Terry Pierce may be a new instructor for the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, but with 17 published children’s books under her belt, she’s a veteran when it comes to the craft of writing for little ones. Here Terry shares her advice, her muse, and her secret to a successful children’s story.
Writers’ Program: This spring you’ll teach an online course called Introduction to Writing Easy Readers. What can students interested in writing for children expect from your class?
Terry Pierce: I suppose I should first define “easy reader” since there are many types of children’s books. These are the books with which children learn to read. Think of Dick and Jane, Frog and Toad, or the numerous leveled readers available to young children today. “Introduction to Writing Easy Readers” will be a generative class where students will learn the craft elements to write in this genre and apply that knowledge to their own work. By the end of the class, students will have a manuscript ready or near-ready to submit for publication, along with the knowledge to create future stories.
Wp’: What do you love about writing for children? What’s most challenging about writing in this genre?
TP: Besides working in fuzzy slippers? (ha-ha). Seriously, there are many things I love about writing for children. Having been a Montessori pre-primary teacher for 22 years, I love young children–their spontaneity, honesty, curiosity and innocence–and I feel privileged to be able to create books for them…I have to say there is nothing in the world like when a parent tells me that my books have affected their child, particularly when it turns them onto reading.
One of the biggest challenges of writing in this genre is striking the balance between creating an engaging story that will also meet the needs of a new reader. Because children cut their teeth on reading with this genre, it’s imperative that we create stories that won’t cause them frustration (and make them want to quit!)…
Wp’: Our students are dying to know–what makes a great children’s story?
TP: The same thing that makes a great story in any genre (for children or adults): an intriguing character in a compelling situation. Whether it be a boy who sails across the sea to an island where he becomes King of the Wild Things, or a pig who tries to save his bacon with the help of a spider, or a girl who survives the odds when forced to compete in a savage ritual known as “The Hunger Games,” we all love to read about characters we care about and pull for as they struggle (and succeed) with their problems.
Wp’: When you sit down to write, what does your process look like? Do you have a ritual?
TP: No matter what I’m working on, I always start with the “two C’s” (coffee and cats). Coffee doesn’t need an explanation, but I should explain that since books for young children are meant to be read aloud, my cats are my “audience” (and yes, companions; writing is a solitary task!). I do have a “ritual” when writing for young children. When I work on easy readers or picture books, I always write the story by hand (in pencil) on a legal pad. I start by jotting down the story idea in 2-3 sentences; then I storyboard it in thumbnail sketches. I don’t draw, but I use keywords to layout the story’s plot into 14-15 squares I draw onto a piece of paper. This lets me see if I have enough of a story to warrant a 32-page picture book or easy reader…
Wp’: If you could give your students one piece of advice, what would it be?
TP: I would advise students to educate themselves about the craft of writing before learning to market their work. With so many resources available today, it’s easy to learn about marketing, but the truth is, no one will acquire your work if it isn’t well-written. There are terrific learning opportunities out there, especially for long-distance learning. Writing workshops and conferences are a good start but for writers who are committed to honing their craft, courses such as those offered through UCLA Extension Writers’ Program or other programs provide a great opportunity for in-depth learning.
Terry is teaching Introduction to Writing Easy Readers this spring. Enroll online or by calling (310) 825-9971.
Alicia Wheeler is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online). Contact her at email@example.com or (310) 794-1846.