The best writing advice from children’s authors

stack of old books

Last Saturday I heard a very inspiring talk that motivated me to do further revisions on two aging manuscripts. Below are 13 key points from Lin Oliver, author of 25 books for kids and co-founder and executive director of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI).

Since 1971, she has attended 41 annual conferences and listened to speeches by many of the best children’s authors of our time. When she visited the San Diego chapter of SCBWI, she shared authors’ quotes that keep her inspired and guide her writing. These words of wisdom are not limited to children’s literature but apply to all good writing.  I hope they inspire you too!

Here is Lin Oliver’s Baker’s Dozen of Quotes:

1. Judy Blume: Write the kind of book you like to read.
2. Bruce Colville: Follow your weirdness.
3. Susan Petrone: Begin [your story] on the day that’s different.
4. Sid Fleischman:  Always write in scenes.
5. Richard Peck: The most important skill of storytelling is listening.
6. Read your work out loud.
7. Richard Peck: Be emotional but not sentimental.
8. Jane Yolen: It is not a children’s book if a child doesn’t solve the problem.
9. Read children’s books.  Read deeply. Have your own individual canon.
10. Paula Danziger: Follow these three steps:

1)   Come up with a character you love.

2)  Think about what she wants most in the world.

3)   Decide what is keeping her from getting it.

Your job as a writer is to keep characters from getting what they want most until they deserve it so readers can root for them!

11. Sid Fleischman: In writing, nothing is wasted but the paper.
12. Keep a journal.
13. Know yourself and know what you’re good at. Write from your strengths.

Thanks go to Edith Fine for sharing her notes typed into her new iPad so I could piece this list together. I only wish you could have heard all of Lin Oliver’s examples.

I have been thinking about my own canon—books that have influenced me and that I treasure. Two children’s books that come to mind are Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown and Frog and Toad are Friends by Arnold Lobel. I love the rhythm and repetition of the classic Goodnight Moon and have fond memories of reading it aloud to my children. I have always loved frogs (thus, eFrog Press) but the endearing friendship between Frog and Toad and their enchanting adventures made it a book I was always willing to read “just one more time.” The very kind of book I want to write.

I am still working on the adult section of my canon but finalists include William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist, and, perhaps, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers.

Do you have a canon of books that you reread for inspiration? Are there quotes that motivate you to continue writing? Please share.


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5 Responses to “The best writing advice from children’s authors”

  1. Jodie Shull Says:

    Thanks for these great nuggets from Lin Oliver’s talk! I always have such a hard time thinking of my “canon”—”too numerous to mention” comes to mind! Among children’s books, I think Lois Lowry’s “Number the Stars” is a perfect jewel of a novel–in theme and structure. I agree, too, that “Frog and Toad” represents the warm heart and enduring spirit of the best of children’s literature.
    I love all talk of these matters!
    Blog on!

  2. Karen Coombs Says:

    Lots of great information here from the co-founder of SCBWI. I attended my first SCBW (no I then) conference in about 1974 or 1975, so my canon should be extensive, but I’m still developing it, mostly because my memory is about as short as my “love that book” list is long. As an ambivalent middle child, I simply can’t decide on favorites when it comes to books. I do love Charlotte’s Web, even though I first read it as an adult. And The Hobbit. And the Pooh books. There were few YA books when I was growing up, but I do recall devouring Seventeenth Summer. I have no recollection as to the quality of the writing, but it blew me away, because it spoke to my life, and that’s what a good book needs to do. Apparently it’s still talking to teens, because now it’s available on Kindle.I Capture The Castle mesmerized me and made me laugh. Along with Charlotte, it has one of the best first lines ever. And a young girl who wants to be a writer! How could I not love it? There are a lot of books being published today that should be in my canon, but sadly, I’ve gotten lousy at recalling titles. Perhaps I’ll come back and add to these comments as I remember them. One guilty pleasure I read as a teenager, but has stuck with me ever since, because it taught me the importance of creating a flawed character a reader would love and about giving your reader a surprise at the end, was Kathleen Windsor’s Forever Amber. Very racy in its day. Yum!

  3. Jodie Shull Says:

    Ah, Seventeenth Summer! Now that brings back memories. (Thanks, Karen, for causing me to remember something!) My favorite book as a teen was called Song of the Voyageur by Beverly Butler. I must have checked it out 50 times from our little wooden house branch library. The world of children’s books has truly gone from a stream to a Niagara in our lifetimes—how blessed we are!

  4. Karen Coombs Says:

    To the list of books I have in my canon, I should add Kristin Lavransdatter by Sigrid Undset. Like Amber in Forever Amber, she’s a strong female character. This series gave me an even greater love for meticulously researched historical fiction.

  5. Nelida Prescott Says:

    You are a very smart person!

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