Parents love to buy their children good books. Christian parents love to buy their children good Christian books. Thankfully, we are well-served with excellent titles geared to children. Many of them come from the pen of Marty Machowski. I recently asked him about writing great books for kids (and reading great books to kids).
I hear often from people who dream of writing a book for kids. Yet I know from speaking to publishers that it’s one of the toughest contracts to land. Why is that?
The reason children’s book contracts are difficult to land is the high cost of producing a children’s book. Illustrations for a Bible story book can run into the tens of thousands of dollars. Beyond the illustrations, a children’s book requires a graphic artist to do the typesetting. Considering a publisher can produce four trade books (your standard adult non-fiction) for the cost of a children’s book, you can see why a publisher would want to be very selective in choosing which children’s books to publish.
You’ve found success in a difficult field—publishing books for children. To what do you attribute your success (beyond, obviously, the kind sovereignty of God).
By the grace of God, he’s blessed me with a lot of creativity and creative ideas. Half the battle in breaking into a market is coming up with an idea for something that hasn’t been done before or new for a particular age group or audience. I woke up one morning with the idea to create a children’s systematic theology along with the name The Ology as a play on the word theology. I quick scribbled out a storyboard for the first few chapters. At the end of a meeting with New Growth Press for another project, I showed them the story board. The idea was so unique, they offered me a contract for the book on the spot.
Now in case you are tempted to think they were so eager because I had already written books for them, let me tell you, they’ve turned me down flatly on a number of books. Mostly because they lacked the unique quality that The Ology exemplifies. When you do a search for children’s systematic theology books, you don’t come up with much.
So what advice might you offer to the person who still dreams of writing for kids?
Here are a couple of pointers I’ve learned writing books for children.
- Good books are usually community projects and require humility to ask for and apply the feedback you get from folks. There is a part of me (sometimes far too big a part of me) that wants to hear praise when I share something I’ve written. But if you think about it, how can praise help your writing improve? A willingness to humbly embracing critique is an important key to a successful project. That doesn’t mean you change anything anyone doesn’t like, but if you have two or three folks sharing that they don’t think your opening chapter works, you should listen to them. Justin Taylor offered some helpful critique on The Ology. Thankfully I made the changes he suggested and my book benefitted from a greater theological precision thanks to his kind suggestions.
- Don’t give up. I can remember becoming discouraged a number of times with the mistakes I made or criticism I received. My latest book Dragon Seed was rejected twice by New Growth Press and had to be completely rewritten four times before they excitedly offered me a contract. I was tempted to give up several times on that and other books that have ended up published because I persevered. And they are much better for the effort, far better.
- Write for people not for fame. I am tempted by a desire to do great things to exalt myself – that attitude usually produces bad writing. When I think about how to help people through what I write, my writing is much more effective.
I never set out to be a writer. I created the Gospel Story for Kids curriculum and the companion devotionals Long Story Short and Old Story New for the families of my church, Covenant Fellowship. It took over 2000 hours and ten years to write that material. What made it so effective was that I was trying to help parents reach their children with the gospel not become a published author.
It’s my conviction that a great book for kids deserves a great reading by mom or dad. We can add so much or negate so much simply by the way we read. Can you offer parents a few tips on reading aloud in such a way that they enhance the book?
My kids love to have a book read out loud to them, especially if I change my voice around for the different characters in the book. If you can dramatize your reading and fill it with expression, your kids will beg you for more.
You don’t need to be an accomplished actor, just do your best. Even an average attempt at voices will add to the story. Then pay attention to the punctuation and the mood of the moment. If you are reading a suspenseful section of a story, lower your voice to a whisper. If it is a loud celebration, bump up the volume.
Give it a try on a shorter children’s book if you’ve never read like this before as it can be a bit more tiring to add the extra drama – but it is worth it.
Do you have any plans to write a book for adults? Or are you sticking with kids?
I try to write all my children’s books with sufficient substance that adults can learn too. I’ve had a number of moms and dads come up to me and whisper, “I bought this for my kids but I’m learning a ton myself!”
I am just finishing a devotional book for parents walking through parenting trials. I want to pass along the experience I gained from having a prodigal son of my own. I started my parenting trusting in a lot of good things like home schooling, guarding their internet access, screening their friends, and doing family devotions. God wanted me to be trusting in him and brought a parenting trial that dropped me to my knees. That is where I discovered God didn’t want me parenting standing up, but kneeling down. I just finished the rough manuscript; the book should be available in 2018.
I assume that writing for children gives you many opportunities to interact with parents. What do you believe are the main parenting challenges parents face today?
Hands down, the access to technology is the greatest challenge parents face today. When I began parenting there was no internet, no smart phones, no snap chat, no sexting. Pornography was far less prolific and you wouldn’t typically come across it by accident. One of my girls in her grade school years went looking for information for a popular young girls toy doll. She got the words mixed up and ended up getting exposed to images she never would have seen twenty years ago.
If you could give just one message to today’s Christian parents—one thing to encourage or challenge or even rebuke them—what would you want to tell them?
The best advice I can give any parent is to press into Christ for themselves. The best gift you give your children is your example of faith. That doesn’t mean you must be perfect, or even really good. That is the beauty of Christianity. We can demonstrate an active faith in Christ by our confession of sin and repentance just as easily and perhaps more effectively than when we make godly choices. Live for Christ and God will use it to draw your children into the kingdom.