A review of The ABCs of Writing For Children

If you are a writer or illustrator of childrens’ books, or want to be, Koehler-Pentacoff’s book is really a must read. This is no didactic guide from a world weary author, but instead, is a series of questions and answers by experienced and well known writers in a range of childrens’ book genres about nearly every critical topic you can think of. 

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The ABCs of Writing For Children:
114 Children’s Authors and Illustrators talk about the Art, the Business, the Craft, and the Life of Writing Children’s Literature
by Elizabeth Koehler-Pentacoff
Quill Driver Books/Wind Dancer Press
ISBN 1-884956-28-9
Phone toll free at 1-800 497 4909
$16.95, tp, 341pgs

It’s a common misconception, but writing for children is not easier than writing for adults. If anything it is more difficult, because it requires a very specific child like perspective which is very visual, intensely creative, and uniting that rare but powerful combination of edification, fascination, and fun. If you are a writer or illustrator of childrens’ books, or want to be, Koehler-Pentacoff’s book is really a must read. This is no didactic guide from a world weary author, but instead, is a series of questions and answers by experienced and well known writers in a range of childrens’ book genres about nearly every critical topic you can think of. A published author of childrens’ books herself, Koehler-Pentacoff knows what to ask, who to ask, and how to present her material in a way which is really helpful to would be childrens’ authors and illustrators.

The respondents are all seriously experienced, many of them award winners, and ranging from authors of hundreds of non-fiction titles like David Adler and Caroline Adler, to picture book authors like Susan Middleton Elya and David Greenberg, books for young adults like Sid Fleischman (also a screenwriter) and David Lubar, author illustrators like Thatcher Hurd, Ashley Wolff, Rosemary Wells, and Sarah Wilson, mystery writers like Penny Warner, and even a few superstars like RL Stine and Karen Cushman. Their advice is enlightening, often humorous, and very interesting.

Each chapter takes a specific topic, ranging from the first book publishing break, to dealing with writers’ block, the best, and worse writing advice ever received, finding good story ideas, dealing with rejection, doing research, and managing the basics of good writing like voice, setting, dialogue, plot, and creating suspense. There are chapters on illustrating, on writing nonfiction, on biography, poetry, screenplay, photography, collaboration, marketing, fan mail, reviews, and much more. The advice often colludes, such as on rewriting, where almost everyone says that you should just write anything on the first draft — some even use the word “poopy,” or “crappy,” getting it all out and then revising afterwords. Almost everyone says “write every day” too. At other times, the advice conflicts, such as the matching comments in best and worse advice sections. Bruce Corville, for example, says that “write what you know” is the worst piece of advice he has ever received, while Debbie Duncan, Ashley Wolff, and Keven Kiser all cited “write what you know” as the best advice they’d ever had.

In between the main sections are features or interviews with some well known authors and illustrators, including an interview with Richard Peck on the writing of his 30 award winning novels, Karen Cushman on characterisation and historical fiction, and Chris Crutcher on censorship:

I had been to one school where they asked me not to say the word “asshole” since it had been in my book, Iron Man. So when I talked to the students, I said, “I can’t tell you what the word is, but it rhymes with gas hole!” They loved it! It freed a teacher to say the word when he read the book to his class. (89)

Other profiled writers include Caroline Arnold, who talks about researching, Zilpha Keatley Snyder who talks about character and plot, Thacher Hurd, who talks about writing picture books, Doug Cushman, Lee Bennett Hopkins, RL Stine, and Jane Yolen. The book ends with recommended books, and a lot of information about resources.

Although the focus of this book is very much on how to write childrens’ books, the advice is equally applicable to writers of all genres. It is fun to work through, and the structure and variation makes for a very pleasurable and insightful read.

For more information visit: The ABC’s of Writing for Children: 114…

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