Yay! It’s time for me to gush about some books and convince you to buy them for every child you know. This has become a yearly tradition for me. (For five years now!)
I admit – I get excited going through my Goodreads list and rediscovering the books I’ve read that year. I get less excited trying to whittle it down to a reasonably sized list to share with you.
Some books have descriptions listed afterward to identify genres and features. For instance, kids love series – if you can get them to fall in love with the first one, they’ll often binge read the entire series.
And if you somehow don’t find a book on this list, check out the extra lists at the bottom of the post.
In addition to writing children’s books, I also write and edit curriculum for all ages. One thing I love is using that expertise so that my readers can enjoy my books even more.
I Pray Today is written for the littlest booklovers – babies and toddlers. But the themes and ideas are big ones. So I have pulled out those ideas and used them as the basis of lessons and activities for older children.
There are lessons and activities for preschoolers to middle schoolers. Each is tailored to the understanding and interests of a particular age, but flexible enough to be used with a variety of ages.
They’re easy to use, and bonus material and resources can be used to build on the lessons.
The illustrator decides what art to put on the page – along with the editor and art director.
Note that the author is not in that list of people.
Authors can give general guidelines. For instance, when I sent my editor the query for I Pray Today, I told her that the manuscript
“follows a child through his day, from waking with a “Good morning, God,” to getting tucked in at bedtime – always with a prayer on his lips:
Good morning, God. The day is new. I say my first small prayer to You.
The last part is the opening of the manuscript. I never told them what to put on the page with it, yet it turned out perfectly.
Author’s can (very very occasionally) include an art note to explain what illustration needs to go with a piece of text. This is reserved for cases where the text doesn’t make sense without the art. Giving a note helps the editor to understand the text in the same way that a reader would – with both text and art together.
For example, one part of I Pray Today includes the text:
Dad says dinner’s piping hot. I stuff in food, but – oops, forgot.
Why does she say “oops?”
What did she forget?
Once you see the artwork, it makes perfect sense:
She forgot to pray first! In my manuscript, I included an art note to explain this: [ART: Kid starts eating before prayer.]
That’s the only art note in the whole manuscript because that’s the only one that was needed. Even then, I kept it to just what was needed to understand the text. I still left most of the decisions up to the illustrator: Who is at dinner? Are they at home, a restaurant, somewhere else? How will you show that she forgot to pray?
This came up recently. An adult reader contacted me on behalf of his child wanting to know: what are they eating?
Good question! I really had no idea, since I hadn’t made that decision. So I sent it off an email to my editor who said:
Good question! And she emailed the illustrator to find out.
I had fun polling my friends on social media while I waited for the answer. Most people guessed chicken nuggets with either fries or green beans.
Well, we were a little bit right:
All in all, it was a lot of fun finding out the answer. (Also, I really want to try those pommes noisettes.)
What If the Illustrations Are Wrong?
This is the whispered question that everyone is dying to know but nervous to ask.
Aspiring authors especially seem to struggle with this. It’s scary to give up control of something you have worked so hard on.
Ready for another shocker?
It’s not just your book. It certainly feels that way – as an author, you come up with a concept, agonize over every word, and revise until your fingers fall off. But with a picture book or board book, text and illustration work together. They’re a package deal.
And also: It almost always works out wonderfully. I have worked with three different illustrators over seven books and, each time, I was blown away by their work. Every. single. time.
This spread from Goodnight Jesus is a great example. I gave the editor general guidelines for the form of this book, just like I did for I Pray Today. I told them it was a bedtime story focused on giving kisses – a child works their way toward bedtime but giving, and eventually receiving, kisses. But I didn’t specify how that should be shown. In my head, I imagined the child in their family icon corner kissing icons then moving toward bed giving out kisses as they go.
Instead, the illustrator put the child into the icons. I had imagined a static version, but he made it interactive. That makes for a more engaging illustration and book. Plus you can see both the love the child is giving AND the love the child is receiving. That’s a deep theological statement – but boiled down to a child’s level.
The two images together in ways I didn’t consider. Notice how the position of the two babies are mirror images of one another. Even Jesus’ body language mirrors Mary’s – each is cuddling a baby they love. That makes the images work together both on an aesthetic level,and a theological level.
The illustrator didn’t just show my story, he added to it in ways that deepened it. He brought a fresh perspective that allowed him to expand the story in meaningful ways. Which bring us to our next question:
Why Does it Work This Way?
Separating the text decisions from the illustration decisions isn’t a cruel thing done by evil editors. They are giving both artists – author and illustrator – the freedom to do their best work. I am not a visual artist. I don’t have the training or experience to make decisions about artwork.
No, the child in your book probably won’t look exactly like your granddaughter. The illustrations may not match what you envisioned. That doesn’t make it wrong.
If you can go in with an open mind, you’ll be able to appreciate the exceptional artwork that has been carefully crafted to enhance your story.
Secretly, I think that the editor’s and illustrator’s jobs are to make the author look good. The editor wants this book to succeed. The illustrator wants to produce excellent illustrations. All of which makes my book stronger and better than I could make it on my own.
So, no, authors don’t have illustration decisions about their books. But that’s just fine.
Next time I’ll share what the illustration process looks like for illustrators. We’ll pick up after the editor has paired them with a book text and see what it’s like from that side of the equation.
In late 2016 after a few years of working to build my writing career, I was finally getting somewhere. In September 2016 my first book, Goodnight Jesus, was published. That fall I also got to write my first Work for Hire picture books, the Little Elephants’ Big Adventures. Hurrah!
But that also meant I had a lot to keep track of: marketing a new book, managing contract work, writing my own manuscripts, querying, seeking additional contract work, and on and on and on.
I had also increased my writing output, but I was struggling to balance multiple projects.
Which projects is still out to query? Which should I send to my critique group this month? And I had a great idea for a new manuscript – where did I put that?
I couldn’t focus, and I wasn’t getting anything done.
In short: I was swamped.
I grabbed my bullet journal and made a monthly spread. I divided up all my tasks into different categories like marketing, submission, and writing.
I also listed out every manuscript I was working on. All of them. And I categorized them based on where they were in the writing process.
Suddenly, I could clearly see all the different moving part. I could zero in on the most important tasks and make plans for the future. And that paralyzing anxiety of too-much-to-do went away.
Over time, I’ve refined this system, but the basics are the same. I divide tasks into categories and have a framework for managing multiple writing projects.
At the top of the left-hand page, I list out my schedule and deadlines for the month. I love the Calendex, but I like having this right there, so I don’t forget things. Copying it over first, also means that I have a good handle on the month before I start making decisions on what to tackle.
The rest of the left page is broken into sections based on the major categories of writing tasks I want to accomplish each month:
Business and Marketing: Writing is a business, and there are tasks associated with that: seeking new Work for Hire contracts, seeking speaking engagements, website work, and blogging. When I have a new book on the horizon, this section beefs up with all the marketing work involved.
Submissions: Every month I submit to agents, editors, awards, etc. Here is where I can list what I plan to do for the month.
Craft: I’m a big believer in continually learning and improving my writing. I aim to do some craft development each month. That could be something big like going to a conference or completing an online class. Or it could be small – reading a craft-focused book or watching a free webinar.
MAKING THE TASK CATEGORY LISTS:
Most months, I tackle items in each category. That means I’m continually moving forward on many fronts. Over time that adds up to a lot of progress.
As I create this spread, I’m making many small decisions that help me set and achieve goals.
For instance, in Business and Marketing this month I have blog posts to write (like this one!), I need to gather up the last of my tax documents, and (time permitting) put together a page on my website about Author Visits.
I also want to submit to Work For Hire publishing houses to drum up more contract work for the future. However, it’s not pressing (I’m booked out through February). Also, a peek at the Schedule at the top lets me know that I don’t have time this month. I could decide this goal isn’t worth pursuing and cross it off. Instead, I decided it’s still something I want to do… just not this month. The arrow signifies that I’m bumping it down the road to the next month.
Similarly, this month I don’t have any Submissions listed. Although I try to submit each month, I know December submissions tend to languish while everyone is busy with holidays. So I decided to put my efforts towards other endeavors this month and hit the ground running after the new year.
These small decisions stack up over time. I’m setting goals and intentions every single month. By the end of the year, it amounts to a substantial amount of work all of which is aligned with my goals.
Most of the right page is used for what I call a Project Status. This is my lifeline for managing multiple projects. It’s an overview of all the manuscripts I’m currently working on, sorted by their present stage in the writing process.
The process reads from bottom to top:
Simmer: I always write down story ideas when they come to me. I have long lists elsewhere in my bullet journal. The most promising get put here. I let these stew in my brain for weeks or months. That simmering time helps lets the idea-fragments coalesce into a fully-formed idea. Plus, after a bit of stewing, I can usually tell which are worth pursuing and which are… not. When ideas languish on this list for a long time, I know they aren’t worth pursuing.
Write: These are the things I am planning to write this month. I pluck them from the simmer list, contracted work, or a new idea that’s too exciting to wait. I try to push a piece all the way through to a complete first draft before I set it aside. Then it moves to the Draft list.
Resting Drafts: This is the where I place all the manuscripts that are written but not done. Resting is a vital step in the writing process. A bit of distance helps you critically evaluate your manuscripts.
Revise: Most months I choose a piece from the Draft list for revision. I try to take it through a complete revision before setting it aside. I work over the whole manuscript focusing on just one aspect of revision. Usually, it ends up right back in the Draft list to rest before another round of revision. Very rarely do pieces graduate to the Done pile.
Done: Every step up to here has resulted in manuscripts being culled. Some never make it through the idea simmering stage. Others I may revise multiple times before I realize they’re not workable – at least not right now. But those that make it through the process end up here. These are the manuscripts I consider to be as complete and polished as I am capable of making them. They’re the ones I’m currently querying (that’s the Q designation). Even still, I will occasionally decide that a manuscript is just not publishable right now. Then I drop them off the list. Once in a while I will review a retired manuscript I find a new angle for it.
MAKING A PROJECT STATUS LIST: Each month, I’m considering and critically evaluating the manuscripts on this list.
Done: I start with the previous month’s list. I copy over anything that is Done. Occasionally, I decide that a manuscript needs to be retired. Usually, this is after I’ve queried it and not gotten any bites. Since these are the pool of manuscripts I’m currently submitting I made a simple designation to show what’s been queried ( -> Q) and what has been subbed elsewhere (like to awards and grant programs).
Revise: I look at the list of Resting Drafts from the previous month and decide which is most promising to Revise this month. I try to keep this list short – one or maybe two picture books a month is about what I can handle. This month is a little longer because my novel is with a Beta reader. I’m not doing active work on it, but it’s not exactly sitting in a metaphorical drawer either, so I listed it here with a note that it’s out to a Beta reader.
Resting Drafts: I copy over the rest of the items that are in the Resting Draft stage. As I do, I consider if these are workable or if they need to be retired, too. Sometimes I will include a note about a manuscript. I have one draft that I think may be better suited as a poem than a picture book.
Write: I consider the ideas on my Simmer list from the previous month. I look at the list of story ideas and choose the most promising to write into a new draft. Again, I try to keep this list short. This month I have one picture book listed. I’ve also started listing blog posts or other non-book writing here. I don’t put my non-book writing through this full process, but it’s a reminder so I don’t bite off more than I can chew.
Simmer: Lastly, I copy over any ideas that didn’t make the cut for writing this month. I consider if each idea is worth pursuing or not. If not, I leave them off. If
This whole process takes me just a few minutes. But as I go I’m making small evaluations (Would this work better as a poem? Is this idea worth pursuing? Which draft do I want to make each month?) And those small decisions mean that I am setting goals (like what I will write) and critically evaluating my work.
This month I have a work for hire picture book due and another one to begin. With blog posts, that’s more than enough for a busy holiday-filled month.
Starting with the Done and Revise manuscripts means that I’m focusing on pushing manuscripts toward the finish line. (Instead of continually producing new drafts that don’t get anywhere.
The last thing I do is to make a quick list of the month’s top priorities. By this time, I’ve made all my decisions about what to work on. I like having a handy list where I pull those top tasks from the different parts of the monthly spread.
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.
Last week I signed the contract for my second children’s book with Ancient Faith Publishing. I bought a fountain pen to mark the occasion.
When I signed my first contract 3.5 years ago, they warned me that the next slot in the production cycle was a few years away. I had an inkling of how slow publishing could be. I started my writing career working with textbook publishers. I saw first hand how many people and how many hours go into each book. In the end, it took 2.5 years for that contract to become Goodnight Jesus.
Writing can be an intense business. Even big-name authors still get rejections.
On rejection: You only lose if you stop playing. You never get published if the mss. is in the drawer. Rewrite, make it better, send it out!