Childrens Book Questions - Answers by Laura

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Have a question about writing or illustrating for kids? Ask Laura Backes, Publisher of Children's Book Insider. Just e-mail us a question using the link below, and, if it's selected, you'll find Laura's answer posted right here in a few days.
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I've been told that a male author is likely to have his manuscript read by a female editor if he conceals his gender, using only his initials and surname on his letterhead and in the byline on the manuscript. (The advice came from a few female authors.) The ONLY place where the author's full legal name should appear is in the upper-left corner of the first page of the manuscript, I was told.

I hate to sound like a whiney guy but whatever happened to equal opportunity, especially in children's book publishing?

I've never heard of prejudice against male authors, especially from editors. In the children's book field, the majority of editors will be women, but that's just the way the business has always been. Every editor I know judges each manuscript on its merits, regardless of who wrote it. And, by the way, many well-known children's book authors are men. Think of Dr. Seuss, C.S. Lewis, Maurice Sendak, Walter Dean Myers, Chris Crutcher, Gary Paulsen and Louis Sachar, to name a few.

The only time authors may use their initials instead of their first name is on the book jacket itself. This is because in the case of certain genres, some readers might be reluctant to pick up a book by an author of the opposite sex. If a man writes a romance novel aimed at teenage girls, for example, he may use his initials. The same sometimes holds true for middle grade and young adult science fiction written by women, but whose main audience is boys. This is more a marketing strategy than anything else.

So feel free to use your full name on your manuscript, and let your work be judged by the quality of your writing.

I have noticed at times several editors from the same publishing company have calls out for manuscripts. I have some stories that match more than one editor. Each editor says to send it directly to them (the editor). Do I send a copy to each appropriate editor (multiple submission), send it to only one and if they reject send it to the next one (if the call has not been closed) or send it general and let them worry about which editor might be more interested. I am very confused on the appropriate protocol.

I know it can be confusing trying to decide which editor at a publishing house should get your work. You should send your manuscript to only one editor, and if that editor rejects it, then it's considered rejected by the entire company. So don't send the same manuscript to a different editor at the same house. Often when editors put out a call for manuscripts they specify what kind of things they're looking for (picture books, middle grade nonfiction, etc.) If you don't have this information, then you can call the children's editorial department at the publisher and ask which editor specializes in the kind of manuscript you've written. Don't give the person on the phone the whole plot of your book, but simply state the age group and genre (contemporary fiction, mystery, nonfiction/science, etc.)

Hi Laura,

1) What would be the average time from a publisher saying "yes we want to publish your book" to actually being seen in stores or libraries?

2) What would be the realistic earning of a 1st time published children's author writing for 4 - 8 yr olds.

3) Any differences in a Canadian author using a Canadian publisher to using one from the US or UK?

If you're talking about a picture book that needs illustrations on every page, it takes anywhere from 18 months to three years between the time the contract is signed and the book is in the stores. A lot depends on whether the illustrator is available and able to start working on the book right away.

The amount an author earns on a first picture book varies greatly by publisher, but the average royalty paid to the author of a hardcover picture book is 5% of the retail price. In most cases you'll receive an advance payment against future royalties (a portion of which is paid upon signing the contract, and the rest paid when the revised manuscript is delivered to the publisher). This advance can range from nothing (for very small presses), to about $3000. Once your book has earned the advance back in royalties, you'll start receiving additional royalty checks from the publisher. The total amount each book earns depends on how long the book stays in print, and how well it sells. There's really no way of putting an "average" number on sales, as each book is different.

It seems that Canadian publishers are more open to works by Canadian authors than those by US authors, though most US publishers don't care where the author lives. As for overall sales, again, it depends on the publisher. It would stand to reason that a large Canadian publisher might be able to sell more of your books than a small US publisher. However, publishing has become so global that I believe an author can realize success from Canadian and US publishers alike. If your book has any kind of Canadian flavor to it, I suggest you start with Canadian publishers and submit to US publishers only after you've exhausted the possibilities in Canada.

I was reading one of the excellent articles from Children's Book Insider on characters. Mind if I ask a question? You speak of point of view. You mention omniscient point of view, and caution towards it. The book I am writing does not have one main character, rather the main "character" is a group/club of five boys and girls. Individual chapters focus on one character at a time, [at most two characters] but the entire novel doesn't really have the "voice" of only one character. Rather it's about how the group of individuals work together to solve their problem. Am I in trouble here? Will my novel lack a main character that the reader can identify with?

There are several middle grade and young adult novels that alternate viewpoint by chapter. And that's fine, as long as each chapter has a distinct point of view and it's clear to the reader which character is the central focus of that chapter. In my opinion, this technique is too difficult for a child younger than the middle grade reader (age 8-12) to follow, so I wouldn't alternate viewpoints for easy readers or chapter books for ages 7-10.

If done well, books that alternate viewpoint by chapter can be very effective because the reader gets close to several characters. But they need to be plotted carefully--you still need one primary plot line that all the characters are involved in.

Dear Laura
How do can I know the correct word vocabulary to use for an Early Chapter Book at about a 2.5 reading level versus a chapter book at a 3.0 reading level?

Every publisher has its own guidelines for the format of their easy reader and chapter book series. I suggest you start by looking at books of both reading levels and comparing the texts. You'll notice that chapter books have longer sentences and paragraphs, and slightly more complex plots. They may also have a sub-plot, while easy readers usually do not. You need to narrow down several publishers to whom you'll be submitting your manuscript, and send a self-addressed, stamped envelope for writer's guidelines to get more detailed information.

However, I wouldn't worry too much about vocabulary and sentence structure. The publisher will put the final age designation on your book. The words you use should be clear and straightforward, and understandable within the context of the sentence. Very few publishers rely on actual vocabulary lists anymore.

Dear Laura:

I am interested in submitting my manuscipt to a publisher. I write stories for very young children (approx. ages--1-3 yrs). I was wondering what my relatively spare writing should look like in manuscript form as it will only take up no more than two pages! That would seem laughable to me. I am also a fine artist and would like to illustrate them. Should I just send a few sample drawings to the publishers instead of illustrating the entire thing? If they don't like my drawing, should I stand up for it (as I know what my characters look like) or bow and hope for better next book?

If you'd like to illustrate your manuscript, submit a black and white dummy with each illustration sketched in, and then also include one or two copies of color, finished illustrations. You can place the text on the dummy pages, but also include the typewritten text separately (and yes, it will only be one or two manuscript pages long). You need to decide if you're willing to let someone else illustrate your words, and if so, mention that in the cover letter. A publisher might like the story but not the art, or may like your art and give you another manuscript to illustrate. If you let the editor know up front that you're willing to do one or the other, but don't have to do both, you'll increase your chances of making a sale.

Dear Laura,

I've visited your site many times, but have never had a question to post until now. As stated, I am having difficulties with my manuscript format. I have written a picture book for children. I have read a couple of texts in regards to my question, but have not been able to find a satisfactory answer. I now post it to you.

My story is written in verse. Do I still need to use double-spacing? The entire text containes 522 words and it looks rather silly, stretched out over eight pages. Please advise me on the correct way to format my work. I do not want to look like an idiot!

Yes, even stories written in verse need to be double-spaced, so editors can make notes between the lines if necessary. You can add an extra blank line between verses so they're separated from each other.

Don't worry, editors are used to seeing short stories stretched out!

Dear Laura,

I am just in the conceptual stage of several books (and have never written a book before), and I have a very, very basic question. In light of the fact that there are hundreds of thousands of children's books on the market already, with tons more in the pipeline, how am I supposed to know whether or not my books have already been "done" by another author?

That's a really good question, and the real answer is "you can't." But you can try. If your book is nonfiction, you can look up other books by the same age group and subject matter through online bookstores, or in the electronic databases at public libraries (type in your topic under "key words"). You can do the same thing for fiction, which broad key words like "moving to a new neighborhood" or "grandparents." You can also look in the subject guide of Children's Books in Print, available at the library.

But remember, no one can copyright an idea. Chances are that whatever idea you have has been addressed by someone before, but not in the way you're going to do it. So unless you're deliberately basing your book on one that's already been published, your story will be unique.

Hi Laura,

I have a background in children's poems and picture books, but I'm in the midst of writing my first middle grade chapter book and I have a few questions:

1. What is the average amount of chapters in a middle grade chapter book, and how many pages are there per chapter, generally speaking?

2. Is there a distinct age range for middle grade chapter books, or is the range somewhat flexible? And what differentiates a middle grade chapter book from a young adult novel?

3. Are light subplots ever included in middle grade chapter books?

4. When contacting publishers about a middle grade reader, is a query letter as well as a sample chapter submitted, or just a query letter alone?

I realize this is a lot -- but I'd appreciate it if you could address at least some of my questions.


Here are the answers, point by point:

1. Middle grade novels contain about 12-15 chapters, with about six to eight book pages per chapter. This translates to up to 10 manuscript pages. This is just a general guideline; your story might require more chapters, but will probably fall within this range.

2. The traditional middle grade audience is ages 8-12. There is also now an upper middle grade age bracket of 10-14. The main thing that differentiates a middle grade novel from a young adult book is that the protagonist is 10-14 years old (most are around 12) and so are dealing with problems and concerns of a preteen, as opposed to a high school student. Middle grade characters are wrapped up in themselves, their friends and family. Young adult characters also think about these things, but in the context of how they fit into the larger world. Young adult characters are stepping across the threshold to adulthood, whereas middle grade characters are learning how to be adolescents.

3. Subplots are a hallmark of middle grade novels, and are what set them apart from simpler chapter books for ages 7-10.

4. Most publishers accept a query letter along with one or two chapters. Send for publishers' guidelines to be sure.

Dear Laura,
Is it possible or advisable to have a lead character who is an adult, rather than a child, in a novel for kids ages 8-12? It seems to me that many successful books involve a lead character who is approximately the same age as the audience, unless the book involves animals as characters. Is it a generally accepted convention or a rule that the character who experiences the main conflict and changes in a children's book should be a child? Or is it possible to have an adult as the lead character if the supporting characters are children and if the problems faced by the adult involve issues which are relevant to children? Do you know of any examples of any successful books for ages 8-12 in which the lead character is not a child?
Your questions are very perceptive. You've noticed that most books have children as main characters, and that the conflict needs to me something relevant to a child. As a result, it's hard to have the main character be an adult, though not impossible. Everything that comes to mind as examples feature a prominent adult character, but the story's still told through the viewpoint of a child. For example, "The Pigman" by Paul Zindel is about an eccentric loner, but the story's told by two kids who befriend him. Even in these books the adult is facing problems that are relevant to the middle grade readers. So to give you a firm answer to your question, no, I don't believe an adult can be the main, viewpoint character, though he/she can be a very strong secondary character or even the focus of the book as long as a child is the one telling the story.

Dear Laura,
I simultaneously submitted a manuscript for a picture book a year ago (I did state this in my cover letter). This past September a publisher wrote me a letter expressing interest in my story and inquiring about it's availibility. Since all the other publishers had rejected it, I told them that it was indeed available and I quit circulating it. This past February, I inquired about my book's status, to which they responded that they were focusing on their nonfiction line and would get back with me once they had the time to review their fiction line (no indication when that might be). My question is can I continue submitting my manuscript to other publishers until I hear something definate, or since I told them that it is still available should I withdraw my manuscript first? If I submit elsewhere, should I notify this publisher that I am doing so?


Dear Dawn:

I suggest you send the publisher a note saying they're free to keep the manuscript for review, but you're also going to submit it elsewhere. Since they've had it for six months exclusively, that's fair. When you submit to other publishers, be sure to state in your cover letter that it's a simultaneous submission.


Dear Laura,

Several articles I have read recently advise that italics should never be used in a manuscript prepared for submission even though those words or phrases would be italicized in the finished printed work. Rather, the advice is to underline all these words or phrases. Does this still hold true even though it is so easy to italicize with a word processor?

Thank you,

Dear Marcia:

I've never heard of underlining instead of italicizing, especially if the words would be italicized in the finished work. Go ahead and use italics -- I think they look better on the printed page anyway.

Dear Laura,

My ultimate goal is to publish children's books, but I would like to publish in magazines as well. I know publishing in magazines would establish credit for my work and earn me a little income as well. My question is, how does prose for magazines differ from that for books? I know that each magazine is different just as each book publisher is unique, but I'm looking for general advice on writing stories for magazine publication. All of my story ideas seem to belong in picture books. Also, how do I determine which manuscripts should be saved for picture book publishers to consider and which should be sent out to magazines such as LADYBUG which serve the same age group as picture books?
I hope you can illuminate this murky area for me.


Generally, picture book stories rely on illustrations to tell part of the story. They are told through a series of actions, each action requiring a different illustration. Magazine stories don't rely on pictures; there can be more dialogue, the setting can stay the same throughout the whole story, and they take place over a shorter period of time. Many magazines for young children do include several illustrations per story, so the difference between these stories and picture books can be hard to discern. However, the visual aspect is always there with picture books.

The best way is to simply read a lot of magazine and book stories. Very rarely can a story work in both markets. Magazine stories tend to me more internal, whereas picture books tell a story that is shown outside of the character's head (through actions, events, some dialogue, etc.)


One of the writing for children books I read when I first started writing said to put THE END at the end of a story so that the
reader/editor will not go looking for more pages. Lately I've heard that writing THE END is the mark of an amateur and that the reader should know that the story is complete. (I agree that the ending should be apparent.)

What is the current preference of editors? THE END or nothing? Maybe three or four asterisks centered underneath the last line of text to indicate the ending?

Thank you.

I don't think editors have much of an opinion on this. If you'd like to indicate the ending of your story in some way, I'm sure that's fine. Whether or not you write "The End," on your manuscript, the content of the last line of text should conclusively end the story. That, and the fact that there's no more type on the page!


I have been reading through your Questions and Answer e-mails from your subscribers. It seems that everyone is really concerned about all the rejection letters they receive. I was wondering have you had much experience with self-publishers. You see, I have some really great ideas and my books are coming along really well. I have shown them to parents as well as children and everyone seems to love them. I am currently looking into the idea of publishing them myself. Could you share your opinion on this matter.

Thank you and I love your website,


I know several authors who have successfully self-published their books. It takes a lot of money, time and determination. The ones who have done well have devoted at least a year -- full time -- to promoting their book once it's published. If you have this kind of time, as well as a chunk of money to invest, you'll have a chance.

Of course, you also have to have a good book. The self-published books with the best shot at success are niche books; generally nonfiction (or fiction that deals with a specific issue), they can be marketed to a select group of people through mailing lists, by attending conferences and conventions directed toward this group, or being reviewed in market-specific publications. For example, if you wrote a book on adoption, you could purchase mailing lists of parents who have adopted, attend conventions for social workers and others who work with such families, and advertise your book in newsletters and journals that cater to adoption agencies.

You also have to be willing to really research printers, book designers, book distributors, and learn all the phases of the publishing process. Many authors find this very rewarding. If this sounds like something you'd like to try (and again, I caution that self-publishing a quality book that can compete with other books produced by large publishers is a big financial investment), then I suggest you start by reading two books: "The Self-Publishing Manual" by Dan Poynter (Para Publishing), and "The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing" by Tom and Marilyn Ross (Writer's Digest Books).

I am interested in breaking into ghostwriting children's book. I tried for the Animorph series and got rejected. How can a writer break into the field and what does it pay? Do ghostwriting credits count with book publisher when you submit your own work?

Most ghostwriting jobs are with book packagers, who create series such as Animorphs for large publishers. These series are published under a fictitious author's name, and written by several people. The best way to break in is to send for writer's guidelines from every book packager you can find. The 1999 edition of Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market even has a special symbol next to the names of book packagers, so they're easy to spot. Some packagers just want writing samples in the same genre as the series you're interested in (middle grade fantasy for a fantasy series, etc.) Others want you to actually come up with a few chapters of a book for the series. Most packagers will provide very specific guidelines for existing series, including character sketches, plot outlines, number of chapters, number of pages in the manuscript. So your best bet is to collect a lot of guidelines and then see which packagers are looking for material that is similiar to what you like to write. Then give them exactly what they're asking for. If they like your work, you may not be picked for that series, but they'll call on you for future projects.

And yes, ghostwriting does count as writing credits on your resume. The pay varies, but it's usually a flat fee per book. A middle grade novel with a mid-sized packager might pay anywhere from $3000-$5000 per book on average. And don't forget nonfiction series. Many of those are packaged as well. Or, write for guidelines from nonfiction publishers who are looking to fill out existing series. Often the author will get his name on the book with nonfiction, which is always a plus.


Yesterday a published writer told me that indicating a copyright on a submission is the sign of a novice. Do you agree? (I am, in fact, a novice at this, but I'm assuming I don't want to broadcast that!!)



I don't think it's the sign of a novice -- in fact, it's one of those standard lines that editors probably don't even notice (like your name at the top of each manuscript page; it's nice to have when needed, but the reader's eye just bounces over it otherwise). If it makes you feel more secure, go ahead and place the copyright notice either on the cover page of your manuscript, or on the first page under your name and address in the upper left hand corner.

Here's my question:

Now that California has voted down bilingual education programs, how will that affect publishing of bilingual books? When I was in Orlando last month at the IRA conference, I heard a lot of "wait and see" talk from publishers. California school markets are so big, and other states often follow their lead, it's bound to make a difference Could you interview someone about this, perhaps an editor at Santillana, Laredo, or Scholastic? Most of the major school publishers have some bilingual publishing. Those Spanish-speaking kids will still be there, no matter what the politicians do.


The interview is a great idea! We're working on it. I think California's ruling will affect bilingual publishing, as sales to schools are such a big part of these publishers' markets. Libraries are still an outlet for bilingual books, but I don't see much space devoted to these books in stores, and unless that changes the publishing programs are sure to be cut back.

Dear Laura,

I am an aspiring children's book writer and I currently have a manuscript being held by a publisher. My question concerns submitting other manuscripts to other publishing houses. Many publishers pay authors by purchasing their work outright. I personally do not understand the benefits of having my work purchased outright from a publisher. Doesn't it always make more sense to receive royalties instead of having your work purchased outright?


In most cases, it does make more financial sense to be paid in royalties. If your book becomes a hit, then you stand to make much more money with a royalty arrangement. Also, often when a work is purchased outright, the publisher retains the copyright, and so in essense owns the work forever.

It can make sense to be paid outright (also called work-for-hire) if you're just starting out, and wish to accumulate some writing credits. If the flat fee you receive is equal to what you'd predict the royalties to be in the first three or four years, and if it's going to be a midlist book, then sometimes the flat fee is not a bad deal (all of these factors are things you learn as you study publishing and keep track of the kinds of books that are selling in huge numbers, and those that sell steadily but quietly -- called midlist books -- over several years). Also, if you're working for a packager on an existing series (such as The Hardy Boys or Sweet Valley High), then you'll probably be paid in a flat fee. However, this kind of writing can teach you a lot about plotting and meeting deadlines, and many writers consider it valuable experience.

I have written and illustrated a children's concept picture book. I have mailed it out to numerous publishers after getting their guidelines and recieved a few good comments but no one wanting to publish it. However, one of the publishers I first mailed it to has not responded yet and it has almost been 4 months. I have sent two postcards where all they would have to do is check one of the boxes as to the status of my manuscript and they have not responded. Finally I broke down and called them once and left a message and still didn't hear from them. What should I do next? I'm not even positive that they got my manuscript since they didn't reply to the postcards. I'm a little hopeful and also very unsure as to what to do.


While four months is not that long to wait for a reply from a publisher, in this situation it's a bit strange as they haven't returned your postcards. I suggest you call again and leave another message saying you are withdrawing your submission and would like it returned in the self-addressed, stamped envelope you provided. Make sure you leave your name, address and phone number on the message, as well as the title of your manuscript and the date you mailed it to the publisher. Then go about submitting the manuscript to other publishers. It's possible that you may never hear back from Ozark; your manuscript could have gotten lost in the mail and the publisher is too swamped to return phone calls, or maybe they're not taking any more submissions and haven't gotten around to returning manuscripts. But in any case, I'd just write this one off and carry on.

In the future, if you have a similar situation with a small press, you can check with the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators ( scbwi@juno.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ) or Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market ( cwim@fwpubs.comThis e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it ) to see if they've heard if the press is still in business.

Dear Laura,

I sent an article about a farrier to a magazine on spec, acccompanied by all the pictures (copies) I have of him.

If I use a different approach, etc. on the same subject and send it to another horse magazine, can I offer the same pictures? Or should I just say "pictures are available" and wait to see what (if) the first magazines uses?

I want to send it out a couple more times, rewritten, etc., but hesitate offering the same photos. If necessary it would be possible for me visit him again and take a whole new set. What would you suggest?

Thank you.

As I see it, there are really two issues here. First, you're trying to sell similar articles (which deal with the same subject, though rewritten for each publication) to competing magazines. I don't suggest you do this, especially if you'd like to write for the magazines again. You could either make identical submissions to all the magazines (including identical photographs) and say in your cover letter that it's a simultaneous submission (then each magazine knows another publication is looking at the same article), or you can sell the original article to one publication and see what rights they want. If they buy first rights only, then you can go ahead and sell the piece to another publication that buys reprints, or rework the piece for another publication (a much more likely way to sell it). If the magazine that originally printed your article buys all rights, you can still create a new article out of your research, but it would have to be very different from the first article (a different approach to the subject, geared to a different age group, etc.). And just to be safe I'd wait until the first article appears in print before submitting any kind of new article on the same subject. The point is, you don't want very similar articles appearing close together in two different publications.

As for the photos, I think if it's easy for you to get different photographs, you should do that (if you're creating a new article). That way the articles are different in content and illustration.

Dear Laura,

I am unpublished in the field of children's books, but have 14 years experience as a writer of technical documents, particularly engineering documentation for the EPA. While this experience may not appear directly applicable to children's literature, it represents my background in writing concise, accurate research material under the constant pressure of deadlines. I realize I cannot give a lengthy explanation with every cover letter I send, but I'd like your opinion as to whether I should make reference to this experience when submitting manuscripts. From what I've learned about the art of writing for children, it seems that a technical writing background--laced with a healthy imagination--should be a good foundation for the often strict, streamlined writing required in story books.

I look forward to your reply. And I love your website.


It never hurts to mention writing experience in a cover letter. I think your experience applies more to nonfiction than fiction, especially when writing for magazines. Your description of "my background in writing concise, accurate research material under the constant pressure of deadlines" would be music to a magazine editor's ears. However, I agree that writing in a streamlined fashion is also important for picture books, and so I think you should mention your background briefly and professionally (as you've done here).

Dear Laura,
How long do I have to decide if I want to sign a contract? I recieved one, but am wanting to wait to see if my first choice of publisher comes through. I don't want to lose the contract offfered, but could like to wait a few weeks. There was no deadline given to me.

You don't want to wait too long, because you don't want the publisher to know that you're waiting for a better offer. I suggest you call the publisher who's your first choice, and explain that you've received an offer on your manuscript, but would like this publisher to have an opportunity to read it before you accept any offers. Ask the editor if she can get back to you (at least with a preliminary "no" or "maybe") quickly. Either the editor will say she can't read it that quickly, or she'll agree to get back to you within a few days. I don't suggest hanging on to a contract for more than three weeks without giving the editor some explanation.

This all assumes that everyone involved knows you made simultaneous submissions with your manuscript. If not, then you're in a position of possibly annoying both editors. However, if you've been above board all along, then if your first choice of publisher comes back with an offer, you can politely decline the original contract. It's better to go through this juggling act before an actual contract is drawn up (after you get the verbal offer from the first editor), but sometimes things don't work out that cleanly. And ultimately, you have to think about your career. But be sure to be polite to the editor you turn down, and thank her for her interest in your work, in case you ever want to submit to her in the future.

Dear Laura,

1. I've had a number of picture books published, but I'm in search of a new publisher. I'm confused by a number of publishers who want query letters only. Any tips on writing query letters for picture books?

2. I have completed a middle-grade novel, but again, most publishers want proposals first. How long should a proposal for a middle-grade novel be?

Thanks so much... love the website.


We're actually in the process of putting together a new book on writing query letters and book proposals, since we've received many questions like yours. We'll announce its publication in CBI (February or March 1998 is the proposed pub date).

It is difficult to write a query letter for a picture book, since the manuscript itself is so short. Your picture book query should cover some basics: the book's title, the intended age group, and word length. These are often (though don't have to be) addressed in the first paragraph. Your query should also include a plot synopsis that is no longer than a paragraph. This synopsis not only needs to tell the editor what happens in the story, but also should give a sense of the main character and your style of writing. In other words, you want the query letter to be written in the same style as the book. Think of the synopsis as the jacket copy that is designed to tease a prospective buyer into reading your book. For example, a synopsis of a humorous picture book about a day where everything went wrong might start out like this: "Molly had no idea how bad her day would be until she stubbed her toe while getting out of bed. That was her first clue. Then she reached under her pillow and discovered that the Tooth Fairy had forgotten to visit her last night. Clue Number Two. When she went down to breakfast and saw that her brother had gotten the Secret Decoder Ring out of the cereal box, Molly realized that this was going to be the worst day of her life."

A proposal for a middle grade novel generally includes a cover letter containing a plot synopsis (this synopsis can be two or three paragraphs long, depending upon the length of the manuscript), a description of the main characters (which can be woven into the synopsis or included separately) and sample chapters. Generally, the first two chapters are sufficient unless the publisher's guidelines asks for something different. No matter what kind of query or proposal you're sending, be sure to include any past writing credits or memberships in professional organizations in your letter, and be sure the synopsis tells the editor how the story ends. They hate to have to guess.

Good luck!


Several months ago I received a personal rejection letter that welcomed other material as well as guidelines in submitting more work. The publisher also suggesting self-publishing the original work I had sent him. In suggesting this, he offered his publishing companies services. In reading this, I thought it might have been a gimmick to solicit personal funds. So I packed it away with several other personal rejection letters- as I keep them on file. Should I submit further work to the publisher who suggested I do so?

In addition, I have recently been contacted by NAEYC with positive feedback from one of their editors on a piece I submitted to them. I am waiting for the green light to publish my first professional article. Several years ago I wrote for Newspaper in Education, Gannett Newspapers- it was a dream job, but my husband was transferred and I was out of work. I ended up getting my Masters in Early Childhood Education and presently teach kindergarten. However, my heart lies in writing. Sometimes I feel like it is the only thing I am meant to do. How/when do you decide to take the leap into fulltime writing and leave the day job? My husband and I depend upon a two person income, but I feel a drive pushing me toward my dream. I plan to pursue my writing in my free time, but I have 4 children, so my time is limited. This summer will give me two months to determine whether I sign another contract with the school system. Any advice?


It sounds like the publisher who sent you the encouraging personal rejection was a co-op publisher, which means the author pays a chunk of the expenses toward getting the book published. However, since the publisher called it self-publishing, it might be more like a vanity press, where the author not only pays the expenses, but also handles all the marketing and distribution of the book. In either case, I suggest you don't follow that route, or submit any more material to that publisher. Though these are generally legitimate businesses, they require a considerable amount of money and time from the author, things which most of us are not in the position to give. I suggest you continue submitting your manuscripts to other publishers.

As far as taking that leap into full time writing, it's something that takes a long time for most children's writers. It takes a few years of having several books in print to generate any kind of reliable income. I know it's frustrating when your free time is limited, but I suggest you keep pursuing the writing in evenings and weekends. Using your summers to attend writer's conferences can be a great way to keep you motivated, and your job in the school system really offers you insight into what kids like to read, what's important to them, and how to tell a story from a child's point of view. If you look at your job as research for your writing, you may see it in a new light.

I suggest you also work on some magazine articles and short stories. Getting published in a children's magazine will not only give you good writing credits, but it can allow you to see your work in print much faster than through a book publisher. And since magazines have very high standards for the quality of the writing, it's a great training ground. Look at the magazines in your school library, study the kinds of stories and articles they want, send for writer's guidelines from each publication, and then get some writing in the mail. Patience and determination are the two qualities that separate the would-be writers from those who actually get published.


I sent a query with sample chapters and a synopsis to a publishing house I've wanted into for a long time. I think the book fits what the house does and now they want to see the whole manuscript.

My theory with cover letters is be brief and to the point. I usually write a short bit about the book, then give my publishing history and a brief closing line. In the cover letter I'll send with the requested manuscript, should I re-list my credits, tell them how much I admire the authors in
their publishing house and say more about the book or just say thanks for requesting it, here it is...?

I know the book will sell if it's good and not if the cover letter is perfect. Still, I want it to look good and make me look good also.

I suggest you do re-state your credits in your cover letter, since the editor may have forgotten or not kept your original query on file. I don't think you have to reiterate how much you like the publishing house; it's assumed you wouldn't be submitting there if you didn't. Do be sure to thank the editor for requesting your manuscript. Good luck!


I have just started researching children's magazines as an outlet for some of my stories. The guidelines I received from one magazine state "We buy all rights, including copyright..." Does this mean that if they bought one of my stories, I would lose all rights to that story forever? It sounds like they would own my story and I would no longer have any rights to it at all. Of course I don't want to lose the rights to my creations. Could you please explain. Also, I would appreciate anything else you could tell me about submitting to magazines. Thank you.


The key to submitting to magazines is to study some recent back issues to make sure your work fits in with the magazine's overall focus, and then give the editor exactly what she wants (which should be spelled out in the writer's guidelines, especially with regards to tone, style and word length). If a magazine buys "all rights, including copyright", it means that you are essentially selling your story to them forever. However, in many cases this is negotiable. If such a magazine does want to publish one of your stories, call the editor and ask if you can sell first rights only, or one-time rights. Often, once the story has appeared in print, the magazine will revert other rights back to the author. But get a confirmation on this before you sign a contract.

In some cases, the magazine won't budge, so you have to consider how important retaining copyright is to you. Though writers are taught never to relinquish copyright, sometimes they don't intend to ever do anything else with the story or article, and getting a good publishing credit is more important than retaining rights. So weigh the pros and cons before saying no to a magazine who wants to publish your story but insists on buying all rights.

Dear Laura,

I have just finished writing my first children's picture book with the main characters as dogs. They dogs talk to each other. Soon after writing I just found this great internet site and saw that no one wants to publish talking animals stories anymore in the What's Hot and What's Not. I believe it is a good story and teaches valuable lessons but Im not sure if I should change the dogs to humans. What do you think?

thank you, Jennifer

Talking animals aren't completely taboo, it's just that most writers don't do them very well. What's important is that your animals have completely developed, unique personalities and characteristics. You need to develop these characters just as carefully as if you were creating human characters. Too many writers use their animal characters as stereotypes, thinking kids will be immediately drawn to them just because they're animals.

Everything your animals say and do should be a logical extension of their individual personalities. And give your readers some surprises. For example, a rabbit might not be cute and cuddly; he may be absentminded, selfish, or cunning. I suggest you read some previously published "talking animal" books to get a sense of what I'm talking about. William Steig and Kevin Henkes are two good picture book writers. Also, "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White (a middle grade novel) is an excellent course on how to create unique animals characters.

Laura, I have heard it said that rhymes are often appealing to children and can even help aid in the learning process. If this is true, then why do the majority of publishers shy away from rhymed-narratives. At present, I have completed four picture books in all; two of these are stories written in rhyme. I am confident in the merit of my work, but am concerned about this particular sort of bias in the market-place. My question is this: Are the majority of publishers so against rhymed-narratives that my manuscript and others like it will be duly rejected, never receiving a fair consideration? Or am I over-reacting to the "general" submission-guidelines offered by publishers? Also, when Publishers post that they do not publish "poetry", does "poetry" usually include rhymed-narratives, or merely poetry in the classic sense?

Rhyming stories are appealing to kids, especially those children making the transition from board books to picture books. However, like using talking animals (see the previous question) many authors don't do rhyming stories very well, so many publishers have made it a policy to say they're not looking for rhyming stories from new writers. If a publisher's guidelines explicitly say "no rhyming stories" then you need to honor that. However, if it's not mentioned in the guidelines, then you can submit a rhyming story to that publisher.

Because every word must count in a picture book, it's important that there be no wasted words in the rhyming format. Many authors make the rhyme more important than the story, adding a lot of extra words and lines (generally long descriptions) simply to make the rhyme work. They also rely on made-up words (that might not make sense within the context of the story) or cliches to keep the rhyme going. Action and character development are key to any picture book story, and this holds true for rhyming stories as well. Take a look at "The Cat in the Hat" by Dr. Seuss. The reader is pulled into the story immediately, the problem the children face is introduced by page 2, and every bit of the Cat's dialogue shows us who he is as a character. This is how you need to write rhyming stories. Another good example is "Eric Van Noodle" by Arlen Cohn, just published by Gibbs Smith.

I think a good rhyming story will get fair consideration from any publisher who is open to the genre. And "poetry" means poems in the classic sense, such as anthologies or a volume of poetry by one author.

Dear Laura,

I have completed a middle grade suspense thriller that has been read with delight by everyone EXCEPT agents and publishers. After attending a number of workshops, panels, and conferences, I have learned that the manuscript breaks some of "The Rules" of children's publishing. First, although the target audience ranges from 8 - 13, the book's main characters are a cat and a dog who have a wide range of human characteristics unbeknownst to their human family - Rule 1: Stories with anthropomorphized animals are for younger readers. Second, although the book features anthropomorphized animals, a real murder takes place . . . not gorey, but the character does die - Rule 2: Stories that include an actual death are for older readers. Third, my thirteen year-old daughter is the book's illustrator - Rule 3: Publishers don't like author-illustrator teams, ESPECIALLY when they are family members.

I don't intend to be idiotically stubborn, but all of the broken rules are there for a damn good reason. Question: Will anyone publish a book with these rules broken, or must I turn to self-publishing?

I appreciate any advice you can offer. Thanks, Ellen

You can break the "rules" but your writing must be very good to do it. There are several middle grade books with anthropomorphized animal characters ("Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White being one well-known example), so I don't think that's a serious problem. However, look at how you've developed these characters (see my answer on talking animals above). Another great example is "Bunnicula" by James and Deborah Howe. If the animal characters are completely unique and believable, and you don't cross the line between fantasy and reality (can your cat and dog understand human speech, for example?) then that shouldn't be holding your book back.

Rule 2, the murder, could be a problem. Murders rarely happen in middle grade books, unless a character stumbles upon the murder after the fact. Also, because of the talking-animal nature of your book, it could be that the murder just doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of your story. It is a fantasy after all, even if it takes place in the "real" world, and by its very nature your story will appeal to the younger end of your intended audience. Would it be possible to change the murder to the disappearance of a character, such as a kidnapping?

Rule 3 is there for a good reason. Publishers have very high standards when it comes to the art in their books, and very often authors choose illustrators whose work doesn't hold up to the art on the rest of the publisher's list. While your daughter may be a very good artist, insisting on her illustrations could mean an editor will reject the entire project if she doesn't like the art. It's not unheard of for two family members to collaborate on a book, but I suggest that if you want to submit your daughter's art with your manuscript, you make it clear in the cover letter that you are open to someone else doing the illustrations. If you and your daughter are set on working together, I suggest you try submitting a few more times, and if you don't have any luck, then consider self-publishing.

By the way, we sell a book called "The Market Guide for Young Writers" (see info on our Web site) which lists many markets where your daughter could get her art published. I suggest you encourage her to submit to magazines and publishers who are actively seeking work from young people.

I'm currently submitting a picturebook manuscript that is of a metaphysical nature--not religious, per se, more mainstream than that. Here's my concern: Christian publishers seem to want traditional, Bible-supporting stories and most mainstream publishers reject it based on its spiritual content. How can I best find open-minded publishers that will consider a spiritually based book for very young children?
Thank you very much-

First of all, it's important that you present your topic to a picture book audience in a very concrete, visual way, even if you're dealing with abstract ideas. That aside, I suggest you take a look in some smaller, independently-owned bookstores for other children's books that deal with topics similar to yours. The independent bookstores are more likely to carry books from small presses, who specialize in books outside of the mainstream. You can also look in magazines that deal in New Age, supernatural topics or Eastern religions, and look at the ads book publishers place in these magazines. Even if the publisher appears to only do adult books, you can query them to see if they're interested in a children's title. I don't like to categorize metaphysical as "New Age" or "supernatural," but publishers of metaphysical books realize that people interested in these areas might also be interested in related topics, which is why they'd advertise in New Age magazines, or magazines that focus on Eastern religions ("Tricycle" and "Shambhala Sun" are two Buddhist magazines found in most large newsstands).

It also depends on how your story is presented. For example, Dawn Publications (14618 Tyler Foote, Nevada City, CA 95959) publishes nature-related picture books, but their titles are very inspirational and strive to enhance awareness of the connection human beings have with the entire universe. I've also seen titles along these lines published by mainstream houses such as Harcourt Brace. Browsing through a book store is really the best way to get some direction for your submissions.

Laura, I am new to this chidren's book writing thing. I have developed two manuscripts geared for age 4-8, specifically focused upon two real life scenarios. They are adoption and AIDS. I am planning to self publish. A renowned private grade school has agreed to have students in grades 1-5 compete to have their illustrations published in this book. All proceeds will go to two specific charities. Is this something I should even consider shopping around to publishers? or stick with my self-publishing idea?? Do you have any further suggeations? I have already established local bookstore contacts and media contacts nationwide. I also planned on selling them during back-of room sales or direct mail after my presentations which occur 2-3 times per week throughout North America.

Since you have some basic marketing ideas already underway, and since your books deal with very specific topics, your chances of success through self-publishing are greater than someone who is publishing general fiction. However, it's wise to do as much research as possible before you take the plunge. Get realistic figures from printers as to how much it will cost to produce your books, and then add another third of that price to cover your marketing costs. I suggest you check out a book called "The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing" by Tom and Marilyn Ross to get an idea of all the bases you need to cover before you make the final decision. Also, realize that you'll need to devote a good year of your life to marketing you books before you can even hope to break even (assuming you're printing with color illustrations, which are costly).

It never hurts to send the manuscript and illustrations to a few publishers before you decide to self-publish. I suggest you focus on smaller presses who specialize in adoption and AIDS issues. In "Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market" there are several small presses interested in books on adoption. As for the AIDS book, it depends on the story. Is it a story of a family member who dies of AIDS? Does a child have the illness? You might look under the subject index of "Children's Book in Print" for books on similar topics, and see who publishes them. If you do end up going with a small press, your marketing efforts will come in handy, as most small presses like authors who can help promote and sell their books.

Hi Laura,

I'm a new subscriber and new to writing children's stories, although I've been a writer for some years. I'm wondering what you can say about character names? Would a name that is too unusual, too ordinary, or just a name that doesn't "sound right" to an editor be cause for rejection of a story? Do editors ever suggest a name change? Personally, I'd be open to name changes, but don't know if it's worth conveying this to an editor in a
cover letter.

I'd welcome any comments.

Thanks much,

I don't think the name of a character is cause for rejecting a manuscript, provided everything else (the plot, the character development, the dialogue) is well-written. An editor might suggest a name change, but I wouldn't ask for this advice. Put some thought into the names you give your characters. Their names should be consistent with who they are; their racial backgrounds, the time periods in which they were born, the kinds of families they come from. If you are writing a funny story, the names can be funny, but in a subtle way. Something too outlandish sounds forced, and draws attention to the name instead of the character. A name can also be part of the story. If your character was named after her aunt, she may feel some sort of connection with this relative, or some pressure to live up to her name. One thing editors generally don't like is alliterative animal names: Tommy Turtle, Charlie Chipmunk, Sammy Snake. The name should be one small part of your character development, not define the character entirely.

I have read several different guidelines on how long you should expect to wait before receiving a response from a publisher. Do these time lines remain the same for children's books whose lengths are much shorter? (8-12 weeks?) Does a story seriously being considered for publication take longer to respond to? What should an author do if 10 or more weeks have passed without contact? And finally, when a publisher chooses a piece to publish how is the author usually contacted by mail or telephone?

It takes anywhere from two to six months to get a response from most publishers these days, and that time frame is the same for a picture book and a young adult novel. Submissions are generally read in the order in which they are received, so sending a short manuscript won't move you to the head of the line (however, sending a query letter instead of the entire manuscript might speed up the process). I suggest you wait at least 12 weeks before contacting a publisher (16 weeks is probably more realistic). You can give a quick call to the children's editorial department (ask to speak with an assistant) and simply say you are inquiring on the status of your submission. Be sure you know the date you mailed the manuscript. The assistant will at least be able to tell you the manuscript has been received, and if it's been read or still sitting on the pile. However, if you enclose a self-addressed, stamped postcard with your submission, on which the editor can fill in a place that tells you the date the manuscript was received, and about how long she thinks it will take to read, then you'll save the phone call (many houses are now stating in their writer's guidelines that authors should NOT call to check on submissions). The best course of action is to put the manuscript in the mail and forget about it. If you're working on a new story, you won't be counting the weeks until you get a reply from an editor.

Yes, it does take longer to hear if your manuscript is being seriously considered, because it has to go through several rounds of editorial meetings, financial statements need to be drawn up estimating the cost of producing the book, and the publisher's sales force needs to determine if the book has marketing potential and can be sold to the publisher's bookstore accounts. So, sometimes no news really is good news. If an editor is planning on making an offer on your book, you'll generally get that happy news in a phone call.


I am just beginning to write for children. I am currently working on a series of children's books that feed off of each other. I have been working really hard developing several characters but I have a problem. You see my books will depend heavily on illustration. And I am not sure if I should search for an illustrator or not. I have been told that publishers look down on the idea of a writer bringing in their own illustrators. Also could
you give me some helpful tips on how to find an illustrator, if I am not successful at finding one.


Unless a publisher specifically states in its writer's guidelines that author/illustrator teams are welcome (where the author does not also illustrate the book), or asks that the author suggest an illustrator, it's not a good idea to find an illustrator yourself. Publishers have very specific "looks" to their books, and prefer certain types of illustrations. Also, the quality of illustration in children's books is so high that unless you can find a truly accomplished illustrator, it will make your whole project look unprofessional.

The text itself should draw enough "word pictures," or imply enough illustrations (without overtly describing every scene) that an editor will be able to imagine the illustrations without your providing them. If your text has so few words that the illustrations are left completely up in the air, that's fine too. As long as you're telling a good story, then a talented illustrator should be able to interpret your words and come up with illustrations that complement and expand upon the text. However, if you're determined to find an illustrator to work with (or if you're submitting to a small press that asks for the author to find an illustrator) you can call the Society of Children's Book Writers & Illustrators (818/888-8760). They should be able to help you locate an illustrator in your area.

Hi Laura,

I seem to have clawed my way to the near the top of the slush pile; I am now receiving signed, personalized rejection letters rather than xeroxed forms. Several of the letters have included favorable comments, but so far I have received no suggestions for revisions of the manuscripts, or requests that I do so. My question is, if I revise the manuscript substantially, can I send it back to the same editors again? Or does 'no' mean 'no, no, never, never'?

Thanks. I am a new subscriber, and am enjoying the site very much.


Congratulations on getting those personal rejections. In publishing (unlike the rest of the world) being rejected "personally" is much better than being rejected anonymously. It's frustrating, though, if the editor doesn't tell you why your manuscript was rejected (that's up to you and your writers' group to figure out). If the editor doesn't specifically say she wants to see the manuscript again, then "no" means "no". However, she may say she'd like to see other manuscripts from you. If that's the case, be sure to send her something else, and remind her in your cover letter that she requested another story. Even if she didn't mention seeing more work, I'd still send her another manuscript (provided it's the kind of thing that publisher is looking for) and in your cover letter thank her for taking the time to respond personally to your previous submission, and say "Here's something else I thought you might like." It's never too early to start forming relationships with editors -- this is often how the first sale is ultimately made.

Hi. I'm both a writer and an illustrator, and I'd like to get into children's publishing. I've seen a lot of advice on how to break into one or the other career, but almost nothing on how to do both. Any advice?
Thanks, Peter
To be both a writer and illustrator, you need to work twice as hard because you have to be very good at both crafts. The same advice advice applies to each skill: study books on the market that are similar to yours as far as age group, genre and style; read books on writing and illustrating for children; and work to polish your own writing and artwork. As a writer, you'll dissect published books to see how the authors introduced characters, established conflict, paced the plot and resolved the story. You'll even look at things like how many words are on a page and where in the story the climax occurs. As an illustrator, study how other artists expanded upon the words to flesh out the characters and setting (and how they made each picture in the book different even though they illustrated the same character many times over), which parts of the text they chose to illustrate, and how they added details to the pictures that weren't even mentioned in the storyline. When submitting a story and artwork to an editor (which is who you would submit the package to, versus an art director if you were sending only samples of artwork), you'll need to send a typed manuscript and a dummy of the book. The dummy involves a detailed black and white sketch of each page of art with the text placed on the page, and two or three color copies of finished illustrations.
You want to target publishers who would be receptive to your story and artwork. In other words, your whole book needs to fit into a publisher's existing list. Sending a self-addressed, stamped envelope for a publisher's catalog is helpful (include $1.01 postage to cover most catalogs). I also suggest in your cover letter that you mention you're open to someone else illustrating your story, as well as illustrating someone else's text. This gives you more options for publication if the editor loves your story but not your artwork, or vice versa.
Good luck!

How do you use/register a pseudonym? I want to use a form of my great grandmother's name.
Your choice of pseudonym is not relevant when first submitting your manuscript to a publisher, so I suggest you submit using your real name. When an editor offers you a contract, you can mention at that time that you'd like to use a pseudonym. There will be a place on the contract that says, "List your name as you would like it to appear on the book", which is where you would write in your pseudonym. If there isn't such a clause in your contract, ask your editor to insert it. The contract (and your royalty/advance payments) will be issued to you in your actual name. Also, the copyright in the book should be under your real name. The publisher will take care of copyright registration for you.