Telling and Selling Seasonal Stories
Most editors agree that Christmas is one of the most popular holidays to write about with Easter, Valentine’s Day, and Halloween coming close behind. That doesn’t mean writers should ignore these more familiar holidays but it does mean that the competition may be a hit intense. Writers might want to explore some of the lesser-known or less frequently covered holidays.
“There are numerous books published in time for Halloween and Christmas,” says Larry Rosler, Editorial Director for Boyds Mills Press. “They’re published because those holidays are marketable. So there’s always a need for good material.”
Rosanne Tolin, Managing Editor at Guideposts for Kids on the Web agrees that good material is always welcome. “Christmas and Easter are probably the most overdone. But I don’t get that many pieces that are purchase-worthy for either of these holidays, because writers often submit stories that have been done so many times before. Holidays like Memorial and Labor Day are often overlooked, as are, surprisingly, Mother’s and Father’s Day.”
“I don’t know of any holidays that are overlooked,” says Rebecca Waugh, Editor at Dial Books for Young Readers, “but of course that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for more books. I think what’s more important is the idea, or how the holiday is approached.”
“I’d say that Christmas and Halloween are probably the most crowded holidays in terms of picture books,” adds Stein.”But each of these holidays is so kid-centered and is surrounded by such vivid images, it’s no wonder why! Hanukkah seems to me to be a slightly underdone holiday. Thanksgiving is another holiday that I think has plenty of opportunities for storytelling.”
Writers with an interest in various cultures should explore the possibility of holidays and seasonal stories with an international twist as well as the familiar. At Highlights for Children, Senior Editor Marileta Robinson says, “We would like to see more stories about Jewish and Muslim holidays, and about holidays from other countries and from various ethnic groups in the U.S. But we also need good stories about Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween, and other common holidays.”
How can a writer capture and keep an editor’s attention when telling a seasonal or holiday story? The same way they do with any other story: Do something different, tell an old story in a new way, find an unexpected twist.
“As I do in any story,” says Emma D. Dryden, Vice President and Editorial Director for Margaret K. McElderry Books, “I look for originality—something fresh and unique that will help the story compete and stand out among other seasonal stories.”
According to Stein, “Each year it seems that the bookstore shelves are more and more crowded with holiday books, so when I review holiday picture book submissions, I try to look for something different or unusual. A seasonal story with a different sort of twist or unique emphasis would catch my eye; something that will stand out from the usual holiday fare. I also look for beautiful, compelling language and voice. A writer who has a dynamic or poetic storytelling voice can often bring tried-and-true holiday images and stories to life in a special way.”
A strong story remains key. “We look for a good story first, and other elements second,” says Robinson. “The season or holiday may be the starting point for the story in the author’s mind, but the reader and editor look for a good plot and interesting characters. Having said that, using the season or holiday can add interesting details to the story and make it unique.”
Waugh concurs. “I look for a really strong story that also happens to be seasonal. There are already so many books for almost any holiday, so I feel that a strong story and good writing are the key factors that will make a book stand out above the crowd.”
A seasonal story doesn’t have to be about a holiday. It can be writing about the seasons: winter, summer, spring, and fall. Unless the holiday is key to the plot, writers shouldn’t try and force the story into a holiday mold. In doing so, they may find themselves unnecessarily limiting their options. As with all genres of stories, opportunities for publishing seasonal and holiday stories vary from publisher to publisher.
Tricycle Press Project Editor Abigail Samoun explains, “Marketing seasonal stories is difficult for us as an independent press because the selling time is so short and competition from the bigger houses is so strong. So we publish very few actual seasonal stories. For us, such a project would have to work as both a seasonal story and a year-round story. One of our bestsellers, Pumpkin Circle, accomplishes this admirably: it’s a story about the growth cycle and gardening. but sells well in the fall because of its harvest/pumpkin content.”
Tolin recommends that writers try for an angle that offers multiple opportunities for readers of Guideposts for Kids. “I look for a fresh approach on seasonal themes and for stories that encourage interactivity. For instance, last fall we ran a story titled ‘Take a Tree Walk’ that was inspired by a book of the same title. The nice thing about the piece was that it suggested ways for kids to get outside and look at trees and leaves in a whole new way.”
Soft Spots & Pet Peeves
Editors’ tastes are as varied as the magazines and books they edit. As with any type of publishing, it’s important for writers to research before they submit.
Robinson describes what Highlights looks for in seasonal submissions: “We like stories that help kids think about the meaning behind the holidays they celebrate and appreciate the value of holidays from other cultures. So we love it when we find a story that can do this and is also entertaining and fresh. We also like stories that use humor to deal with family issues centering on holidays. Folktales about holidays are also welcome.”
“I’d like to see more fun and humorous Hanukkah stories offered,” remarks Stein. “I find that Hanukkah picture hooks tend to focus mostly on teaching the traditions of the holiday. Not that this isn’t valuable, but I’d like to see the same variety of Hanukkah books as there are Christmas books available, including humorous stories and heartwarming, beautiful stories.”
Tolin reminds writers not to tell the same story the same way again and again. “I don’t need another manuscript on the real story of St. Nicholas, or one on egg decorating at Easter time. I do have a soft spot for stories with an ethnic feel, or ones that include unusual trivia that a kid would find interesting.”
“My biggest pet peeve,” says Waugh, “is when an author writes a story in rhyme and allows the rhyme to decide where the story is going. Not literally, of course, but by putting that sort of constraint on the text, I think it’s very difficult for the text not to become predictable. I’m always impressed when someone can write clever rhyming verse, but generally I tend to prefer straight prose. On the other hand, I have a soft spot for humor.”
“My pet peeve,” says Dryden, “is a seasonal story that’s too nostalgic and sentimental. I don’t like seasonal stories with highly anthropomorphic animal or vegetable characters. I like a lovely mother/child or father/child story and stories about the joy of giving?’
Many of the mistakes that appear in seasonal stories are common to all types of writing.” Sometimes a seasonal story will be a series of impressions about a certain holiday or event, but without a narrative thread to hold it together. I like to see a story with a solid beginning, middle, and end. Just the seasonal angle is not enough for me,” says Waugh.
Rosler says a common mistake is that “manuscripts about the religious holidays are often too preachy” Equally disappointing, says Robinson, are stories that “sound like an encyclopedia article rather than a story or treat a holiday in a cliche and superficial way.” Rosler adds that writers err when they “attempt to tailor the story to the market, rather than tell a story from the heart.”
Mistakes Stein sees are “predictability and unoriginality. Taking a creative approach to holiday stories is important if you want your story to stand out. It’s also important to keep the reader in mind when writing a holiday story. Sometimes it’s easy to get carried away with our own adult memories of a holiday, forgetting a child’s perspective.”
“It’s a mistake,” advises Dryden, “to send in a Christmas story in the fall and expect it to be published for that coming holiday season.”
“This may sound obvious,” explains Stein, “but take a close look at what’s out there. Read the competition, read reviews, and browse bookstore displays before a particular holiday. Think about reading your story out loud to a child: Will it hold his interest? Will she want to hear it again? Think about what made a particular holiday special to you and try to translate that into a story that will have meaning for children today?”
Waugh encourages writers to “make sure the story is focused on a child’s experience. In other words, why is this holiday important or interesting from a kid’s point of view? And while I like humor, lately I’ve come across some holiday stories that try so hard to be different from the usual fare that they go a little overboard. I generally don’t like humorous holiday stories that are too zany or absurd. After all, holidays are about celebrating something and it’s good to keep that in mind, too.”
“Figure out what draws you to one book or repels you from another,” suggests Dryden. “Look for what sort of story might be missing or what book you can write that will not get lost among all the others.”
“I really do love so many holiday stories!” says Stein. “Christmas, Halloween, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah: Each holiday offers such interesting and fun traditions, warm feelings, and a chance for families to connect in a special way. There are so many angles to explore about each of these holidays. And holidays are a wonderful time to share books and give them as presents.”
—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.
Leave A Comment