Dr. Seuss pioneered the Easy Reader genre with his groundbreaking The Cat in the Hat. Critics cautioned that he couldn’t write a story by using only a limited list of basic vocabulary “sight words” and he proved them wrong. Another well-known favorite is his Mr. Brown Can Moo! Can You? Consider as wellArnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad are Friends. These are books intended for the child learning to read. The text size is large, with few words and only one concept or action per page. Word choices, while not necessarily monosyllabic, tend to be easily identifiable, perhaps a common phrase like “Happy Birthday.” Here the illustrations do not advance the text; they supplement it. Pictures are more basic because each image is a visual clue to assist the developing reader in sounding-it-out. Din-dino-dinosaur! the child realizes by linking the newly learned word with the cartoon Brontosaurus on the page. Some publishers demarcate their beginning readers into stages, with books like Cynthia Rylant’s Mr. Putter and Tabby series being somewhat more advanced than a simpler text. The Easy Reader, due to its limited vocabulary and basic sentence structure, is hard to write well, and many publishers are looking for new talent.
The trademark of the HarperCollins beginning reader is fitting—”I Can Read!” With mastery of the Easy Reader, the training wheels are off. Chapter books, full-length middle grade novels, and nonfiction await. Young Adult is just around the corner. Neil Gaiman, author of the Newbery Award winning The Graveyard Book, calls children’s books “the most important fiction” for their “capacity to change people” (http://www.npr.org/2011/10/28/141766112/kids-book-club-a-graveyard-tour-with-neil-gaiman). For further information about the possibility of influencing lives by writing for children, contact the Society for Children’s Books Writers and Illustrators. http://www.scbwi.org/ Children are ready to devour your words.
The classic definition of a picture book is that the illustrations participate in telling the story. Without the pictures, the story fails to make sense. In Maurice Sendak’s beloved Where The Wild Things Are, the wild rumpus is only indicated through illustration: a wordless double-page spread features distinctive beasts partying their monster hearts out. In David Wiesner’s modern classic Tuesday, after pages of levitating frogs, the reader is left to surmise what happens next Tuesday with the final illustration of flying pigs.
Closely related, and often seen as synonymous by parents and laypersons, is the illustrated story. Here the pictures are nonessential; remove them and the story remains intact. Illustrations may be lavish, although artistic design is becoming increasingly less traditional. A good example is any piece of literature set into a typically 32-page color format, from illustrated versions of Clement C. Moore’s The Night Before Christmas, Truman Capote’s The Thanksgiving Visitor, or Virginia Woolf’s Nurse Lugton’s Curtain. Of course the majority of illustrated storybooks feature texts initially intended for children, but keep in mind that to the purist, not all illustrated books are picture books.
The popular Golden Books from my youth, my favorite ThePoky Little Puppy, is a typical illustrated story. Illustrated folktales, like Paul Galdone’s The Three Billy Goats Gruff, are another subset. Many publishers actively pursue fresh versions of non-European fairy tales and nursery rhymes. Don’t worry if you can’t draw. Although author-illustrators are increasingly being sought, most publishing houses have anArtDepartment, and they will select the artist who accompanies your words. Indeed, expect little input toward the final design. Vocabulary need not be basic. Consider Peter Rabbit’s “soporific” lettuce and the aforementioned rumpus. Publishers know parents and caregivers will be reading these books at story-times or bedtime: adults are the number one purchaser of children’s books.
Ever since the commercial success of Harry Potter, children’s books are seen by many as a get-rich-quick venture. Some people think that writing for children is easier than writing for adults because young tastes are not as developed or as discriminating. On the contrary, children will put down an uninspiring book without hesitation, whereas many adults keep reading to “see if it gets better.” Because children’s publishers are the last remnant of editors who still read over-the-transom submissions, and finding an agent, while desirable, is not a necessity, there is ample room for skilled newcomers to have their talents recognized. If you want to write for children, a thorough knowledge of the field is an essential first step. This preliminary introduction cannot substitute for firsthand knowledge gathered by reading read hundreds and even thousands of children’s books, but it will acquaint you with several types of children’s books being published.
Black and White: Board Books and Concepts
Tana Hoban’s notable Black on White illustrates simplicity. Here is a book for babies, with bold images. Board books feature pages printed on paper-covered cardboard. The thicker pages are designed for the youngest pre-reader; manually dexterity developed enough to turn a page comes later. Text is minimal. Length is eight to twelve pages. These are books for infants and toddlers, for cribs and toy boxes.
Closely related to the board book are the Concept books: abecedaries and introductions to counting, colors, and other pre-school topics. In Donald Crew’s Freight Train, a simply-illustrated train with vibrant, multicolor boxcars huffs through the pages in a first introduction to colors. Bruce McMillan’s Beach Ball—Left Right features photographs demonstrating opposites. Plot is not necessary. Even Eric Carle’s classic The Very Hungry Caterpillar is more a catalog of an insect’s eating habits on successive days of the week than a story about an actor encountering and resolving problems.