Are you taking armloads of children's books home from the library? Are you perusing the titles in the children's section of the bookstore? Are you paying attention to Newbery award winners, ALA notables, or Golden Kite Awards? (To name only a few awards.)
Are you reading the books of the publishers whom you'd like to see publish your books? Are you reading books published within the last three years? Books are changing all the time, so you need to keep current. Books from ten years ago are not what publishers are looking for now. So what does that say about books from your childhood?!
If you're not reading, you need to be. Here's what a master has to say:
"Read, read, read. Read everything - trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You'll absorb it. Then write. If it's good, you'll find out. If it's not, throw it out of the window." -William Faulkner
Many of us write because we love to read, but it's amazing how many people write, but don't read. We can learn so much by reading the writing of others. Some of the conventions of writing get ingrained into us as we read. Others may take more study. But who else better to teach us than those who have already done it?
When you read, note what you like. In novels, is it the fast moving pace, the depth of the characters, or how real the story feels? What in this specific book makes you keep reading? In a picture book, is it the way the text sings, or the humor? How did the author accomplish those things? Emulate the traits you like in your own writing.
Note what turns you off. Is it the lengthy description or the level of violence? Is it the high dose of saccharine or preachiness? Is it something that pulled you out of the story? Be aware of whatever stops you. It sounds obvious, but in your own writing don't do what you hate.
Read in your genre. Want to write early middle grade novels or mysteries? Read them. You'll get the feel for lengths of chapter, language, ages of main characters, types of topics covered, who the "big name" authors are in the genre, who the publishing houses are, and more.
Keep track of what you're reading, so you can go back to what you learned. I use a table in Word, but a spreadsheet or notebook would work, too.
Here's the info I keep:
Book Title and a brief description of the story, so I'll remember what it was about, including the main character's name and ~ age. If I know who the editor was, I add that, too.
Author - I also might note the illustrator.
Genre - i.e. PB, MG or YA - I get specific, too, on whether fantasy or mystery, historical, etc.
My notes - This is where I write what I thought of the book. I start with short and simple (i.e. very good) then go on to say in more detail what I liked or didn't like.
I file each book entry under the PUBLISHER name. Publishers are alphabetical to help me quickly find what I'm looking for. I keep these entries in date order by publication date.
This above info is especially helpful when you're preparing to submit. Through frequent reading you'll begin to know first hand the personalities and quirks of publishing houses. I remember when one new house came on the scene--I read every one of their books I could find. Through that reading, it became obvious my novels would not fit in. Mine did not have the same overall flavor as their books did.
Read lots and lots of children's books to help you know what is already out there. You'll know many of the topics and themes by reading, reading, reading. You'll get an idea of what has been done, and done, and done. Knowing that, means you can write your story from a fresh or unique angle, so you're not submitting something editors are sick of seeing.
Consider focused reading. Deliberately search for books on your topic or theme. What makes your story different from those? If you find nothing on your topic for your audience, that's a good selling point in your cover and query letters.
Read agent and editor favorites. Been to a conference and heard an editor talk about books they love (these may or may not be books they've edited)? Read an agent's blog about books he or she has acquired? If you're interested in that editor or agent, you'll know better if they might be a fit for you once you've read what they like.
Here's what another master had to say about the importance of reading. "The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over a half a library to make one book." - Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)
So if you want to write, get reading!