I knew I wanted to write for children many years before I actually put pen to paper. I had not even stepped on the path to becoming an author when I took a seven-year detour – I opened a children’s bookstore called Never Never Land.
As a detour, that road was the sweetest of travels! And, surprisingly, along the way, I discovered that my writer’s suitcase soon filled with habits that serve me well, now that I am a writer. Here are a few:
1. Read consistently and widely
These days, book reps don’t always call on small bookstores. But in my day, they did. A catalog usually arrived by mail before our meeting, and I took time to dogear pages for possible additions to our shelves. Our meetings usually lasted a few hours. We discussed titles, but more importantly, I quickly read the picture book samples and easy readers. For novels, I read flap copy and as much of the first chapter as I had time for. I wasn’t reading for enjoyment or for critical analysis. In actuality, I was reading the way an editor reads a submission – to see if the book sparked an interest. The more I read, the easier it became to pick out winners. Now I strive to objectively see each of my manuscripts through that bookseller’s eye.
2. Read aloud
I shared the responsibility of twice-weekly story times with one other employee. We chose three or four picture books for each session, in addition to hand rhymes and songs. If my math is correct, that adds up to nearly 1,500 picture books during my seven years.
Reading aloud is different than reading silently. My brain could hear the rhythm of the words and the pacing. I observed how children reacted to drama, humor, and even the silence encountered with wordless pages. These things became so ingrained that I still carry them around with me as I’m writing – I can feel when some sentence variation is called for, or when too much text bogs down a page, or when endings are hurried. I understand how language can slow a reader or speed them up. I know when a passage will be savored by other readers, too. All of that reading aloud supplied the basis for great mentor texts when I began write.
3. Listen to what readers are looking for
The reader may be a child, or it may be a parent reading to a child. Some requests that I received would be tough to fill (“I want a nonfiction snake book. But only nice snakes.”). Other requests identified a gap just waiting to be addressed. At the time that I owned the store, easy readers were available (leveled by “steps”), but chapter books had not yet found their own distinction. The market was ripe for the growth of these shorter fiction books for first through third grades. Other gaps that were identified during my bookselling years were a need for narrative nonfiction and picture book biographies, as well as novels by diverse authors.
These three habits are ones that you can easily add to your own suitcase. Reading consistently and widely is easy to achieve by steady visits to a library or bookstore. Reading aloud might be reading to your own children, “borrowing” relatives’ or friends’ children, or even reading to your plants. And listening to what readers are looking for only requires a pair of ears and some readers. Hang out in the children’s section of the library or bookstore and eavesdrop. Or initiate a discussion with some children and ask questions.
May your journey be joyful. And one with only the tiniest of detours.
Patricia Toht (www.patriciatoht.com) is the author of:
Taxi, GO (Walker/Candlewick, April 2022)
Together with You (Walker/Candlewick, July 2021)
Pick a Pumpkin (Walker/Candlewick, 2019)
Dress Like a Girl (HarperCollins, 2019)
Pick a Pine Tree (Walker/Candlewick, 2017)
All Aboard the London Bus (Frances Lincoln, 2017)