It seemed whenever Traci Sikkink discussed her passion for writing children''s books with friends and acquaintances, she''d get "the look." "You know the look," says Sikkink, "the look that says ''you''re kidding me, right?"'' Not allowing negativity to influence her, she has been writing stories non-stop ever since the inspiration to be a children''s author hit her. Characters and plot lines emerged from her subconscious, swirling through her head, beckoning her to bring them to life. Excitedly, she''d show her stories to publishers, agents and friends only to hear, "you''re not ready yet." Those "no''s" hit really hard. "I put away my stories, determined not to try again until I was more prepared and had laid a better foundation to build upon."
With a passion for children, Sikkink threw herself into her childhood goal of becoming a teacher. She soon found herself in a South Central L.A. classroom teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) to a room full of Spanish-speaking third-graders. "It was right after the passing of Proposition 227 which abolished bilingual education. The schools were unprepared for such a drastic and sudden change. There were no textbooks to adhere to this new policy." Sikkink had no choice but to create most of the curriculum herself. She discovered right away the importance of visuals in instruction, especially for second language learners. Maybe craft projects would be just what they needed, she thought.
Sikkink has always been drawn to craft projects. "When other kids were off playing sports or socializing, I was tucked away somewhere with crayons, scissors, and paper." Later, as an adult, she realized the power of origami as a teaching tool when a presenter at a math conference brought a geometry lesson to life by folding eight square pieces of paper into an origami star. Sikkink wondered, not only if this ancient art form could excite and motivate her ESL students, but how the origami star could be integrated into a craft that her students could then take home. Sikkink soon found great success while instructing origami to her students. "Origami brought out their curiosity, compassion to assist others, and desire to learn." All of her students were reading, writing and speaking in English by the end of the year.
Sikkink''s new-found success as a teacher boosted her confidence. Maybe she could be a children''s author after all. "My students'' enthusiasm and enjoyment of the crafts I taught them gave me confidence in their publishability," she says. But it wasn''t until she flipped through the Magazines section of Children''s Writers & Illustrator''s Market that she noticed many of the magazines were interested in nonfiction how-to features. "I knew then that I had a great opportunity to break into publishing with how-to craft articles."
Sikkink invested hours studying examples of successful query letters she found in Children''s Writer''s & Illustrator''s Market. She then wrote one query letter and tailored it to the various magazines she targeted. Two weeks later, she got a call from Guideposts for Kids. Soon after, a letter from Clubhouse magazine arrived. The Clubhouse assignment led to a project with Clubhouse Jr. Lastly, as a direct result of that first mailing, Sikkink received a request from Skipping Stones, a multicultural magazine, to submit additional crafts that would appeal to a diversity of cultures and religions.
For the rest of the summer and fall, Sikkink aggressively pursued the how-to market in children''s magazines. "I discovered there is a need for how-to craft articles and editors are buying them. It''s also a great way to break-in, become familiar with the publishing process, build your resume, and prove to yourself and editors that you are a professional."
Another bonus for a career in creating and developing how-to crafts for children is that not too many books out there are doing the job that effectively, Sikkink says. "I have bought numerous books on paper-folding, none of which were user-friendly. It took me hours one weekend to figure out what one simple fold meant. Many instructions are written with confusing symbols. Children don''t understand symbols," Sikkink says. "They do understand, and are not intimidated by, letters of the alphabet. That is why I write my instructions using alphabet letters, directing them to fold point A to point B." Since children also learn through associations, Sikkink might point out how a preliminary fold for the final product resembles a house or other familiar shape. "As soon as I make reference to something children know, such as a house, then the connection is made and I can move forward with the directions."
Whenever Sikkink finds a craft she likes, she asks herself three questions-first, How can I write children-friendly instructions for this craft? Second, How can I create an educational lesson from this craft? And three, How can I integrate this craft into a theme/holiday?
"Always send along the finished product with your query letter," advises Sikkink. "It may take additional time and expense to get an item ready for submission but it is well worth it. Pictures don''t do justice to certain crafts. They just aren''t enticing enough. If you want your craft to stand out then you must send the completed item. The craft will then speak for itself."
To date Sikkink has sold over 20 craft articles for magazines. That success has fueled her courage to try integrating her fictional characters within the how-to articles. One of her characters (Miss Heart, a character with hair made out of origami hearts) was featured in the table of contents for Guideposts for Kids. It was the first time Sikkink had seen one of her characters in print. "I had to sit down for that one. I think my screams woke up the entire neighborhood. It was definitely a moment I will never forget."
Sikkink has a busy full-time position with UCLA as a coordinator, instructor and writer of math professional development institutes for elementary school teachers. She is also busy developing her own website, www.CreateWithYourChild.com, a website featuring how-to crafts for children and their parents. She has mastered not only the query letter, but the book proposal as well, completing a manuscript called Miss Heart''s Welcome to Origamiville. . . An A - Z Encyclopedia of Origami Animals to submit to book publishers. She''s dreaming big these days: a line of stationery products featuring children''s coloring books, stickers, notepads, journals, pencils, erasers - all of the things she loved as a child. She no longer fears rejection and is sending her characters out into the world.
This article appeared in a previous edition of Children''s Writer''s & Illustrator''s Market. Check out the current edition.