For Writers

Making the Most of Your Kidlit Writing or Illustrating Membership

by Tanya Konerman

When I first heard IN SCBWI was going to have a picture book mentorship in 2020, I might have squealed just a bit. I’ve heard of others having mentorships with famous, and not-so-famous, writers who benefitted greatly from the guidance and encouragement, and I was at a place in my pre-published writing career that I needed just those things. Then, when I heard the name of the incredible, award-winning writer who was to be the picture book mentor, I might have also jumped up and down. Being a huge fan of this writer’s lovely poetry, I knew I could learn so much even in just six months. Imagine my surprise and joy when I was chosen.

Now six months later, my mentorship has ended, and I wanted to share a few general insights I have gained—and others I have learned about from researching mentorship best practices online—which might help others during a writing or illustrating mentorship.

  1. Do your due diligence. Be sure you are pursuing a mentorship through a reliable and trustworthy source, such as SCBWI, Pitch Wars, and Author Mentor Match. Don’t be taken in by those looking to cash in on your naiveté.
  2. Establish ground rules. Once you have made your mentor/mentee connection, be sure to follow guidelines set up by the mentor or mentorship program. For instance, how many times will the mentor be responding to your revisions, and in what program does he or she work, such as Word or Google Docs? Will the mentor be providing general feedback or more detailed edits? Are there set time limits for responding (within reason)? Will you ever be face-to-face, in person or via Zoom or Skype, or will all communication be via email only?
  3. Have realistic expectations. You and your mentor probably won’t become best friends (though if you do, consider yourself the rare exception and so very lucky), and he or she won’t be introducing you to his or her personal agent, editor, or other special contact (again, if this does happen, consider it the rare exception and yourself so very lucky!). Know the boundaries of your relationship up front so you aren’t disappointed (or embarrassed) later.
  4. Keep communication open. If you don’t understand a suggestion, or need to ask a specific question, get in touch with your mentor (and be patient for a response, as your mentor is also a writer or illustrator with deadlines and commitments). If you truly feel your mentor is not upholding his or her part of the mentorship, reach out politely to see if new guidelines need to be agreed upon. Or, in worst case scenarios, reach out to the sponsor of the mentorship for guidance and help.
  5. Trust the process. Sometimes it can feel as if you aren’t making as much progress as you had hoped, or as quickly as you had hoped. Take the time of your mentorship to fully engage with this learning opportunity by studying your mentor’s books for writing techniques and reading widely in the genre you are writing in, then using what you’ve learned in your writing and revisions. Or for illustrators, study your mentor’s techniques or new ones that inspire you. Know also that your mentor might have a plan/timetable in mind to follow when working with you, with specific plans to move through areas of concern in your story, instead of tackling the entire manuscript at once. Accept that your mentor is the most experienced one in the relationship, and that this process will work out in the end for both of you if you follow his or her lead.
  6. Maintain mutual respect. Just as your mentor should respect your ideas and questions and time, you should respect his or her time, effort, and commitment to your success by keeping things friendly yet always professional. Also, remember you are currently mentor/mentee, but eventually will (hopefully) become writing or illustrator peers, so keeping up a positive and polite relationship can only benefit you in the long run.
  7. Be accountable. Life always seems to throw wrenches in our schedules (hello 2020!), but it’s important to follow through when and how you have agreed to with your mentor. This allows both of you to work the mentorship into and around your already busy schedules and prevents undue stress and frustration.
  8. Learn to say no, too (nicely). You know your work best, and sometimes a mentor might offer a suggestion which doesn’t match with your vision of your story. A good mentor knows this is the case, and is okay with you saying, “I see what you mean here, but I prefer my way of phrasing (or illustrating) that because…”. If you have a solid reason for not making a change, and it’s not because you just can’t bear to “kill your darlings,” say so politely and back it up so your mentor can help you make the most of what you’ve decided to keep.
  9. Take your time. Don’t forget how important it is to set your work aside to let it “simmer” or “bake.” Taking a week, two weeks, or even a month to consider your mentor’s suggestions is sometimes necessary in order to prevent knee-jerk reactions and to help you absorb the new ideas into your personal way of thinking and writing or illustrating.
  10. Say thank you. When your mentorship is over, be sure to offer your heartfelt gratitude in a hand-written note, if possible. A small gift is also appropriate if you feel moved to do so.

ReFoReMo: Back Matter to the Rescue!

by Tanya Konerman

Every year, I participate in Carrie Charley Brown and Kirsti Call’s ReFoReMo (Reading for Research Month). This year, I wanted to share something important I learned about back matter in picture books. My book reviews and post on the ReFoReMo website follow:

In search of ways to master word count in lyrical ways, I pulled out mentor texts from my “nonfiction idols.” Three from April Pulley Sayre gave me the inspiration I needed: Best in Snow, Raindrops Roll, and Full of Fall.

These succinct, sensory-rich, and delightfully poetic picture books capture each of her concepts with flow and flair (not to mention, wonderful photography by Sayre herself). And most importantly for my revision struggles, they were still able to provide detailed information with word counts more in line with the industry standard. How? BACK MATTER! Sayre uses the “story” part of the book to provide an overview and create a feeling about the subject matter, while offering additional scientific tidbits and facts to further learning and understanding in her back matter (which is not included in word count for picture books). As you write and revise, consider: Could back matter help support your nonfiction story’s weight? Would readers benefit from a more lyrical approach to your subject matter? How can you offer an educational book that appeals to the senses?

Where Are All the Girls?

How The Underrepresentation of Females in Children’s Books

Continues in the 21st Century and How It Affects All Children

by Tanya Konerman

classic picture book collage
Beloved books…but how many include female representation?

As the mother of three daughters, I have always been on the lookout for strong female role models for them; role models who are smart, brave, kind, funny, talented, confident, strong and oh-so-amazing are the ones I hope to offer at each stage of their lives. When they were very young, for instance, I provided books featuring female protagonists and music by female artists, along with learning opportunities by female scientists and naturalists through my leadership with Girl Scouts for their various troops. As they entered middle school, I helped them find female coaches for sports and artistic endeavors. And now that my daughters are in their middle- to late-teens and early twenties, I still strive to help them find the female role models who can inspire them to be their best selves in learning and life.

     As a writer of picture books, I am also keeping an eye toward strong female role models for readers of both sexes, creating believable female protagonists who explore, imagine, learn, discover, and dream whenever possible. For young female readers, this allows them the opportunity to see themselves in the world and all its situations and possibilities. For young male readers, it shows them a new perspective which can counter the messages they face daily in other areas of their lives, including the media and society in general, that puts men and boys at the top of most lists.

     Yet, I sometimes feel I am struggling uphill with my efforts, and there’s good reason why. A 2011 study (by FSU’s Janice McCabe and four other university researchers) of almost 6,000 children’s books published in the U.S. during the 20th Century found that males were represented in 57% of the books while females were central characters in only 31%. This kind of disparity carried over into representation of: adult males or male animal characters (up to 100%) vs. adult women or female animal characters (33%) and males (36.5%) vs. females (17.5%) in children book titles.

     What kind of effect can this have on young readers? According to McCabe, “The widespread pattern of underrepresentation of females that we find supports the belief that female characters are less important and interesting than male characters. This may contribute to a sense of unimportance among girls and privilege among boys. The gender inequalities we found may be particularly powerful because they are reinforced by patterns of male-dominated characters in many other aspects of children’s media, including cartoons, G-rated films, video games and even coloring books.” McCabe also pointed out that even animal characters portrayed as gender neutral are usually perceived as male by both children and parent readers, contributing to furthering this pattern.

     Now, seven years on from this study and 17+ years into the new century, have we made any progress in the writing and publishing community to fix these inequities? Well, not much. While I do not have numbers for the breakdown of male-character vs. female-character books so far this century, I do have information showing which are getting the most attention, which often leads to publisher interest; success in the children’s book market; and availability in libraries, bookstores, and classrooms.

     The esteemed Kirkus Reviews listed The Best Picture Books of 2017 online. Of these 75 books:

  • 25 featured a male main character (33%)
  • 16 featured a female main character (21%)
  • 11 featured both male and female main characters (14.5%)
  • 11 featured no character (such as concept books) or an ambiguous main character (14.5%)
  • 12 featured only gender-neutral animals as main characters (16%)

     Publisher’s Weekly’s Best Books of 2017 (Children’s) included:

  • 9 books with male main characters (53%)
  • 4 books with female main characters (23.5%)
  • 3 books with both male and female main characters (17.5%)
  • 1 book with an ambiguous main character (.6%)

     Goodread’s 2017 Choice Awards for 2017 listed these children’s books:

  • 11 with male main characters (55%)
  • 5 with female main characters (25%)
  • 1 with both male and female main characters (5%)
  • 2 with ambiguous main characters (10%)
  • 1 with a gender-neutral animal as a main character (5%)

     From these lists, we can see the disparities remain today. In a culture of greater female empowerment and a strong move toward gender equality in pay and other areas, it’s time for the children’s book industry — including writers, agents, editors, publishers, professional organizations, media outlets, sellers, and buyers — to catch up and step forward. It’s time for all young girls and boys to see in the books they read what I have wanted my daughters to see for nearly a quarter of a century: that girls can be — and are — smart, brave, kind, funny, talented, confident, strong, and oh-so-amazing.

Sources:

https://www.fsu.edu/news/2011/05/06/gender.bias/

McCabe, J., Fairchild, E., Grauerholz, L., Pescosolido, B. A., & Tope, D. “Gender in Twentieth-Century Children’s Books: Patterns of Disparity in Titles and Central Characters.” Gender & Society, vol. 25(2), 2011, pp. 197-226.

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/issue/best-of-2017/section/picture-books/

https://best-books.publishersweekly.com/pw/best-books/2017/picture-books

https://www.goodreads.com/choiceawards/best-picture-books-2017

Resources:

Want to find great children’s books featuring smart, confident, and courageous girls? Be sure to check out A Mighty Girl at https://www.amightygirl.com/books/fiction/picture-books (the website also showcases movies, toys, music, and clothing for girls along with other great resources for parents and teachers).

Find further insights and details on this issue in this excellent 2016 Washington Post article by Jennie Yabroff: https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/01/08/why-are-there-so-few-girls-in-childrens-books/?utm_term=.1b9e460c4621

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