9 Things I Learned From Rewriting My First Children's Book Series
As a primary school teacher, Heather B. Moon always knew she eventually wanted to write books for children. She also felt that she had a leg up in terms of knowing her market. In this article, she discusses what she learned from rewriting her first series of children's books with the help of a professional developmental editor.
As a primary teacher, I always felt I would have an advantage as a children’s book writer: I knew my audience. I know what they do and don’t like. When students are involved in creative activities like art or writing, you get to observe how their minds work and what’s important to them. Throughout the day, I'd notice their interactions with peers and catch myself filing away scraps of dialogue for later use.
I thought all of this would help me when I finally decided to write children’s books. I could simply turn to my students and have real-life inspiration for believable, interesting characters, right?
Turns out that writing for children has a steeper learning curve than I imagined. Luckily, my creative playground was home to some great helping hands:: namely my editor, and the online writing community.
9 thing I learned from rewriting my first children's book series
My first attempt at writing for children produced a trilogy called Tillie's Adventures, which failed to fly off the shelves.
A few years later, I was back with a self-published, altered version of my initial concept for Tillie. This time, it featured twelve-year old Lottie, an eco-warrior and aspiring detective. I was determined for these books to reach the hands of young readers, and so I hired developmental editor Rachel Mann, signed up for courses such as Children’s Books 101: Writing for the Right Age Group, and turned to Facebook groups like Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula.
The best way to illustrate how the feedback from these people allowed me to build upon my ability to write for children is to compare books from both series.
Here is an excerpt from a book in my first trilogy, Tillie and the Voodoo Kid (now out of publication):
“Where exactly is Wadadidili?” asked Louie gazing out of the window of the jumbo-jet. He was imagining himself floating on the white fluffy carpet of cloud below.
“It’s an island in the beautiful Caribbean Sea,” replied Janet, his mum, who was sitting next to him.
“I can see it, look!” exclaimed Tillie who turned around excitedly from the seat in front next to her dad. She was already wearing her new sunglasses which looked like two DVDs perched on the end of her nose.
“Oh yes I can see the runway and lots of palm trees,” cried Louie. “Do you think this big plane will be able to land on such a small runway Dad?”
His father turned around and replied, “Of course it can son. The pilot does this every day and the plane has automatic landing gear.” He was very knowledgeable Louie’s dad but he could be very boring when he droned on and on. Mum put her magazine away in her massive handbag.
“Be there soon,” she said, “then I can change into my new red bikini and chill out on a sun bed around the pool,” she said stretching out her legs and twiddling her ankles for the fifty-ninth time.
“Oh no what an embarrassment,” Tillie thought to herself, “my mum… a white blancmange gradually turning red!”
Now compare this with an excerpt from Lottie Saves the Dolphins, which I published with the help of my editor Rachel and feedback from critique groups.
Imagine a life of captivity!
Yesterday I returned to rainy Manchester. I already miss the sunny island of Canario Bonito and the excitement of solving a serious case. I first met Splash, the baby dolphin, at Canario Zooland. That’s what started it all. He was swimming alone in a pool. I could see his dorsal fin in the downward position. Something was extremely wrong. I needed to investigate.
Now I gaze at my most treasured possession on the mantelpiece. It’s even more precious to me than my new mobile phone which is exactly the same as my best friend Amy’s flashy phone. Splash’s gift is way more precious than my new phone. I will cherish my ‘Splash Souvenir’ for EVER.
Maybe, if I’d stayed at home in Manchester, I would still think that it’s cool to swim with dolphins at a waterpark.
Now I know different!
The difference is like night and day! To my mind, these are the main improvements between the first and second excerpts:
- The hook: The story featuring Tillie started dully, and it didn’t contain a necessary component of a story’s beginning: the hook. In contrast, Lottie’s story has a clear hook, as the reader is intrigued to discover more about the mystery Lottie is referring to. What did Lottie do on the sunny island of Canario Bonito? What has happened to the baby dolphin? There’s a wealth of information on that first page to tease my readers and entice them to keep reading.
- Dialogue tags: One thing I learned during the editing process with Rachel is that you don’t need anything other than “said” after dialogue. Notice how I used, “Tillie exclaimed,” “sighed mum,” etc. in the first excerpt? This crowds the story and is unnecessary.
- Keep it current: Definitely don’t use anything that will date the story. DVDs went out of style long ago and children these days aren’t familiar with them. Same thing with old-fashioned clothing.
- Give readers someone to relate to right away: Children don’t like reading about adults! In the first excerpt, I don’t introduce Tillie, the main character, until I have introduced her brother and parents. This was a mistake, as children are much more interested in characters who could be their peers.
- Establish the POV straight off the bat: The first excerpt should be about Tillie, but in the first sentence I’m expressing the sentiments of her brother, Louie. I should have started with the perspective of my main character — something that I fixed in my story about Lottie!
- Use child-friendly vocabulary: In the first excerpt, I use phrases such as “floral dress,” “droned on and on,” “staggered,” and “father.” This is not the voice of a twelve year-old girl. In the second one I write more colorful words that a child would say: “swish-swashing,” “swirling,” and “teeny-weeny.”
Now, let’s compare a scene from Lottie Saves the Dolphins that mirrors the scene from my first excerpt where Tillie is arriving at Wadadidili.
I glance down from the plane through the miniature window. I see the island of Canario Bonito in the distance. Now time to put my iPad away in my carry-on bag. I’ve started a new game called ‘Spot the Difference.’ It helps with my detective training. Observation is the aim of the game. I’m on silver level at the moment. Hopefully Nana and Pop have Wi-Fi at Villa Luna Azul then I can advance to gold level this week.
WOW! I think this plane is going to land in the sea! The waves are getting closer and closer. A sandy beach comes into view. Moving bodies appear so close. Perhaps the plane will land on them. My body does a jig-jog dance in the seat as the plane jerks, bumping and shaking along the runway. As the seatbelt signs are switched off, people immediately push and shove to be the first off the plane.
I spot Nana first as we enter the arrivals hall. She’s waving a canvas painting which says, ‘My Beautiful Family'.
Nana is so funny! She’s painted a portrait of each of us with smiling faces and painted our names underneath. Lottie, Jack, Jenna, (my mum) and Tom (my dad). She’s even remembered Amy. Nana makes her feel part of our family. She’s kind and a talented painter, my Nana.
Lessons learned? You can see how I made changes that addressed the problems that we talked about earlier:
- Introducing secondary characters: I brought other characters into the story in a more entertaining way. But more importantly, I have introduced them through Lottie’s eyes! She is still the main focus of the story, and the people around her have been woven into the action instead of taking the main stage.
- Show, don’t tell: I must admit it took me a while to get the hang of this — but once I did, my brain fizzed and frothed with ideas. See what I did there? Don’t say: “I thought of an idea” — that is boring adult speech. If your character is feeling frightened, write something like: “I felt a giant chunk of ice plop into my tummy.” This is much more appealing to a child and gets the feeling across that the character is scared.
- Make current, relatable references: Kids might not know what a DVD is —but I’ll bet they can all identify with hoping for WiFi to continue their interrupted iPad games!
The young readers I have shared Lottie’s story with have responded well — and a lot of it is thanks to the changes that Rachel and I made to my dialogue and prose.
That’s the best tip I have for other writers looking to publish children’s books: understand how your little readers see the world and talk to them on their level. It might not be as easy as 1-2-3, but with supportive people in your corner, you’ll be on your way to sparking the imaginations of a new generation of readers.
Please share your thoughts, experiences, or any questions for Heather B. Moon in the comments below!