Kid Stuff

Writing a bestselling, Oprah-endorsed novel doesn't necessarily prepare you for the world of children's literature, as Jacquelyn Mitchard discovered.
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Jacquelyn Mitchard—best known for her 1996 novel The Deep End of the Ocean, a harrowing page-turner about a mother dealing with her young son's kidnapping—takes on a warmer, fuzzier subject with her upcoming children's book, Rosalie, My Rosalie: The Tail of a Duckling (HarperCollins, April 2005). Her foray into children's literature (which started with this year's release of Starring Prima! in May and Baby Bat's Lullaby in August) is the latest in a long list of publishing credits and responsibilities: Mitchard is also a screenwriter, newspaper columnist, contributing editor to Parenting magazine and an amateur actress. "I've gotten myself into a pickle, being interested in trying so many forms," she says.

Mitchard joins a wide circle of bestselling novelists-turned-children's writers. What's the appeal? To be sure, kid lit is a huge market, from board books to young-adult fiction, with plenty of room to grow. But it comes with this caveat: You can't fool kids any more than you can impress publishers with worn-out themes, too-adult conversation or just bad writing. Writers of children's literature get one theme, one purpose, one special idea to work with—maybe a dozen words in board books, up to 12,000 words in books for young readers. It takes a special author with passion and patience to make that theme work (and sell).

Mitchard spoke with Writer's Digest about making the leap into writing for the junior set and how she approached this unique form.

So, what compelled you to try a children's book?

One afternoon my children asked me if I could "free rap." "Of course," I answered. Our then-2-year-old, Mimi, was running around playing in her Halloween bat costume. I love bats and started a rappy rhyme about "the new prince of the dark, dancer in the sky park ... ."

I ended up sending the poem to my agent with a picture of Mimi in her costume—not at all expecting anyone to consider it anything but a goof. My agent loved it. I didn't even know she showed it to anyone. Bingo!

What are some of the challenges of writing for children?

You'd be surprised at how difficult it is and how many wonderful adult writers want to do it in homage to their children, but they have a hard time managing. I just didn't want E.B. White to be ashamed of me.

Was his work an inspiration for you?

Jacqueyln Mitchard's Body of Work

NOVELS The Deep End of the Ocean (Penguin USA) The Most Wanted (Viking Books) A Theory of Relativity (HarperCollins) Twelve Times Blessed (HarperCollins) Christmas, Present (HarperCollins) CHILDREN'S BOOKS Starring Prima! (HarperCollins) Baby Bat's Lullaby (HarperCollins) Rosalie, My Rosalie (HarperCollins, April 2005) ESSAY COLLECTION The Rest of Us (Viking Books)

I think E.B. White is a saint who walked among us for a while. If I was going to do this at all, it was going to be with restraint and emotion and some sort of dignity. White's work—even from my college days, from Elements of Style—is a beacon to me for my books and in all the books I read.

What do you do differently when writing your children's stories vs. writing for adults? How do you approach language and vocabulary?

Brevity is the biggest difference; that, and more whimsy. The best children's books challenge readers with words they love to repeat as well as those they know from hearing them in context. So for my picture books, and for Rosalie, My Rosalie (which is a primary-level novel about a girl and her duck), I threaded certain phrases throughout the book.

Where do you find your stories?

The book Starring Prima! is dedicated "To my theater children, from Mama C" (Mama Cratchit). I wrote the book backstage with 20 little girls when I appeared as Mrs. Cratchit in a regional theater production of A Christmas Carol. Naturally, between scenes, the child actors from the play would be hanging from the rafters.

First, I read to them from some of my favorite stories. Then I said, "Help me write a story."

I asked them what they thought would be funny, what they would like Prima to do. Those kids influenced both that story (many of the girls took ballet) and a picture book. One of the girls even thought up an exquisite and intractable rhyme.

Once, I was stranded for nine hours at La Guardia Airport, and the ticket agent told me this incredibly poignant story about a duck she'd raised as a child. I asked her if she'd like to see a version of that story as a book. She was tickled.

Newspaper stories, friends' lives, my life—they're all vegetables for the soup. Sometimes, ideas just run around your head until they fall out.

Is the writing and publishing process for children's books what you expected?

I thought getting a novel published took a long time, but I never imagined how long it could take for a children's story. I wrote that rap about the bat two-and-a-half years before it came out as the picture book Baby Bat's Lullaby.

I was also surprised by how much fun it was to go to the "children's" publishing office rather than the "grown-up" office. There are wonderful toys, and all those classic books—like the Little House books—that formed me as a reader.

Are children easier or harder to write for than adults?

In some ways, writing for children is more difficult because I'm not a child myself. Writing things that are simple, yet not condescending, is a challenge. What's easy is the humor. Kids are naturally inclined to want to laugh at your jokes. You rarely meet a child with an indifferent sense of humor.

I'm still trying to teach myself some of the things my more literary colleagues learned in school. I do a great deal of research. I don't want anyone to say, "That could not have happened." It may be fiction, but it has to be true. For example, for Starring Prima! I needed to know many things—ballet terms, how long mice live, the stories behind famous ballets and more.

What do you read to your own children?

We read to the small ones every night and the bigger ones read to themselves. I've read to the kids since they were able to sit up. I've read them Margaret Wise Brown, Eric Carle, Dr. Seuss, the Berenstains and Richard Scarry. As they got older, it was Kevin Henkes and, my favorite, Mem Fox. Then Laura Ingalls Wilder and (of course) E.B. White and E.B. White and E.B. White.

There are so many delicious books for children. For the investment, children's books are the most profitable segment of publishing, because even people who don't read want their children to read, bless them. It's a huge and very tactile and beautiful kind of world.

Do you have more children's books in the works?

As of now, we've got four picture books and two novels. I'm pretty certain I'll do new segments of the adventures of Prima's descendants and of Henry, the little girl in Rosalie, My Rosalie.

I also want to write a book for older, preteen children: perhaps a ghost story, like my favorite of Susan Hill's, called The Woman in Black.

I have a list of priorities, and my work is very, very important, but it's not at the top of my list. If my work weren't a hobby—subject to the whims, needs and urgencies of my seven children—I'd be very prolific indeed. I try to put in an ordinary working day, but I end up working many nights after everyone else is asleep and sneaking in time for books or columns when the family goes to the movies.

I'm someone who has the privilege of telling stories for my job. As soon as I've finished or published something, I'm desperate about its manifest flaws, no matter how much anyone else likes it. But I vow that next time I hear the melody, I'm going to reproduce it on the page.

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