Keys to Writing Books for Very Young Readers

In Feature Articles by Olivia Snaije

Gregoire S.

Grégoire Solotareff

The cherished French children’s book author and editor of hundreds of books Grégoire Solotareff offers his tips for creating books for very young readers.

By Olivia Snaije

PARIS: Within a program of events celebrating French publisher l’école des loisirs’ 50th birthday, the cherished children’s book author, Grégoire Solotareff, gave a talk on Monday about how to transform an idea for a book into reality. In the tradition of Maurice Sendak or Leo Lionni (both of whom are published in translation by l’école des loisirs), Solotareff’s 200+ books for children, which he has been writing and illustrating for 30 years, continue to dwell in a magical and quirky universe. For the past 20 years he has also been the editor of an imprint called Loulou & Cie for children ages 0-4 where he has overseen the production of 400 books. It was in his capacity as both author and editor that he gave the following talk, loosely translated and edited here:

LoulouIn 1985 I started publishing my books. It was lots of work at the beginning. I wanted very quickly to be published by l’école des loisirs because of its reputation. I presented my books to [co-founder] Arthur Hubschmid, and since then there have been lots of books.

One shouldn’t create books just to make them. You need to be passionate about it. At first you are shy and afraid of rejection. You’re not always confident. But you do need to be convinced about your work, you need to like it and want to do it. This is the first quality you need when you present a book to a publisher and say “This is what I do and what do you think?”

I receive lots of emails with vague ideas from people who want me to help them put together their book.

You need to present a finished project. A few images and a vague idea are not enough. In order to give yourself a chance, you should ask yourself this question:

Am I made for this? Is it just an idea among others, or is it a real desire?

Basics:

The book you make should be a book that does not yet exist. Your idea must be original. A book is made of pages that turn and you need to give children the desire to turn the pages and discover what is next.

Un chat est un chatOnce your idea has been formulated then you need to deconstruct it. Young children’s books need images and the text comes in to help the images, but the images are what are most important. The texts need to be simple — not necessarily with simple vocabulary, but it needs to lead the child into the narration. Ideas can come from every day life. Then there’s a spark that makes you want to invent the story. All ideas are possible but you should always keep in mind who your readers are: children. At the same time, a good children’s book should be attractive to everyone. You can speak about most everything to children: it can be what you’d like to speak to your own children about. You need to make sure that the idea interests children. The book can’t just be a pretext for nice illustrations.

When I started out I showed a succession of photocopied images. Today, of course, it’s much easier to put a draft into a format. But the technique isn’t important, all that can be dealt with later. You should be conscious of where you draw your inspirations from but also remain true to yourself. Being influenced by others is good, but reproductions will never be very good. A book should be personal. You shouldn’t be in a hurry. Once you’ve finished it, you should let it rest for 15 days and then look at it again and clean it up. At first you should stay reasonable — 20 pages and a normal format. When you meet a publisher you should show them a finished book, even if you end up re-doing it. It will answer the question the publisher will ask which is “can this author see his or her idea through to the end?”

Characters:

A character can be anything, it can be an object, an animal; the choice is vast. You can even talk about a pebble. What’s important is the personification, a child can identify even with a pebble. The character is part of a universe; the author’s universe. This universe must communicate what is within you. It’s an ensemble of things that you see in an image. This is what will make someone want to read another book by this author. And as an author you have to have the wish to share this universe. It can seem pretentious, but this is what is behind painting, the personal aspect-not necessarily intimate but personal. It can’t just be pretty or well drawn.

Success and failure:

I find that failure is more useful than success. You can correct yourself next time and it makes you question yourself. When you are successful the first time around you tend to repeat yourself.

Illustrating and writing:

Do you have to know how to draw or write to make a children’s book? Not necessarily. I know of many books that aren’t well done either way but they are still fun. What is important is the coherence of the pages. The writing is even less important. It’s more interesting to create a book when you are both the author and the illustrator because there is coherence. I sometimes publish books with a separate author and illustrator but they usually know each other very well. It’s different with books for older children where the text is more important.

Finding a publisher:

It’s fundamental to find a publisher that you like, that feels like family to you. If you like what a publisher produces, then it’s more likely that the publisher will like what you do.

About the Author

Olivia Snaije

Olivia Snaije is a journalist and editor based in Paris who writes about the Middle East, multiculturalism, translation, literature, and graphic novels. She is a contributor to newspapers and magazines including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar Art, The Global Post, The New York Times and CNN.