Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Born to Read

During June 2014, I am participating in a series of workshops in New Brunswick to support the province's Born to Read program. Born to Read puts quality books into the hands of Anglo-New Brunswick families by presenting a small bag of age-appropriate books to babies on the day they are born. Born to Read and the Early Childhood Education Centre at UNB also sponsor a roughly semi-annual manuscript competition that leads to the publication of a New Brunswick authored and illustrated picturebook to be included in the Born to Read book bag.

The workshop series, held in 4 public library locations across the province, offers guidance to writers who wish to submit manuscripts to this contest. The workshop features a wide-ranging display of books for babies available on the market. It also discusses the history and mandate of Born to Read and its  manuscript contest, as well as a discussion of best practices and publishing tips and tricks for working within the parameters of writing for the 0-2 age range. My portion of the agenda revolves around a series of do's and don'ts when writing for babies. My notes, along with a book list of sample titles, is included below.

Writing for Babies

Books for babies are a publishing category of their own and differ from picturebooks for older children. Please keep the following in mind when working on a manuscript for this age range.


Write a book that is already widely available
  • look at the books on the booklist below before developing your idea
  • if your concept has been done before, move on to a new idea

Overtly try to teach the parents or child
  • gentle guidance is one thing but manuscripts that read as if they begin with AN IMPORTANT LESSON in mind will never get off the ground.
  • babies cannot be taught lessons; they lack the physical, emotional and intellectual development for it
  • adults will resist the lessons of didactic books

Write for adults or older children
  • think about the developmental stages from 0-2. If possible, try to write a manuscript that covers this entire range and this range only
  • this means, no potty training, day care, social interactions with friends, manners, fears & worries
  • avoid specific developmental milestones
  • pay attention to tone and audience: books that focus on adult emotions toward the baby are far too often written for adults rather than children

Write for a narrow subset of babies
  • not all babies have 2 parents
  • not all babies have 4 grandparents
  • not all babies have siblings
  • not all babies live in the country
  • not all babies live in the city
  • not all babies breastfeed
  • not all babies bottlefeed
  • not all babies look alike
  • elements such as these can be present but they should not be prescriptive or deterministic

Presume a single faith community as your audience
  • New Brunswick has a diverse population; any book given to all Anglophone babies must respect the province's diversity of religious belief and non-belief

Use concepts that are too sophisticated
  • themes of aging, life cycle, and the passing of time signal that the book is written for a much older audience
  • babies do not experience nostalgia for place, people, time, or things
  • babies do not understand social themes (e.g. environmentalism; social justice)

Use diction that is too sophisticated or inappropriate
  • this includes jocular and colloquial language
  • multi-syllable or high-level vocabulary words
  • vague or conceptual wording

Dictate how illustrations should work
  • the task of selecting an illustrator falls to the publisher
  • the task of interpreting and illustrating the manuscript falls to the illustrator

Dictate how graphic design should work
  • what the final book looks like is in the hands of the publisher in conversation with author and illustrator


Remember your audience
  • babies, 0-2 in age
  • ALL babies born to anglophone families in New Brunswick
  • the adults/siblings who will read the book aloud

Think beyond the white, middle-class, nuclear family structure
  • think in terms of ethnic and racial diversity
  • think in terms of economic diversity
  • think in terms of the diversity of family composition
  • think beyond humans as subject matter

Establish the idea that reading is for pleasure

  • this doesn't have to be a direct theme of the book, just a consequence of reading it
 Bring the pleasure of language to your manuscript
  • think about how nursery rhymes used to make you feel
  • think about the aesthetics involved in your own experience of reading
  • think of words as butterscotch or chocolate on the tongue; the burst of a ripe strawberry in the mouth; the crunch of a garden carrot or a potato chip
  • connect the words on the page to the senses involved in saying and interpreting them

Use plain, accessible language; but also

Use literary language
  • good children’s books are about more than just galloping rhyme
  • rhyme is good but it is also optional
  • good cadence is vital (read the children's books of Margaret Wise Brown; she offers a master-class)
  • assonance, alliteration, onomatopoeia are some of the many devices at your fingertips (read the poetry of Mary Ann Hoberman; she offers a master-class)
  • think about what different letters and letter combinations convey? Do they work with the meaning of the words or against them? In what contexts do you want to use words that have “p’s” “k’s” and long “o’s” in them? In what context do you want to use words with “s’s” “n’s” and “ah” sounds?

Employ nonsense
  • nonsense occurs when the sense must be derived solely from the sound of the language rather than its meaning (read “Jabberwocky” to remind yourself how effective nonsense can be)

Write anticipating illustration
  • can your words hold back so that the illustrations can take the narrative oar in tandem?
  • can you provide sufficient detail when necessary to signal key information to the illustrator
  • think about how easy would it be to illustrate what you’ve just written? Is it imagistic? Is it in good taste?
  • is there enough diversity in your subject matter to allow creative scope in the illustrations? (or will the illustrator have to draw 20 babies or the bits of 20 babies?)
  • can you allow the illustrator the scope to be an equal partner in the creation of the book

Anticipate the layout of the words on the page
  • the actual layout of your words will be in the hands of your publisher, but that doesn’t mean you can’t write with intent toward graphic layout
  • can you use page turns to effect?
  • can you imagine the effect of fonts or word placement

  • edit, edit, edit some more. Kill your darlings. Hone and polish. Think about words on the syllable level
  • read aloud
  • read aloud to an audience
  • get readers of all ages to read your manuscript back to you
  • edit some more

Break the above rules but only if it is done with purpose and to literary effect.


Many of the above notes were enhanced and updated following our productive Moncton workshop on June 4rth, featuring Jennifer Aikman-Smith, the author of A Lullaby for New Brunswick. If you want to add to the list or continue the conversation about writing for babies, please leave a comment.


Booklist of Books Published for Babies

--please note that not all these books are exemplars, but they do point to the kind of material that has recently been on the market. Knowing your market will help you make decisions about what to write and what not to write.

Baby’s World

Ahlberg, Janet and Allan. The Baby’s Catalogue.
*Aikman-Smith, Jennifer. A Lullaby for New Brunswick. Illustrated by Chris Browne.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Fox, Mem. 10 Little Fingers and 10 Little Toes. Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury.
*Homer, Lynda. Baby and Mommy Go Walking. Illustrated by Cheryl Bogart.
*Hunt, Anne. Singing and Dancing. Illustrated by Kathy Hooper.
Jam, Teddy. Night Cars. Illustrated by Eric Beddows.
Lester, J. D. Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
Oxenbury, Helen. Clap, Clap.
I Can.
I Hear.
I See.
I Touch.
Reid, Barbara. Welcome Baby.
Schwartz, Roslyn. Yo, Baby!

Bedtime Books

*Aikman-Smith, Jennifer. A Lullaby for New Brunswick. Illustrated by Chris Browne.
Brown, Margaret Wise. Goodnight Moon. Illustrated by Clement Hurd.
Fox, Mem. Time for Bed. Illustrated by Jane Dyer.
Rathmann , Peggy. Goodnight Gorilla.
Tillman, Nancy. It’s Time to Sleep, My Love.
Titherington, Jeanne. Baby’s Boat.

Love and Acceptance

Fitch, Sheree. Kisses, Kisses Baby-o. Illustrated by HildaRose.
Jam, Teddy. This New Baby. Illustrated by Virginia Johnson.
Lester, J. D. Daddy Calls Me Doodlebug.
Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Grandma Calls Me Gigglepie. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
            Mommy Calls Me Monkeypants. Illustrated by Hiroe Nakata.
Reid, Barbara. Welcome Baby.
*Ryan, Darlene. Kisses, Kisses, Kisses. Illustrated by Peter Manchester.
Tillman, Nancy. The Crown on Your head
I’d Know You Anywhere, My Love
Wherever You Are, My Love Will Find You
VanCamp, Richard. Little You. Illustrated by Julie Flett.
Williams, Vera. More, More, More, Said the Baby.

Poetry and Nursery Rhyme

*Davidson, Karen. Baby’s Garden. Illustrated by Patricia Tingley.
Lee, Dennis. The Dreadful Doings of Jelly Belly. Illustrated by Nora Hilb (board book edition).
Silvery/Good Night, Good Night. Illustrated by Nora Hilb (board book edition).
Opie, Iona and Peter. My Very First Mother Goose. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells.
            Here Comes Mother Goose. Illustrated by Rosemary Wells. 
Reid, Barbara. Singa Song of Mother Goose. (or any good collection of nursery rhymes.)
*Thornton, Glenda. Foggy Cat. Illustrated by Robert Lyon.
VanCamp, Richard. Little You. Illustrated by Julie Flett.
Here's a Little Poem: A Very First Book of Poetry. Edited by Jane Yolen, Andrew Peters and Polly Dunbar. (or any other anthology of children’s verse pitched to a very young audience.)

Concept Books

Black and white books (e.g. Torres, J and J. Lum. Checkers and Dot on the Farm)
Touch books (e.g. Kunhardt, Dorothy. Pat the Bunny.)
Object books (e.g. Ahlberg, Janet and Allan. The Baby’s Catalogue or the Bright Baby Board books such as Animals, Colors, and First Words.)
Faces books (e.g. Miller Margaret. Baby Faces, What’s on My Head, I Love Colors)

* published by The Early Childhood Centre, University of New Brunswick.