Jill Esbaum on Writing Children's Books

In this interview, Jill Esbaum offers helpful advice on writing children's books, getting published, and common mistakes to avoid.

Jill Esbaum is the author of numerous award-winning books for children. Her children's nonfiction includesEverything Spring; Apples for Everyone; Seed, Sprout, Pumpkin, Pie; and A Day at the Beach. Her children's fiction includes Stanza; To the Big Top; Estelle Takes a Bath; Ste-e-e-e-eamboat A-Comin'!, and Stink Soup.

A Conversation with Jill Esbaum

Q: What are some of the special challenges in writing nonfiction for young children?

Jill Esbaum: The nonfiction series I write for National Geographic Kids is aimed at 4-6 year olds. Each book is intended to be an introduction to a particular subject. So the toughest part of that, for me, isn't the research, which I enjoy, but taking a vast amount of information and honing it down to the bare essentials. I think a lot about word choice and keeping the text light and playful. It helps to imagine a teacher reading the book aloud to a bunch of wiggly kindergarteners. I don't want my text to be so dry that somebody's turning to poke his neighbor.

Q: Could you suggest some dos and don'ts for using rhyme when writing children's books? For the use of humor?

Jill Esbaum:

  • Do remember that the story is of equal importance to the rhythm and rhyme.
  • Do present the problem early if you're writing a character-driven story. And make sure the rest of the story stays focused on how your character deals with that problem.
  • Do be aware of each word's natural stresses and use those to your advantage. Anybody off the street should be able to pick up your story and read it without stumbling.
  • Don't twist syntax for the sake of end rhyme.
  • Don't settle for easy rhymes like way/say, cat/hat, etc. A few of those are fine, of course, but strive to surprise and delight your readers/listeners.
  • Don't write in rhyme unless you're 100% confident that you're gifted at it.

Humor is tough, because everybody has his/her own idea of what's funny. Read lots of funny books to get a feel for how other writers present things in a humorous way. In the end, though, you should write what makes YOU laugh.

When writing children's books for young children, in what ways do you also write to please or entertain the adults who will read to these children?

I can't say, specifically, because I think it's an organic thing that comes from remembering reading with my own kids when they were young. Their favorite books were those that made me giggle right along with them - books like Kevin Henkes' Julius, Baby of the World and P.D. Eastman's Are You My Mother? (read in a baby bird voice). Who wouldn't want to write books with the power to touch kids AND adults? Sometimes you'll hit the mark and sometimes you won't. But when you do, the positive feedback from readers is the best feeling in the world.

Q: Could you offer some advice for new authors on publishing writing for children?

Jill Esbaum:

  • If your heart is set on writing for publication, join SCBWI, go to conferences, try to find a critique group, read everything you can get your hands on (books and online) about writing, and PRACTICE.
  • Educate yourself about the business.
  • Keep up with what's being published.
  • Resist the urge to write stories about things that have happened to your children, grandchildren, or other children you know. Editors get too many of those. Give them something they've never seen before, something that'll knock their socks off. The market is too tight for average stories to slip through anymore.
  • Develop a thick skin, because rejection is part of the business.

Q: In addition to writing children's books yourself, you offer a critique service for children’s writers. What are some common problems you see in your clients' work? How do you suggest addressing these problems?

Jill Esbaum: Some common story problems: a slow beginning, too much backstory, a first-person voice that is too old for the character, not enough dialogue, a mundane plot, making things too easy for the MC... I guess that's enough. To address these problems, writers have to learn to read their own work with an objective eye, as if their story is somebody else's. Ideally, somebody they don't like very much! Put the story away for a few weeks, then pull it out and read it aloud. How long does it take to answer the questions: 1) Who's this about?, and 2) What's his problem?

So many elements have to be perfectly balanced in a successful story. It's mind-boggling, but rather than get discouraged, take one element and work on improving that. Work on crafting snappier openings or more realistic dialogue. It's all about small steps. Nobody sits down and writes a publishable manuscript right off the bat. Learn to embrace revision. That's where the magic happens.

Q: What's a piece of advice you wish you'd received when you were first starting out as a writer?

Jill Esbaum: Take your time! Actually, I might have received that advice - I just didn't listen to it. As a new writer, I was in a hurry to get published, so I rushed manuscripts into the mail again and again. That was a recipe for rejection. I finally learned to take the time to truly craft a story. A recent picture book story took me a year to get right. 

Writing Children's Books - Next Steps

Did you enjoy this interview about writing children's books? You might also like our interview with Ari from Reading in Color about diversity in young adult fiction.

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