Tis the Season to Write About Holidays

No matter where you were born or where you grew up, chances are your family celebrated some kind of holiday in a way that was unique to your culture, the specific holiday, or perhaps to just your family. Holiday traditions are handed down from generation to generation helping to create memories that last for years.
Writing for the holiday market takes a mix of talent and timing.
Sarah Sevier, Associate Editor at Margaret K. McElderry Books says, “Without question, there is more competition when it comes to holiday books throughout the entire publishing process. This is a case where we know that other publishers are going to be putting out books on the same subject, at the same time, and that booksellers are going to have to pick and choose the best ones for their stores. Then from those books they select, there’s more narrowing down to be made when it comes time to decide what books go on a holiday display. Think, for example, about what the Christmas display looks like at your local store. There are maybe twenty books there. But a big house like Simon & Schuster might alone be publishing ten new Christmas books a year. Because we know how that works, we have to be incredibly picky when it comes to choosing what we’re going to add to the mix. But that’s just one part of why it’s so difficult. Another thing to consider is that holidays are a popular subject for writers, so there’s more competition just from your peers. We may review a hundred holiday proposals and manuscripts each year, but a small imprint like McElderry can only publish one or two books on a particular holiday a year.”
“Holiday books are very specialized, so they can be harder to get published,” adds Randi Rivers, Associate Editor for Charlesbridge. “Many times it’s difficult to find the unique angle that will make your holiday book different from the ones already on the shelf. You’re also competing with some big guns, such as The Polar Express, Trick or Treat Smell My Feet, and How the Grinch Stole Christmas among others.”
A good story should still find a home.
Alice Letvin, Editorial Director of the Cricket Magazine Group, states, “It’s no more difficult to get a holiday/seasonal story published than any other. The key is quality and authenticity, no matter what the subject or genre. The only caveat is that a Christmas story, for instance, can only be placed in a December issue, so there may be a longer wait before publication.
In particular, we look for holiday stories that convey the essence of a holiday. The various holiday customs are fun and interesting, but the story should also convey a sense of their inner meaning to the people involved. Since our magazines have a broad audience, the holiday stories we publish must be accessible and suggest universal values as well as those of a specific culture.”
There are many holidays from a variety of cultures to write about but some remain perennial favorites.
“Kids love Christmas,” says Jesse Florea. Editor for Focus on the Family Clubhouse “At Focus on the Family Clubhouse (for 8- to 12-year-olds), we try to have a Christmas theme every year. The same is true for Easter. While we get a lot of submissions for stories to run during those months, I don’t feel a kid will ever get tired of Christmas.
Overdone angles include: stories from the wise men’s perspective and the manger scene written by one of the animals. Stories that tend to work best for us are those set in another country or culture that show how other people celebrate the Lord’s birth. We look for three or four fresh Christmas stories every year.”
Sevier agrees that, “Christmas is the most popular. There’s not nearly as much on Hanukkah or Kwanza. Halloween is also very popular. We have a great Fourth of July book coming up on our list, which isn’t a subject I’d received many submissions on prior to this one.”
“The main holidays, Christmas, Easter and Halloween are always published and the story-lines often seem to be the same,” adds Jennifer Reed, Publisher/Editor Wee Ones Children’s Magazine. “But these holidays are big money makers and so it is obvious why these type of holiday stories are published.”
“Oddly enough,” says Letvin, “though we don’t get enough Jewish holiday stories, there’s an overabundance of stories that focus simply on the tradition of cooking potato latkes at Chanukah, without reference to the larger cultural meaning of the holiday. We’ve published a few of these, but would prefer to see a greater range of holidays.”
Louise May, Editor in Chief at Lee & Low Books comments that, “There are probably more than enough back to school/first day of school books as well. An author will gain more attention for a manuscript if it deals with these popular events from a different or unique perspective. At Lee & Low, we look for holiday or seasonal titles that also have multicultural content or context. The content should tap into some prior knowledge children may have but also offer something new and fresh about the human pastime of celebrating significant events.”
“Christmas is huge, “says Rivers, “but I wouldn’t say it’s overdone. Valentine’s Day, Easter and Halloween see a lot of sales. I’ve been seeing more and more Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and Chinese New Year Books, which I think is important. Personally, Thanksgiving is my favorite, but it seems to have a very short shelf life mainly due to the Christmas rush.”
Short shelf life is something to consider when writing this type of story.
Rivers continues, “Yes, holiday books do have a shorter shelf life. Although most libraries do keep holiday books on their shelves year round. Most bookstores return excess holiday books to the publisher at the end of a holiday season. But if the book does well, it can become an evergreen and sell steadily year after year.”
“Generally speaking,” says Sevier “after the holiday focused on in the book is past, those books are not going to be on display anymore, and are not going to be the popular sale anymore. In many cases a bookstore will clear out its stock on holiday titles to make room for more season appropriate books. That same bookstore may reorder the book the next year, but with a fresh crop of books coming in year to year, unless it’s something that has really taken off for the bookseller, the third or forth time around can be a tough sell. Publishers can try to counter this in some cases by giving a book a new life as a paperback, or with a new format.”
Because so many holidays are seeped in cultural traditions writers often want to write about cultures that are new to them. Make sure you do your research, both about the holiday and about how a specific editor feels about writing outside one’s own culture.
“The most important thing to me,” remarks Rivers, “is that a book is well researched and is sensitive to the culture it represents. I personally don’t feel that a person has to be a part of a culture in order to write about or understand it. This is a controversial issue, though, and others feel differently.”
Letvin believes that, “A holiday story should be written from the inside, so as to capture its spirit and resonance. Personal experience accumulated year after year generally makes this easier to accomplish. On the other hand, through imagination and careful research, a sensitive writer can come to understand another culture well and depict its holidays and traditions in a compelling way.”
“We love when writers incorporate other cultures into a Christmas story. It’s ‘edutainment’–educating readers at the same time as entertaining them,” explains Florea. “Last Christmas we ran a story about Christmas in the Philippines that was a lot of fun.”
May cautions writers, “The most important things are that an author be a thorough researcher, consult experts on the topic, make sure the story is authentic, and write with objectivity (if writing nonfiction). If the writer is also writing from within the culture or ethnicity of the story, that is an added bonus. However, just because someone comes from the same background as the story, he or she is not necessarily an expert or completely knowledgeable about all aspects of the subject. Even if an author is writing from within the culture, she or he must do the research or whatever else is necessary to ensure authenticity.”
How can you increase your chances of selling your holiday story?
“The obvious answer is know the publication and its intended audience,” states Florea. “At Clubhouse, we look for Christmas stories with a faith angle because we look at life through a Christian worldview.”
Sevier points out that, “Since publishers are so focused on the competition in store for seasonal books, writers should do their research and check the competition out for themselves. They should hit the bookstores and libraries and read, read, read. See what books are out there on the holiday, take note of trends, and see how their work stacks up. Then be critical. Authors should ask themselves if what they’re bringing to the table is new, fresh, original, and strong enough. Why do we need their book when there are so many other options out there? If authors can’t confidently answer that their book is up to par, they should keep working until they get there.”
Rivers reminds writers that “Publishing is about making connections to create great books. A lot of writers worry about placing a manuscript, but another important part of the process is finding an editor with whom you feel comfortable. When cultivated, that relationship will last and see you through more than just one book.”
Does your story really need that turkey?
Sevier explains, “A category of holiday books that many writers don’t think about are holiday books that perhaps weren’t originally intended to be holiday books. Those are books with turkeys in them that automatically get put with the Thanksgiving books, even though the holiday is never mentioned; books about pumpkins are natural Halloween books, again, even if the holiday isn’t mentioned; chicks and ducks tend to tie into Easter, and so on. It’s not always a bad thing to have your technically non-holiday book lumped in with other holiday titles as they can be big selling times, but it’s something authors should be aware of. If they don’t want that to happen, they should consider taking the turkey out!”
When it comes right down to it, the secret to crafting a holiday story that endures is all in the words and how you use them.
Says Letvin, “Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates comes to my mind. After so many years, I can still see the red cheeks of the Brinker children as they race by on the frozen canals, and feel their excitement at the possibility of winning the silver skates. It’s both the drama and the concrete, sensory details that create a memorable seasonal story.”
—Susan Taylor Brown
NOTE: This article first appeared in the Children’s Writer Newsletter. Editors may have moved to a different publishing house and editorial needs may have changed. Please do your own research before submitting.