You Write Books with … Messages?

Eliz­a­beth Verdick

Yes. Yes I do.

Sure, I know there’s a whole school of thought that says “shar­ing a mes­sage” in a children’s book is some­thing to avoid. That chil­dren will learn more, feel more, by read­ing books—sto­ries—that evoke an emo­tion­al response and increase empa­thy through strong char­ac­ter­i­za­tion and vivid lan­guage. Yes. Yes that’s true. But.…

Some­times chil­dren, and the adults rais­ing and teach­ing them, need straight­for­ward tools that address social and emo­tion­al chal­lenges and mile­stones. Non­fic­tion books can fit that pur­pose. Espe­cial­ly if they’re cre­at­ed with cer­tain age groups in mind.

Let’s talk tod­dlers. This is one of my favorite groups of peo­ple — and read­ers (even though they can’t yet read). Tod­dlers are ener­getic, curi­ous, effer­ves­cent. They soak up the sights, sounds, and tex­tures of the world — everything’s new. Tod­dlers have big emo­tions, ones they often can’t ful­ly under­stand or explain because they don’t yet have the words. My tod­dler books aim to give them these words — sim­ple, straight­for­ward phras­es that help their days go more smooth­ly. I have a series of board books called “Best Behav­ior,” in which the titles are the basis for recur­rent phras­es in the text: Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing, Words Are Not for Hurt­ing, Germs Are Not for Shar­ing, Paci­fiers Are Not For­ev­er. You can see the mes­sage loud and clear — no guess­ing here!

The sim­plic­i­ty has its pur­pose — the phras­es are a cue. You see a child start to bite a friend, and the phrase “Teeth Are Not for Bit­ing” is a sim­ple reminder. And it’s a more pos­i­tive use of lan­guage than “No bit­ing” or “Don’t bite” or “Stop!” I’m hap­py that the books steer clear of “Nos” and “Don’ts.” Par­ents and edu­ca­tors using the series have found that the words in their own homes and class­rooms shift in a more pos­i­tive direc­tion, just as the behav­ior even­tu­al­ly does. Edu­ca­tors keep send­ing me top­ic sug­ges­tions, includ­ing the recent Voic­es Are Not for Yelling and Noses Are Not for Pick­ing. (Thank you, teach­ers, you’re amaz­ing brain-stormers!)

I also write “mes­sage” books for old­er kids, includ­ing a series called “Laugh and Learn,” for chil­dren ages 8 – 13. In the books, advice and humor go hand in hand. It’s lots of fun titling these books: Dude, That’s Rude, Get Some Man­ners! or Stress Can Real­ly Get on Your Nerves! Any­time I talk to teach­ers about this series, I sug­gest they write a book for it. Who knows kids bet­ter than teach­ers? Edu­ca­tors care so much and see what kids need. When writ­ing non­fic­tion that has a mes­sage, the “way in” can be humor. No one wants a mes­sage-heavy or preachy book. But one that’s infor­ma­tive and enter­tain­ing — while help­ing a stu­dent grow social/emotional skills — serves an impor­tant need. Chil­dren may not always want to open up about per­son­al chal­lenges they face. But open­ing a book that cov­ers the top­ic? That’s easier.

I’m no spe­cial expert. I’m a mom who loves kids, books, and writ­ing. When I write non­fic­tion that aims to help chil­dren under­stand their emo­tions or the social world, I think about a voice that can reach and teach with­out mak­ing a child slam the book shut in bore­dom. I want kids to feel heard. I want them to feel strong. I want them to know they’re not alone. Just like you do. When you stand in front of a class­room or do a pre­sen­ta­tion in the library, you find cre­ative ways to get kids’ atten­tion and sus­tain it. You sense their needs and ques­tions. You invite them in.

Want to try your hand at non­fic­tion that address­es children’s social and emo­tion­al needs?

  1. Know your age group: There are board books for babies and tod­dlers, illus­trat­ed books for PreK and ear­ly ele­men­tary, books for upper ele­men­tary and mid­dle school, and more com­pre­hen­sive ones for teens. The length and use of lan­guage reflects the age of readers.
  1. Explore edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ing: Many pub­lish­ers specif­i­cal­ly serve the edu­ca­tion mar­ket, with books designed main­ly for class­room or school library use. Find books you like, and look for the pub­lish­er infor­ma­tion locat­ed on the Library of Con­gress (LOC) page, which usu­al­ly appears before the Ded­i­ca­tion and Table of Con­tents. Edu­ca­tion­al pub­lish­ers may also list the age/grade, inter­est, and read­ing lev­els there. Once you know the pub­lish­er, seek out its guide­lines for writ­ing and sub­mis­sion (usu­al­ly avail­able online).
  1. Don’t wor­ry about the illus­tra­tions: Writ­ers don’t have to become artists — and don’t have to bring in an illus­tra­tor. A poten­tial pub­lish­er is main­ly inter­est­ed in your words.
  1. Go to the source: If you’ve got kids of your own or you work in a school, you’re able to observe how chil­dren grow, change, and inter­act. What books might serve their needs? What types of books are their par­ents look­ing for? 
  1. Find your voice: Are you fun­ny? Warm and wise? A researcher/fact find­er? Do you like to cre­ate fun side­bars? Do you enjoy inter­view­ing peo­ple? Do you want to use quotes from kids? Do you have an idea for a whole series? There are many “ways in.” Exper­i­ment to find what works for you.

Becom­ing a children’s writer is often a long process of self-dis­cov­ery, and patience is key (just as in teach­ing). Your love of kids is a great start. I’m root­ing for you!

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