Daring to Dream

Up until the time Philippine National Artist for Literature and children’s book publisher Mr Virgilio Almario offered to publish my story, “The Little Wishing Star” for Adarna House in 1995, I really did not have much of an idea how to write a story. The story I submitted to Palanca I wrote pretty much just patterned after stories I liked as a kid.  (Adarna House subsequently published “The Little Wishing Star” as “Estrellita: The Little Wishing Star” in 1995.) “The Little Wishing Star” won 2nd place in the English Division, Short Story for Children. Not too bad for my very first attempt. Wasn’t as lucky with a second attempt, though, haha.

Without a writing degree, I had thought that publishing a children’s book would be one of those things that will just remain on my dream list.

Back then, there were not much articles online on writing for children, much less, on getting published as a children’s author. All I had were books on writing I had picked up at F Sionil Jose’s La Solidaridad Book Shop which was near my place of work. I had a degree in Fine Arts; was armed with enough skills and techniques for preparing illustrations for children’s books perhaps—but didn’t know the first thing about structuring stories. Now you only have to type the keywords “writing for children”, probably like what you did a few minutes ago before you arrived at this page, and you will get pages and pages of references on plot, character, setting, point of view, conflict and whatever else you need to know—without having to take a writing course. You only had to follow your nose, of course, to discern which sites were credible and helpful. But what I did know for certain back then was that as soon as I published my first book, I was hooked, and I wanted to publish more, so I enrolled for membership with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) because I wanted to get serious about writing.

With my SCBWI membership, I was able to fast-track my education as a writer and illustrator of children’s books, by acquainting myself with the best practices in the U.S. particularly, which probably has the busiest children’s book publishing industry in the world. Through the years, and close friendships with like-minded souls, i’ve collected some tips and tricks on my own that come in handy when I get commissions for books. (I’ve been writing for almost 17 years now, and submitted a couple of book proposals, but all the books I’ve published so far are commissions.)

Age appropriateness

When you want to write for children, you need to be sensitive to children’s developmental milestones, in order for your work to resonate with your target audience. A four-year-old preschooler is a different animal from a fourth grader, for instance.

Just imagine yourself as a kid–you were just beginning to write your name, just  learning to read and count, as a four-year-old. By the fourth grade, you were already performing science experiments, writing theme compositions, learning your multiplication tables, etc.   There is a world of difference between these two kids, and so there should consequently be a difference in style and approach, and more importantly, word choice, when writing for these two audiences. But it also happens that some books, like Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree”, appeal to a range of readers across all ages because they are metaphorical. In that case, if you really want to reach a wide range of readers, you will have to write your book in a way they will be understood by the youngest ones.

My rule of thumb is, the younger the audience, the simpler and more straightforward the syntax and the plot.  I steer clear of participles and progressive tenses.  When writing for younger kids, I also avoid using flashbacks, juxtapositions and other sophisticated literary devices.

I try to keep my word count under 400 when writing for picture books. More than 400 words for me look really crowded on the page, especially as local publishers like to publish parallel texts. Whenever I design my picture books I also think 16 points as the ideal point size. However, I think 14 points is still workable for wordier books.

Even if somebody else wrote the manuscript I like chopping up and numbering the manuscript into easily digestible chunks, according to the key points and the publisher’s given number of spreads. As an illustrator, I find the manuscript easier to work with when the story is divided so.

A mistake beginning writers for children often make is writing stories which are too complicated for their target audience. All too often they are adult issues expressed simplistically, or too abstract for kids to grasp. Sometimes there are books that talk down to kids, and I see this happen a lot in books that have anthropomorphic characters. (I made this mistake when I wrote my first book–it’s about a talking wishing star, for goodness’ sake. Now that I know better, I am not so inclined to write anything like it again, I think.)

I taught myself how to write books for children mostly through trial and error, by attending workshops and short courses on writing, and by reading very good books on writing as well as well-loved, excellently written children’s books. It was a good thing I didn’t let my lack of a writing degree stop me from fulfilling a childhood dream.

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