How to Write A Great Children’s Book by Elisha Cooper
10. Be Forgetful. Forget your bad ideas and put them in a box and put that box under your bed. Ten years ago I had an idea for a children’s book about a puppy. One puppy, racing around a backyard, getting in trouble. I gave the idea a good title – Big Trouble – but forgot to give it much else, like a plot. It was just puppy mayhem. A book that was trying to be a children’s book, or one that I thought my editor, who adores puppies, would like. She didn’t. The idea didn’t go anywhere except into that box under my bed. I moved on. So make mistakes, then forget you made them.
9. Remember Everything. Like that advice above about being forgetful. Three summers ago, I was looking at our cats chase each other around our apartment. One rambunctious, the other tolerant. Their interplay made me remember growing up on our farm, the animals who were like siblings to me, how we spent our days. Something started to come together – I turned our cat into a rambunctious puppy, added a call-and-response structure, some complications, a little sadness. An idea came to life. Now, part of that initial ten-year-old idea must have stayed with me, in the attic of my brain, but I wasn’t conscious of it, and when my editor reminded me recently that she had rejected my earlier puppy, I went looking for that box under my bed and couldn’t find it. So, forget. Then, remember. Circle back, repurpose. And always notice what’s around you. If you have a dog, write about that dog. If you have a cat, write about your cat. But don’t write about a donkey. Unless you have one.
8. Write Short Sentences. Short sentences, good. If you have a choice between a fancy-ish word and a plain word, go with plain. But don’t talk down. A sentence can appear simple, but be complicated, and contain worlds. Never use adverbs. Spel evrthing corecktly. Grammar be important. PUnctuation is. also important? Make each word count. Then edit, and edit again.
7. Draw, always. Start drawing at the age of four and don’t stop and with luck by age fifty you will be as inspired an artist as you were at age four. If you weren’t drawing at age four, you’ll have to go back in time, because art takes years. Or, give up. Because you can’t draw like me. And I can’t draw like you. So even as you admire other artists – soaking up and borrowing and being a sponge – don’t draw exactly like them. Draw like yourself. Follow your hand.
6. Be a Celebrity. Actually, don’t be a celebrity, because the children’s books they “write” are not, with few exceptions, good.
5. Make Space to Work. Set up a table. Preferably one that is plain, solid, and wood (like a good sentence, but wood). I write and paint on a piece of plywood which I first put across two sawhorses in California back in the 90s. Make the table your own. Don’t share. Then turn on music, or not. Look out the window, or not. Arrange photos or tchotchkes around your table, or not. Manage your interior. Sketch, paginate, muddle forward, sit with your idea. Share your progress with friends. Choose which friends. Keep muddling. Once you have done all of this, creating a children’s book is easy, in no way at all. So be kind to yourself. And don’t look at your cellphone. Stop it. Unless you’re taking a break to read this essay on your cellphone.
4. Drink Coffee. If you’re a child, drink your parents’ coffee.
3. Fall in Love. Fall in love as if you were completely alone. Just you, and your idea. Because if you really love something, if you really really really love something, others will notice.
1. Don’t trust any of the advice in an essay titled “How to Write a Great Children’s Book.”
Because, who knows? We’re all different, with different backgrounds, different approaches, different loves. We come at creativity in a thousand ways. What works for me, may not work for you. It probably won’t work for you. We are islands, we chart our own path, and that’s a mixed metaphor and I don’t care. The more I make books, the less I trust advice and now I’m wondering if I might actually want to read a children’s book about a donkey. A round, stubborn one (maybe I’m that donkey).
But, maybe, please, take this advice. And I’m serious about this one. Get paper. A pencil, a sharpener. Go for a walk and bring that paper and pencil. Let your feet wander and your mind wander and head out under the big sky of our beautiful world and if you have an idea, write it down. Now, go!
Elisha Cooper is the 2018 Caldecott Honor-winning artist of Big Cat, Little Cat, published by Roaring Brook Press. He is the author/illustrator of many other books for young readers including Train, Farm, Beach, 8: An Animal Alphabet, and River. He lives with his family and two cats in New York City.