BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
Amy Brent Wexler—daughter of legendary bookseller Stuart Brent and founder and head of the Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club—gave us apt advice on how to write what could become a beloved book for children, while two authors in the field, Maria Kernahan and Susie Kealy, tell us of their odyssey in this continuation from our two-part authors’ advice series. Click here to view Part 1 from last week.
Amy suggests how you might begin:
“Ask yourself why you want to write the book you’ve got in mind: What is it about your story that you find compelling? Whittling down the idea to its heart sometimes helps to find shape and form.
“Do a little research. Go to the library or a bookstore. Talk to the librarians and booksellers. Ask about current trends in children’s books. It is possible that that idea you’ve been noodling around with for years is still relevant, but make sure. Styles change!”
The Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club began in Amy’s basement in 1996 when her children were very small. The Book Club currently has over 3,000 subscribers from several in utero to one woman in her 70s who says she missed reading many of the great children’s books as a child.
Working with parents to create a reader profile, Amy personally selects the books for each little subscriber whose parents choose either a 4, 6 or 12-month delivery of the lovely gift-wrapped books.
Amy, how do you know what age group to capture in for a children’s book?
Know your audience! Make a clear mental picture of who it is you want to hear/read your story. If you’re writing a book for small children, keep in mind their attention spans are short. Use only as many words as it takes to tell the story. Extra words get in the way. If you’re writing for middle grade readers, don’t include situations and subject matter that is inappropriate for their ages.
What about key characters?
Fitzgerald said, ‘Character is plot.’ Personally, I think he got that idea from Aesop. Readers want to recognize something in the characters and story. The difference between a great story and an average story is its ability to connect with its audience. The characters and the plot must say something authentic in order to resonate.
Cast a glance over Strunk & White, but don’t get hung up on grammar. Think of Twain and Kipling for color and freedom. Look up Orwell’s six rules of writing and follow them.
Susie Kealy is literally is making a dream a reality as she works with illustrator Cheryl Rausch to bring her Maine Coon cat, Mrs. Woollie, to print.
“Mrs. Woollie rolls around a lot, and I noticed has a crack in the center of her furry stomach. I had a dream that the crack became a zipper, and that she could change into various fur coats. I love long furred soft cats and Mrs. Woollie is very cuddly.”
Born in New York but a key part of Chicago’s merriest social circle, Susie is a sought after architectural artist. Trained in executing watercolors and oils of still lifes and objects, Susie has studied and exhibited at the Palette and Chisel and other galleries. Her works, capturing important rooms in some of Chicago’s preeminent clubs, hang in those institutions. As Cheryl finishes her drawings, Susie is pursuing a publisher.
When she’s not writing books, Maria Kernahan is busy selling real estate in Chicago and on the North Shore. A lifelong resident of Winnetka, Maria and her husband, Will, recently moved to Lincoln Park and are enjoying all the joys of city living. She chooses to write her books—from A is for Aspen to T is for Texas, and soon W is for Washington, D.C.—about places she has visited and loved.
“The idea for our first book struck out the of blue. I wasn’t really looking to write a children’s book and went into it totally blind. There was no research, no focus groups, just a thought that I wanted to celebrate a very special place.
“We were living in Aspen, and I had just dropped my daughter at dance class. Driving home, looking at the mountains as the sunset, the idea of writing an ABC book about Aspen just popped in my head. I called Michael, my brother-in-law, and pitched the idea.”
We asked Susie and Maria how they chose illustrators:
Maria: I was lucky. My brother-in-law, who lives in Seattle, is an incredibly talented artist. He is a painter, not an illustrator, but when I pitched him my idea, he said, ‘Sure, why not?’ He has been able to bring such unique perspectives to our books, which I love. Sometimes he’ll whip up something quickly that’s perfect and sometimes we work together to find a new way of looking at things.
Susie: I wrote this story some years back, and I unsuccessfully tried to illustrate it. Finally, I had to acknowledge that I am not an illustrator of animals in action, so I knew I had to find someone who could capture Mrs. Woollie.
I met Cheryl a while back at an Old Masters lunch at the Art Institute. She gave me a card that said ‘Illustrator’ and had a very detailed small picture of a bird. I just called her last fall. When she came with her portfolio with detailed pencil drawings of houses and objects, I was thrilled! She is the first and only person I interviewed. She gets the ‘fur’ thing totally!
Every time Cheryl comes over for us to work, Woollie comes bounding down the stairs and jumps up on the table and prances around her work.
Do you have a favorite children’s book?
Maria: I loved to read as a child. Everything from Encyclopedia Brown to the actual encyclopedia! My kids are big readers too. Does Harry Potter count as a classic? It should!
My husband Will read Harry Potter (all of them) aloud to our kids. It’s the best bonding you can get with your children and is a great way to wind them down before bedtime!
Susie: Cheryl and I both love the same Golden Age of English Victorian art of animals making up the story, i.e. Beatrix Potter.
What age level do you hope to reach?
Susie: As the script contains words that very young people haven’t learned yet, I think that this story will be for a grown person to read to a child, perhaps about 5 to 9 years old.
Maria, you self-publish and have had amazing sales results.
I was working with an agent in New York on a non-fiction project and told her about my idea for a picture book. “Unless you’re Kate Middleton or Beyonce, don’t bother,” was her response. So I figured out how to print the book ourselves and sold it door to door to retailers in Aspen. Luckily, it’s a small town, and we were pretty successful out of the box.
Tell us about your inspiration.
I love cities! Each city has its own personality that should be celebrated. They’re not just buildings and skylines—they’re food, music, sports, history. It’s funny, we get more love for our books from adults that have moved from their hometown—you never outgrow a love for your city.
We are getting ready to release W is for Washington, D.C. and are starting on M is for Michigan.That is a labor of love since we spend summers in western Michigan.
Is there a message to your story?
Susie: The story is about Mrs. Woollie trying four different animal pelts, which turn out to be not comfortable. In the end she goes back to loving and being happy ‘in her own skin’!
Maria: The books that are the most successful don’t look as if they are trying.
What final advice would you give to those thinking about getting started?
Maria: There are a lot of talented artists out there. There are loads of freelance sites like upwork.com and fiverr.com that make it much easier to connect with someone who shares your aesthetic. Be persistent and don’t quit your day job.
Susie: Perhaps your pet has a certain trait or amusing character? You might start there.
Amy: Try not to be too derivative. You may think you’ve got the next Harry Potter, but fantasy writing for kids now is SO great, you’ll really have to pull your socks up to compete.
To learn more about the Stuart Brent Children’s Book Club go to stuartbrent.com, where you will be insightfully greeted by the J.K. Rowling quote: “If you don’t like to read, you haven’t found the right book.”