The Accidental Author: Lessons Learned From Writing A Children’s Book

This is a guest post from Cindy Jett, author of ‘Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping children adjust to change”. If you’d like to write a guest post for the blog, please check the submission guidelines here.

When I considered writing a guest post, I thought to myself, what do I know about writing for children? True, I just had a children’s book published, but I still thought of that as kind of an accident. Truth is, I have never been been singled out for my writing talent, I had never considered myself a writer, and I had never written a single story, until about three years ago. Maybe you feel the same way?

I had always been a frustrated artist. As a child, I was never caught without my trusty sketchbook. In college, I studied architecture because it involved a lot of drawing. When I became a mother, I painted goofy animals to entertain my daughter.  It was when the goofy animals ate up much of the wall space in our home that my husband suggested that I try my hand at illustrating children’s books. An interesting idea, I thought. A bit pie in the sky, but I liked it. Illustrating children’s books, yes, that could be fun!

I soon realized that before I could illustrate anything, I needed a story.  Not quite sure how to proceed, I took my computer, tucked myself into my favorite corner of the local Starbucks, and tried to conjure up a children’s story. Dr. Suess came to mind. Eric Carle came to mind. Goodnight Moon came to mind. Somewhat baffled by the process, I t tried to imagine a story that my daughter Zoe would like. At the time, Zoe was highly focused on caterpillars turning into butterflies. In fact, several times a day, she would re-enact a metamorphosis by rolling herself in a blanket, counting to fourteen, and emerging with wildly flapping arms. Zoe’s metamorphosis was always a joyous event. I asked myself, what would Zoe think of a caterpillar that didn’t want to be a butterfly? Surely that idea would intrigue her. The story came quickly from that germ of an idea as I began to imagine a wonderfully whimsical caterpillar world that my main character would be loathe to leave.

Truth is, I absolutely loved writing that first children’s story. After doing a bit of research about children’s book publishing, I learned that publishers do not want illustrated manuscripts (unless you are Dr. Suess or Eric Carle). Publishers look for good stories, and then  for illustrators. The writer and the illustrator  are rarely the same person. I quickly abandoned the idea of illustrating my own story, and decided to send my story to publishers unillustrated. In my house, this was considered I-Love- Lucy-wacky. I had never aspired to be an author, and here I was sending manuscripts out to publishing houses. I guess I had some small hope that some one would like my story as much as I enjoyed writing it.

In the ensuing months, I got a steady flow of rejection letters. At around six months, the letters quit coming and, at about eight months, I forgot about about my story altogether. Then, a year later, I received a phone call while vacationing in Mexico. It was from New Horizon Press, and the woman on the line was telling me that she wanted to publish my story. You can imagine my total shock, surprise and delight!

That was a about a year and a half ago. I have since been through the editing process. A wonderful illustrator was chosen for my story, and it was published this June.

So, given my experience, what do I know about writing children’s books? I know that you picture your audience. You write something that you think will tickle them, but that also tickles you. You tune into how your main character feels, and  you add a bit of magic to your story.

That’s about it. I am still learning myself, taking writing classes and honing my craft. While, at this point, I don’t have a lot of advice on writing, I do have some advice about finding your passion. It can come at any age (did I mention that I am 47?), and, if you allow for it, it just might turn out to be something completely unexpected.

Cindy Jett is the author of “Harry the Happy Caterpillar Grows: Helping Children Adjust to Change“.

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    • says

      Thanks, Martina! Yes, when I am writing, it is so easy to imagine what my daughter will respond to. I’m sure it will be much more difficult to picture my audience once she ages out of picture books!

  1. Sheila says

    Thank you for this encouraging post. As I approach the finish of my first youth novel (started because of a writer’s critique group), you give me great hope. Congratulations!

  2. Cheryl Schenk says

    Hi Cindy,
    Great Blog. I know exactly how you felt, as I have been on a similar journey, however I went the route of independent publisher. It is a rewarding experience writing for children. My readings at the schools have helped me realize that, green as I am, I do know something about being a children’s author. Congratulations on your book and good luck in the future.

  3. Julie Gil says

    Congratulations, Cindy! It was quite gutsy to pursue the writing separately from the illustrating, and I commend you for that – must have been a difficult decision.

    What are your thoughts on making your book into a series with the main character? Do you feel the world of children’s books lends itself to a series more easily?

    • says

      I am not an expert on this, but I think that chapter books lend themselves to series more than picture books. I think a picture book has to be a huge hit for a publisher to consider a series.

      As for pursuing the writing instead of illustrating, it was almost easier for me to pursue writing because I didn’t have any hopes or expectations, and therefore no fear of failure.

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