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Pinning KidLit to the Mat

Meet me in the sawdust pit
Schlesinger Library on the History of Women

Have you ever wanted to jump genres, just because?

When my son was in third grade, I had the hare-brained idea to pen a kid’s book. It would based on one of my favorite Japanese fairy tales, but set in contemporary San Diego. I didn’t let the fact I hadn’t written for kids before stop me. Nor had I written fantasy since approximately sixth grade. A fantasy book it had to be, though.

In the adult fiction world, there tends to be a perception that writing kid lit must be easy, because the books are generally shorter. And some purveyors of “serious lit” say that  adults shouldn’t be reading kids’ books [1] at all, much less, one would imagine, actually writing them. ( I’m here to say that both are utterly and completely false. If you have a problem with that, you can meet me in the sawdust pit at dawn to settle our differences). *

First I wanted to settle the small matter of the plot. I’d grown up a fan of all the usual suspects, your Narnias and your Prydains and your Meg Murrays and so on and so forth. Had I read widely in my kids’ more contemporary libraries? Of course, but there’s something about the books you read when you were a child that stick with your soul.  I tried to remake my book into a model of one of those books from my childhood.

After a few drafts, I got it into what seemed like reasonable shape and showed it to my agent. There were interesting moments, yes, and some solid relationships. My agent sent it out to a few places and it got rejected. One place actually said it reminded her too much like A Wrinkle in Time. Another opined that it began too slowly (kids’ books these days are faster paced). And the final rejection from my ultimate dream editor, which was like a splintered chopstick in my heart, said she loved Japanese tales but she’d been hoping for more humor and action.

I thought about it and decided this editor was correct. I asked my agent to take it off submission and went back to work. I revamped the plot entirely. I took out characters. I rewrote it a few times. I got a new agent and asked him to read it alongside the adult book he was selling. He said its voice was all wrong, that kids’ lit was hard and a fantasy kid lit even harder. Maybe I should try realistic fiction, he said.

I thought about what he said and, somewhat bitterly, decided he was right—about its problems. This story didn’t want to be realistic fiction, but I didn’t know how to make it better. Something, I hoped, would occur to me. Someday.

I worked on the kids’ book off and on, between other manuscripts.  You know how you need a break between revisions? I called it my “palate cleanser” between my drafts of my adult fiction. Working on it put me in a new mindset each time, I also read more YA and kids’ books, things my children loved, things that they didn’t.

It also helped that my son was getting older and I was able to study him and his friends at length. At last,I nailed down my character, a mini, nerdy Ferris Bueller. His voice: easy, breezy, beautiful. And one day, the inciting incident finally occurred to me, and then all the plot events after. And I finally got the manuscript into good enough shape that my agent enthusiastically agreed to send it out for me,.

Here’s what I learned about writing for children over the course of those three years:

And my best, final piece of advice: Keep at it. Three short years after my first draft, after probably two dozen revisions at least, my agent sold the book to Disney-Hyperion.

To the editor who rightfully rejected that first iteration (and who hopefully has no memory of that manuscript).

Over to you: Have you ever wanted to jump genres, just because?

*a sawdust pit is used in some military facilities for hand-to-hand combat training and also for when people disagree about important stuff, like who should be reading what.

About Margaret Dilloway [2]

Margaret Dilloway [3] is the author of the new middle grade series MOMOTARO: XANDER AND THE LOST ISLAND OF MONSTERS (Disney Hyperion) and three women’s fiction novels. She lives in San Diego with her family and a big Goldendoodle named Gatsby. She teaches creative writing to middle schoolers and does developmental editing.