pages perfect for the littlest readers.
These picture books are perfect for kids that are ready to graduate from board books. They have shorter texts (to match short attention spans) but big humor. These are a great fit for preschool through lower elementary.
READ ALOUD CHAPTER BOOKS FOR PRESCHOOL AND KINDERGARTEN
Kids can begin listening to chapter books as young as preschool or kindergarten. These books have short chapters and pictures can help ease the transition. They’re also free of mature or scary content.
Comics and graphic novels have been the gateway to reading for many kids. Apparently, I didn’t read many graphic novels this year, but what I lack in numbers I make up for with quality. I love all the books in this series (and stalk Drew Brockington’s twitter to find out when there will be more).
The one category where I read significantly more than in any previous year: middle grade. Middle grade is the term for upper elementary to middle school readers. I tried to thin down this list. I really did. But…. I can’t. #sorrynotsorry To help you sort through, I’ve added the genre of each but these should be taken with a (large) grain of salt.
It’s a great time for people that love nonfiction. There is some terrific nonfiction out there right now. This list was just as hard to thin down as the middle grade novels. After each book, I’ve listed the age category. PB = picture book and can range from preschool to upper elementary. MG = middle elementary to middle school. YA = middle school to teen.
I can’t believe it. It’s been a whole year since my first book, Goodnight Jesus, was published.
I’ve been feeling a bit mushy about this all month. Publishing a book is a big deal. Years of work and effort go into it. And then to see people hold it in their hands, to hear them tell you how much their children love it…. It’s a feeling that’s hard to describe.
Can I let you in on a secret, though? I have no idea what this book’s birthday is.
The week that Goodnight Jesus was published was a blur for me. I was sitting at my stepmother’s bedside in hospice as she lost a battle with cancer. That week I lost a stepmother and gained a book.
Like I said, mushy.
It’s now been a year. All my plans for book launch happened eventually. Announcement and blog posts rolled out over the next weeks and months. The Goodnight Jesus activity pages I wrote took a bit longer.
I guess Goodnight Jesus is written on my heart after all. But it’s written with a name rather than a date.
I’ve actually been on Goodreads for awhile. I use it to track the hundreds of books a year that I read. I also use it to keep track of the books I read with my kids. (Not that I don’t love Thomas the train but only a parent’s love would compel me to read every title in our library. Repeatedly.)
But now I’m also a Goodreads author. That means if you want to checkout what others are saying about my book, you can click over to my Goodreads Author profile and see.
Every day in March, Ancient Faith Press is having a flash sale on one book. Today’s pick is Goodnight Jesus! Grab a copy today over on Ancient Faith Press’s website for the little one in your life. The books make great Pascha gifts.
Today I’m sharing something I’m really excited about. Lesson plans and activities based on Goodnight Jesus for older children.
Wait, you’re thinking, isn’t this a book for little kids?
Yes, it is. But it’s also for older kids, too.
When I wrote Goodnight Jesus, I had the youngest children in mind. My inspiration came from watching my own toddling daughter kiss icons every night. So I wrote the text to be short and sweet – just right for a cuddle before bed.
But I also wrote it to introduce children to the depth of our faith. It’s a foot in the door and an invitation to dive deeper. As children get older they are able to explore more and more of that depth.
These lesson plans will help you do just that.
There are several lesson plans for a variety of ages. They’re perfect for Church school classes, homeschoolers, or parents to use at home.
I have other projects I’m working on, too. There’s the big space-y one about New Horizons. I just had some super exciting news. SQUEEE! Buuuut I can’t share it just yet. Sorry. (Not sorry. SQUEEE!)
And I’m working on a freelance project I’m super excited about. It’s going great. I can’t tell you about it yet, either.
So someday I’ll have more big news to share. Then maybe I’ll have some more lovely things to share. Until then we’ll be back to our regular diet of nerdy book recommendations and mildly helpful writing tips.