Don’t Try This at Home: Lessons Learned Writing Children’s Picture Books
By Kelly Brakenhoff
Aspiring children’s authors take note: there are many right ways to write a children’s book and at least one sure-fire wrong way. Today I’m sharing a peek at my publishing journey to help you avoid making my mistakes.
1. Create a unique idea or hook.
Don’t. Picture eight-year-old me and my six-year-old sister toiling most of a Sunday afternoon behind the closed doors of my father’s home office in rural Connecticut. Previously, we had spent many afternoons making homemade comic books on scratch paper featuring the adventures of a dog and a cat. Think Snoopy meets Garfield. My sister drew the illustrations, and I wrote text in the speech bubbles above their heads.
Do. Fast forward to MUCH later – 2019. After working as an ASL Interpreter for 25 years, family raised, and debut mystery novel published, I turned my attention to impacting more children. Together with my illustrator sister, we created the Duke the Deaf Dog ASL Series which looks at growing up through the experiences of a deaf or hard of hearing child, characterized by Duke the Deaf Dog. Each book in the series teaches American Sign Language signs and an ASL lesson to readers. Supplemental pages after the story share real Deaf or hard of hearing people’s stories about Deaf Culture and experiences.
2. Choose your audience.
Don’t. Back when we were kids, Theresa, my sister, and I decided to handcraft a special edition comic to celebrate my father’s birthday. Why we thought he’d be inspired by tales of a dog playing with his cat buddy, I do not remember. In real life, my dad gravitates towards thrillers, although he also loves anything his daughters produce. That must explain it.
Do. After working with deaf families for years, I dreamed of making books similar to Mercer Mayer’s Little Critter series, but with a deaf perspective. Never Mind and Farts Make Noise are geared towards children ages 3-9 and have quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators looking for educational resources about children with differences.
3. Choose your publishing route.
Don’t. Since my publishing journey began when dinosaurs roamed the earth before self-published paperbacks were a thing, our only choice for Dad’s birthday gift was using the supplies available around our home.
Do. My first mystery novel published in 2019 after I had spent years studying the indie publishing business. Deciding to do it ourselves was logical for Theresa and me. If you are planning to write picture books, your path will depend on whether you want an agent and a traditional publisher. I was lucky to have a talented illustrator willing to partner with me on this project. Without great illustrations, it’s hard for any picture book to gain popularity.
4. Produce a mockup version.
Don’t. Cocooned in my father’s home office, Theresa and I attempted several rough drafts. We laid out a storyboard and sketched on scratch paper until we were satisfied with our ideas. This stage required a lot of trial and error where we ended up back at the proverbial drawing board several times.
Do. Ironically, our current process hasn’t changed much from our first experience. We start with the story text and Theresa designs a mockup. Most importantly, our team of teachers, deaf friends, and parents give us insightful feedback about the drafts until it’s ready for illustrations. Our books are often used in classrooms to spark inclusive conversations about how to treat children with disabilities.
5. Finalize your masterpiece.
Don’t. Even in elementary school, we had a keen awareness of how to produce a proper book. We knew it needed an eye-catching cover, carefully trimmed edges, and a sturdy stapled binding. Dragging out the old black typewriter, we added a copyright and title page. Several early attempts to staple our book ended badly with mangled pages or when the paper was too thick to staple through the entire book.
Our mother knocked on the door, warning us that dinner would soon be ready. We had one huge problem. We had run out of copy paper due to too much waste in Step Four! After a frantic search in the office supply closet, we found a box containing posh office stationery with my father’s name and address at the top. Jackpot! Except, we didn’t need his pesky letterhead and logo interfering with our book. The heavy-duty paper cutter made quick work chopping off the offending text, leaving perfect squares of blank vellum paper for our final project.
Do. Nowadays, Theresa uses a complex process of hand drawings, scanning, tracing, and Adobe Illustrator to turn her rough sketches into professional quality illustrations. My responsibility is completing the writing and publishing tasks to make the book ready for eBooks and softcover versions.
6. Publish your picture book!
Don’t. Just in time, we joined our parents at the table for dinner, cake, and birthday candles. When our dad opened his comic book, he praised my funny story paired with my sister’s cute illustrations. Basking in the glow of parental praise, we stopped short when Dad’s smile turned to a perplexed frown.
“You bought special paper to make this beautiful book! How nice.” said Dad, examining his gift closer.
I shook my head, “No, we found paper in the closet.”
Jumping from his chair, he rushed into his office with us close behind. The trash can overflowed with paper scraps, office tools and our rough drafts covered his desk. Dad seized the open stationary box with the remaining letterhead sheets.
A red flush began in his neck and raised toward his forehead like a mercury thermometer in a water pot set to boil. “I bought this letterhead paper specially for my accounting business. Do you know how much this stuff costs?!”
Angry eyes shrunk to coal black specks while his mouth opened and closed like a fish. Turning, he stalked outside taking the festive birthday vibes with him. Several silent moments later, Mom explained that despite our good intentions, we had just ruined many dollars’ worth of stationary for our book.
Do. Maybe you just want a few keepsake books for your children and grandchildren. Or maybe your brainchild belongs in every library and elementary school. Between eBook platforms like Amazon, Barnes & Nobles and Draft2Digital, or Print on Demand (POD) companies that will print a few souvenir copies, there’s many ways to put your dreams on paper. Go for it! You might connect with a child who needs to read the message in your book.
Although my earliest start in publishing was rocky, I hope you will avoid making rash decisions about your audience’s needs and publishing options when writing your first picture book.
Making the Duke Series has been a much more successful adventure. Knowing my grandkids will grow up reading the books I write is pretty cool, I’ll admit. I hope children and parents everywhere gain a better understanding of ASL and life as a child who is deaf or hard of hearing from our project.
Duke the deaf dog does not like being told “never mind.” Whether it happens at preschool or the park, both parents and children will relate to feeling left out when you aren’t part of the action. A great way to teach children that everyone deserves to be included in conversations.Bonus American Sign Language material inside:Learn 10 ASL signs within the story. Learn 5 ASL concepts for the English words never mind. Watch the ASL lesson, vocabulary words, and the complete story signed on video using the link provided in the book. Watch a deaf parent sign the Never Mind story on video using the link provided in the book.
Kelly Brakenhoff is an American Sign Language Interpreter whose motivation for learning ASL began in high school when she wanted to converse with her deaf friends. Never Mind and Farts Make Noise have quickly become popular with children, parents, and educators for promoting inclusive conversations about children with differences. She also writes the Cassandra Sato Mystery Series. Kelly is a wife, mom, and grandma, and dog mom to a German Wirehair Pointer.
Watch Kelly and her friend Amy Willman read Never Mind in English and ASL on her YouTube channel here. https://youtu.be/Qnl9qq99dZc
Sign up to get free Duke coloring pages and monthly book recommendations from Kelly’s monthly newsletter. https://mailchi.mp/78c3aaa46ef3/kellybrakenhoffnews
Order Kelly’s books from Amazon, your local bookstore, or anywhere you normally buy books. https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B08CGFJXRM