After working in children’s publishing, sitting on various book selection committees, and judging writing for kids contests for 15+ years, I’ve read a lot of manuscripts. Here are the six most common reasons manuscripts are turned down, and some ways to avoid them:
You Didn’t Understand the Age Range
Get familiar with the word counts and quirks of the various age ranges. Submitting a chapter book full of very sophisticated language or a 2,000 word picture book demonstrates that you don’t have a handle on your audience. Editors are busy. They don’t have time to explain nuances of the genre, they expect you to come to the table with foundational knowledge. Chapter books (ages 6-10) generally range between 4,000-15,000 words. These aren’t just any words, but words that an emerging reader can handle. Picture books can be wordless, but generally range between 400-1,000 words, although you will be hard pressed to find many picture books published in the last five years that have word counts over 800. You can swear in YA novels, but I wouldn’t submit a middle grade novel full of F bombs. There are exceptions to these rules, but generally books that break these rules are from established creators who have the chops to pull it off and the acclaim or readership to support a riskier approach.
Problems with Voice
Beware of nostalgia. If I had a quarter for every picture book submission I’ve read about life on the farm or the beauty of the moon, I would be halfway to affording a down payment on a house in Toronto by now. Be careful not to wax poetic about ‘days gone by’ or romanticize childhood; this belies your adulthood and can pull young readers out of the story. Kids do not reflect on childhood, they are living it. It isn’t precious or charming to them, it’s urgent, dramatic, confusing, messy and new.
If you’re writing contemporary fiction, make sure your kids sound like actual kids. This is especially important for middle grade and YA. Language you think is still en vogue or has stood the test of time may in fact age you, resulting in a high cringe factor. Some people dislike using contemporary slang or too many pop culture references because they fear it won’t age well, but completely ignoring the reality of how kids speak can also fall flat, or worse, inspire eye-rolling and disengagement from tweens & teens.
If I had a quarter for every author who has decided to try writing a graphic novel, I would have the rest of that astronomically high down-payment. Yes, graphic novels are popular. But new ones are publishing every week and extremely established series (Dogman, Bad Guys, Narwhal and Jelly) take up a lot of space in the market. The competition is extremely fierce, shelf space is limited, book coverage is diminishing, not to mention that writing a graphic novel requires a particular set of skills. Be wary of trends and bandwagon jumping. They are not a shortcut to success. You are far better off committing to a style or subject that you really care about and that also allows your writing to shine.
This is a tricky one and is a common stumbling block for first-time children’s authors. Children’s books are rife with lessons: bullying is bad, sharing is good, the environment needs protecting, it’s okay to be different are some common ones. But we have long since passed the era in which the sole function of children’s literature was to teach. Books can also entertain, comfort, inspire and make children feel seen. Don’t treat your story as a vehicle for a moral. The most successful books reveal a truth instead of delivering a message.
Because publishing works so far ahead, you have no idea what is already in the works. Your middle grade novel about a hockey-playing ghost may be excellent, but you submitted it six months after the publisher signed a novel about an undead lacrosse team. Although they don’t have exactly the same premise, they have the same audience. Having two very similar books on the same list essentially puts them in direct competition with each other. Publishers want their books to succeed, they do not want to cannibalize their own sales. As frustrating as it is to hear ‘we just signed a similar book,’ you also don’t want to be in this situation.
It Isn’t the Editor’s Style
While editors (and agents) are looking to create a balanced list and meet the interests of contemporary readers, they also have personal tastes. Some editors dislike fantasy or would rather quit than publish something in rhyme. This is yet another example of how doing your research can save you time and heartbreak. Your best resource is the acknowledgment section of books that are similar to the one you are trying to sell. Most authors will thank their editor and agent in their acknowledgments. Make a list of editors and agents who are the most likely to engage with your work.
BONUS: Please, please stop using adverbs, she desperately pleaded.
The views expressed by Open Book columnists are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Vikki VanSickle is the author of a number of acclaimed novels for children including Words That Start With B, Summer Days, Starry Nights and the 2018 Red Maple award-winning The Winnowing. She has also written the picture books If I Had a Gryphon, Teddy Bear of the Year and Anonymouse. Vikki started her career as an independent bookseller and spent 12 years working in children’s publishing. A devoted member of the Canadian children’s book world, she curates and presents regular book segments at CTV Your Morning and balances her writing with arts education for all ages.