LESSONS LEARNED FROM READING AND WRITING HOLIDAY BOOKS by Lynne Marie
Even as a child, I collected Halloween and Christmas picture books, among them, THE WITCH stories by Norman Bridwell and CLEM THE CLUMSY CAMEL by Virginia Mueller, to name just two of my many, many favorites. In addition, I treated every day like a holiday. I actually had my own copy of CHASE’S BOOK OF DAYS. Any day could be made into a holiday -- even the first day of school!
Little did I know that, at the time, I was learning and tilling the soil for my future books! That being said, I didn’t start out writing holiday books at all. I began writing punny farm animal books based on heavy puns like Chicken Dance, Chicken Stock, Fowl Humor, Hogwash and other groaners. I love farm animals (all animals, actually) but I never grew up on a farm (although my mother did).
Why wasn’t I writing about what I knew -- holidays? I can’t really answer that question, but I can tell you that my first four books published all ended up being holiday-related, and all, in some small or big way, have a personal experience woven into it. And my fifth book directly relates to my love for culture and travel and my job as a Travel Agent with Pixie Vacations.
So, Lesson One: TRY WRITING WHAT YOU KNOW.
The next lesson had to do with the actual writing. Even though Witch and Clem (as examples) were Halloween and Christmas characters, they were both accessible. Witch was curious and had mishaps like any kid (as well as experienced day-to-day problems outside of Halloween) and Clem, well, he was clumsy and many of us can identify with that issue. So both of these books had connective tissues that transcended the holiday in some way. Of course, Clem’s book was more limited, but it wasn’t just about the Nativity, but also about Clem.
Lesson Two: CREATE A FLAWED MAIN CHARACTER THAT KIDS CAN
THE WITCH WHO LIVED NEXT DOOR is not just about Halloween, but how a witch lives in the world outside of Halloween, and CLEM is not just about a camel caravan’s journey to visit the Christ Child, but one camel’s physical and spiritual growth.
Lesson Three: FIND A WAY TO MAKE THE STORY MORE THAN IT’S BACKDROP or
TRANSCEND THE HOLIDAY IN SOME RELATABLE WAY
If you’re a fan of reading holiday books like I am, you will realize the challenge to write something fresh and new becomes harder each and every season with the release of more variations of the fresh and new. But don’t be discouraged -- all you can do is rise to the challenge and take inspiration from what others have done.
Lesson Four: READ ANYTHING AND EVERYTHING OUT THERE TO FIND THE CRACKS IN THE MARKET.
Case in point: I wanted to write a Goldilocks retelling because well, there were things I loved about the story (the bears and the porridge and the repetition) and things I didn’t like (that Goldilocks was actually an intruder). So I literally read 100 books including any and every original and fracture and even retellings of other tales to see what they had done (much like Karen Rostoker-Gruber mentioned that she did in our last blogpost). It was from performing this activity and seeing what was done already and not done (monsters), that I knew just what to do.
I made Goldilocks a little zombie called Moldilocks, made the bears Scares (monsters), flipped the script and made Moldilocks the answer to the Scares’ nightmares (prayers) and didn’t stop there. I also made Papa Scare the home support provider / cook while Mama Scare worked in the lab AND made it a story about adoption / foster / mixed families.
Lesson Five: READING AND EXPERIENCING OTHER STORIES WILL HELP YOURS!
When writing a holiday book, you can’t help but have fun with the writing and the reading (visiting new or familiar places, meeting new characters, watching them grow, observing the language and the action). Don’t forget how important that is, even when you are not writing holiday books.
Lesson Six: HAVE FUN WITH LIVELY LANGUAGE AND ACTIVE SCENES THAT MOVE.
On the downside of holiday stories, while the holiday presents as one of what I consider the three hooks necessary to have a marketable book, these books do not often have the shelf-life of say, a book about dance. However, making your story transcend the holiday will give it a longer shelf life if you didn’t weave that in at all. Thankfully, I have had families appreciate Moldilocks for the family and fairytale aspects outside of Halloween, but the biggest draw for this book is, of course, Halloween.
Lesson Seven: TRY TO EXPAND THE SHELF-LIFE OF THE BOOK BY MAKING IT ABOUT A THEME BIGGER THAN THE HOLIDAY.
Notably, I achieved my best effort with MOLDILOCKS, my 4th book, in this than the others. Sales for HEDGEHOG GOES TO KINDERGARTEN basically stop once school starts. HEDGEHOG’S 100TH DAY OF SCHOOL has a narrow window, about a month to a month-and-a-half before the actual event, and this is only widened because the dates vary from school to school. A STAR IN THE CHRISTMAS PLAY -- while I did a good job of also making this about body image and self-esteem, pretty much only sells from Halloween through Christmas.
Lesson Eight: BE AWARE OF THE LIMITATIONS AND MAKE UP FOR IT IN AMPED UP PROMOTION and MARKETING
Begin planning a year in advance and make a detailed tickler calendar. It comes up fast! Be your own best promoter and marketer, as you truly can't rely on other people to promote you as you would promote yourself. Write guest blog posts, schedule interviews and appearances, be a prize donor in popular contests. Every little bit helps!
Lesson Nine: LEARN FROM OTHER’S MISTAKES
Perhaps try not to write as many holiday books (even if that’s something you know) as I did before branching out to something that will sell year-round.
And remember, whether writing a holiday story or not, strive to create likeable main characters with relatable flaws and problems kids can identify with. Your story should be fresh and unique and have something to say that transcends the story itself.
Write well and celebrate the process, each step of the way.
Every day you create a new book is a birthday! Have fun, and have a happy one!
Lynne Marie is the *new* Owner and Administrator of Rate Your Story,
Consultant and Mentor at ThePictureBookMechanic.com since 2015, Editor and Agent Spotlight Featured Columnist for Children’s Book Insider since 2016, a Cybils Judge since 2016 and the author of Hedgehog Goes to Kindergarten - art by Anne Kennedy (Scholastic 2011), Hedgehog's 100th Day of School – art by Lorna Hussey (Scholastic 2017), The Star of the Christmas Play -- art by Lorna Hussey (Beaming Books 2018), Moldilocks and the 3 Scares -- art by David Rodriguez Lorenzo (Sterling 2019 and Scholastic 2019) and Let’s Eat! Mealtime Around the World -- art by Parwinder Singh (Beaming Books 2019) and more forthcoming. When she’s not cruising around the world, she lives on a lake in South Florida with her family, a Schipperke named Anakin and several resident water birds. Visit her at www.LiterallyLynneMarie.com.
On Twitter: @Literally_Lynne
On Facebook: Lynne Marie