Read widely, please.

Last week at a SCBWI conference, the editors told the crowd to read children’s books…not just write them. I said the same thing in my session. It’s important to read good writing in order to write well, but it is vitally important to understand your marketplace, if you want to promote books.

It’s odd that so many people in our industry don’t read children’s books outside of work. How do you know if a new book you’re promoting is really any good, if you don’t know it’s direct competition? Or where it should be shelved? Or if a well-known blogger will like your book? There is a tendency to think your book fits everywhere (or nowhere— depending on your level of self-confidence). Reading widely helps you place yourself in the picture.

The other benefit of being well read? Conversations with opinionmakers always (and I mean ALWAYS) go better when you can talk about the current “hot” titles.  What are you reading? What’s your favorite Newbery contender? These relationships with opinionmakers are where authors and illustrators have their greatest influence on the PR lives of their books. Appearances on conference panels often stem from conversations just like this.

So, how to get started? You could read some of the current Newbery and/or Caldecott contenders.  Do an online search for “Mock Newbery 2011” and you’ll easily find 5-6 lists. (If you write YA or nonfiction, there are awards for those as well.) You could read the books with the most starred reviews.

For a more historical perspective, you could read all the Caldecott or Newbery medalists. I did this back in 2003-2005.  I started with the 2003 winner and worked my way backwards. (If you start with 1919, you’ll never get past the first book…trust me.) I wrote an article for the Children’s Book Council about my experience. It is no longer available on the the CBC website, so here is CBC Newbery Perspectives Article.

Since that Newbery-reading project, I’ve never been at a loss for conversation at a trade show or cocktail party. And, since I want to be able to say I’ve read all the Newberys, I am now making my way through a wonderful list of contenders for 2011.

So , go…now…READ!

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Read widely, please.