I attended a short conference sponsored by a local chapter of a writing organization yesterday. A friend spoke about crafting scenes and an agent from New York spoke, telling us details about the state of the children’s publishing industry today. Both of these speakers were prepared, knew their audience, and spoke with confidence, providing details the group attending could use. Listening to them was a pleasure. I even took notes.
However…I have to say, the third speaker was not so prepared. She was a writer of “high sensuality” fiction (translate: R- to X-rated stories).
So, let me back up. The conference was sponsored by a childrens writers’ organization. We write for children. You know…picture books, middle grade stories. Our heroes are Beverly Cleary, Jacqueline Woodson, and John Green. We love Eric Carle and dream of having something as successful as the Grouchy Ladybug in our collective futures. Most of us would readily admit to being a bit swoony if we ever got the chance to meet Michael Grant or listen to Margaret Peterson Haddix talk about how her book was chosen for Oprah’s kids’ book club.
I sat there – probably looking more than a little perturbed – as this speaker talked about the importance of pen names to protect your privacy. (This is not something those of us who write for the 8 to 12 year old set usually worry about, but she told us writers need them so the prisoners don’t try to find you. Ahem.) Other attendees at my table squirmed uncomfortably as she used the term “bitch-slap” followed by a few “it sucks” and strangely inappropriate comments about sexual research for her work. Not that childrens writers are easily offended or shocked. But c'mon... Seriously? Protection from the prisoners?!?
I looked at my watch. I sipped cold coffee, fiddled with my pen, then looked at my watch again. I started to feel a little embarrassed for the speaker when her continued attempt at jokes continued to fall on the floor like a cherry red tube of lipstick at a Baptist tent revival.
But then, being me, I found myself wondering if there was a hidden lesson in this – the most painful hour of my Saturday. And here is what I came up with: Know your audience. It has a corollary: Don’t take advantage of your audience. Both of which apply equally to speakers and writers.
We make a promise to our readers – especially as our careers progress and we establish what this speaker referred to as our “author brand.” The promise children’s book writers make involves telling the best story we can that will honor our audience’s expectations, love of story, level of reading skill and imagination.
How do you get to know your audience? In my case, I read to my kids often. I shop for books with them and take them to the library. We talk about the books we all choose – why we choose them, why we like them, and why we sometimes decide to stop reading them before we finish.
I try to pay attention to the kids’ conversations that go on in my house and yard. I talk to my kids’ friends about the stories they like. Recently, I joined a book club where I am definitely in the minority – there are about 6 kids and only 3 adults in the club. It is a great opportunity to listen to how kids dissect and digest stories, not to mention how they choose a book to read.
And here is a biggie: I read kids lit. A LOT. I pack in 2 or 3 middle grade or YA novels just about every week. I choose the books I hear about online or those that have long waiting lists at the library. I read books by authors I know are selling well in the bookstores. These are the people who get it. They have made a promise, and the audience is basking in it. And along with reading kids books, I keep tabs on a number of online communities of readers and writers of my genre.
So, I’m off to dive into another novel now, to try to firm up what I know about my audience. I sure don’t want my books to end up dropped on the floor like… well, like the Saturday afternoon speaker’s jokes.